DC Media Trend: Niche Firms Take on PR Giants — Part 2
Axios published an excellent article this morning noting that smaller, Washington-based public affairs firms are going after business typically won by large agencies. “They lure clients with political expertise capable of handling crisis communications, and then expand those partnerships by creating full-scale agencies that can do everything from digital ad placement, to media booking,” Axios reports.
But there has also been another trend occurring over the past ten years: larger and medium-sized DC and NYC-based PR firms hiring outside specialists as ‘visible’ consultants who works directly with a larger client, or, on the other hand, works strictly behind the scenes (almost always with a non-disclosure agreement) to produce key deliverables such as major speeches, op-eds, important news releases, internal strategy memos, and other longer-form web content. In the latter instance, the PR firm can present the content as their own.
The article interests me significantly because my business, s/m/c/p, has been able to thrive and grow in both above contexts — especially over the past 3-5 years as the permanent news cycle has taken hold, and a demand for quality content 24/7/365 is virtually bottomless.
The fact of the matter is that even within large PR firms, there are very few, if any, strong and versatile writer/strategists. Sure, there are ‘good’ writers and ‘adequate’ writers in every firms — it’s “PR” and that’s what they do.
But when that ‘big speech’ for the CEO or ‘key policy oped’ for a tier-one publication like the Wall Street Journal needs to be produced, in-house depth is frequently missing, or already diverted on another project. And this includes not just the writing — but the need for a more sophisticated, sequenced messaging roll-out strategy that almost always follows a key speech, oped or other big ticket news making vehicle.
In fact, for the first time since shifting completely from political campaigns to corporate consulting in 2005, 2017 represents the first year when over 50 percent of incoming services requests involve major writing projects — most of which are policy-oriented as well as ongoing in nature. I’ve found that once large firms find strong writing/content vendors, they almost always find a reason to keep them on the payroll for fear of losing their services.
On another note, Axios quotes the CEO of one DC firm stipulating that because real-time consulting and content capacity is now the rule, “We approach everything like a political campaign.”
While that may be the case, far too many firms who make this claim have few — if any — former or active political campaign operatives who have either won a campaign in a senior leadership or consulting position, or “worked on a campaign” beyond one of the GOP or Democratic campaign committees.
This is why Democratic and Republican-oriented firms like SKDKnickerbocker and Mercury, respectively, have high-end public affairs operations: they’re stocked with seasoned political campaign operatives equally at home in a DC board room or a high-pressure campaign war room in some far flung state capitol. This makes an enormous difference in speed, savvy, street-smarts and almost always, client results.
The bottom line is that recognized expertise in the provision of niche ‘deliverables’ — especially content and strategy combined — will continue to be a growth area in the PR/advocacy firm marketplace. The simple reason: it’s beneficial to all parties.