PR agencies don’t do enough strategy

PR agencies don't do strategy. This is a bold declaration, admits Peter Roberts, but one that is tempered by the acknowledgment that strategy is hard, and output easier to see. But, if agencies don't begin coming to grips with the theoretical underpinnings of strategy, clients may just go somewhere else to get it.

Here’s a bold one for you: PR agencies don’t do strategy. Yes, it’s a big claim and a generalisation, but it’s not too far off the truth. There will be exceptions, of course, but the bulk of PR agencies are either pushing big tactics or plans. This is their interpretation of ‘strategic thinking’.

But, it’s understandable in a way. Strategy is a bloody hard one to get your head around. It’s what academics refer to as a threshold concept: get over the threshold and you’re in a brand new world of understanding and awareness. And the agency model is still firmly focused on the notion of outputs, which are tangible: a news piece in the Fin Review or a momentary buzz on Instagram.

In short, we demonstrate ROI for our clients. And we also need to show clients value for money; agencies tend to be a little expensive. Strategy, by its very nature (when done properly), is abstract – this doesn’t help when it comes to showing a real return. And so the tactical outputs we tend to produce are arbitrary, without strategy.

Our advertising counterparts are better at not losing sight of the client’s problem, which is what strategy is ultimately there to do – fix the issue. PR agencies do, as I said, produce plans, but this is not strategy.

The terms are used interchangeably, but this shouldn’t be the case. Plans offer coherence to people’s work, together with a clear direction of travel. They are, unsurprisingly, also tangible.

Strategy also gives us that direction, but plans do far more in regards to addressing the obstacles that stand in the way. A business needs to have plans in place to roll out the strategy, but strategy is what drives the whole process.

Microsoft, for instance, talks of empowering communities. This is a strategy. There will be clearly articulated plans and tactics to bring this to life.

PR agencies are led by bright people and the challenge I present is not a great one to overcome. But our fortunes will be helped by identifying the value of theoretical insights to the business. An understanding of those appropriate theoretical frameworks often leads to placing strategy in the middle of our problem solving, which is only a good thing.

The professional services have long ingrained theory into their work approach. They have also started making inroads into the traditional PR agency space. Agencies need to build their theoretical credentials, as, without them, they will be viewed solely as tactical, while clients go elsewhere to deal with the more exacting and profitable issue of strategy.

Peter Roberts is the managing director of the Corporate Reputation Practice


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