The Myth of the Global PR Agency

Aug 24, 2016

One of the most persistent myths in public relations is the concept of the global PR agency. As it’s generally thought of, a global PR agency would be one where a homogenous team of like-minded PR experts spread out in offices all over the world works together to deliver outstanding, cohesive results in every market where a company has a presence.

You can put this one right up there with Bigfoot, unicorns and the idea that you don’t need a good story to achieve great PR results, you just need the right contacts.

While it would be nice for organizations with a global footprint if such a PR Valhalla existed, it simply isn’t reality. That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of offices around the globe that share a corporate identity, and maybe an accounting department. But if you’re thinking that the non-U.S. offices will be the same as the U.S. office, just with a different address, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Two basic types of global presence

There are two basic options for creating a global PR agency with headquarters in the U.S. One, obviously, is to run everything from the U.S., from the same building. No one really does that for a host of reasons, but it’s possible you could.

Having everyone in one U.S. office would theoretically make it easier to share information about clients, what story pitches are working, new developments and discoveries, etc. Only you wouldn’t have everyone in the same place at the same time because global business is conducted in many different time zones, and the team servicing a particular region would have to be in the office during business hours for the region. So there’s really no advantage there.

Not to mention the fact that a lot of PR is understanding how stories affect people locally. Like politics, all PR is local. Despite all the advances in technology it’s tough to get a feel for the culture and the day-to-day rhythms of a region when you’re thousands of miles away.

That’s why the more common model is to establish offices within countries or regions (depending on the need and available funding) and staff them with people who speak the language(s) and understand the nuances of the culture and the way business is conducted there.

A good example is the U.K. One of the peculiarities of PR in the U.K. is that readers and editors there like contests. While no one in their right mind here in the U.S. would pitch an editor on a healthcare story by suggesting a contest, it’s quite normal across the pond. I was shocked when a U.K. agency I was working with suggested this technique, but it turned out they were right and the client was happy with the results.

What you really get

Let’s assume the global PR agency you’re interested in is using model number two. Again, that’s what most do. How does this work from a practical standpoint?

Essentially, you have a completely separate group of people working in an office thousands of miles away from their U.S. counterparts. They may share a couple of clients, but both offices likely work on plenty of non-global clients that are unique to each of them as well. After all, there are only so many Fortune 1000 companies out there.

They probably have a weekly all-agency conference call, with or without the client, just to catch up. But since what works in Singapore is unlikely to work in Belgium, it’s more a call to catch up on any messaging or developments that affect the entire team, and to make sure everyone is doing something.

Certainly it’s convenient from a billing and management standpoint. Rather than having to hire and manage individual agencies, and process billing from each one, the client hires one agency that already has the staff everywhere, and receives a single, consolidated invoice. Sort of like the bundled payments model; the client doesn’t care which office gets paid what, they just pay a fixed amount and let agency management worry about the rest.

Here’s the downside of that arrangement, however. Yes, the global PR agency has offices fully staffed with locals, all ready to go. But the people in at least some of those offices may not be the sharpest scalpels on the tray. While you can complain and put pressure on if that is the case, it’s not like the agency can suddenly dump the staff and hire new people. Especially if those people are doing well for other clients.

The other risk is they may not all have domain expertise in healthcare. And while I will be the first to say it doesn’t really matter in most industries, I know from experience it does matter in healthcare. If the people in the local office don’t understand healthcare, they’re not going to be very successful no matter what other awesome skills they possess. Hiring a global PR agency with limited U.S. healthcare experience just because it has global offices might also put the core business at risk.

The global partnership approach

A better alternative, and one I’ve been a part of before, is to hire a core PR agency and then allow that agency to select and manage best-of-breed PR partners in each key region. This approach ensures there is still just a single point of contact for the client (or “one throat to choke” if you prefer), and the lead agency can also manage disbursement of funds to the partners so the client only has to issue a single check each month. Both common reasons for desiring a global agency in the first place.

The partnering approach brings additional advantages, however. The most prominent is that you’re not stuck with whatever personnel happen to be in the local market. The lead agency can review the qualifications of several agencies and select the one that appears to be the best fit. If it’s not working, they can easily cut ties with the first agency and select a new partner.

It also preserves the relationship with a lead PR agency that has been doing well, ensuring there are no interruptions in coverage. No sense going through the entire learning curve and ramp-up period again if you don’t have to.

As for the rest of what a global PR agency brings, the partner approach offers all the same capabilities. All the partners can share information electronically, participate in global conference calls and generally work as a team. The only material difference is they won’t have the same name on the door in every office. That hardly seems worth paying a premium for, however.

Beware the myth

The myth of the global PR agency is pervasive. But the reality tells a different story. At the end of the day, it’s not about whether all the participants share a CEO. It’s whether they can promote your messages and stories in a way that delivers the coverage you need to achieve your business goals. Using an agency partnering approach instead of a single, global PR agency gives you your best chance of making that happen.

What have your experiences been when it comes to global PR? What was your best experience? What was your worst?

Ken Krause

An award-winning writer for his work in advertising, marketing and public relations, Ken Krause has a diverse background that includes more than 30 years of combined agency- and client-side experience. Ken has in-depth experience in technology products and services, healthcare, supply chain, consumer electronics and other vertical markets. He previously served as Vice President of Content Services at Tech Image, where he spent 14 years. Ken also served as Marketing Communications Manager at ASAP Software (now a part of Dell). His earlier career includes stints as an Account Manager at Marketing Support, Inc. and McKee Advertising and as a Senior Copywriter for Meyer/Fredericks.