Public relations experts don’t skip an opportunity to boast — except when it requires boasting about themselves.
Although they’d much prefer talking up the triumphs of clients, PR professionals have had some hushed success of their own. Their industry’s revenues climbed as the pandemic invited retooled messaging. Their market is on track to grow to nearly $150 billion by 2026, according to market data firm ReportLinker.
Even if the largest firms accounted for a lot of that top-line growth, those in the expanding industry tend to agree: The sector has room for all shapes and sizes.
Across a wide range of sectors, the amount of independent contractors working as a freelancer by choice grew in the years leading up to the pandemic, according to research from MBO Partners. The PR industry is no exception.
New Jersey’s sector is home to many one-person shows. Even if they’re up against some major competition from national agencies, they feel they have some advantages. For their part, the industry’s large firms cite a number of perks in the scale they’ve achieved.
Here’s how they both view their advantages in the market. …
Nina Dietrich, like a lot of the PR professionals doing it all (mostly) themselves, has worked for the big agencies. In the long run, it wasn’t for her.
And, from what she hears from her clients, it wasn’t for some of them, either.
What they articulate that they appreciate about a smaller operation, or even a sole proprietor, is that they know what (and who) they’re getting.
“The day-to-day aspects can be relegated to more junior staff, whereas, the smaller agencies will have senior talent working from day-in to day-out on PR, marketing and branding issues,” Dietrich said. “I think clients appreciate the fact that there’s someone with significant experience handling all the work.”
She’s enough of a believer in that to reject offers to buy her book of business. She’s purposefully chosen to stay the size her operation is, she said, in order to maintain full control over her work. There’s a segment of potential clientele that demands it.
“A local shop with a smaller budget is going to want to work with a smaller agency close to home,” she said. “National or international corporations might prefer the resources of a larger agency, although I’ve worked with corporations that prefer that smaller agency model, too.”
Amy Delman, who also runs a tight-knit PR service bearing her name, similarly suspects companies could end up as a “small fish in a big pond” when not partnered with smaller practitioners.
That said, she’s a proponent of growing her service alongside the clients she works with. Part of that is having all the same equipment and technology that a larger firm could offer.
In today’s digital-centric market, Delman said, self-employed PR professionals can use the newly embraced video conferencing tools to be everywhere at once for clients.
And Glori Gayster, principal at the smaller-end GDG Consulting Inc., added that it’s important that it’s their face that the client is seeing on those Zoom calls.
“My clients can easily talk directly to me; we don’t have any red tape,” Gayster said. “And that’s true for the reporter actually doing the writing, too. The person pitching the story has spoken directly to the client. They don’t have to be transferred to another person.”
Small businesses in particular appreciate that, she said.
“They also appreciate that I’m very upfront with my client relationships, and I’m wary of overpromising,” she said. “I’m not going to promise someone that they’ll get into the New York Times.”
The big fish
Some companies, however, aspire to make a name for themselves in that exact way.
Dan Ivers of the national PR firm Antenna Group said a firm of its size has fostered yearslong relationships with reporters at the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and other national media outlets in areas such as real estate.
“We also have the resources to avoid what they call, ‘spray and pray,’ which is where you send a pitch out to journalists regardless of whether it fits into that outlet’s coverage area,” he said.
Ivers has a great deal of respect for solo practitioners. They’re smart and do a lot with the resources they have, he said.
But the resources of a full-service PR agency are hard to match, he adds.
“For companies that want a broad, multiprong strategy that includes social media, high-level media placements and panel appearances at events, they’ll find an agency’s resources necessary to get their message across,” he said.
Brendan Middleton is senior vice president at MikeWorldWide, formerly known as MWW, one of the region’s largest full-service PR agencies. One of the resources it has on offer to clients is an in-house insights group that runs surveys and focus groups.
“That allows us, before we execute a (PR or marketing campaign), to know what the best path forward is,” he said. “We can also assess the results, and know as the program is rolling out how effective the message is in the market. If required, we can use that to tweak it.”
Middleton spoke of his firm’s work with a health care client that wanted to introduce a new program in key markets. Although he couldn’t name the client, he said the use of focus grouping prior to launching the campaign allowed it to test several concepts and find one that resonated the most.
At the same time, a large agency can help build out a client’s website, search engine hits and social media following.
“And it’s that integration between the traditional media services and the digital component that really set us apart from the smaller boutique firms,” he said.
Although it does work for regional brands and small businesses, sometimes on a pro-bono basis, MWW’s website associates them with multinational brands such as Rite Aid and Subaru.
Scott Marioni, president of R&J Strategic Communications, said that, besides larger brands, agencies tend to attract clients that call for industry knowhow, such as health care, real estate and higher education.
“I think in those areas, I would think most clients are working with agencies with our size or close to it,” he said. “Those industries often require experienced specialists and multiple people working on an account, dedicating more resources to PR and marketing than they could efficiently do with in-house (personnel).”
The pitch is simple: They’ve recruited the requisite talent.
“They’re familiar with all of the issues affecting those clients, regionally and nationally, and monitor them on a daily basis,” Marioni said. “Agencies bringing that expertise to clients allows them to be as effective (with messaging) as possible.”
Somewhere in the middle
April Mason, Montclair-based Violet PR‘s president and founder, started off working by herself about a decade ago. Now, she has 10 full-time people on staff — young talent that she credits for introducing a new social media expertise into what she does.
She considers herself a “boutique” firm in the PR space, shy of the employee growth that would warrant referring to the business as a full-blown agency. But it’s still growing. The benefits of that growth, as well as those of a sole proprietor arrangement, are both apparent to her.
Besides the pros and cons that a business might weigh in choosing to work with a smaller or larger firm, she’ll add that there are advantages and disadvantages for the PR pros themselves.
“I love doing media relations,” she said. “When I was starting off, I did it all. I loved doing the writing and talking to reporters. Now, I spend more time managing the business and dealing with high-level strategy.
“What I don’t miss is having to do everything by myself. And never taking a vacation.”