American man Edward L. Bernays was the grandfather of public relations and conducted an interview in honour of his 100th birthday in 1992. In the interview he said, “Any dope, any nitwit, and any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner”. That could be the case, but truthfully, building a brand has only become more difficult over time. The reason for this is because the complexity of self-distribution means that it is no longer a matter of bringing one or two journalists to get a story. Instead, we now have to think about creating content consistently that also happens to be compelling, but not only across earned media, newspapers, TV, or other mediums with an editor but across our own media channels.
Over 55% of all content appearing in mainstream news press is produced by PR agencies and consultants. Due to the prevalence of information on people’s mobile devices, we now have, in this industry, an influence that can reach far and wide. Pubic relations has then become something that can no longer be left to a dope, a nitwit, nor an idiot. To remind ourselves of the definition of public relations, it is the effort deliberately planned and supported to establish and maintain a mutual understanding between an organization and its public, as well as the internal team such as your allies, partners, and customer groups. The question is, how can a company that is founded by a managing director who may be good at a particular skill such as manufacturing, engineering, or food then have the skillset to manage the public relations as well? The answer tends to be that they do not have those skills, which is why people turn to those individuals and agencies that do. The focus of today will be how you can outsource your PR or create a blended solution, as not everybody has the ability, nor the desire, to outsource their PR. The reasons why you or your company may not have that ability could be because the company is not ready, or you have not found the most appropriate fit. You could even feel as if no one understands your business as well as you do.
Ever since the laws of comparative advantage, we have been able to see that different countries and companies have different advantages and skillsets. From the 1980s, people like Kodak shifted their information technology to IBM (International Business Machines). The ability to outsource on a corporate scale has left companies increasingly focusing on their core competence, which is usually not communications. Rather, it tends to be innovation of some kind, which is why it exists (unless, of course, it’s an agency). If we look at how you can manage to outsource the PR, then the real point is to look at which parts you want to outsource, as some parts you possibly cannot.
As a quick note, outsourcing your marketing to any agency, be it advertising, directing marketing, or PR is not an abdication of responsibility. Too often we hear clients or people complaining about the quality of the agency or its work, but the agency exists, is profitable, and surviving because they know what they are doing. What is often said in the industry is that “you’re as good as the brief you’re given”. If you are going to work with an agency, then it’s important to think about the complexity of the work that you want to do, and then create a process that enables management of the agency. Public and media relations are often undervalued while the complexity of the work is oversimplified by the clients. They could think, “My secretary does that” or “I have a PA or intern to do that”. They treat the agency or consultant with a hint of contempt, and may even slightly resent paying the money because they think it’s easy. Similarly, you would not ask the agency what to make but would give them detailed instructions, drawings, electronic data interchange (EDI) about, for example, computer-aided design (CAD) drawings. Be it the PR agency, the consultant, the advertising or direct marketing company will know their domain better, but they will not know your own business better than you do.
A T-shaped consultant is made of a horizontal and vertical domain and can be helpful when applied to this scenario. The horizontal bar stands for professional expertise, such as law, accounting, or architecture, while the vertical domain is their sector expertise, which could be agencies that are particularly good in business such as mine in East West PR. It is just as crucial to ask an agency or consultant about their professional qualifications as it is about their domain expertise to ensure they are the right for your company or industry. They could have third party relationships, such as the media, or analysts, governments, or party suppliers that you can then talk to. While the agency can do it better than you can, it will also save you time because they know what to do and allow you to spend your budget on the things that actually make you money.
The first phase in manufacturing was outsourcing and the second phase was offshoring, which means conducting work with people that you can’t see who could be based anywhere in the world. A book by Power, Bonifazi, and Desouza identified ten traps of outsourcing which applies just as much to public relations as they do to manufacturing: lack of management commitment, minimal knowledge of outsourcing methodologies, a lack of outsourcing communications plan, a failure to recognize the business risks, a failure to ask and tap into the external knowledge of the third party, not allocating resources internally to manage that outsourcing partner, rushing to make a procurement decision, and not appreciating cultural differences, and with our teams around the world, for example, in Asia, language complications.
According to a study done back in 2000 by Impulse Research, 45 to 50% of all PR is outsourced, which means that half of the hard work is being done by agencies. This could translate to the potential for miscommunication and lack of empowerment of the agency by the client. So what if you want to do it by yourself? Many companies are smaller and believe they can do it themselves. If that is the case, then a blended solution could be most ideal. For example, there may be some aspects you know you can do yourself, such as the distillation of an idea or the building of a brand or communication, but perhaps, not the actual production of that; therefore, the production can be outsourced. For example, with the Speak PR program, I have filmed ten videos, and five episodes of each video need to be embedded with one into the other, and there is also the need for titling and music. I could take hours to figure out GarageBand or iMovie or I could outsource. Using UpWork, I have found a young man named Ivo in Romania who adds value to my organization by post producing for fifty dollars. Other websites are available to locate freelancers such as fiverr.com, indeed.com, peopleperhour.com, or simplyhired.com. There are also dedicated websites for the Philippines, for Vietnam, for English-speaking people, which tend to be available in the global sites like UpWork and Fiverr. Any dedicated website could help you find specific languages for your needs. But when you find these partners, how do you manage that? What we need to think about is knowledge management or file sharing. With clients, we use a combination – with our team or freelance partners, we lean towards Zoho, while with other clients we use Basecamp, Asana, or Slack. For filesharing, we may use Dropbox or Sharepoint. An agency or freelancer doing work for you becomes an extension of your organization making knowledge management an essential part of engagement with that third party. For example, you could create the content idea and then give it to somebody else to produce and manufacture for you, then return to you for the distribution, which is a reflection of what Apple does. The box says “designed in California”, but it’s actually made in Shenzhen by a contract manufacturing company. Public relations can have the same production model, and you could then use tools such as media.info.uk, Press Rush, Cision, Hootsuite, Buffer, Buzzsprout, Journal Link. In our technology applications directory at EastWestPR.com, we have listed over one-hundred applications that you as an entrepreneur or small business owner can use to promote your own content, quite often for free or almost always as a free trial.
There is not a right or wrong reason or methodology to outsource sometimes or keep the information in-house at other times – it will mostly depend on the nature of the work, the situation you are in, and the phase your business is at. If you are the managing director with more time than money, then doing it as a blended solution where you create, outsource, bring back and distribute works well. As the company becomes larger and you have other things to think about, then outsourcing more of the production and distribution makes the most sense. What you could never outsource, however, is the inspiration and direction to the strategy, because that is the differentiator between your company and somebody else’s. A proper, written brief is important to give to an agency, and if that is not available, a meeting with the agency or consultant where the information is written down on their part and comes back to you to ensure there is an equal understanding. In my experience, it is the lack of inspiration and direction allied to the lack of alignment that causes decay in the relationship between client and agency. This miscommunication often leads people to think that agencies are bad in the same way that they could say a contract manufacturer, or any outsourced service, is bad. You cannot rely on them to be as motivated or as loyal as an internal member of staff because they do not have the same degree of knowledge since they are not picking up received information from within the organization. A direct channel of communication that is structured and consistent is needed that will enable them to do their job.
Returning to Edward L. Bernays, he said that his number one rule in PR was that it is a two-way street. The PR person interprets the customer’s needs for the general public and then decodes what the public needs which is communicated back to the client, the executive director, and ideally, the founder. If you are doing all the PR in-house yourself, then you are missing on the opportunity to have counsel. If you outsource everything, try and maintain access to somebody who can provide some insight as to what your company is saying in the outside world, and what the outside world is saying about you.
Finally, going back to Edward L. Bernays, he said that his number one rule in public relations was that it’s a two-way street. So on the one hand, the PR person interprets the customer’s needs and desires for the general public, but on the other hand, that person decodes what the public wants, and what the public needs, and he communicates that back to the client or to the executive directors, and ideally to the founder. So if you do all of the PR in-house yourself, you’re actually missing a bit of an opportunity which is to have counsel. If you outsource everything, try and maintain, somehow, access to somebody who can give you some guidance and some insight into what it is your company is saying in the outside world, and what the outside world is saying about you.