Research report: Is 'social PR' for real? Which agencies get it?

Research report: Is 'social PR' for real? Which agencies get it?

Summary: With social media being the "hot thing," which PR agencies get it and which ones don't? And do companies even care about this stuff?


In November 2008 I posted a multiple-question survey asking company leaders and marketing decision-makers about their public relations agencies. My main purpose was to determine which PR firms are best attuned to social media and are developing the most beneficial social programs for their clients. I also wanted to get an answer to the question, "Is social media even what clients want?"

In the "free form" section one respondent stated that "social media is not about PR." I think that is a very important comment. Social media is so much bigger than just public relations. We're talking internal communications, customer support, sales and lead generation, project management, infrastructure 2.0, etc. However, I focus on PR here because it is critical that PR agencies understand how social media can complement their offerings -- and how social media can shine a spotlight on existing poor PR practices (Nicole Jordan does a nice job of exploring this in her article on "PR's Branding Crisis").

Treat this survey as you would any other blog on the Internet -- informative but not gospel. It's a small yet solid data sample (Update 3/23/2009: Why this survey is not an endorsement). With hope, however, this can serve as a good tool for agencies who want to improve their programs by better understanding client needs. I also hope that it helps somehow those internal decision-makers who are deciding whether or not they need to hire a PR agency and which agencies they might consider to get the job done.

About The Data The survey received 642 responses. Of those responses, 53 people said that they do public relations solely in-house with no agency support. Of the remaining 589 responses, 48 people worked outside of the business categories I was researching (including venture capital, green tech, etc.). While all 101 of these responses were considered in my analysis the data shown in the following charts is based only on the remaining 541 remaining respondents. The primary targeted respondents were PR decision-makers at companies with 1,000 or more employees, with small business / start-up owners as secondary targeted respondents. Data was collected from November 2008-January 2009.

The data shows that the largest chunk of survey respondents work in enterprise technology followed by general consumer, retail and SaaS / Web 2.0.

The data also shows that the majority of respondents are internal PR directors / managers followed by chief marketing officers / vice presidents of marketing and small business owners.

Not surprising, the vast majority of respondents were in North America, with the largest showing from the northwestern and northeastern United States.

PR basics and client satisfaction -->

This piece of the survey was the most interesting to me. If you look at the data from a high level, clients are responding that they are at least fairly satisfied with their PR agencies. However, when you ask more specific questions around promises fulfilled during new business pitches, quality of coverage, and so on, the satisfaction numbers begin to drop. It's important to consider these basics because before you can evaluate an agency's social capabilities you must consider their fundamental understanding of PR. One comment received stated, "My agency seems to use social networks but our traditional PR is suffering." The commenter also stated that while social media is important to the company's objectives, the base capabilities are still most important. Let's take a look at the results.

The next question is one that hits close to home and flashes me back to my own agency management days. "Is your agency getting you more than just air cover?" When you set out with a PR agency and you explain which type of stories will get your company the right brand recognition or gain the right tools to support your sales team, are you getting what you want?

While 60 percent of respondents seem to be satisfied with the quality of coverage they are receiving, the other 40 percent that are either on the fence or dissatisfied cannot be ignored. In defense of agencies, it is true that some client decision-makers are disconnected from the changing landscape of news and which types of stories are easier / harder to obtain. Also, agencies face the challenge of clients who "drink the Kool-Aid" of their own companies' messaging and want marketing-styled coverage. However, if you are a named agency in this survey (to come) it might behoove you to survey your clients on their own satisfaction, as I've found more often than not this type of dissatisfaction is what ultimately leads to agency changes.

To that end, a lot of agencies get fired up during new business pitches but then quickly lose steam after the contracts are signed -- which is what often leads to mostly "air cover"-type coverage. I asked the respondents how well their agencies followed through on promises made during new business pitches.

Only 38 percent of respondents feel that they are without a doubt getting the quality of coverage they were promised during new business pitches. Roughly 33 percent of respondents "agree somewhat", which isn't necessarily bad, and isn't necessarily good either. Agencies should challenge themselves to track more closely to the expectations set during new business pursuits. Clients should also track to these promises and use this as a basis for long-term agency evaluation.

Finally, as this is a critical fundamental for both traditional and social PR programs, I wanted to know how many respondents feel that their agencies understand their company's overall business objectives beyond just the base need for news coverage. Meaning, do they get why you are seeking a certain type of coverage in the first place?

Only 32 percent of clients consistently feel as if their agencies understand their core business objectives. This is a sin that many PR agencies commit. Part of this could be due to having one senior person spread across multiple accounts and supported by teams of junior people who haven't yet learned broader business practices. Agencies should do more to ensure that their junior to mid-level people understand how their clients' sales processes work and understand at least on a high level how PR fits into the growth of the company. Clients should more strategically evaluate the breadth of the agency team being presented to them to ensure everyone has at least a loose grasp of business basics.

Overall, are clients satisfied with their current PR agencies? Again, only 32 percent are sure.

Getting social: What do clients want, what can agencies do? -->

Again, while several agencies are positioning themselves as primarily social shops, this might be a mistake due to the importance that clients are putting on traditional PR skills. When asking respondents about the importance of their agencies understanding social media, however, it rated exceptionally high. At the same time, many were skeptical about the value of what their agencies are offering. Some survey comments:

  • Agencies should incorporate social media into the regular PR mix, not hype it up as an added service
  • A lot of PR agencies want to plug themselves into the social networking channel because it is the hot thing right now but PR is floundering.... they aren't really adding value because it becomes obvious that the content is only geared to further a marketing agenda and not add something of substance
  • This issue is more complicated than saying "every company or brand needs social media outreach or its dead." Not all audiences are interested in online social networks. So, you can be a brilliant social marketer, and miss big segments of your customer base
  • Many high tech PR firms claim to "get" social media, but then turn around and push tactics as strategies in a one-size fits all way

Agencies need to work hard to ease their clients' or potential clients' minds by showing hard metrics of how social programs have worked for other clients. There is also more justifiable pressure on marketers as a whole to demonstrate ROI from social media programs. Clients should start requiring these types of ROI metrics or case studies and not take "this is a new practice" as a valid excuse for the agencies not having proof points. The agency at the very least should be able to show how it's built its own brand / the brand of its people through social media.

That said, let's take a look at what clients are saying they want:

When it's all said and done only 1.8 percent of respondents didn't feel it was important for PR agencies to show proven understanding of how social media strategies apply to business. It is extremely important to almost 80 percent of respondents. This represents a large opportunity for PR agencies who are ahead of the social curve to help clients who are seeking this type of expertise, especially when considering how clients are rating their own understanding of social media:

The majority of clients feel as if they at the very least understand social media and business and another large chunk admit to being in the learning process. However, it is important to note that while these clients may understand how to use social media to build their personal brands or communicate with friends, they very well may not understand how it translates to their businesses. This puts more onus on agencies to create education programs around social media and be able to show case studies and quantifiable metrics to aid in their clients' education. While clients may want this, they don't seem to want to pay extra for it.

This is the most important piece for agencies to understand as it tracks right back to some of the comments made at the start of this section. While social PR and client education might be something you can charge additional dollars for, it might not be in your best interest. Agencies might consider training as part of new business ramp-up at the beginning of the client engagement. As this relates to social PR programs in general, rather than offering a "traditional" package and an "enhanced" package with social media, consider making it all one program. Nicole Jordan, Al Krueger and I discussed on Krueger's Comet Branding Radio Show how agencies trying to capitalize on social media might find themselves either pigeon-holing their offering or shooting themselves in the foot. Understanding an agency's hesitancy to give away everything for free, perhaps some compromises could be made -- do not charge for social networking interaction with media and analysts, but do consider fees for more enhanced programs (virtual events, online presence development, etc.). Clients should push back hard on PR agencies who want to charge a premium on basic social media services (monitoring, engagement, etc.).

What programs do agencies seem to be recommending? As I feared, according to respondents, many are pushing social networking tools onto their clients without tracking directly to their clients' business objectives.

This is scary. No social media decision should be led with tool selection. Companies need to first consider their corporate objectives, then determine where their customers, partners and competitors are, and also consider how such use of tools ties to the corporate culture. Agencies, this relates back to the importance of team members understanding the fundamentals of a client's business. Clients, if your current or considered agency tells you that you must use X tool because everyone else is doing it -- especially if you run marketing for an enterprise company and that agency uses consumer examples -- consider another agency.

Who are the agencies? -->

Of all the 106 agencies named in the survey, a small portion were named multiple times (many respondents did not name their agencies). The top 10 named agencies include BluePoint Venture Marketing, CloudSpark, Connect2 Communications, Horn Group, Lois Paul & Partners, PAN Communications, Porter Novelli, SHIFT Communications, Tool Guy PR, Zag Communications and OutCast Communications.

In contrast, only six agencies were consistently named as viable considerations for clients considering an agency switch. More than 40 percent of respondents claimed that they are considering switching agencies. Only four of those agencies were in the top named list above. The top three reasons for wanting a new agency include:

  • Agency does not understand the business / not getting coverage in the right outlets
  • Agency does not have a blog or demonstrate good use of social networking tools
  • Agency does not appropriately demonstrate the ROI of the program

That said, the six agencies placed on the consideration list were CloudSpark, Horn Group, OutCast, Perkett PR, SHIFT Communications and Sterling Communications.

A handful of other positively-named agencies in order of amount of commentary include Hoffman Agency, Voce Communications, Matter Communications, SnappConner, Global Fluency, Bite PR, Spark PR, Schwartz PR and Ruder Finn.

Two agencies that consistently fell into the "needs improvement" category include Waggener Edstrom and Edelman.

Summary -->

As written in the intro this survey represents a small yet strong data sample. Therefore it should not be used as gospel, merely as a guide for PR agency clients considering social programs or an agency switch. It can also be used as a guide for agencies who are trying to determine how to best fit social media into their offerings.

It is clear that while social media is much bigger than PR alone, those marketing and PR decision-makers at responding companies are putting more and more emphasis on social PR programs. Social media also has a tendency to shine a spotlight on many of the faults that already exist in traditional PR. It needs to be mentioned that this survey was primarily driven via this blog and it's a given that those readers of my blog are already more "socially" inclined than other users.

Key takeaways for agencies:

  • Consider integrating some social elements into your current programs versus charging premium rates
  • Make sure the traditional PR element of your team / agency is strong before adding a layer of social on top of it
  • Start tracking more carefully delivered results against promised activities in new business pitches
  • Make sure your agency itself has its own presence / recognizable brand; make your people visible where appropriate as well
  • When recommending social programs, consider all facets of your clients' business and don't lead with a tools discussion

Key takeaways for clients:

  • Don't evaluate your current / future agency on social programs alone; take traditional PR capabilities into account first
  • Hold agencies accountable to promises made when the contract was first signed (barring major changes in business strategy / priorities)
  • When considering an agency's social abilities, ask for case studies and ROI metrics; do not fall victim to approaches led solely with tools
  • For the most successful programs, you must be transparent with your agency and give them access to content and spokespeople. Be open to push-back from your agency as well.

Additional reading:

Eric Berto Nicole Jordan Al Krueger Kristin Maverick Tris Hussey The BeanCast AdAge Kyle Flaherty Dave Fleet

A PDF copy of the report will soon be available. Email me via the form below to request a copy.

Want to weigh on on the second Social PR Survey? This time we're checking in with agency folks. Check out the details and survey.

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • Great breakdown!

    I really love how this was laid out and explained. Thanks for investing the time to do this Jennifer.
    --Shannon from @PierceMattiePR (on Twitter)
    • RE: Research report: Is

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  • RE: Research report: Is


    Thank you for this comprehensive study. We're honored to be on the short list of agencies folks would consider switching to - we hope they do :)

    On a serious note, the takeaways you wrote up are invaluable. I also found a lot of the commentary very compelling and am happy that for the most part, we address a lot of those concerns at PerkettPR with our senior-only staffing model. For agencies that do have junior-level staff, I hope they will continue to improve upon the training, mentoring and involvement in strategic discussions for those staff members. It's the best way to learn - junior staff can't do a good on execution if they aren't involved in and understand the bigger strategy - and that goes back to your comment and advice on understanding a client's BUSINESS goals, not just PR goals.

    I would say it also goes back to PR agencies listening during a pitch as well as talking. Too many forget this aspect.

    This is also timely with a blog post I wrote this morning on whether or not social media is important in PR:

    I think, like you said, a balance is key - social media is not crucial to all of our clients, or to all companies from a PR/marketing perspective.

    Thanks for all of your hard work on this - we will certainly heed your advice and the lessons learned from your research.

    All my best,
    Christine Perkett
    Founder, President - PerkettPR, Inc.
  • Brilliant

    I wrote a comment but it seems it didn't make it through the sign-up process. To summarize, congrats on an excellent article supported by quality first-hand research. This adds valuable fodder to our ongoing discussion about the changing role of PR, especially for agencies trying to navigate this new order. Some of the specific points are shocking but not surprising. I look forward to delving into this more in the coming days. Nice work Jennifer!
  • Excellent Article & Research

    This is a must read for anyone getting ready to enter the social media marketing arena and selecting an agency to help. Another excellent, though smaller firm, to consider is Converseon They have been a big help to me and have a very strong group of social media experts.

    Again, great article, great insights and very helpful.
  • Eye opening

    But I'd say that given my experience with clients who've gone through many different agencies (and my own in different agencies) you must take a close look at the people, not just the agency. Agencies get reputations, some well-earned, some not and some unfairly earned, but in the end it's PR people - some young and shockingly bright and some "seasoned" yet remarkably current - who do the work. The smart clients are asking to get to know the person behind the social PR (their day-to-day) and that my friends is a very smart first step.
  • Long Awaited Report!


    Glad to see the long-awaited survey results are in!

    First off- I would be lying if I didn't say I was gratified to see that my employer, SHIFT Communications, was on both lists of social media-savvy firms. It's the reason I came over here last year.

    I find myself skipping to page five, and the takeaways. You are validating some things I have been in favor of for years: integrating social media rather than charging a premium for it; and making sure the entire agency is versed in "traditional" PR and that we don't leave that behind.

    I couldn't agree more
  • PositiveTakeaways

    Fantastic report Jennifer!

    One of the takeaways here is that PR (as a whole) can serve as the gateway for brands to engage in social media. I'd like to see comparable data for Ad Agencies. I bet they are not as progressive in social media implementation, and that's where the BIG opportunity lies for the PR industry.

    It was so cool to see some of our most active PitchEngine users on the list of the Top 10! And fyi - those who need improvement have been exploring us too. maybe this will help them jump!

    Jason Kintzler, PitchEngine
  • A good start, but let's take it to the next level

    Thanks for taking the time to take the pulse of how PR firms are using social media to help their clients. It's a good start with lots of useful information. For a follow-on study, how about looking into gathering some data on the role of PR in social media successes that have really made an impact on businesses - either in driving sales/leads, expanding media exposure, or exposure in the businesses' target markets? Companies like The Scuderi Group ( and Language Weaver ( have gotten vital sales leads and viral exposure in the media and their target markets with their blogs, podcasts and online video demos. (Full disclosure, these are Topaz Partners clients.) Online polls like this can provide thought-provoking snapshots, but let's all take every opportunity we can to learn more about the ROI of social media and apply substantive, real-life examples to our client work.

    • Yes!

      We're on the same wavelength. Nicole Jordan and I are working on a "part two" that will explore that as well, and I hope to post the survey on Monday. Thanks so much for the feedback and suggestions.
      Jennifer Leggio
      • Looking forward to it!

        Great to hear that you're going to keep gathering more in depth data. Will keep an eye out for the follow on survey and very much looking forward to it!
    • Re: Tom Francoeur's "A good start, but let's take it to the next level"

      I agree that would be great - and is really necessary to find the true leaders in the sea of "social media experts."

      The challenge comes in finding those statistics and comparing apples to apples. PR firms probably measure social media value in different ways and benchmarks, etc., could be difficult to find. I'd love if this study did take place. We'd be thrilled to participate as well @PerkettPR.

      If you are interested, my EVP (@mosleyppr) and I also talked with our client @lotame about social media on Blog Talk Radio yesterday. You can listen here - - would love other insights and opinions on the topics.

      Christine Perkett
  • It's All About ROI

    Love the points raised in this article - I completely agree, it takes more than just "air coverage".

    We measure our PR initiatives the same way we measure all our marketing activities - purely with respect to ROI.

    So not only what "buzz" are we generating - but more specifically, how targeted are the leads that result from our PR efforts, and how many of them convert to paying customers. No different than measuring Google AdWords.

    FYI we use a boutique PR firm - Morgan/Dorado PR - are very happy w/ our relationship w/ them, no matter how many questions I'm asked :)
  • nice!!

    good job!
  • Great best practices recommended!

    I thought the findings were highly insightful, and found the
    recommendations for both client and PR agency to be really
    useful. Based on this, I have also done a reaction piece (hey,
    I'm a student after all!!!) that can be accessed here:
    Do let me know what you think. I'm new to new media, but I
    am a definite convert to its potential and impact on PR.
  • RE: Research report: Is

    Great survey, and very much along the lines of what I've been
    seeing. At Lippe Taylor, we're very committed to integrating
    social media and digital marketing into our clients'
    communications programs. The operative word being
    "integrating" -- it's all got to work together.
  • PR & marketing to social web in Germany

    Hi Jennifer,

    great survey. I am conducting a research in PR and marketing to social web by consulting firms in Germany. A survey with a much smaller sample but focused on one industry showed that many consulting firms appreciate PR & marketing to social web.

    You can see the results and a presentation in the two links below: