With the dreaded ‘R’ word back in our psyche, I thought I’d put pen to paper as an agency owner who’s been around the block when it comes to client budgets and the value of PR.

Over the years, I’ve watched businesses re-negotiate payment terms and put pressure on their agency’s bottom line and, in turn, their relationship with one another; reduce their days in order to cut budgets and wonder why the service isn’t the same; and waste money by committing to short-terms projects when they actually needed long-term strategy.

Lockdown 1.0 (remember when Covid felt like the only problem we were facing?!) was a shock to the system for everyone, especially those in the service business. PR, as it always is, was one of the first things to go, and we lost over 50% of our client base (and revenue) in the first week of lockdown alone. Deep breaths.

However, what Covid taught us all pretty quickly was the true value of PR and, with that, agencies like EAST VILLAGE. saw clients who had just reduced their days instantly increase them again, and an influx of new business come through the doors. Covid turned out to be our most successful period to date: in terms of revenue, profit, and landing dream clients.

But, why?

When the world screamed “cut budgets!” why were some heading back to their marketing teams and agencies looking for solutions? An industry that so often gets labelled as “a nice-to-have with no way to track ROI” became one of the most important investments for brands and businesses.

I won’t use this as a platform for promoting the value of PR, but in times of challenge and change, people (your team and customers included) want familiarity and reassurance.

Now is the time to adapt your PR strategy to make sure that your brand is one that keeps people engaged:

  • Building your reputation and establishing your credibility can help build loyalty and keep those sales coming in, even when people are cutting back
  • Shining a spotlight on your people, from the top-down, helps build connections with your customers and attract new ones too
  • Showcasing your values through authentic storytelling is a great way to attract and retain talent, which is crucial as the job market becomes increasingly more volatile
  • Gaining that all-important share of voice can help you influence your customers’ buying habits and the wider market; in turn, generating sales and gaining market share

So, before you consider cutting your PR budget and battening down the hatches, perhaps look at how you can adapt your relationship to make it work better for you as you navigate the next recession.

Understand what “success” really looks like to you…

Before engaging an agency or re-briefing your current one, get to grips with what you truly want to achieve. Sure, if you want to land the front page of the Guardian, I totally get that… what a result! But *why* do you really want it? Is it brand awareness to their 100,000+ daily readers because you think they’ll buy from you? Is it about being seen as a thought-leader in your field so that you feel more credible and can maybe even sell yourself as a consultant? Is it because the Board told you that’s what they want? Or maybe you just want to show your mum and make her proud?

None of the above are right or wrong, but tasking your agency with a set of KPIs without context won’t really cut it: we perform better when we understand your ‘why’ and we can work out the best strategy to help you achieve your goals. This is when you see the true value of PR.

Commit to the long term

This might seem strange if you’re looking to reduce costs, but just be straight with your agency about where you’re at financially and what pressures you’re feeling from within the business. I’ll tell you right now that in most cases (not all – but most) a short-term PR campaign is never going to give you true return. By the time you’ve got to know your account team, they’ve bedded in and started the hard graft with journalists, you’re three months in and frustrated that you haven’t seen results.

Commit to a longer-term strategy but task your agency with working in partnership with you. Facing economic uncertainty, you might break this down into what you want and need to see come in from them over the next three months to keep the finance team happy, what sales results you have tasked yourself with over the next six months, and where you want the business to be in 12 months. This way, your agency can price their work in a more manageable way, whilst also ensuring you’re not wasting money by stopping work just as the hard graft pays off.

Understand what your agency really does

It’s a common misconception – perhaps we’re all guilty of being bad at our own PR – that agencies are just there to deliver. To churn out press releases, secure coverage, and report back on results. The reality is that, regardless of the size, shape or age of your PR team, you’re likely to always have at least one or two people who understand the commercial side of running a business. Plus, the challenges that you’re going through too!

Your account team should continue with day-to-day delivery, but it’s likely that you have agency owners and leaders – just like me – who are perfect for strategy and consultancy. Think beyond what you think the value of PR is and split this piece of work out from your current retained work. Let us into your overall business strategy: your short and long-term goals, challenges across the business, and the things keeping you up at night. We’re great at big-picture thinking and we understand how to use marketing, communications, and relationship management to battle issues like employee engagement, customer service, product development, and even raising finance.  

Remember that PR is just one piece of the puzzle

Too many times, agencies fall victim to being left out of the loop. We’re brought in too late or not told information because someone decided it wasn’t relevant. It’s really important to remember that the value of PR comes when it’s part of a wider strategy. It’s called the marketing ‘mix’ for a reason: PR is just one tactic that plays a huge part in your stakeholder management and future growth but needs to happen alongside other activity.

Even if your PR agency was tasked with a specific campaign or audience in mind, a recession is the perfect time to revisit your stakeholder strategy and look at what tactics will work best. Who do you need to keep on side during this time? Where will gaps in information likely happen? Who might disengage with you, your business, or your brand? Get your marketing and comms heads together in one room (yes, Zoom counts here too) to plot out your strategic messaging and how to best use the budgets you have available. You may lean into more low-cost solutions like social media and email marketing, but PR – and the intel that your agency can bring from media intelligence – will remain crucial if you want to stand up and stand out against competitors.

So, as we continue to get our heads around what the future holds – and whether any of us can actually afford to pay our energy bills this autumn – think about the importance of the people around you. Who’s in your corner helping to keep stakeholders engaged? What messages do you need to be putting out there to show that your business is relevant and very much still present? How can you adapt the budget that you have and turn KPIs into measures of true value?

One thing is certain in a recession: we do eventually come out the other side, so make decisions that support you in the short-term but protect you in the long-term and the value of PR will become apparent.

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