Talk to a PR veteran. Watch him or her work. And I don't mean the young AE's fresh out of J School. The ones who the companies go to when the national pitch is on the line. The ones who get called in when the sh$t hits the fan. Those PR veterans. Listen to them talk to the editors and journalists, and lawyers and TV producers on the phone. You start to notice something. They don't mention the name of the PR firm they work for. It's not that they're hiding it. It's because it doesn't matter at this particular point in time. The veterans doing this work have relationships. They know who they are talking to on the other end, and the other end knows the PR person they are talking to. Business is going to get done, and it's going to get done because of the relationship--not because of who's name is printed on the paychecks.
Now look at what's going on today. The social media tools readily--and freely--available today allow anyone to build an audience. And the larger the audience, the more "followers" and "friends" they have, the more power they can leverage out of the exponential possibilities of their networked audience. People have become personal brands.
Jump back to the PR firms now. They are racing to figure out the social media space. And in doing so, they are bringing in some of those personal brands out there and bringing them in front of their clients. But here is the difference about what's going on now that should make you stand up and take notice: these PR firms are touting the person, they are not touting the firm. Look at their presentations, no real mention of the PR firm's name, they are completely branded to the individual. The theory is that the person's brand (their built-in audience size) is more crucial to the sale of the work than the firm's history or it's client list, or it's number of offices.
What's ironic is that this isn't exactly new. Think back to the opening paragraph about the PR veteran who did their work based on relationships. The difference is that previously, these gurus worked in the big firms because there wasn't a way to tout their individual brand.
Now there is.
So here is my question. Do you really need a big firm to be effective? If each individual PR practitioner has the power to build a network, to self-promote, and to use their numbers to the benefit of the client, then what is the value of the big firm? It's a mixed bag. It can certainly be useful as a proving ground for young PR AE's fresh out of J School. Theoretically, if the veteran gurus haven't left, there is a network in the firm to learn from. But what if they leave? There is a trend of entrepreneurial upstarts leaving and creating new firms that are agile enough to compete in today's market. Ad Age's editorial in April was entitled "Big agencies face challenge from social-media upstarts." (I'd link you, but they lock their articles). Web 2.0 Journal asks "Is the PR Business Extinct?" then quickly answer: "Yes."
Though I don't see the power of PR going "extinct," I do think the traditional model has eroded enough to cause serious concern. The new agencies that survive will not only understand the new toolset, but they will understand how to harness personal brands, and give them a reason why they should work together for a fresh, agile, smart firm that understands how to leverage their combined firm and personal brands.