Public Relations in an Era of ‘Time Absolutism’
If PR firm aspire to delivering real consultancy, then they should embrace some of the discipline of the consultancy model
It remains the final taboo across public relations; but we are a time-based industry. Just like lawyers, accountants, management consultants and – yes – psychologists, we bill ‘per hour’. However, while the aforementioned professions have made a virtue out of ruthless adherence to time allocation, tracking and ‘billing potentials’, public relations still considers the concept slightly undignified; we are in the creative business, the argument goes, our efficiency is based on relationships . . . . you can’t put that on a time sheet.
Time sheet ‘refuseniks’ have been abetted by the shift towards the integrated model; advertising agencies don’t bill by hour, they are campaign-based, they enjoy the freedom to be creative, and so should we!
Let me puncture a few misconceptions. First, even the most creative professions jealously guard their most precious of resources; time. Novelist, Haruki Murakami’s schedule resembles a military boot camp:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation . . .”.
There are countless other examples of real creativity being derived from structure and discipline. Even large advertising agencies have understood this dynamic; Omnicom’s consolidated offices in South London (the other side of the river and far from London’s traditional creative heart), as more to do with financial logic than creativity.
Secondly, time (and resource) discipline does not compromise creativity; in fact, they are complementary. The time more time saved by ‘routinizing’ certain tasks, the more space available to be creative; to brainstorm, to discuss, to plan, the experiment. I would also suggest that resource constraints (budgets, limited briefs etc) actually enhance the creative process; knowing that you can’t simply ‘buy’ a celebrity endorsement means that alternative (even, guerilla) tactics are required. Also see my trademarked, “ . . . the client isn’t paying is enough to be creative” myth, highlighted last year.
Thirdly, as I remarked most recently to the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), one key differentiator between the world of public relations and advertising is the rhythm of our work; our advertising contemporaries build campaigns, they work to self/client imposed deadlines. In effect, their work tends to be ‘seasonal’ in nature, based around product launches and fixed events. Public relations professionals deal with a ‘third element’ beyond the client-agency relationship – the media, whose deadlines are increasingly real time. PR works to other people’s agenda; we are by nature responders, improvisers, optimizers of others’ priorities.
Within my firm, we’re embracing this ‘mastery of time’; we are tracking and standardizing many aspects of service delivery; leaving more time and resources for the unplanned and unexpected. While the latter contribute to less than 20% of our actual activities such as crisis management, rapid competitive responses, leveraging/exploiting the news of the day etc, they account for 40-50% of the time spent during the month. If we assume that such contingencies typically require senior-level intervention, and that up to half our monthly activity could be assumed by the same, the benefit of rigorously time managing the remaining routine, planned activities becomes even more apparent.
Here are a few insights from our training programme around the same; it amazes me that some of these principles still remain taboo within PR:
- Time is the only absolute; all agencies irrespective of their size and prestige are subject to the same constraints – a finite amount of working time per day.
- The secret is not necessarily to maximize the number of ‘billable hours’ per day per se, but to decide how much time should be focused on chargeable activities (copy writing, media relations etc) and optimize the same, leaving aside a certain amount of time for non-billable – but equally important – activities (professional development, sales and marketing etc)
- The fastest method may not be the best. It’s not a race, we are not trying to identify ‘the fastest copywriter in the West . . . ’. We are trying to find a method for repeatable tasks (from researching to fact checking) that will guarantee a certain level of consistency and quality, and which can be replicated by, potentially, 600+ people.
- Not all billable hours are equal. An account director’s time – by definition – is more expensive than that of an account executive, so the more that we are able to empower the latter to contribute to the former’s work, the more free time (and profits) the agency will enjoy.
- Not all hours in the day are equal. Simplistically, mornings are worth more to agencies – the chance to seize the day and the initiative – than afternoons; but there are other considerations. Media pitching during publication deadlines is likely to be as counter-productive as cold calling them on a Friday evening (or Monday morning); so why do it? If there is an optimal time to engage journalists, why not (re)-structure your day accordingly?
The truth is if PR agencies aspire towards genuine consultancy (as opposed to simple implementation) than effective time management – in all its sense – is an absolute. Such discipline is not a barrier to creativity, it is a prerequisite; in the words of the greatest of all ‘Time Absolutists’, Ernest Hemmingway:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.
There’s a lesson there for all PR professionals!