Traditionally, PR Generalists were defined as having in depth experience in several industry sectors, as compared to specialty agencies that focused primarily on a single industry. For example, some specialty agencies would solely focus on the tech industry or healthcare industry or on the consumer packaged goods industry. Traditionally clients had greater confidence in specialists and the “sell” for generalists to convince companies that their industry experience matched that of specialists, was often an uphill battle.
As CEO of a generalist agency, I was once asked by a shoe company who was searching for an agency, as to how many shoe company clients we had worked with. That was their stipulation for hiring an agency. If agencies had gone that granular as to categories of specialties, it would have just attracted a handful of prospective clients, and sporadically at best, and therefore would not have been sustainable for any agency.
So the traditional generalist agencies categorized their specialties according to overall experience in larger groupings such as business-to-business, which dealt with all sorts of professional services and associations, or consumer electronics, which covered the gamut of technology as it related to consumer use, or sustainability, which included environmental concerns, or non-profits which were not industry specific. Then there was the travel and tourism specialty that covered a slew of categories, from hotels to travel sites to international resorts and more.
However, given the dramatic changes in today’s communications landscape, the traditional agency model, whether generalist or specialist might very well be dying or even dead at this point. Per an article by Arun Sudhaman, partner and editor-in-chief at the Holmes Report, the new PR agency model is tilting in favor of structures that group people around distinct “specialisms” that are totally unrelated to industry experience. A new breed of client servicing is sprouting that includes specialties in idea creation, insight, content creation and engagement. Golin was the first major agency to commit to such a model, with such specialisms as “connectors” those that engage consumer and business audiences across several media categories (earned, shared, owned and paid); “catalysts” those that grow client relationships, “creators” those that generate ideas, and “explorers” those that deliver insight and measurement. Others are following suit with major restructuring of similarly grand ambition.
But really nothing has changed. Only the titles have changed, for all agency account handlers have had those same responsibilities in the traditional model. They have been responsible for coming up with creative concepts, have had to offer fresh insights, have had to deliver content, manage all sorts of media relationships (earned, shared, owned and paid) and certainly had to engage a client’s diverse audiences. This new structure seems to be a new variety of micro-specialization in skills, talent and expertise, rather than industry-specific.
I agree with Arun Sudhaman’s comment that what we now have is a resurgence of the PR agency generalists, but with a twist. The perception that generalists may have had a disadvantage vis a vis specialist agencies, will now be a thing of the past. If this new structure of “skill specialisms” as opposed to industry specialists, will be adopted and become widespread, generalist agencies will have been re-defined and the “score” will have been evened out. The key, however, will be in the “sell” of those specialisms to prospective clients and in understanding how to implement them effectively, as well as build a client’s confidence in these, as opposed to industry specialists’ expertise.
The pendulum appears to be swinging back toward an emphasis on skills and capabilities as a strategist and counselor, rather than that of a focus on industry experience — which was the standard bearer of all agencies in the first place.
The PR agency generalist has demonstrated an enduring capacity for reinvention.
So, based on a social media backlash and nasty rants in the media, Starbucks had to retreat from its “Race Together” campaign last week, which was bashed by loud nay-sayers as a negative, when it was meant to be a positive – a way of simply having a conversation and bringing attitude and opinions about race out in the open. After all that is what “café life” is about traditionally, having conversations, no?
But Starbucks capitulated and now it is “off the books.” Really too bad… One of the titans in Corporate America, was leading the charge to encourage dialogue and got stymied. Maybe the program needed more substance such as training the baristas as to what they could expect and offer some education within context, for the conversations to happen. But the idea was excellent.
Likewise, McDonalds, as noted in the New York Times Opinion sector today, has gotten bad raps for years; it created a Twitter hashtag, #McDStories, that turned into a bashing event; their sale to Chipotle went bad for them; their chicken wings came and went. and so on. And all that despite their attempts at righting wrongs, like phasing out chickens raised on antibiotics meant to treat humans and unilaterally raising salaries of minimum-wage workers and granting a small amount of paid vacation to company employees as well as financial assistance for education to all workers in its system.
Yet what is significant is that both companies are nudging Corporate America to sit up and take notice about raising the bar of social responsibility on diverse fronts. This time it is recognition that education matters.
Starbucks announced that it will cover four years of tuition reimbursement for workers to earn an online undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, instead of just two years. The expanded Starbucks College Achievement Plan will be offered to more than 140,000 full-time and part-time partners (employees) and will also provide a remarkable additional benefit.
Last week, McDonald’s Corp. also announced it was expanding a college tuition assistance program to workers at all its U.S. stores and is open to employees at the chain’s more than 14,300 U.S. stores, including those owned by franchisees.
The programs come with limitations, of course. But they are a start and if other corporations give heed and create, and fund, innovative programs to educate the next generations of America, we, as a country, will be stronger. Corporations can take over where governments lack the funds (or votes) to create change.
According to Lisa Schumacher, director of education strategies at McDonald’s, “The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree, particularly disadvantaged young people. We’re stronger as a nation when everyone is afforded a pathway to success.”
In the words of Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, “Everyone deserves a chance at the American dream.”
Our agency opened its doors on March 25th 1985. It’s been exactly three decades..
So I say, “Hello 30th.” It’s our day…
I think of that day back in ’85 with bewilderment as to how it was possible to open up a new business with two credit cards, one Mac, no email, no cell phones and one client with billing not sufficient in revenue to sustain the agency for one month. Back then we opened as Pollack and Setzer, Setzer being Paul Setzer, who stayed for a year and a half, at which time we became The Pollack PR Marketing Group.
Here are some fun factoids that took placed during our first 30 years…
OK, the above is two years older than we are, but I could not resist, ‘cause the change occurred within our time span…
We have come a long way in our thirty years. Take a look…
What sustained us was optimism and confidence that our concept of never wavering from senior-level involvement on a day-to-day basis with each client, would prove to be the “great differentiator.” But I am sure that along the thirty years, there were a lot more differentiating concepts that have led to the reputation we enjoy today and the respect we have garnered from our colleagues and that has contributed to our longevity in the business.
Probably most of all – determination, combined with a high level of curiosity and a resolute stance to stay on the current edge of whatever was lurking around the corner that would impact change.
We are privileged to have been a witness over our 30 years to some of the most accelerated changes in our industry – ones that have impacted the PR consciousness and subsequently changed the ‘way it was’ forward.
And it will continue to change… maybe in a less accelerated way, but still, it will be about crafting the customer experience for people “not necessarily like you, (the brand) ” – people who are generational, culturally and geographically different, in order to stand out in a “sea of sameness,” in order to foster long-term loyalty and brand preference.
It will be about getting into a customer’s head and creating programs that successfully use content to define a company, content that resonates with the customer and finding ways to give a company or brand, meaning that connects him/her with the brand in some emotional way. It will be about having your customer “liking” the experience of using your brand or service.
If you wish to add to our factoids, those not on our list, the ones that took place since 1985, please do so via: Twitter @PollackPRMktg with a #30PPMGPR hashtag, comment on the blog, or email to email@example.com.
The doomsayers are out in force speaking about, or writing, “Marketing is Dead” or even “PR is Dead.” I understand. These make for good headlines. But maybe the headlines would be more real if they read, “Marketing, As We Know It Today, Is Dead.” The functions are never “dead” as long as there are companies that need to connect with their customers.
Marketing and PR are actually alive and well, but the traditional functions collided with loyalty and experiential communications programs, both of which now resonate louder among consumers today than marketing messages, which were thought up and written by the C-Suite. Both disciplines morphed into new strategic directions with changed focuses—from selling or amplifying messages that the company wants a consumer to hear, to valuing a customer’s experience of a brand or service, leading to loyalty.
The successes of Chipotle, J. Crew, Keurig and, of course, Apple, cannot be overstated. All of them have come up with programs that inspire loyalty, which requires communicating brand values that people want to be affiliated with, rather than delivering company-directed marketing messages.
Chipotle has come up with their “Cultivating Thoughts,” in which writers write short texts that appear on the company’s cups and a dedicated microsite. J. Crew has come up with a company’s blog that is a master class in cozy chic, effortlessly affluent and gently outdoorsy. Keurig’s new college program is an example of new strategies earmarked to reach future spenders. And Apple, well we know of their loyal fans by their rocketing earnings reports.
Building loyalty is much harder work. It is about crafting the customer experience for people “not necessarily like you” – people who are generational, culturally and geographically different, in order to stand out in a “sea of sameness,” that foster long-term loyalty and brand preference.
It is about getting into your customer’s head and creating programs that successfully use content to define your company, content that resonates with your customer and finding ways to give a company or brand, meaning that connects him/her with the brand in some emotional way. It is about having your customer “liking” the experience of using your brand or service. It can also be about your customer keying into or “liking” what your company stands for… It is about your company “liking” the customer.
Social media has given consumers a megaphone just as powerful as that of traditional marketers. It is time to listen and be heard…
Just as McDonald’s started to endear itself with health conscious consumers by making promises of not using chickens injected with antibiotics and taking a stance against preservatives in its ingredients, the company steps into a PR disaster – this one totally unrelated to food.
This week at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, McDonald’s reached out to an Indie Band, a well-respected independent label and one that has a cult following, to invite them to perform in McDonald’s showcase. But they wanted the band to perform for free.
Really? Food you have to pay for, but talent is for free?
According to McDonald’s the band’s “fee” will come in the form of “having McDonald’s global digital team on site to meet with the bands, help with cross promotion, be featured on screens throughout the event, as well as “maybe” be mentioned on McDonald’s social media accounts like Facebook — for “there isn’t a budget for an artist fee.”
And this from a $97 billion company… Arrogance. Maybe all those perks will someday pay off, but they certainly won’t put food on the table today. A fee is a fee.
The problem is that there are enough bands that will cow-tow to large corporations and accept the exchange-for-service type of payment. Most covet exposure so badly, that they will forgo payments. It is about hope and the smell of success that leads them in that direction. This is really too bad, for it only takes a band or two to accept this and for other corporations to follow suit and ask for freebies…
Well-deserved negative sentiment exploded from all corners of social-media once Brian Harding (part of the duo) took to Facebook, with consumers calling for people to stop buying the chain’s food and calling the company “greedy.” This PR disaster could not come at a worst time for McDonald’s for it comes on the heels of the company’s ‘Turnaround Summit,’ ostensibly formed in face of slumping sales.
Actually, to date, the company had started to make strides in the right direction to meet consumers’ demands given consumers’ changed preferences for healthier food. And now this…
How is that that McDonald’s team could not have foreseen the disaster that this could cause? Did they overlook the power of “going viral?” There are crisis communication plans created specifically for a situation like this, with varying scenarios and best steps to take should this or that happen… I would recommend to just take the plan off the shelf, dust it off a bit and then flip through the pages and polish up on the do’s and dont’s, for the cost of damaged public opinion can be much higher than a band’s normal artist fee.
The irony of it is that McDonald’s is having a tough time attracting millennials, which is exactly the demographic that attends SXSW and listens to bands like Ex Cops.