Why the future of PR is borderless

When British Prime Minister Theresa May said “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” the explicit message was that you are either with us or against us. You are British or homeless. What does this mean for international PR and communications agencies that have risen to support globalisation?

The rejection of the ideal of world citizenship has come at a time when politicians are trying to reconnect with large sections of the population who have unquestionably seen their standard of living drop since the global financial crisis and have lost faith in world leaders to create a better society. This rejection saw Brexit, the rise of Front National in France, and the election of Donald Trump. But as simple and populist as it is to say we can retreat into our national psyches, it lacks intellectual and business support, it jars with intrinsic human curiosity, and it goes against how we experience the world today.

Far from being the beginning of the end for the idea of the international PR agency, I believe it will be the springboard for a new type of international PR agency. Before going into what this new type PR agency could look like, let’s remind ourselves how international business and culture are today.

We now live in an era of global television production, distribution and viewing. Season 7 of Game of Thrones was simultaneously broadcast in 173 countries around the world. As media commentator Amanda Lotz, Fellow at the Peabody Media Center and Professor of Media Studies, University of Michigan notes: “It’s now possible for a series to release new episodes for viewers around the world, and the result is a global watercooler — a shared media culture that transcends national boundaries.” Today some of the biggest cultural influences on us as consumers are global.

We are travelling the world more than ever. Take my home nation of the UK for example. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, there were 70.8 million visits overseas by UK residents in 2016, which was 8% more than in 2015. This compares to 58 million visits abroad by residents in 2001. Consumers are seeing more of the world, experiencing more of the world and as the expression goes, travel broadens the mind. This doesn’t mean that we all think as global citizens, or we will all start eating the same cuisine, but it does mean we have a broader perspective and cultural appreciation.

This also means trends travel more quickly between countries and regions. Anyone with children will be familiar with the fidget spinner trend. The fidget spinner phenomenon has spawned over 11.5m videos on YouTube and 26.7m searches on Google. If you’re not familiar with them, the idea behind the fidget spinner is simple: a metal or plastic design rotates around a bearing in the middle to achieve a satisfying spin that can go on for minutes on end. According to NPD, a data company that tracks the toy market, the spinner took just three weeks to cross the Atlantic and go global. For toy manufacturers, this is a major issue because they normally plan their supply chain 18 months in advance. As the Economist notes “Developing and manufacturing a toy can take even longer than inventory planning—up to three years. But now there is pressure to spot new fads and bring products to market far more quickly.” The speed at which a new product can launch and become an international phenomenon is incredible and we need to be sure that as communicators we are agile and connected enough to stay ahead of the curve.

We live in a global news era. Just think about the stories that have dominated our headlines over the past year. From Secretary Clinton’s emails, the war in Syria, the Migrant Crisis, Brexit, Presidential elections in the US, France and the Netherlands, terrorism events, North Korean’s nuclear missile test, Hurricane Irma or Uber’s ethical travails. They might not have happened in our backyard, but they have dominated our headlines around the world, and they have informed discussions around the world too. Whether this is because news travels more freely, events have bigger consequences, or we are just more interested in global events, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is we live and operate in a more globally current world, and as communicators, it is beholden on us to think both locally and globally.

We live in an era when businesses can and are increasingly international in their growth strategies and operating models. Notwithstanding current controversies, consider the fact that Uber was founded in March 2009 and in less than a decade it now operates in 633 cities worldwide and generated $8.7bn in bookings in the last quarter. Or look at Automattic, the company behind the WordPress platform which powers 27% of all the websites in the world. Automattic was founded in August 2005 but now has a distributed workforce of 605 employees spread over 58 countries speaking 80 different languages. Stephen Kelly, CEO, Sage, noted in an interview with PWC “What is very different now from 30 years ago is businesses can go global much quicker. The global digital village allows companies to go global, scale up and do what wasn’t possible 30 years ago.” Today businesses can and do have desires to conquer the world or at least large sections of it and we, as communicators, need to be there to support them. We need to be able to do this in an agile and efficient way that doesn’t load up fledgling businesses with multinational fee structures.

As you can see the world is not retreating into its national psyches and the speed at which we are coming together culturally and commercially shows no sign of slowing down. So what does this mean for the international agency model?

The first thing I would say about the international PR agency model as we know it, is that it is scarcely international. Most global PR agencies have an HQ or centre of gravity which leads a collection of satellite offices. It’s common in large PR agencies for those working in satellite offices to talk of initiatives coming from London or New York, or wherever the power lies. These PR agencies look international on a map but they operate as a collection of different entities under one brand, usually with separate P&Ls and local management.

The way these PR agencies are set up then flows into how they operate. International client campaigns are usually run and coordinated out of one of the places which holds the power. Ideas for client campaigns are developed in these hubs and shared with other countries for localisation. Step inside one of these international hubs and you won’t find much by way of national diversity, let alone international diversity. How can we possibly expect agencies to try and tackle global challenges or take advantage of opportunities from such a narrow viewpoint?

The way these PR agencies are set up and run is in direct contrast with the way that modern global businesses are being built. Consider again Automattic, the business behind WordPress. Their employees work together from the location of their choice (office or home) and collaborate on how to make WordPress even better for the world. They deliver products to a global audience, developed from a global mindset, uninhibited by country silos.

This type of multinational borderless enterprise, powered by the latest technology, is what the future looks like. The communications industry must move with the times if it wants to keep up. The way we think about client and communication challenges needs to be based on a much more collaborative and integrated international model that brings a diversity of perspectives to bear as a matter of course. It shouldn’t require a super human effort; it should just be. The integrated international perspective will improve the quality of our ideas, and it will also mean that we are much more agile and efficient at executing client campaigns.

None of this should detract from the need for local knowledge and relationships; it’s just that in today’s world where so much of what we think and do has a global dimension, we need to combine our local and worldwide capabilities into one much tighter unit. This closer international team will be much better placed to think and act locally and globally, taking the rich differences in perspectives to develop even more compelling and innovative ideas and approaches to client challenges.

What might this tighter unit look like?

  • It will have less hierarchy and fewer layers. If you are building a deliberately international business do you really need specific country management? I’d argue not. Traditionally PR agencies have built a team of teams where the client gets a team for each country they are engaging with, led by a lead team who coordinates these teams. In the future, PR agencies will build one team for the client made up of the different disciplines and nationalities they require. This team will work as one unit.
  • Services specialisms will be horizontal across the entire business. If you have a content capability or an insights capability, then that should work as one horizontal unit across your target countries, not as a series of local in-country silos.
  • Client programmes will have clear central management. Too often client campaigns have duplicated local and global management which makes them much less efficient and less integrated.
  • They will be smaller and privately owned. Having run a decent sized global business, I know first-hand that when you reach a certain size and operate under a public ownership structure, you lose your manoeuvrability. The new breed of international PR agency will be smaller, more agile, and less inhibited.
  • They will invest disproportionately in technology and be higher skilled. The PR industry is a slow adopter of technology. Traditionally we’d much rather have a low paid employee do research than contract an expensive software solution. In keeping with the idea of smaller international PR agencies, I expect these to have much higher individual productivity based on greater skills and experience, and increased use of technology.

This model of working isn’t going to be right for every type of client. If you can afford to throw the kitchen sink at your client programme and operate the PR agency equivalent of a gas guzzler, then fine. But for today’s modern fast growing international enterprises, of which hundreds are launching every day, a much more agile and nimble model is required. This is what I will be working towards on my next PR venture. We call our new operating model PRWithoutBorders™.