Modern Marketing Public Relations Technology

The rise of independent PR: Part two - How we got here


By Nicole Jordan | CEO and founder

March 31, 2017 | 8 min read

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. Check out part two of her series below.

Credit: Nicole Jordan

In part one we took a quick look at sample statistics around freelance economy forecasts and the emerging trend of the blended workplace. As previously stated, PR is an industry that will benefit from this opportunity.

But how did we get here? What market conditions and cultural trends are behind this impending shift? Let’s take a closer look.

So Much Business, So Little Time

The internet caused the business world to tilt on its axis. The barrier to entry became phenomenally low to start a business. Anyone with an idea, working product and seed money could hire a PR person to help. This increased demand for PR talent in the past 10 to 15 years.

We saw big agencies grow bigger, and PR people leave those agencies to start their own boutiques, resulting in more options for companies to choose between the two. We saw a rise in hiring within the corporate environment as “Communications” teams expanded in size and responsibility. We also saw PR professionals graduate out of corporate life and launch consultancies -- now in the highest demand they’ve ever been.

PR Isn’t What It Used To Be

When a company is looking to raise awareness, launch or sell products and gain investors, they turn to PR. The internet flipped our industry on its head creating a direct-to-consumer approach that forced our “PR” skills to expand beyond a media-relations focus and into sales, business development, customer service, social media, HR, and content and online marketing.

This expansion of channels (versus media relations only) created the need for a different type of “PR” person. Hiring companies increasingly prefer holistic thinking for PR programs, now more commonly referred to as Communications or Communications Strategy, with media relations just one part. Measurement has also evolved beyond circulation numbers to directly impact business outcomes.

Independents provide an interesting alternative. A good majority have mastered client service at an agency and/or worked in-house or near full-time on-site for a client. Working in-house naturally leads to an expanded viewpoint of PR, nay, a communications function, in an organization.

It means working with sales and product development, engineering and HR. From the majority of companies I’ve spoken with and worked in-house and hired for, this is a preferred skill. The demand is for senior vertical specialists who understand and drive executive-level and tactical strategy and execution. Independents provide both - and at a smaller price tag than most traditional agency minimums – something very attractive to businesses today.

Traditional Agency Disenchantment is Real

On every new business call we discuss a prospect’s prior experience with PR. Nine times out of 10, I’m talking with a seasoned executive who has worked with a variety of agencies and knows that s/he wants to try something different.

Almost all are disenchanted with traditional PR agencies, citing a lack of senior strategic counsel as a main reason. Among other complaints: high turnover; lack of deep vertical knowledge in a day-to-day contact; and lack of prior experience or exposure to in-house corporate communications. This limits beginning agency PR pros ability to think holistically and strategically.

Don’t get me wrong, agencies play a necessary role in the industry eco-system; they train millions of professionals who, for the most part, go on to in-house positions and often hire said agencies, or to work for themselves. It’s our farm system.

There will always be clients who are most comfortable with a traditional agency, but even then, we’ll start seeing agencies shift into a hybrid model - more on that later. What’s happening now is a consideration mindset shift toward independent PR.

Increasing Trust from Businesses

There’s a stigma, though disappearing, with being an “independent” or “freelancer.” I, and many other indies, have heard more than once: “I/the board are more comfortable with an ‘established agency.’” But this is changing.

I’m hearing this significantly less than five years ago and now see signs for continued decline. “Looking for an independent...” is now the most popular request crossing my desk and social platforms from businesses large and small.

There’s a sense of an increased level of trust and respect for independents to handle responsibilities previously deemed better suited for a traditional agency staff, despite most independents would carry a director or VP or CCO title if they were a full-time employee somewhere.

Execs are waking up to the fact they need specialists, not generalists, and they’re comfortable with virtual teams and flexible team models. Rarely is it a deal breaker if the PR team isn’t in the same city. They also don’t want additional headcount or commit $15k a month for activities that don’t extend beyond traditional media relations. Independents are filling an important, and growing, gap.

Workforce Turnover

This is the coup de resistance to the various market stars aligning to create the perfect synergy for kicking off true disruption in the PR industry.

While professionals of all ages are choosing an independent business life, the majority of pros I encounter average 12-25 years of experience and come with their own rolodex. They have paid dues in agency life and worked in-house, and now have preference for gigs encompassing the more holistic viewpoint that businesses seek today.

We have a generation of experienced professionals who are choosing to opt-out while remaining opted-in. Running communications in-house - for a big or small company - can be soul-sucking and exhausting. Agency life often means 4-12 accounts, not a lot of opportunity to go deep, and a great deal of operational responsibilities on top of client management and team career growth.

Once you hit your limit with either, it’s hard to think of ever going back. Expect there to be a mass exodus of sorts with senior PR professionals – many who will be hired as an independent by the very same companies they left.

These professionals are mid-to-late 30’s-50’s, and many have kids. They’ve run the rat race and want a change - that work-life balance thing. They want a different lifestyle that affords flexibility, income, and control over how, and with whom, work time is spent.

There is so much demand for talent out there it’s relatively easy for someone to jump into being an independent by tapping their immediate network. Most independents have established reputations and long time career connections are now in decision-making positions. Many of my leads come from past colleagues or their referrals.

That said, what does all of this mean? Where are we headed next and how will it irreversibly shift the PR/Comms landscape? What impact will it have on the broader marketing community? That’s next, in part three.

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