In public relations, 9 to 5 is no way to make a living

PR agencies must adapt to digital technology by embracing a work environment that isn’t bound to a physical office space.

As companies grow more nimble by embracing digital technology, the PR business needs to adapt to the rapidly changing times. How we structure our operations and service our accounts directly reflects our understanding of the evolving communications and media landscape.

Since the dawn of the PR industry, agency staffers worked in the office. This office space brought everyone together in a single place, confined by walls and designed to encourage collaboration, creativity, and productivity.

There was a time and place when offices were essential. Making a work call meant you needed to be seated at your desk. Your computer, most likely a desktop, needed to be situated on the surface of your office desk and couldn’t be moved. Your office files and other vital documents were only accessible at the office.

Additionally, clients often insisted agencies stake a physical presence in locations where the client had a corporate footprint. This resulted in limited work produced outside a company’s offices.

With advancements in communication, project management, and collaboration tools, clients are questioning the conventional office. They are beginning to realize it is more efficient to assemble senior account teams according to talent, creativity, and relevance to an assignment, without restricting them to geographic locations and resources available in the confines of a central office.

With the traditional PR agency model, account teams are assembled according to staff availability and relevant industry expertise—two variables rarely aligned.

Traditional PR agencies that use office hours as a barometer of employee value and commitment shouldn’t be surprised with the correlation between this old-school tactic and high attrition rates among clients—and employees. Although it might demonstrate commitment to the agency for an employee to be the first one in and the last one out, it doesn’t demonstrate value to clients.

Today, client stories are pitched, secured, and cultivated digitally, which makes the geographic location of journalists and PR practitioners irrelevant. The focus for clients has shifted from the location of an office for their PR partners, to where their account reps relationships exist.

Today, most, if not all PR professionals are wired and working 24×7; traditional PR agencies continue to have set “office hours” for their employees. They are selling digital programs but are not operating digital businesses.

I’m not suggesting face-to-face meetings will be replaced by technology. Offices are still relevant in a digital world, but can be acquired and used more efficiently and not at an expense incurred by our clients (a chunk of client fees go toward office space and overhead). Many seasoned PR professionals are already adapting to these changes by sharing physical resources and office space.

In 2012, we saw a number of PR agencies rebrand themselves as social media or generic communications agencies, eliminating any references to traditional PR. In 2013 and beyond, more agencies will move away from labeling themselves as “agencies,” for all the limitations conveyed by that name.

Clients will continue to challenge the traditional agency model; to do so it is essential for clients, buyers, and prospective buyers of PR services to understand what they are investing in. Doing so will help them to identify and retain the best PR resources that meet their organization’s business and marketing objectives and reduce fees.

David Bray is founder of dbray Media and member of Influence Consulting Group Partner Network and the Global PR Network.

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