The independent state of PR — breaking, evolving, inventing
by Keri-Ann Stanton (@KAmuses) Recently, I wondered if my PR peers in Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda (to name a few) would feel the same as the independents in South Africa when it came to the agency of the future. This occurred after I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the In2 Summit portion of the African Public Relations Association conference in Kigali, Rwanda.
What are the various things PR agencies need to do to prepare themselves for a changing media landscape and a changing competitive environment?
While, yes, there was talk of video content and publishing yourself, I still stand fast that we, as PR practitioners, need to be supporting our media and working with them, not against them. With the global crisis in journalism, communicators need to simply work harder and faster (and, yes, the Bell Pottinger backlash continues — trust is crucial). We’ve just finished work on an election campaign and our focus on radio helped immensely; people get far too dazzled by social media still.
As for the changing competitive environment? I am definitely seeing more of a demand for strategic advisory communications — a PR team that can give perspective, keep perspective, analyse the media and data, and give real-time sentiment and proposed actions.
What changes have you seen in the competitive landscape, and the kind of firms you are pitching against?
I wish I could say that transformation has levelled the playing field — but clients still play it safe. There are too many pitches of late where clients talk a big game about wanting and supporting transformation. Black-owned and -managed agencies are still often excluded before they are even included. The strategically narrow, first-round shortlist questionnaire is telling.
What changes have you seen in client demands/expectations, either in terms of the kind of work or the work process?
For me, the agency of the future is about ability and agility; there’s no longer time for immersion. Clients expect you to hit the ground running. This means you need to be well-read and well-versed at all times. You have to be geared up for rapid response. You may strategise and plan all you want but you also have to cancel and pull plans just as fast, and think on your feet. This is as true in consumer as in corporate PR.
To answer this need, I have flattened the normal structure of a team: no AEs, AMs, ADs, BUDs. You need to have three core people to a team: a PR strategist, PR producer, and a PR publicist. Thinker, doer and connector. The days of the generalist are over. Be very clear on your role: are you there to amplify, conceptualise or solve?
What new practices, products, people have your agency added in recent years to prepare for the future?
A very necessary skill that remains undeveloped in PR agencies is data analytics; the recent AMEC measurement and evaluation conference tweets were testament to this growing need. To me, it’s much more than just finding new ways of proving your worth and success; it’s about mining the data that you get from your media coverage and alerts, and making real-time changes as to what’s working and what’s not. Eg are you stronger on radio than print? Use that. Is your CEO stronger than the brand? Use that. Research has always been an underused-utilised part of the PR process — mostly because you have to hit the ground running — but that doesn’t stop you from mining the data in real-time.
PR has fought hard for a space at the table and, in a time of crisis after crisis, it’s up to us as agency leaders to find and hone the talent that can create the brief instead of ask for one; to be focused on outputs instead of admin; and to have a true sense of timing and tone.
Do my peers in Africa feel the same? There were some interesting discussions about retainers vs projects, about systems vs agility, but one thing was clear: we are all invested in building PR agencies for the future. Now.
- The column is based on questions sent to Stanton by Brian Holmes for the Kigali conference.
Keri-Ann Stanton (@KAmuses), head of PR for Avatar (South Africa’s largest black-owned and -managed advertising agency) and group communications director for M&N Brands (a new agency network for Africans, by Africans), is a multi-award-winning PR strategist and creative (APEX, Loeries, SABRE EMEA, African Excellence and Prisms). She works across sectors and disciplines from FMCG to SOEs. The global Holmes Report named her as one of the top 25 communication innovators in EMEA in 2017 and she has been invited to speak on various panels in Miami, Rwanda and SA.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.