How to modernise a public relations agency or communication team

How to modernise a public relations agency or communication team

This blog post and paper tackles the opportunities and challenges for our profession as we face up to modernity and the role of public relations in organisational management leadership. It started out as speaker notes ahead of speaking opportunities at the World PR Forum in Madrid today, and the PRSA International Conference in Washington next month.

There is much said at conferences and events, and written on blogs and in traditional media, about the fundamental shifts taking place in the media and the impact on the business of public relations.

These conversations focus on who (practitioners, agencies and communication teams), what (modernise public relations), why (media change and opportunity) and when (now) but very rarely how.

In this blog post I've attempted to explore how. I explore the journey that public relations is making from publicity to a management discipline, suggest how to transition an agency or communication team while limiting the impact on organisational performance, and include case studies from UK agency the Crowd & I and the UK Government.

I've published it in text format below and as a Slideshare document under a Creative Commons licence. Please be my guest and help yourself and help to develop the conversation.

I’m keen to hear your views on how you are helping to modernise your public relations agency or communication team. It’s a topic that is going to concern us for at least the next generation.

Twin challenges driving change

Public relations faces two fundamental challenges to its future: firstly adopting the rigour of a profession in a bid to improve our reputation, and second modernising the application of practice.

I’ve written lots about professionalism in my role as President of the CIPR. In my view it’s the single biggest aspect of practice that we need to tackle to address our reputation.

In this blog post I want to tackle the modernisation of public relations and explore the value of the services that we provide to organisations.

The majority of public relations agencies and communication teams have been built to focus on a single audience, namely traditional media.

"The pace of change in the public relations industry is driven by digital and, more specifically, by the lowering of barriers to entry and the increased importance of integration. It has never been easier to run paid campaigns or direct-to-consumer communications,” said Danny Whatmough, Chair of the PRCA Digital Group and Head of Digital, Consumer EMEA, Weber Shandwick.

“When combined with a need to integrate, the race to change and broaden expertise is understandable and natural. But there are challenges too as we scramble to find new skills and educate.”

In my view the public relations industry took a wrong turn in the 1950s or early 1960s. The leadership and vision provided by early professionals throughout the first half of the twentieth century has since been squandered.

In Two-Way Street, published in 1948, early public relations practitioner Eric Goldman describes the three stages of the development of corporate communication during the period from 1900 to the time of the publication of his book.

Mr Goldman’s contention is that communication between an organisation and its audiences developed through three stages during the first half of the twentieth century:

#1 Initially, spin aimed at duping the audience;

#2 Secondly, publicity that aimed to build awareness through hype, and;

#3 Thirdly, two-way communication aimed at building engagement.

It’s uncanny how these same stages can just as easily be applied to public relations in the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century: spin, publicity or media relations, and most recently direct audience or public engagement.

Shortly after the publication of Goldman’s book the public relations industry became obsessed about communicating with the public via the proxy of mainstream media rather than direct public engagement.

The rise of mass media, radio, television and print, in the 1950s, and its ability to provide a shortcut to mass audiences, brought about a fundamental change in the style of organisational communication.

Only now, more than 60 years on, are changes in citizen and consumer behaviour, enabled by the Internet and the fragmentation of mainstream media, forcing organisations back to Mr Goldman’s so-called two-way street.

The perception of public relations has the potential to significantly hold back growth and the maturation of the profession. Most clients only start to think about PR at the point at which they want their name in lights. PR is often seen as a bolt on service and PR professionals are brought in to sell the story rather than help create it.

At this stage budgets may have already been assigned to other digital disciplines making it hard for us to up sell our services or get clients to reallocate their budgets.” said Gemma Griffiths, managing director, The Crowd & I, and chair, CIPR Social Media Panel.

Other public relations theorists such as James Grunig celebrate the ideal of two-way symmetrical communication between an organisation and its publics. The Excellence model is taught as best practice in the US and much of Europe.

I have yet to work with an organisation that truly engages with its publics in a two-way dialogue. It’s an issue that is explored in a paper in 2012 to achieve Chartered PR Practitioner status.

That notwithstanding we are shifting beyond the use of traditional media, as a means to influence publics through third-party earned influence, to use a variety of media and networks to engage with publics on behalf of the organisations.

Data points that talk to the massive changes in our business are everywhere.

Digital data reveals growth

The Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) reported this month that half of public relations (PR) agencies are currently responding to the significant client-side opportunity in paid digital and social media.

The PRCA Digital PR Report 2014, produced in partnership with The Holmes Report and YouGov, revealed that agencies take between 11 per cent and 20 per cent of their revenues from social media and digital production. A quarter expects this to rise from 1 per cent, to 30 per cent over the next 12 months.

The research also revealed that almost two-thirds of organisations have seen digital budgets rise over the past 12 months, and the same percentage expects them to rise again in the coming year.

The motivation for companies to use social media is primarily for marketing and brand awareness (87 per cent), followed by customer service (50 per cent).

Twitter ranks highest in campaign usage (98 per cent), followed by LinkedIn (89 per cent), and blogs (88 per cent). However, there is expected growth in usage of Google+ (78 per cent), Instagram (72 per cent), and Pinterest (63 per cent) in the next year.

The issue of digital skills within agencies was also raised.

The main source (69 per cent) of social media education for agency staff are expert blogs, and 70 per cent also stated that the proportion of digital training they receive is limited.

YouGov surveyed 228 agency and in-house public relations professionals in the UK.

Source: PRCA’s Digital PR Report 2014 (September 2014)

Four business propositions for public relations

So how do we transform our agency and communication teams to engage with these new forms of media?

The challenge, as with any business transformation, is how you tackle organisational changes while limiting the impact in terms of organisational or financial performance.

I created this chart in my job at Ketchum to describe the shift we need to move through as we work with clients to tackle the new opportunities that the Internet offers our business.


Each stage of this evolution builds on the past and provides new opportunities for the agency, or communication team.

#1 Media relations

The first area of transformation to consider is where traditional media relations programmes can be modernised. This doesn’t require radical change to the workflow, systems or processes within an agency or communication team. Instead technology is used to enable practitioners to work smarter and offer new services.

I’d urge teams to breakdown media relations workflow and consider how each area can be modernised.

Use search tools for basic research, Twitter for journalist research, optimise press releases for search and social sharing, use new forms of media and networks to create content and pitch journalists, and analytics to track results.

At this basic level of modernisation the investment requirement is often low.

A growing third-party market has emerged in every area of this supply chain. There are new technology-led solutions for almost every aspect of traditional media relations from planning and contact management to content development and publishing.

#2 Influencer relations

Media relations is a form of influencer relations whereby we persuade journalists to write favourable articles about our clients and organisations. The output is third party validation via the journalist’s media outlet. The intended outcome is to influence a far greater audience than we are able to alone.

In a fragmented media environment influencers aren’t just journalists anymore. They can be anyone with a network or community of their own; so an individual with a blog, or on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter or YouTube.

Organisations seek to engage with these new influencers and secure their third-party endorsement and the reach of their network.

The content and channel may be new but an influencer relations campaign is effectively media relations for the modern age. The media may be new but the tactics remain largely traditional and unchanged.

The skills required for influencer relations are more sophisticated than traditional media relations as we make use of the data and insights available via the Internet.

Planning tools are required to identify influencers in a given market, and you need to be able to convey your message and story using different forms of media and content.

Like all areas of developing public relations practice, it also benefits from a growing third party tools market although in most cases they remain relatively crude.

Blogging, Twitter and YouTube are the most sophisticated for influencer identification and management, whereas other networks are at an earlier stage of development.

The development of content in images and video rather than words requires an investment in skills. Typically agencies or in-house teams will buy in design or production expertise until they have sufficient demand for a full time resource.

“In the summer we hired an individual with great skills in video and production – before this we had been doing the videos with a high definition camera and basic software. Now we’ve upgraded and have a more robust offer. We’re able to integrate video into public relations campaigns and demonstrate the benefit to clients. We’re achieving great results,” said Laura Sutherland, managing director, Aura PR, and director, CIPR.

#3 Community

In my view the development of communities around an organisation in a two-way form of engagement is the most significant opportunity for modern public relations practice that we’ve had in more than a generation.

In this way an organisation seeks to build reputation and engagement not only through third-party influence but also directly via its own media and social forms of media. This is an increasingly competitive space as other disciplines such as advertising, digital and creative all vie for budget and work.

The PRCA reported in its recent Digital PR Report (see above) that other disciplines and in-house experts continue to raise their levels of expertise. Worryingly there has been a 13 per cent growth in firms not using public relations agencies to help with tactical digital and social work over the last 12 months (five per cent to 18 per cent).

Public relations practitioners have an opportunity to assert their role within organisations. In my view, two-way dialogue, or conversation to use the modern parlance, is firmly the domain of public relations.

The typical approach to incorporating new forms of media into public relations campaigns is to bolt it on as an additional channel; a Facebook page or Twitter account is added to a programme in the belief that this makes it social.

This misses a fundamental opportunity. The application of social media in public relations needs to start from a more basic position. At Ketchum every piece of work is based on a planning model.


We have access, unlike ever before, to data from social forms of media to help us identify the media where publics are engaged, and understand their motivation.

The social web is often described as the largest market research exercise that no one ever commissioned. Increasingly third-party tools are available to cut data sets down to size and draw insights, and media choices, to inform campaign planning.

“One of the ways in which public relations agencies can modernise is by moving into new territory and the provision of customer insight offers an opportunity to do this. Consumer insights are increasingly sought after as the lines between disciplines blur and public relations consultancies work to connect clients directly with stakeholders,” said Sarah Hall, managing director, Sarah Hall Consulting, and director, CIPR.

“Research should be part of our arsenal, however this is no longer enough. If brands really are to have conversations with their markets, they need hard and fast data to inform appropriate interaction and to demonstrate their relevance to the customer. A big challenge is how we demonstrate that this service should now sit with public relations and how we secure appropriate budget.”

Planning is increasingly an important function in public relations to enable insights to be drawn from data to inform campaign strategies that are aligned to organisational objectives. It also enables rigorous measurement criteria to be set to evaluate and measure campaign activity.

AMEC’s Valid Metrics Framework (opens as a PDF) should always form the basis for communication measurement and evaluation.

A series of templates describe every type of public relation campaign and call on practitioners to align objectives with those of the organisation and set not only outputs, but critically outcomes, for every area of a campaign.

As we continue to work through the planning model the next two significant areas of development in modern public relations are the development of content, and the management of modern forms of media.

I’ve already acknowledged the shift from text to multimedia content including photos, images and video. I’d urge you to use your mobile phone to explore how to create and use each of these types of content.

Next there’s the media. The modern public relations practitioner is a community manager helping to facilitate and curate conversations across owned communities such as apps, a website or wiki, and platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

Commercial networks and platforms also demand an understanding of paid media. Advertising and the promotion of content is critical if you want to optimise the reach of your content in these forms of media.

"It is no surprise that paid media is an attractive prospect for agencies - both strategically and financially. But we can't expect to waltz into this complex field and succeed without earning our stripes,” said Mr. Whatmough.

“So we need to prove ourselves and earn our place at the table. We need to show how we can bring the unique benefits of traditional public relations thinking to paid media.”

This shift to an organisation participating in a community is the biggest communication change that organisations face in the coming decade, as they seek to modernise their communication teams and engagement with public relations agencies. It requires teams to be reorganised and aligned with the planning, and demands new skills to be added to existing teams.

#4 Social business

Whenever an organisation creates a new channel it will very quickly be discovered by publics or audiences as a means to engage with the organisation.

Promotional social channels very quickly become hijacked by customers wanting to call out customer service woe. Any gap between the expectation of a product or service, and the reality, will generate a conversation on the social web.

As the PRCA’s Digital PR Report 2014 (see above) shows, public relations expertise no longer falls solely within the domain of a communication team but is required within every area of an organisation.

This is part of the ongoing shift in organisational communication that removes the line between external and internal stakeholders.

Organisations are moving beyond the tactical use of social media, to embed social technologies into their business processes that enable communication, collaboration and insight into customer, employee, supplier and partner behaviour.

This is open business and it is impacting every area of organisational design. It’s the future of public relations.

Business transformation

I’ve explored the requirements for new skills in each of the areas that I have outlined above, and the changes that need to be made to modernise.

There are three ways to transform a public relations business or communication team around digital, depending on the scale and the potential for investment.

#1 Training

Upskill existing staff to address the opportunities that digital media provides. Having set a strategy for modernising a team everyone’s learning and development and key performance indicators should be aligned. This is ultimately the only way to transform an agency or communication team.

#2 Embed

Hire new staff with the skills that your organisation lacks to plug the gaps and work alongside existing staff. This is a disruptive approach but is often essential to kick start change and can only ever be a short term strategy. In time everyone in the team must become digital.

#3 Build or acquire

This is a combination of the first two approaches whereby a team of domain experts is hired to speed change through training and practice. This process can be accelerated through acquisition but that raises an additional set of challenges in terms of integrating the new team.

One thing is for sure: communication teams and public relations agencies in the future will look a lot different to how they have in the past.

“Despite the demands placed upon practitioners by 24/7 news and social media, public relations agencies have been surprisingly slow to introduce flexible working arrangements. Servicing clients around the clock and employee work-life balance are not mutually exclusive. Implementing new working arrangements is a sure fire way in which consultancies can modernise, and quickly,” said Mrs. Hall.

Teams will be based on the skills that have been outlined here such as research, planning, content or community management, rather than generalists being the norm. They’ll almost certainly be flatter and more agile than they have in the past. They’ll have to be in order to serve the needs of organisations, markets and media.

Case Study I The Crowd & I is learning from other industries

UK agency the Crowd & I has taken inspiration from other professions and industries in a bid to modernise public relations workflow.

Founder and managing director Gemma Griffiths believes that the technology profession can provide lots of useful lessons.

“Public relations agencies typically plan and report in a very rigid fashion. An agency will write a detailed three-month plan and report back to the client on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis,” said Ms. Griffiths.

She believes parallels can be drawn with how developers used to build a product. Years ago they would take a brief from a client, go off and build the product and then report back three months later at the end of the project.

“Now it is best practice in the developer community to adopt an agile method where they build in iterations and continuously show the product to the client and keep them involved in every step of process.”

“This means they remain nimble so they can respond quickly to changes or challenges in the business or in their market. It makes perfect sense for PR professionals to adopt agile planning methods, as it would mean our campaigns would be more streamlined, relevant and timely.”

Case Study II Modernising government communications

In November 2013 the Cabinet Office published an assessment of how digital aspects of Government communication are planned and executed and how they can be improved.

The Digital Communication Capability Review is a bold piece of work that contains lessons for both the public and private sector. It’s a manifesto for change that sets out a framework for modernising and upgrading communication across government in the UK.The findings, set out in a 24-page document, are consistent with how digital communication has developed in almost all large organisations

Pockets of digital expertise exist in specialist teams, communication is often broadcast and one-way, and digital communication is frequently treated as a risk rather than an opportunity to improve citizen engagement.

The review sets out a bold ambition and a plan that seeks to nominate digital communication.

Digital forms of communication and engagement should be a core skill, not a specialism, communication leaders need to work close together to share best practice, and attitudes to risk need to be balanced with business need.

A work plan sets out objectives and actions for the wholesale upgrade of government communications.

The review commits to improve access to technology, support change via leadership, improve skills and training, and address governance.

Source: The Digital Communication Capability Review (2013)

Further reading

Far wiser minds than mine have debated the topics that I’ve raised in this blog post.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) and McKinsey have both published lots about modernising business around digital and are worth seeking out. I reviewed a paper published by HBR last year on the future of agency business models.

I highly recommend MIT’s George Westerman’s work on digital transformation. He recently published a report called The Nine Elements of Digital Transformation based on interviews with executives at organisations with greater than $1bn sales.

Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do: A Manager's Guide to the Social Web by Euan Semple and The 10 Principles of Open Business: Building Success in Today's Open Economy by David Cushman are also good handbooks to reorganising organisations for the future.

I often return to the Cluetrain Manifesto, written in 1999, which predicted all of the changes that we see in organisational communication. Cluetrain set out a series of 95 theses that predicted the impact of the Internet on markets. It’s a good guide to first principals.

Thank you

My thanks to the following people for reviewing this blog post and for providing critical input prior to publication: Rob Brown, Ged Caroll, Margaret Clow, Gemma Griffiths, Sarah Hall, Sarah Pinch, Laura Sutherland and Danny Whatmough.

Back to school public relations reading list

Back to school public relations reading list

World PR Forum calls for public relations to reach for higher purpose

World PR Forum calls for public relations to reach for higher purpose