Social PR Survey II: Continued disconnect between clients, agencies

Back in February I published the results of a social public relations survey that attempted to gauge client satisfaction levels with their current PR agencies. What showed up was dismal - and really showed that client trust in their agencies was low.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Back in February I published the results of a social public relations survey that attempted to gauge client satisfaction levels with their current PR agencies. What showed up was dismal - and really showed that client trust in their agencies was low.

Given that data, and several requests, I teamed with Nicole Jordan (read her take on the survey) to issue a follow-on survey to examine the agency side of things and find out what the account folks believe their clients expect. We also tried to determine what sort of training entry level PR people are getting at the start of their careers. Again, this is not a scientific survey. We're merely trying to jumpstart conversations.

To be frank, we were disappointed. Not so much in the quantity of respondents (though it was lower than the initial survey), but in the types of answers we received. More than 80 percent of PR agency participants believe they received stellar PR training to address business issues of their clients. Almost as many believe their agencies are meeting the needs of their clients in terms of social media programs. As the first survey results indicate, it's clear that several clients don't see it this way.

So, we still have a disconnect. However, the upside is that the agencies who did participate in this seem to be willing to close the gap - otherwise they likely would not have participated.

Let's get into the details:

  • 524 total responses
  • 386 completed surveys (reported data is based on this number)
  • 176 different named PR agencies

Next: The basics -->

The following charts indicate the demographic of survey respondents. The majority of those who participated joined us from boutique PR agencies, followed not-so-closely by large agencies. The mid-size was represented, but surprisingly not as strongly as the other segments.

After the first survey I was given feedback that biotech and VCs needed more representation in this industry. However, their agency folks were among the lowest represented. Not shocking considering my audience, the majority of those participating are enterprise tech and consumer tech, with a huge boost of general consumer clients.

Considering the economy and the hits that PR agencies are taking, accounts sized at $10K-$15K comprise the majority of agency business, closely followed by $5K-$10K. Very few agencies with accounts over $50K per month participated.

The role of the respondents is important. One of the things we wanted to accomplish in this survey was to get feedback from the top to the bottom. Still, the majority of respondents were agency principals / presidents. The next large chunk, however, came from account executives, which is great. We want the views of the feet on the street.

Finally, and this one was more to try and get a gauge of how PR is doing right now overall, more than 42 percent say their client load has stayed the same and 38.9 percent say they have gained more clients during the downturn. This could be due to layoffs and client management shifts, or an influx of new business. There is definitely PR business to be had out there if your PR agency is well positioned for it.

Next: Agency training -->

Now that we know who participated, let's take a look at what they are saying. As I mentioned, the majority of respondents feel as if their agencies have stellar training and social media programs. And, from my own experience, many of them do. However, not all of them do, which either shows that some of the responses were very spun or some of the respondents don't understand what their clients are truly seeking. A quick snapshot on the respondents' views of training:

  • 67.9 percent did not study PR (note: this is likely a good thing)
  • History and political science seemed to be popular majors
  • Very low levels of folks who majored in business or studied general marketing
  • Only half started out in PR, 80 percent of which expectedly started in agencies

I'm a little disappointed in this section, not due to the responses, but due to our setting up the survey in a way that didn't capture what we'd set out to capture. We were hoping to really dig into how prepared entry level agency folks feel to help their clients truly address business needs but we came up short. Many of the respondents feel that when they started at agencies they were given proper business training versus just media relations, editorial calendars and awards. However, a lot of the people Nicole and I have spoken directly to about their training feel otherwise. In the end, however, I want to remind agency leaders that business training needs to start at the entry level, and sticking an account coordinator in a corner with a calendar does not help clients.

Next: Now it gets interesting -->

One of the things we're trying to determine is how many agency people truly understand how to provide strategic value supported by ROI-proven tactics for their clients. So we asked the question, "What is your definition of strategic PR?" After reviewing the near 400 answers to this question, I'd say we're at about half good and half bad. Here are some of the more promising answers:

  • A focus on helping clients build relationships with stakeholders; not achieving higher circulation, readership, hits, or viewership
  • Integrated communications, the program should have many elements running at the same time - it is NOT media relations.
  • Strategic PR ties every aspect of a PR plan to the client's objectives - no programs or tactics are put in place without a clear and specific reason.

Here are some not-so-great answers:

  • Helping a client reach their target audience by using a wide range of appropriate tools
  • Getting information to people who, in turn, take an interest
  • Leveraging social & online media
  • Turning lemons into lemonade

We didn't expect epiphanies or grandiose ideas for any of these answers (we only gave them so much space!). We just wanted to see if people grasp it at a high level. And, like I said, after digging through and rating each of these answers, near 200 of them fell short. Yet more than 80 percent feel that their managers are setting appropriate examples of how strategic PR programs should be defined and managed. I think we've discovered yet another internal disconnect.

Next: Social media does not equal Twitter -->

The last survey showed that clients are hungry for social programs that specifically map back to their business objectives. Many are relying on their agencies to come up with creative ideas and to educate them on how social media can impact their businesses. It's not just about PR or media relations anymore, either. Traditional PR people are being forced to - as they should be - learn more about lead generation and SEO in order to fully support their clients. According to the chart below, 77.3 percent of respondents feel their agencies are actively engaged in social media:

When asked what their agencies are doing to support internal education and better client support with social media, we received a few great responses about mandatory training, business reviews, etc. Unfortunately, and sadly, the majority of the responses received had something to do with the agencies themselves using Twitter.

Twitter is not the end-all, be all of social media. It's not even the start and it doesn't even matter to some companies. And an agency using a social networking tool is all well and good, but it does not indicate any above average understanding of social media. If you answered this question with "we use Twitter" as an example of how your agency is involved in social media, we urge you to push back on your management or ask your management to better define the programs for you. If you approach a prospective or current client and speak to them about your use of Twitter, the bottom is going to rightly fall out of the conversation.

Another question we asked was around why agencies are pushing social media programs there, near 90 percent said "because we have to be there."

Next: Agencies stifling personal brand building? -->

While the data shows that individuals feel they are being encouraged to build a personal brand via social media, the actual commentary shows that individuals are feeling stifled. Many agencies are pushing their staff to all ghost-author agency-branded Twitter feeds, which is a mistake. Those can be valuable for showing to clients and pushing client news, but agency staff members need to build their own brands just like they need to build their own relationships.

Here's a small sample of the many sad comments:

  • I am just the intern
  • We are part of the company.  Relationships are good, but the agency is top priority.
  • The agency is the talent aggregator, not the beneficiary of the talent.
  • My clients are my number one priority, not my ego.
  • I believe my job is to represent my agency and my clients, it's not about what I think
  • Haven't thought about it, afraid of failure
  • Because management is not open to the idea.

On the other side of the spectrum, we asked what some common best practices set for social media approaches at the agencies. Overall, these were pretty good. So it's clear the majority of the agencies are setting good best practices from the top down at the very least, if maybe some of the individual employees are still at the lower end of the learning curve. Here are some of the best ones we found:

  • Don't market through all social networks at once, pick and choose those becoming a new communications channel to potential customers
  • Build the customer relationship by communicating directly with them -- sharing news, answering questions, clarifying inaccuracies
  • Tie Social Media Tactics Back to the Broader Strategy - Always consider how a digital or social media tactic supports the broader client strategy and provides value.  Social media tactics without a purpose are pointless
  • Think strategically -- don't just sell it because it's "in" - but make sure it's a fit and have a rationale.

As an aside, the scariest one we saw was, "I update my boss' LinkedIn."

Next: Program priority -->

In contrast with some of the comments in the first survey that showed that social media is top of mind for a lot of clients, agencies responded that the following programs are most important, ranked in order of priority:

  1. Traditional / print online media
  2. Broadcast media
  3. Social media
  4. Strategic planning / IPO / M&A
  5. Analyst relations
  6. Crisis management
  7. Investor relations

Social media falls to number three, however I don't think that's necessarily counter to what the clients reported in their own survey. I can't imagine social media, i.e. a Twitter lead generation program, taking precedence over a possible Wall Street Journal article or spot on CNN for most clients. The fact that it is ranked by agencies as No. 3 is quite telling. The question: what is part of these programs? That depends on the client.

In comparison, the agencies reported that the following are the most critical success metrics for their clients. This leads me to believe that according to the agencies, clients are putting more pressure on agencies to drive leads and sales via their media efforts, therefore further putting pressure on the agencies to determine ROI. It's also interesting to note that social network mentions are low - therefore further confirming that social programs need to go far beyond Twitter and the like. In the last survey clients expressed that their agencies did not understand how to achieve their greater business objectives and they were also frustrated with the lack of vision beyond use of tools.

  1. Traditional media hits (includes broadcast)
  2. Leads / Customer acquisitions
  3. Blog hits
  4. Social network mentions / traction
  5. Site traffic
  6. Funding
  7. New partnerships

However, there is some major disconnect going on. As I mentioned, the last survey showed significant interest in social media programs. Yet when the agencies were asked what percentage of clients allow them to implement non-traditional PR programs, it is pretty low:

Next: Client / agency communication -->

We asked the agencies, from their understanding, what are the most important objectives that their clients set out to achieve with PR. According to this branding and lead generation are the highest on the list. This seems to be in line with what I'm hearing as important from clients as well.

In terms of client and agency communications... remember the last survey? A lot of clients expressed that they were looking for an agency switch for reasons such as not achieving ROI, unclear communications, etc. Yet in this survey, the majority of the agency participants feel as if they have solid trust with their clients.

At the same time, almost 40 percent of these same respondents do not feel that their clients understand how to grow PR to achieve their business objectives. Whose fault is that, the agency or the client? I say both.

Other interesting tidbits:

  • 80 percent of agency respondents feel their clients have unrealistic expectations
  • 60 percent of agency respondents do not feel supported by their clients
  • More than 50 percent are afraid to push back on their clients

Now, take another look at these above figures. There's a severe lack of communication going on with clients and their agencies, and agencies seem to be as frustrated as the clients are. However, more than 70 percent responded that they are satisfied with the work they are producing for their clients. How is this even feasible?

If you can't trust your client, if your client doesn't trust you, if you don't have insight into the business or access to thought leaders (several complaints entered throughout the survey), then you should be unsatisfied with the work you are producing and push to change the processes either internally or the way you communicate with your clients.

Next: Summary / takeaways -->

Once again, this is a limited data sample and it is not a scientific survey. This is merely a conversation starter. More accurately, it's the second part to a conversation we tried to start back in February.

Even though this survey was targeted at agencies and we had a different mix of participants, the net net stays pretty much the same. Social media is much bigger than the definition of traditional PR (though I think semantics debates are worthless; just do something). PR people need to become schooled in the ways of broader marketing programs, such as SEO and lead generation and lead conversion. Business training needs to be implemented earlier in agency staff training.

Before I get into the key takeaways, we want to thank a handful of agencies who clearly took this survey very seriously. Taking the size of the agencies into account, the amount of survey participants from these agencies was impressive. I will say that this in NO WAY is a negative reflection on the agencies. Nor is it any endorsement. It's a thank you to them because it's clear that they recognize something needs to be done to improve the state of PR -- and they are actively working toward making it better. That said, Nicole and I thank:

Bateman Group Porter Novelli SHIFT Communications Sterling Communications Voce Communications

Here are some of the key takeaways from this survey (some similar to Social PR Survey I):

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 * Spread the social knowledge across the whole agency; DO NOT have a digital "team" that excludes your account staff* Consider bringing in some experts with traditional marketing experience doing SEO and lead generation to complement your PR offering; or train existing staff * Agency leadership should encourage individuals to create their own brands and not stifle this brand creation; set guidelines if possible * Do not use Twitter as the focus of your social programs; make your own Twitter feed a lesser priority than that of your talents' feeds * Consider a client audit to determine how comfortable they are with the communications they are receiving from the agency; might be tough but could save business in the long run *  Even in times of economic instability, clients expect agencies to provide valuable business guidance. Do not fear push-back, just make sure you have strong business justification behind it.

Key takeaways for clients -

* Trust your agencies. If you do not want to open the door to contacts or information, don't bother paying for an agency. * When evaluating a new agency, the agency's own social media presence should be a small factor * When considering an agency's social abilities, ask for case studies and ROI metrics; do not fall victim to approaches led solely with tools * If you tell your agency you want creative programs, let them implement them. Lean on your agency for help making a business case to sell the programs to internal higher ups * 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.

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

Jennifer Leggio and Nicole Jordan will be guests on Sarah Evans' #journchat on Monday, May 11, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. PT to answer questions about the survey. Visit the #journchat site for details and follow @mediaphyter and @nicolejordan on Twitter.

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