This week, PR agency giant Fleishman-Hillard will become FleishmanHillard
. It’s losing a hyphen, but gaining a lot of other stuff, such as a new logo, a new slogan (“The power of true”), and, most important, a new PR philosophy.
The agency is becoming “channel agnostic,” says Dave Senay, Fleishman-Hillard’s president and chief executive. That doesn’t mean it’s becoming an advertising agency, though it does mean paid media will be on par with earned media (the traditional bread and butter of PR agencies), owned media, and social media.
A firm with Fleishman-Hillard’s nearly 70-year history and immense size making a change this big would seem to indicate something larger is at play within PR as an industry. But is adding social media marketing and advertising to the PR formula a good idea? Or are agencies spreading themselves too thin?
asked agency experts to weigh in.
The changing landscape
Lots of agencies are already doing what Fleishman-Hillard is doing, says Emerald Partners President Fraser Seitel.
“Public relations today encompasses all matter of communications—publicity, advertising, social media, reputation management, whatever,” he says. “A good PR shop will endeavor to solve communications challenges with whatever tool is required.”
Leslie Campisi, managing director of Hotwire PR U.S.
, says her firm has been “working on integrated campaigns that touch paid, earned, and owned media” for some time.
As Fleishman-Hillard is doing now, Ronn Torossian’s firm 5WPR
last year launched a new corporate tagline: “Real. Resourceful. Results.”
“We don’t want to be masters of all things—and don’t offer traditional advertising, but then again we aren’t the behemoth called Fleishman-Hillard,” he says. “These days, who knows what is traditional, and what’s not? PR agencies, and marketing companies in general, need to simply tell stories and manage communications through a variety of mechanisms.”
You should, or you must?
Susan Payton, president of Egg Marketing and Communications
, says agencies will have to blur the lines between marketing, PR, ads, and the like. It’s too hard to tell them apart now.
However, she’s torn about whether agencies should try to cover all those bases at once.
“On the one hand, clients want it all in one place,” she says. “On the other, I've learned from personal experience that trying to do everything often fails.”
That may not be true for a big firm such as Fleishman-Hillard, but it certainly could be the case for smaller firms. “I think smaller agencies will benefit by focusing on what they're best at,” she says.
Seitel contends that agencies should be able to pull it off with the right resources.
“The real challenge is providing services that are ‘better’ and ‘differentiable,’” he says. “Anybody can give advice, but not everyone can give good
Campisi puts it this way: “It's not about trying to do too much, it's about knowing what you do well and doing it. The success lies in the execution.”
According to Leyl Master Black, senior managing director at Spark PR, it isn’t even a matter of “should.” It’s a matter of “must.”
“The landscape has become so fractured that PR programs can no longer be limited to just one or two channels,” Black says. “You have to think broadly about which channels will move the needle and be ready to move on any of them.”
Not every PR firm is equipped to be everything its clients need in one shop, says Sandra Fathi, president and founder of agency Affect
“Many PR firms don't have the expertise in-house, and they must build or buy the practices that can service those needs,” she says. “A large agency like Fleishman-Hillard certainly has the financial power to achieve that, but the integration is harder in a large organization.”
She says agencies are looking to a few options—partnerships, white-label solutions, and building internal resources—to make the transition easier.
Elizabeth Sosnow, managing director at Bliss Integrated PR
, says agencies should focus on the promise of “channel agnostic” PR, which entails focusing on business problems and going from there.
“If I don’t have someone in-house who does SEO, then I’d better have a trusted partner that I use consistently outside,” she says.
Big firms such as Fleishman-Hillard should be able to build those resources internally, but smaller firms have to be more strategic about what to do internally and what to work with partners to accomplish.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.