Mid-sized, independent public relations firms find themselves in the sweet spot of the marketing world, with a rush of new clients putting them there.
The primary reason is the emergence of public relations as a strategic marketing force that is no longer in the shadows of advertising. Today, PR provides content-driven programs that are at the center of building brands and upholding company reputations. According to The Advertiser, marketing professionals rank PR the highest among all marketing disciplines (89%) in importance for impact on overall business, and said the consensus among marketing execs today was "that PR relates more effectively to the current fragmented media environment than do other disciplines."
For most marketing directors, the question is not WHETHER PR, but rather HOW. Increasingly, they are concluding that the mid-sized agency gives them the best of all possible worlds - experience, client service, efficiency and strategy.
Independent PR firms are growing at over 20 percent a year, two and a half times that of the industry average according to Odwyer's PR Report, and PR News attributes the growth to "a confluence of factors that favor the rise of the independent PR practice." In the post 9/11 era, both large corporations and fast-growth companies have increasingly turned to smaller teams of experienced PR industry veterans to drive their programs. PR Week, in looking at the trend, summarized that "we are seeing a resurgence in clients' appreciation of the value of a midsize firm as clients look for top-tier talent dedicated to their business."
Changes that are contributing to the interest in using mid-sized independent PR agencies include the rise of internet technology, mobility in the workforce, ballooning overhead fees from the large PR agencies and changing standards in client relations.
PR News bills the battle as "the lean-and-mean" versus "the large-and-mighty." Technology has absolutely played the role of the great equalizer between large and small firms, bringing down the cost of robust tools such as media databases, media tracking, wire services, ProfNet reporter queries, Lexis-Nexis research and other functions that were formerly the exclusive prevue of big agencies. Beyond tech tools, the internet allows small, strategic firms to create an enormous impact for their clients, once only possible by large firms. Said PR News, "the network of converging trends is giving a boost to independent practioners."
Despite public relations' heightened status, budgets remain closely guarded, especially among larger corporations. Many corporate communications pros have concluded that they'd rather be a big fish in a small pond by going with a mid-tier agency, commanding intense focus, access, continuity and execution for their PR campaigns. Said one exec interviewed by PR News who had switched agencies from a top-10 firm to an independent agency, "With an indie practitioner, the clients know their fees, are not going to overhead and are not paying for the support staff or the Madison Avenue address - they are paying for the talent and the energy." Continued PR News, "It's not the cost of the service that gets questioned when budgets are tight; it is the perception of where that cost is going."
But do they know anything, and will they stick around? PR industry trends show a migration of PR veterans to smaller agencies, looking for more flexibility and the opportunity to work more closely with clients without the "noise" and company politics that come from big, multi-national PR agencies. As for younger PR people, says PR News, "they don't sit still anymore," quoting one client who told them, "The junior people (in larger firms) go away just when you have educated them about who you are and what you do." The legacy of smaller PR agencies has historically rested on the claim that agency owners and seasoned PR execs are actively part of the account team.
PR industry opinion-leader Paul Holmes says that talent management is increasingly critical to success through PR. "Finding people who can combine youthful enthusiasm and good judgment, specialist knowledge and broad generalist perspective will be critical to the success of the 21st century public relations agency."
The old salt of the PR industry, Jack O'Dwyer, counsels those looking in his PR newsletter: "Anyone shopping for a PR firm should talk to both the giants and the independents. You'll get different views of what PR can or can't do for you." In other words: "take two of these and call me in the morning."