Polls results: PR agencies are not properly integrated

International PR programs suffer since the PR agencies implementing them are not properly integrated, according to this week’s poll. Anyone who has tried to conduct a multi-market campaign will know how important it is for the teams in each country to work in concert, and how much effort it takes to coordinate timing, messaging, targets and tactics. There are large global firms which claim to be able to do this via a network of offices under the same banner, but the reality is often a little less consistent. Many of these firms have put together their network through acquisition, and depending on the shape of the deal, the level of true methodology integration can vary. So while the name on the door may be the same, the approach and standards in each market might not be. Some offices are strong while others are not.

Of course, the alternative approach is to find ‘best of breed’ boutiques in each country. This leads to multiple agency relationships but supposedly the strongest in each single geography. The management burden this places on in-house teams (or the outsourced lead agency) is huge, since many domestic boutiques are unfamiliar with global programs, and each has its own approach, priorities and recommendations. If you get it right, and can afford the management time and the agency retainers, this is theoretically strong. The reality is that most firms can’t afford the 6-12 months it takes to unify a PR engine consisting of a unique mix of separate agencies.

This knocks on to the second biggest cause highlighted, that there is insufficient time and budget allocated to international PR. For instance, despite what some marketing teams like to think, Europe isn’t one unified and homogeneous market. Within that, the Nordics aren’t one market. Same in Asia (though I sense this is more recognized). You need separate teams to implement the in-country campaigns since the media operate differently in each, and outreach needs to be in the local language using market-appropriate PR tactics. This increases the team’s time – and that increases the cost.

Many companies allocate their PR spend by region, but within those regions, the specific countries need to be prioritized and given adequate budget to allow an in-country team to weave their magic. Sometimes these budgets get spread so thinly, the amount of monthly activity would be so small that the campaign would not impact the business. In these instances, I suggest a rethink to invest in more consistent programs elsewhere, to wrap budgets into project work, or take a very narrow and focused program.

The coordination also requires effort, time and budget. This is a really specialized task since you need to understand media culture in each target market, speak several languages fluently, travel extensively and be gifted with military organizational skills. These people are few and far between, and so have commensurate day rates. I think I’ve met maybe ten in the last ten years.

Some feel the technologies for international PR are not there yet. I agree there is room for improvement across the board from extranet technologies to desktop videoconferencing, let alone international coverage evaluation tools, but it’s the model which is the biggest challenge in my book.

Todd Defren has recently beefed up his international capabilities by recruiting a specialist to coordinate programs, which will be implemented by hand-picked local independent agencies. This model will address some of the integration and coordination issues but not the budgetary, technical or cultural ones. A few agencies such as Text 100, Hoffman and my own firm, have taken the next step and have organically-built their own network of international offices. This removes more of the integration issues but only to the extent of the firm’s network, so the challenge becomes ensuring there are sufficient flags on the map, and that each local entity meets the standards and is commercially viable – a formidable task requiring another set of international specialists. I’ve met even fewer of these guys, but that’s a central part of what these firms look to offer.

Each model has its pros and cons for the agency and the clients. You want the reach, control and consistency, together with local implementation while keeping costs minimized. Several of those factors pull against each other.

One person did claim that international PR isn’t broken. Sadly they didn’t share their secret, so I’m afraid we’ll just have to keep working at it…