The COVID pandemic has opened up unexpected business opportunities for small PR firms. On one hand, large organizations have laid off some of their PR staff to reduce overheads; on the other hand, this has created more available talent in PR agencies and consulting. This is because ex-staff have converted to working as freelancers or have joined small PR firms as staff members or partners.
As a result, the number of small PR agencies has jumped since 2020. For instance, in the UK, Wadds Inc. reported in May 2021 that “the UK agency market is saturated with more than 4,500 agencies” (based on the 2017 data in the table). The report showed that an overwhelming number of UK PR firms are small, as in the table below. What’s more, a massive 83% of agencies have only 1-4 employees. Small firms, indeed! This number would be stable. The PR marketplace in other countries would also be undergoing these changes.
Image: Table from UK Public Relations Agency Startup Report, 2021, showing ONS 2017 data.
COVID-19 has leveled up competition for startups and established small agencies against bigger ones. The UK PR Agency Startup report found that the PR businesses have been able to create content and meet people in a way that wasn’t previously possible because video calls mean that everyone presents the same in new business meetings. This trend would be the case in other countries as well.
In this competitive business environment, small PR agencies need to distinguish themselves from competitors. Client trust and confidence in a small PR agency strongly depend on their perceptions and trust that the agency manages its business processes well. If handled effectively, these processes can be subtly conveyed to the client as being the sound practices of a larger firm, developed from experience in the industry.
You can set into motion several broad initiatives that make your small firm seem bigger, which will imply that it is therefore a capable operation. Which it is, of course! These 5 initiatives are:
Business management. This factor is the foundation for a small PR firm’s business. Not only do you need to ensure the firm is well managed, but you need to present this effectively to the business world, especially prospective clients. If you ensure your overall business management is handled professionally, you will have a strong backdrop to your current and potential client work. If you want to maximize the value of your firm, you must understand how to read a balance sheet, profit & loss statements, and cash flow statements. Part of this is understanding how other similar PR firms compare for profitability and other performance measures. And, don’t fall into the trap of overestimating the amount of your new-business generation!
Work with a realistic, solid budget based on the amount of revenue you could generate against the costs, such as staffing. You should allow for bonuses, taxes, and sufficient profit to reinvest back in the business. The processes and systems need to enable staff to be fully functional and productive. Decisions would be needed on what you could outsource and the skills you would need in-house. Other variables include any training for employees. Plus, other costs and business expenses such as purchasing new equipment and updating it progressively.
Business fundamentals are basic, but these are vital actions to take to increase your presence in the marketplace. These initiatives will enable your agency to appear as big and professional as larger firms:
Servicing clients. Your business depends on the way you service your clients. You need to interact with clients to make them feel up to date and well looked after. Increase their satisfaction with your service by sending them copies of industry trend material from the media, relevant case studies within your industry, and regular progress reports. Your consultants need to be active and energetic with new and different ideas that add value for clients. Keep your client service productive, evaluated by referencing agreed measurements, and ensuring top-quality client work the whole way. But don’t over-service the accounts. This is a major pitfall in the industry.
Client contact. Develop relationships with several levels of executives inside client organizations. You need day-to-day contact, as well as access to the C-suite, including the CEO and chief marketing officer for strategy, vision, and direction. Remember that if your main client contact leaves their job or is moved internally, you need to have other influential internal contacts already established who you can rely on for advice on how to continue the relationship (and to approve invoices!).
Review all your firm’s touchpoints with clients so every contact is conveyed in a professional way, as a larger firm would. Commit to responding to all communication within 24 hours on business days, although, usually, it is much quicker. When a client is confident you will respond quickly via phone, email, or text message they develop strong trust in your firm’s professional business management. When they know you have committed to a quick response time, they are not as likely to fret over urgent responses.
Your touchpoints even extend to your documentation. The correspondence needs to be prompt and sufficient. Clarify the types of activities for which your client will be invoiced and the terms of payment. These should be clearly spelled out upfront in your initial expression of interest document, confirmation of contract, or, at the latest, in a letter confirming the contract. This will minimize any unpleasant surprises to the client about charges.
Prompt phone interaction is vital to make your small PR firm seem bigger. Your phone is the prime form of direct and immediate contact with clients. Larger PR agencies usually provide good phone service through a reception/support function, so small firms need to match up. In fact, the latest phone apps enable small firms to give very efficient phone responses.
Many phone services these days are similar. The whole phone technology sector is developing rapidly. The latest phone apps are impressive in the way they give customers much more flexibility than in the past. For instance, the OpenPhone.co app enables people to handle business calls and personal calls via separate numbers on the same phone at a reasonable cost. The app can be easily based on either iPhone or Android systems, and business people can set a different message for callers making contact after business hours. Several employees can use the same number to answer business calls and text messages. Also, the option of having a toll-free number can make the small business appear larger and more professional. All of these are especially handy for freelancers.
Just as with any relationship, you need to set expectations on what each party can expect and requires from each other for a successful relationship. This means both large scale and the details of communication and response.
Don’t oversell your services. Even though it is tempting to oversell your services to give a potential client more confidence in your firm, it will be disastrous if they find out you have sold them a dummy. Remember the advice: “If you have it, flaunt it. If you don’t, don’t.” Therefore, when you point to an “established” area of activity, ensure you have enough staff and resources to deliver. A single person with experience (or several people without experience) does not constitute a practice.
Building a culture and a core team. Obviously, it is essential to have a core team to keep the business moving. Aim at hiring people who are resourceful and self-starters – people who can find their own answers and who enjoy the excitement of doing something new. Establish with your team a core set of values you want them to embrace and maintain, as well as a set of remote work guidelines. Also, their working environment should help motivate them. Think of fun events in and outside the office, employee recognition, and professional development opportunities.
For a small firm, it is important to subcontract when extra resources are needed. This gives you much more flexibility for managing projects, and also when heading for lean times. When a client sees a solid number of people on their account (they don’t have to know unless they ask), then a certain number of those people are actually subcontractors.
One of the biggest difficulties for small PR firms is having enough resources to look as efficient and well-established as larger agencies. This applies to individual freelancers through to small-to-medium agencies. Therefore, you need to invest in efficient management tools for your business to make it look successful and even larger than it is. This will provide you with a solid foundation for success.
A core team can also comprise formal or informal “partners” in specialized areas, like graphic design, web design, video production, etc. You can call on these individuals to bring their expertise to a client project, thus impressing the client with the size of your resources.
To keep clients satisfied and even impressed, you need to invest in sufficient resources to produce a fully professional result, just as a larger agency would. For instance, these days, a media release may not carry enough impact because journalists are catering to a multimedia audience. You need to know how to create visuals, videos, and even interactive content. You can use free stock photo sites like this list I created of dozens of sources and this list of 34 free sites from Biteable. Also, you can use sources like Canva for visual editing.
When used efficiently, a media database saves you a lot of time, energy, and work. Here’s what the tool can offer for finding the right reporter for your pitch, and maximize efficient use of your pressured time. An advanced platform gives you advantages of:
The rise of remote working and its acceptance within corporate culture has led to the invention of many technologies. It’s not just about connectivity and communication but about using the best technology to be accessible and to present a professional ‘shop front’ that competes at the highest level.
Also, you don’t have to spend vast amounts to get the tools your PR firm requires. Google offers a variety of free cloud solutions. Here are a few examples:
Some of the smart tech tools that you can include, according to HR News in May 2021:
PR pros continually struggle to prove their worth due to so many intangibles in their results, and the fight to show ROI can intensify for communication consultants or a digital agency trying to land that next big client account. Beki Winchel from PR Daily suggests using Adobe’s Marketing Cloud, social analytics software, Nuvi or Talkwalker, or a PR monitoring tool, such as Trendkite. These tools can gather analytics and data to help you make campaign decisions, as well as measure your ROI to show your client how you’ve boosted their bottom line.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
Given the information and communication technologies available, you can foster business communication through a number of tools. Among them are
Remote work has become the norm for many organizations across the globe because it can benefit employers as well as