Why COVID-19 Made it Obvious The Old Agency Model Doesn’t Work

By Nicole Rodrigues, founder and CEO, NRPR Group

In the spring of 2020 several large PR firms had massive layoffs. It was reported that agencies such as Karla Otto, Sequel (formerly Think PR), Linda Gaunt Communications and BPCM were overspending on overhead leading to the drastic cuts. These agencies and others were forced to cut back on executive paychecks, make employee layoffs, and lower financial expenditures. However, what I suspect as a big issue that is coming to light is that several companies that have been clients of big PR firms in the past are letting them go because of dissatisfaction with their work. Quite often, clients sign on with a large agency due to their reputation and are given junior employees with little experience in strategy and they wind up being disappointed in the end. This time, it is the clients and the brands that are putting their foot down and doing the cutting. I feel a big lesson to learn from this is that it is up to the PR agencies and their clients to fully communicate their needs, so their relationship does not end abruptly – especially during times when communication is more crucial than ever.

While small and mid-size agencies such as mine are growing in this pandemic, with no client losses, what’s been validated in this time is that the old way of doing PR is over! It lacks authentic social interaction with clients and the media. Instead, agencies and clients need to work toward staying connected to maintain mutually beneficial relationships to make it through these rough patches. The agency of the future under-promises and over-delivers, providing red carpet, white-glove service to their clients. It’s less about the bottom line and more about the RESULTS. Senior staff work closely with the client and offer strategic advice. This article discusses a new agency model for the agency of the future characterized by strong messaging, senior-level customer support, and dedicated staff who never take shortcuts.

Agencies of Future Must Have Strong Messaging Skills Where WE Own Messaging the Media Receive NOT Drafted by Marketing/Advertising/Sales

A PR agency of the future needs to be able to craft clear messaging. Period. If a PR team does not have the ability to craft clear messaging for their client then they really do not know how to describe the client and will not be able to properly represent them in any situation. An agency needs to be able to help clients through any situation and to help them to move forward without compromising their ideals, making a difference that ultimately inspires others to do the same. Companies may be in crisis mode currently due to the pandemic, but this situation will not last forever, so they need to be prepared and keep pushing to the next level. The most important part that an agency plays in a client’s behalf is to be able to help the company own the narrative across the board. If one agency cannot, the good news is there are agencies that can. Those agencies are the ones that are going to be able to retain clients and keep them ahead of the crisis and for the future.


Agencies of the Future Know Customer Support is Everything

Agency clients need to know that they are a priority and not just a number. Big agencies are generally focused on making money on every account and are all about maintaining margins. This mindset creates a culture where the majority of work is done by account coordinators at $50 an hour billing rate, and not by the CEO or the vice president of the company because they cost too much. Agencies with this strategy are not taking advantage of senior talent and instead are giving clients junior support, making clients feel like they are not being supported. That is so far from the right approach because an account coordinator cannot give the same level of advice as the strategic CEO or vice president. Unfortunately, there are too many top-level vice presidents and CEOs who have lost their touch because they are not physically doing the work. It is muscle memory, when you are out of practice on how to do the work, you forget all about it. That is why at the end of the day, agencies that will survive in the future are the ones that have hands-on senior-level people. When senior staff are the ones who are continually touching the clients and their business, the client constantly feels they are getting the right strategic advice. Clients will be grateful because they are dealing with senior people who know the landscape and are not relying on inexperienced newbies to guide their image.


The Agencies of the Future Have Strong Team Members

The agencies that will prosper in the future will be the ones who really build up their junior staff with mentoring and gut checks on their work. Good agencies are thinking about their people, what has worked in the past and what will work in the future. They cultivate an office culture where everyone is working hard and those who need to be mentored receive the help they need to grow. If people are not holding up their end of the bargain or not pulling their weight, then they need to be cut, period. There will be lazy employees who get hired and that’s fine, but it will not work for companies that are making a difference so they will be sniffed out and let go quick. Those employees are not going to be ones to prosper in the future. People who want to be in PR must be ready and willing to work. At the same time, if you’re an agency head who wants to prosper, you will need to be able to employ those who want to work, and you will need to be there to support them in their growth as well as provide a positive enthusiastic office culture to bring the best out of them.


Agencies of the Future Know How to Build Strong Media Relationships

Engagement with the media and agency clients must be authentic. Time and time again, I have seen PR firms blasting their pitches and press releases, which shows the media a lack of value in our industry. Agencies of the future are the ones who are going to get away from the blasting. I always say put the blast in the past! Senior employees need to stop blasting press releases and stop teaching their junior employees that it’s okay to send out a mass email. These old ways of doing PR need to go because they just do not work, and the media despises this way of receiving information. Instead, create a concise pitch that connects with the media on their interests, why the news will be beneficial to their outlet and how it is a perfect placement for their readers/listeners. We are all human and it is important for personal human interaction to connect with the media because they are not robots, they have feelings too. Especially in the time of physical distancing, social interaction remains a necessity and in the time of a pandemic becomes even more important to overall health.


Agencies of the Future Need Solid Reporting That Keep them Accountable

Agencies need to demonstrate to clients that they are working toward and achieving goals that are in the client’s best interests. These reports must be comprehensive and clearly detailed to show clients what they are doing, what the agency is doing, where staff time is going, and how it is helping impact their bottom line. Reporting keeps the agency and the client in full communication with marketing results, so they can see all the hard work the team is putting in weekly. If an agency is not doing reports like that, they cannot prove their value to clients. Agencies also need to be investing in technology and systems that provide real authentic reports to clients, proving how great they are at what they do.

I know that these strategies outlined here work because even in the light of this pandemic, NRPR has not suffered a loss of clients. Our clients have stayed with us because they see our value. They know that we can develop messaging that is right for them. They have access to senior people and access to strategies. We have systems in place for reporting and our clients are happy with the work they receive. We are not just surviving; we are thriving and growing during this time of COVID-19. We work with our clients even when they have had to cut budgets here and there, but they have not cut us completely. They saw our value and they kept us because we care about making it work. They are looking at the long term and know that the pandemic is temporary. We still want to work with and grow with our clients. How many other agencies are saying that? How many are willing to put in the effort to consistently grow, show and prove with their clients?

Always keep this quote in mind from Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” COVID-19 is an eye-opener to improve and evolve the way we do PR. Through diligence and authentic human connection, we can all get back on track for what the future holds in PR. The old agency model needs to change in order to keep agencies and their clients strong.


Guest post courtesy of Nicole Rodrigues, founder and CEO, NRPR Group

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