Public relations agencies are hurting. Layoffs, salary reductions, lost revenue and stalled campaigns are impacting firms of all sizes and specialties around the world. A report released in mid-April by M&A advisory firm Gould & Partners showed that, here in the U.S., nearly 90 percent of agencies surveyed lost net revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a third lost at least 20 percent of their revenues, seemingly overnight.
Experts believe the picture will get worse before it gets better. Steve Drake, principal of agency search consultancy RFP Associates, says that while clients are still issuing RFPs and hiring agencies, budgets and scopes of work for newly hired firms will be adjusted down in many instances.
“Looking ahead, we expect a significant fall-off of agency hiring activity and, unfortunately, some existing programs will be put on hold or relationships severed altogether during the second half of 2020,” he said. “All in all, it’s going to be a difficult year for agencies of all sizes.”
But, when the economy reopens and businesses seek to regain footholds lost during this crisis, Drake predicts an uptick in public relations agency searches and hires. Firms are in a unique position to help organizations plan and execute programs for the new post-pandemic environment. Whether clients are striving to repair a damaged reputation or return to pre-crisis normalcy, strategic communication executed by experienced teams has enormous value.
Public relations agencies hoping to pursue and secure these new opportunities can take measures now to ensure they are well positioned for success. How? Believe it or not, based on what I observed during my own recent experience serving as an agency search consultant for a client who required on-the-ground support in a market where we do not have a presence, those steps are incredibly basic.
Make Your Top People Easy to Find and Contact
When compiling a list of qualified agencies for my client to review, I was astonished to find that a majority of the firms, considered prominent in their market, made it next to impossible to contact – or in some cases even find the names of – members of their leadership teams.
Potential clients want to know and talk to the people in charge. They do not want to contact a business development director, or worse, a general email address. A small agency should feature its leaders prominently on its website and make those individuals easy to reach. Larger firms with multiple offices should showcase regional leadership. Anyone with responsibility for developing new relationships should also make their email addresses publicly available on LinkedIn. It’s the first place I went for information when an agency’s website did not provide the contact details I needed to initiate a discussion.
Dispense with Automation and Answer Your Phones
One of the very first rules I learned when joining Stanton Communications was that if our main phone line rang more than twice without being answered, someone was going to be in trouble. As a new Account Coordinator, that person was almost certainly going to be me. After 21 years and now as President, I make sure that discipline remains.
As such, it was frustrating to call agency after agency (because I couldn’t find a usable email address) with an offer to participate in a meaningful new business competition only to be met repeatedly by an automated phone attendant or a general voicemail box.
Where are the humans?
On two occasions, I found them. Unfortunately, they left the distinct impression that they did not want to be found, or otherwise bothered by a phone call. Only after hearing that the call was about a new business opportunity did the person on the other end of the line demonstrate anything resembling courtesy. If the client had been the one conducting the outreach, it would have been the end of the road for that agency.
Establishing a protocol where your phones are answered by a polite human who genuinely sounds as though he or she wants to be helpful makes an important first impression that should not be underestimated. At any point in time, the person on the other end of the phone could change the course of your agency’s future.
Assess Your Approach to Proposals
A proposal should be more than boilerplate language about your firm, or recommendations that are clearly borrowed or wholly lifted from prior new business responses. We saw plenty of both in our agency search and it was apparent which firms carefully considered guidance offered in the RFP and which did not.
Those that rose above the pack offered insightful analysis of the client’s status based on independent research (not just what was included in the RFP) and freely shared ideas for strategies, messaging and tactics. Only after demonstrating care, interest and creative solutions for the client’s unique challenges did those agencies turn the focus on themselves with relevant case studies and helpful background on the team members who would be assigned to carry out the program.
Now is the time to examine your proposal strategy with brutal honesty and determine how, going forward, you will structure your preparation and response to deliver highly personalized and detailed proposals that demonstrate to the client that you deserve their trust.
Produce a Winning Presentation
A good proposal gets you in the door. A great presentation gets you the work. After years of preparing and delivering new business pitches, and now having observed many given by other agencies, following are a few key components that undeniably make a difference:
– Delivery – A surefire way to lose the client’s interest and their business is to fill your slides with words, and to read those words verbatim. This happened during our agency search and it was excruciating. The best presentations keep words to a minimum and incorporate visuals to help tell the story. Delivered with confidence and enthusiasm, an engaging approach demonstrates to the client that you have a mastery of your craft.
– Chemistry – The secret to great chemistry is twofold: you have to develop it with the client and also show that it exists within your team. Your proposal convinced them that you have smart ideas and the experience to execute them effectively. Your in-person meeting should help them see that your people work well together and make the prospect feel as though you are already part of their team. Present with each other rather than taking turns in a tightly scripted performance.
– The Right Team – Your presentation team should consist of the individuals who will do the work when you win the business. Anyone else, even your most skilled public speaker, is superfluous. In one agency interview I observed, the main presenter was outstanding. She immediately connected with the client and spoke with confidence and authority. The problem was that she was the Director of Business Development and would have nothing to do with the day-to-day work. Her role was solely to bring the contract in the door, and over time, expand it. She also overshadowed those who would actually be leading the program. It was off-putting to the client and ultimately lost the business for an otherwise talented agency.
– Discussion – The client will have questions during your presentation. Take time to anticipate beforehand what those might be and how you will answer them. Even more important, come ready with questions of your own. Some of the most impressive agency presentations I’ve seen included spirited discussion centered around smart questions based on careful thought and solid research. Build into your presentation planning time to develop a list of questions you can pose to what will hopefully be your newest client.
One final thought. PR agencies are suffering right now, but hopefully, it won’t be for too much longer. When the tide does turn, we will all be eagerly pursuing new business of every stripe. In the rush to recover from this crisis, and to help organizations who themselves are recovering, we should not lose sight of who we are and where we bring the greatest value in terms of capabilities and strengths. Healthy, meaningful, long-term client engagements are born that way.
Steve Drake from RFP Associates agrees. “One of our most significant frustrations is when agencies pretend they are something they’re not,” he said. “Our advice to agencies is to be true to themselves AND to their prospective clients – and not shoehorn their qualifications into a scope of work they have no business pursuing. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, but unfortunately, it’s a miscalculation many agencies make, too often.”
Now is the time to examine your own approach to new business development and position your agency for future success.