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

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?
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor on

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 DataThe 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.

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