64% of in-house communications leaders would now consider hiring a virtual PR agency, but a lack of awareness of how to find one (41%) and concerns over the management of remote teams (46%) are the biggest barriers to adoption, according to a survey by the PRCA’s Virtual PR Agency Group (VPRAG).
VPRAG defines a virtual PR agency as “an established business staffed predominantly by senior freelance experts”.
The results show that more needs to be done to build confidence in the business model, which has grown in popularity over the last five years within the public relations sector.
Transparency over governance, account management structure and working practices are seen as a way to achieve this.
Doyel Maitra, head of PR and consumer affairs at Moneysupermarket commented, “Virtual agencies need to do more to promote their client testimonials from big brands (not just
during pitches). This will encourage other companies to try a new model of agency.” VPRAG was established in October 2018 to characterise virtual PR agencies and contextualise the virtual PR agency market. The survey was distributed to 352 senior inhouse leaders to understand their views, of which 47 completed the survey and provided a number of in-depth insights.
Over half of respondents (51%) had used a virtual agency in the past and more than a quarter (26%) felt the biggest benefit of a virtual structure was access to a wider network of skilled professionals based either locally or internationally.
Additional selling points were the flexibility to tailor the service depending on the client’s needs (24%), value for money versus the traditional agency model (20%), and the ability to scale quickly using a large network of skilled professionals (9%). Better visibility of the concept and client case studies were cited as potential ways to promote virtual PR agencies as a credible alternative to traditional models at the procurement stage.
Alec Stanwell, head of internal and external communications at Shell Energy Retail suggested we should steer away from navel gazing, commenting, “I think the focus is less on the model and more on the delivery. The benefits of the virtual model may be important, but are secondary to the work being delivered. It’s a little like cloud computing - it’s almost not relevant as long as the product works well and works effectively.”
Sarah Waddington CMPRCA, Astute.Work agency owner and a founding member of the PRCA’s VPRAG, said: “This piece of research has been really important to understand exactly what in-house teams think about virtual PR agencies and what they see as their advantages and challenges. What’s clear is that we need to build confidence in the model, which gives inhouse teams access to senior PR expertise with the ability to scale quickly, confidently and cost-effective, to steal a phrase from one of the respondents.
“Running remote teams requires strong governance and working practices and this is a message we need to push out there assertively to ensure strong cut through and take up of our services.”
The results dovetail nicely with other pillars of work currently being undertaken by VPRAG, which include initiatives around the use of technology, procurement practices, team and culture and growth and leadership.
Nicky Regazzoni CMPRCA, co-chair of VPRAG, said: “We established the group on the back of research The PR Network carried out in June 2018, which showed a strong appetite amongst in-house leaders to access senior expertise in an agile and cost-effective way. This latest research suggests what is holding our category back is awareness of where to find us, and understanding of the breadth and depth of the offer. The group will be actively campaigning in 2020 to promote the benefits of virtual agencies - for both clients and practitioners.”
The VPRAG is co-chaired by Regazzoni and George Blizzard, co-CEOs of The PR Network, with 11 founding members from other well-established virtual agencies from the UK and Dubai. The working group was set up end-2018 with the support of Francis Ingham and the PRCA to establish virtual agencies as an increasingly important category within the global PR market, and to promote the model as a viable choice for PR practitioners and clients.
Founding members and focus markets:
•Sarah Waddington, Astute.Work (management consultancy; public and private sectors)
•Angie Wiles, The Difference Collective (healthcare industry)
•Matt Phillips, PPR (marketing and media industries)
•Sophie Wilson, Tuesday Media (cross-industry, broad range of clients)
•Lesley Singleton, Playtime PR (toy industry)
•Charlie Le Rougetel, Big Top PR (events and exhibitions)
•Jo Field, JFG Comms (transport industry)
•Helen Neal, HN Communications (automotive industry)
•Isobel Camier, Camier Communications (female entrepreneurs; sport industry)
•Anne Bleeker, In2Consulting (hospitality industry, based in Dubai)
For more information, visit https://www.prca.org.uk/membership/groups/sectoral/virtualnetworks.