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Challenges and Solutions in the PR Agency Planning Process

In the waning days of 2011, many public relations professionals engaged in some aspect of planning, from contemplating whether the plan that was finalized one or more months ago remains aligned with the every-changing environment, to putting the final touches on the thinking and processes that will be implemented with a flip of a calendar page.

Leaders of small- to mid-size agencies and consultancies often have some of the greatest challenges in assessing, anticipating and planning the future. Oftentimes, these organizations are relatively young in years, with limited data points.

With a number of years as the leader of a boutique public relations agency and a stint as a planning consultant within one of the nation’s preeminent voluntary health-service organizations, I’ve seen — and experienced — what seems to be a lifetime of planning successes … and failures.

Here are three less-than-intuitive areas worthy of consideration by both the newcomer and the experienced agency leader in charting a course to the future.

Absent a Destination, Any Path Will Get You There

A blank piece of paper can create panic or thrill, and either response may be hazardous.  Knowing what you — as well as what your owners, colleagues, employees, investors, clients and/or prospects — want is half the battle.

Is your organization well established and equipped with a current business direction that’s functional and forward looking? Great. Thinking that it’s time to add or delete program or service offerings? Fantastic. Starting from scratch and unclear as to whether you can even articulate a direction right now? No problem, nearly all of us in leadership have been there at least once.

First, put away the spreadsheets and start with big-picture questions. Those might include:

  • What inventory of knowledge, skills and past experiences do you and your colleagues possess?
  • How do those abilities align with what you think should be your organization’s direction?
  • For established enterprises, how do these capabilities align with what your current and prospective clients want them to be?
  • If you really have a blank slate and are starting with a question of what you’ll offer to clients, do you have a realistic sense for the opportunities associated with these offerings? In short, will prospects conceptually see value in the programs or services you want to provide.
  • Is there a market opportunity for what you are offering?

First and foremost, planning is about engaging all involved, asking questions, researching and talking. A lot. And frequently.

If you find yourself struggling with the amount of time you could spend on this process, it helps to think about the investments in research and development made by the most successful businesses in the world. Call this your organization’s R&D. Our own organization is still getting grounded in this area.

Build the Solution to the Need

Once you know what the market demands are that you plan to address, it’s time to pull-out calculators and spreadsheets and start figuring the revenues, expenses and margins that support you’re the roadmap of programs and services you determined.

Do you start by determining anticipated revenue and then calculating the cost to deliver, or do you begin with cost and then create pricing and quantities of engagements or activities that yield revenues? Like producing a video and being asked if one starts with creating the visual or the sound track side of the script, the answer is yes.

Working one side of the equation impacts the other. A cost and revenue structure that’s too low overworks the team in delivering the program and service, while costs and revenues that are too high stifle client trial and may limit sales potential. Either situation can generate value-perception issues.

In figuring the financial models of the agency, most everyone is well equipped to identify big-picture expenses in the planning cycle, such as staff, rent, utilities and taxes. Watch out for less obvious costs, such as licensing fees, travel expenses, direct costs of sales and promotion. If not planned, these areas can take a profitable offering or business and make it a drain on the business or worse.

Planning is a Year-Long Process. Embrace It.

Talking once a year about where you’re going and then checking off the box is not planning. It’s about creating a discipline and an accountability for “planning the work, then working the plan,” as many of us have heard or said in the past.

Our greatest organizational successes have occurred when there were tangible evidences of progress against plan. When we’ve allowed business calendars, excuses or simply benign neglect to interfere with setting and enforcing accountability in our own organization, we’ve paid the price.

Make your agency’s strategic and annual planning fun, from start to finish. Don’t be afraid to change things up as you go to keep the excitement and engagement of the process fresh.

What are some of the challenges and solutions have you experienced with the agency planning process?

Blake Lewis, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and principal and senior consultant at Lewis Public Relations.

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