Creating a new model PR agency that’s fit for purpose


Over the weekend, I read the best essay about public relations agencies and their potential future that I’ve read in a very long time.

Penned by Paul Holmes – he of The Holmes Report and the SABRE Awards – “10 Ways To Design The PR Agency Of The Future” offers a compelling vision of how agencies should evolve and be relevant in a contemporary business environment.

If you study Holmes’ suggestions, you’ll notice that what they’re really about is what PR firms need to do to become social businesses, and why they need to do it. (For deeper scope and broader scale on the future of business, I recommend #WTF by Brian Solis. I’m about half-way through the Kindle edition. A compelling read.)

Defining ‘social business’ is a tricky exercise at best, and there’s yet to emerge a simple definition that would willingly be embraced by everyone. (Don’t be confused by the Wikipedia definition – that’s a different ‘social business.’) It’s not about social media tools and channels; it’s more about how you use them in the context of changing behaviours, our increasing propensity to openly and informally share information and ideas, and changing organization structures and cultures.

I’ve yet to see anything that bests Peter Kim’s original Big Idea definition from early 2009:

In brief: Social business draws on trends in technology (e.g., powerful mobile devices, widespread availability of high-speed Internet access, low cost of data storage), work (e.g., always-on culture, globalization), and society (e.g., propensity to share). Companies should care about social business because they can improve business outcomes (i.e., increase revenue or decrease costs). The core principles touch on all areas of a business, whether for business-to-customer engagement, employee-to-employee collaboration, or supply chain optimization. Making social business work requires focus on a company’s culture, connections, content exchanges, and measurement and analytics.

I like IBM’s concise view on the foundation organizations need to build to help them become a social business:

  1. Provide an infrastructure for engagement.
  2. Integrate social practices into day-to-day work activities.
  3. Understand where and how data generation could benefit the company.
  4. Teach employees how to collaborate effectively with people outside the organization.

It seems to me that Paul Holmes’ ten points directly address IBM’s four in one way or another, even by reading Holmes’ titles without the detailed commentary that goes with each:

    1. Big data at the center
    2. Insight to drive meaningful creativity
    3. Understanding the human brain
    4. Managing reputation is about more than just communicating reputation
    5. Becoming real brand journalists
    6. Being truly channel neutral
    7. Eliminating internal barriers
    8. Recruiting differently
    9. Creating new career paths
    10. Make it matter

If I had to pick one of Holmes’ ten topics to get cracking with, it would be number 7, ‘Eliminating internal barriers,’ in particular noting this:

[…] Agencies need to ask themselves […] is the “corporate” audience really so distinct from the “consumer” audience? If so, is a CSR campaign corporate (because a major objective [is] enhanced reputation) or consumer (because done right, CSR can help drive sales)? Wouldn’t your public affairs efforts be better served if they included an employee communications component, motivating ordinary employees to get involved?

And does having a “digital” practice make any more sense than having a “print” practice or a “radio” practice? Or does it perhaps [sic] another barrier, one that actually makes it more difficult to come up with channel-neutral solutions?

It seems so blindingly obvious to me that the current PR agency model must evolve into something fit for purpose in the 21st century. Much of what I see and experience suggests it has evolved little in the majority of PR firms, remaining firmly welded to 20th century practice and thinking (and a lot of the poor practices).

Can it really be that no one has noticed that pickaxe?

Paul Holmes’ post and his ten points are a discussion topic in this week’s episode 702 of The Hobson and Holtz Report podcast, published yesterday. Start listening to the discussion at about 27 minutes 50 seconds into the show.

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Jonnie Jensen

    Great points and very insightful references thank you. My experience with PR agencies has been that they about awareness and coverage. This subject as I approach it is about culture, technology and content. Mmm, ok. I see how that could be the direction a PR agency should take. Doesn’t mean they naturally have the skills and experience to achieve that though. Great piece

  2. Sebastian Keil (@sebastiankeil)

    I think the “little evolvement” is a great point to dwell on. I often go back to Jeremy Owyangs “10 criteria of a social business” (from 2010: and there seems to be nobody who can “check” all the boxes, so to speak. Quite possibly we won’t see any noticeable shift here until a big ship role model comes along.

    • Neville Hobson

      You’re probably right, Sebastian, re checking all the boxes. I think there are core elements that apply to any organisation and becoming a social business, maybe the four points IBM talks about.

      Apart from the core elements, though, I think there’s then a menu of ideas, behaviours, attitudes and more from which to choose depending on many factors related to a particular organisation, the people in it, its goals….

      It’s a massive topic, without doubt.

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