The rise of independent PR: Part one - The set-up

Founder and CEO of Radix Collective Nicole Jordan thinks that public relations is undergoing disruptive shifts largely driven by the booming freelance, or independent, movement. In a three-part series, she examines how this movement is impacting PR as we know it and why she believes the independent PR market segment will emerge to become an industry lynchpin in the next ten years.

Love it or hate it, PR is an important business function. Its influence is broad and deep reaching and comes in many shapes, be it in-house representation, consultant or external agency. For a majority of my 20 years in the industry the game has been dominated by in-house (corporate communications) and traditional agencies. But things have tilted in the past seven to eight years, pointing to impending disruption.

Industry stats report “global PR agencies” bring in $13.5-14 billion in annual revenue but that number represents a concentrated group of “large” agencies and not all mid-sized, boutiques, nor independents. The latter of which is about to see a serious cash flow infusion and talent entering the market. PR is big business.

At the same time the freelance economy (a.k.a. “gig economy”) has boomed and the forecasted growth stats are astounding in volume. The benefits of a freelance workforce are many from a business owner point of view. It leads one to ask, how many full-time employees will the average company, especially small business, have in 5 years?

According to Fast Company citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“As of May 2015, 15.5 million people in the U.S. were self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—an increase of roughly 1 million since May 2014. That number is expected to keep growing at a steady clip. By 2020, a separate study estimates that more than 40% of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be independent workers—freelancers, contractors, and temporary employees.”

This rising interest from businesses to tap the freelance market is also impacting how the traditional workplace is structured. Gone are the days where the entire company is loaded with full-time staff. Now remote teams, integrated consultants, and leaner fluid staffs are becoming more the norm than exception. This emerging employment trend is called the “blended workforce”.

According to this study, “60 percent of companies plan to hire more freelancers than full-time employees. 45 percent expect to increase their hiring of freelancers by 30% or more and nearly a third expect to continue to hire relatively more freelance workers by 2020.”

PR is an industry that will greatly benefit from this opportunity.

Established businesses are increasingly turning to the freelance market segment to find qualified and specialized talent across a range of disciplines for important strategic PR/Comms roles – and as an alternative to the traditional agencies they may have worked with in the past.

Start-ups are also turning more often to independent PR options for an effective solution that can work within their leaner budgets. An added benefit of hiring independent PR professionals is paying for focused time from a senior practitioner that executes.

In parallel seasoned PR professionals are waking up, en masse, to a desired career and life change from day-to-day agency and corporate life. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a person in the PR industry is 35-39. This is an important factor to take note of and one we’ll examine in part two.

I’ve kept a close eye on the independent PR market for the last 12 years, including as a freelancer myself and, most recently, spending five years working exclusively with independents. What I’ve heard and experienced confirms the impending wave of professionals leaving one market and entering another that will forever alter the PR workforce in a range of ways.

In part, it will create a new source of competition for capturing massive dollars previously reserved for traditional agencies. Who, by the way, will come to heavily rely on freelancers to keep their businesses afloat and train young staff. But, we’ll get to that.

Independents will prove to be the lynchpin for every facet of the PR industry within 10 years.

What created this perfect storm to drive these changes? Where is it headed? Who will it impact?

Stay tuned for part two, which examines five market shifts that have created this exciting and disruptive opportunity.

This is the rise of independent PR.

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