Reading the PRCA’s annual digital report you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy in the public relations garden. 47% of agencies now offer online advertising/PPC; 54% offer SEO services; and a whopping 91% provide content creation.
Brilliant isn’t it? The PR industry is finally adapting to data and digital, and evolving a fully-rounded service offering.
The issue with this report, and with every other similar piece of research I’ve seen into the topic, is that it highlights an underlying problem within public relations. Let me explain.
Data from Actimedia says that there are approximately 4200 PR consultancies in the UK. How many do you think were represented in this report? And more to the point, who are those agencies?
I’ll tell you. The sample size for the report was 280 people. And I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of those people work in top 100 agencies or in-house at large companies. Furthermore, the UK PR industry employs a total of 62,000 people, according to the last PRCA Census. So do you think a sample size of 0.45% is statistically significant?
In a post on Stephen Waddington’s blog responding to the launch of the report, David Sawyer from Zude PR is equally as sceptical about the data as me. Based in Glasgow, David makes the point that the report is “mainly relevant to practitioners in London and less accurate for the vast majority of the public relations industry”.
Of those 4200 consultancies identified by Actimedia, around 75% are based outside of London. And therein lies the problem.
The UK PR industry assumes that the large and medium-sized consultancies, which are pretty much exclusively based in the capital, are representative of everyone else. But they’re not. Far from it, in fact.
At FutureComms in June Sarah Pinch, CIPR President, stated in no uncertain terms that the PR industry “has already got our shit together”. This is symptomatic of the issue. From the perspective of the Weber Shandwicks, the Hill & Knowltons, the Edelmans and the Ketchums, maybe the statistics in the PRCA report ring true. And maybe Sarah Pinch’s view is absolutely valid.
But what about the rest? It’s the pareto principle in action.
For every Threepipe, with SEO and digital baked into the very core of the agency, there are 50 or 100 small consultancies that don’t ‘do’ digital. Or if they do, they do it poorly due to limited knowledge and expertise.
Is digital the exception?
The fact is that they simply cannot afford to have a specialist digital guy on the payroll. I know this because I’ve worked with some of them over the last nine months. I still teach PR consultants the very basics of how Google works, and many have no inkling about SEO. Enabling them to progress with training or strategic consultancy is hugely rewarding work.
Sawyer says that this embracing of digital – SEO, content marketing, digital strategy – is the exception rather than the norm; that the 54% providing SEO statistic is “so far wide of the mark it’s almost comical” for those outside the M25. And he’s absolutely correct. I know this from experience.
To be clear, this isn’t the fault of the PRCA, by the way. In my agency days I was a member of the PRCA Digital Group and I fully support the work the guys do. The PRCA can only report on the data available to it after all, and you can’t expect poor Danny Whatmough to trawl around 4000 consultancies and 62,000 people encouraging them to fill in a survey!
But the myopic nature of reports such as this and the statistics and opinions that float around from time to time saying how great things are for the future of PR is damaging. They’re not reflective of the silent majority. They conceal. They paper over the cracks. They’re the gloss on the parched lips of an ageing and dated industry.
The big boys may be developing, but the vast majority are most definitely not. I guess it depends how you measure ‘progress’.
So if you’re reading this and you’re scared that you’re being left behind by the ‘54% of agencies that now offer SEO as a core competence’, please be assured that you’re not alone. If you don’t know where to start when it comes to adapting to and evolving with the digital world, you’re one of the many, not one of the few.
Yes, you do need to up your game and get some consultancy help quickly to avoid going out of business within a few short years. But to use SEO parlance, you’re simply part of the long tail, and there’s huge value to be found in the long tail.