American Marketer


Reimagining the mobile-enabled PR agency of the future

September 12, 2013

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk


By Vanessa Horwell

“Publically traded diversified energy company.”

Try texting that while juggling other tasks. It is how New Jersey’s largest utility company, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), describes itself.

Basically it means PSEG subsidiaries – there are four with names too long to write: control power generation, distribution, line maintenance and infrastructure investment. In non-jargon speech, it means they are almost a monopoly, overseeing nearly all aspects of the energy universe.

But PSEG’s success got me thinking. How can public relations agencies corner their own communication market, becoming “diversified communication companies” along the way?

Energy to change
PR agencies can do that by broadening their offerings and by becoming true information access, distribution and generation conglomerates. What will be their “power lines” – their message distribution medium?


Two recent articles speak to this need but tackle it from different perspectives.

Earlier this spring, The New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott reported on the rebranding of PR powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard turned “FleishmanHillard” and highlighted how the brand is becoming “an integrated marketing communications agency.”

What does this mean? Hint: it sounds a lot like “diversified energy company,” just dressed up differently. It means expanding the agency’s focus largely from traditional earned media to include paid media (advertising), owned media (think branded content and blogs) and increased capabilities to use social media as a critical storytelling medium.

Each of these examples rely – or should rely – heavily on a communication company’s mobile presence and that of their clients.

In another article, Paul Holmes, editor in chief and CEO of the HolmesReport, focused instead on the need for PR agencies to use Big Data more effectively while suggesting agencies re-think who they recruit and how they attract and retain talent.

Both articles speak to diversification of some kind – whether it is in the services provided, or in the talent pool collected.

Here, too, mobile and Big Data are almost inseparable terms as smartphones and tablets are the recorders and disseminators of what our clients are doing in real time.

Right message on the right channel at the right time
It is ironic, then, that public relations, an industry bent on effective communication, has long struggled with defining itself.

In fact, I wrote about it in a piece called “Curing the PR Patient in 2013.” Doubly ironic is that after more than a year wrestling with a definitional update that may need to be scrapped.

According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), public relations is “A strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics."

In non-PR speak, that would be interpreted as “client image management, told across all communication formats.”

But the parallel between energy companies and PR agencies is not only in name.

Adding to Mr. Holmes’ and Mr. Elliot’s review, communication companies – especially the FleishmanHillards of the world – might consider something far more radical than definitional changes.

These companies might consider fundamental corporate re-structuring that breaks the services of what they do into more distinct sub-entities – much like what PSEG has done. This is a business model my agency continues to cultivate.

And while we remain dedicated to “storytelling across all communication formats,” we recognize that more of the content we produce will be read on smallish mobile devices, sandwiched in between other tasks. Communication agencies must adapt to this reality.

Diversified communication company of tomorrow, today

Thus, agencies like mine must rethink the way they think of themselves and how they do business.

Right now we are developing subsidiaries that better focus and communicate our industry outreach.

Like PSEG, each service offering is related to, but partially distinct from the greater whole.

Flexibility such as this lends itself to more creative thinking – both in terms of what client stories we would like to tell and which mediums are the best vehicle to tell it.

The goal here is to give PR agencies the ability to anticipate market needs before our clients and innovate based on what we see is lacking or an opportunity to create something better and more valuable.

Becoming a diversified communications company will not be easy. And corporate restructuring with an understanding that mobile is today’s communication connective tissue, binding other methods of engagement together, is never cost-free.

FleishmanHillard spent a princely $750,000 on paid advertising to tout its new focus – quite ironic for a PR agency.

There is also a risk of public backlash if your PR brand and its subsidiaries are seen as too monopolistic. But if PR companies cannot adapt quickly enough, our services will be rendered obsolete.

So, thank you, PSEG for inspiring this piece. Even your jargon gets a pass. Or, in PR speak: a situationally appropriate actionable allowance.

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. Reach her at