How sustainability can create a new PR agency model

Posted by Sara Hawthorn

Our industry is facing multiple challenges. The CIPR’s latest State of the Profession Report detailed 11 of the biggest issues facing us as surveyed by members. They cover a wide range of topics from AI to boardroom representation. What’s missing, however, is sustainability. 

At first glance it doesn’t look like an obvious priority for PR, but adopting sustainability as a core operating principle can not only overcome some of these big challenges, but make a lasting and fundamental shift to a different type of agency model – something we’re all pondering at the moment.

Three of our most significant challenges are attracting and retaining talent, boardroom representation and how to avoid PR being lost under a bigger, noisier marketing banner. In order to understand how a sustainable approach can tackle the above we need to look at the historical structure of an agency. It has largely remained the same for decades. We are, mostly, an office-based function, with a clear hierarchical structure and defined job roles. PR is known for being highly-pressured, stressful, demanding and inflexible when it comes to remote working. 

These are all factors we have an opportunity to change. Especially now. 

Covid19 is catastrophic, but it has given rise to the question; ‘do we want to go back to the way we were?’ For many the answer is no. Now is the time to figure out why a sustainable approach is necessary. It is more than cutting down on waste and switching to Who Gives a Crap loo roll, it requires us to question every aspect of our operations – is our tech built using minerals from conflict mining? Do we buy everything from Amazon? Sustainability will lead us to examine our long-held practices and make changes which have long-term benefits and impacts. 


How a sustainable approach can attract and retain PR talent 

Whilst there is a wealth of talent in Leeds, the creative and communications sectors here draw from a talent pool that stretches the entire Leeds City region and even across the pennines into Manchester. But we all know far too well the issues around commuting in the north. Economically, environmentally and mentally – it takes its toll. 

In terms of sustainability, we have an opportunity to open up PR roles to home-based workers – disabled people, those with caring responsibilities, those based in a wider geographical circle. By reducing emissions related to commuting and being office-based we open ourselves up to better staff retention, an increased talent pool and improved creative output from a diverse hivemind.


Sustainability and the boardroom

This diversity of thought ties into our next challenge. Representation at board level and becoming trusted advisors. Purpose was perhaps the biggest buzzword to emerge from 2019 and it remains a popular mantra; people, purpose, profit, has featured in many PR think pieces. But helping senior business leaders identify and communicate purpose is often linked back to the product and service rather than the wider goals of the organisation. Through sustainability, agencies have the opportunity to offer strategic guidance at board level. Resilience is particularly topical right now, and climate resilience significantly so. The effect on business operations is thorough from supply chains to pressure from stakeholders. Those agencies who adopt and can show a deep understanding of sustainability and its impacts will become indispensable to senior management. 

In a similar way to how companies including Hewlett Packard now ask pitching agencies for their diversity credentials, we will see more corporations seek out agencies who have the knowledge and ability to steer and advise on the climate resilience and sustainability agenda. 


PR can lead the charge on sustainability communications

Over the last few years the lines between, PR and marketing, SEO, design, paid advertising have all blurred. The PR’s skillset has never been more varied or comprehensive. A huge factor is the widespread adoption of sustainability is how it’s communicated to all stakeholders. This is PR’s domain. With challenges around transparency, relevancy and shifting public habits it’s communication skills that are poised to lead the charge. Agencies with sustainability as a central pillar will be at an advantage. From social listening to public perception, sustainability is an opportunity for us to lead and collaborate, not converge and disappear. From combating fake news to talking about emerging energy tech innovations agencies can drive sustainability communications and reach all stakeholders. 


However, to be successful at it we must embody sustainability practices ourselves, it has to come from a foundation of sustainability practice. By bringing sustainability into the heart of an agency we develop a model that’s responsive, adaptable and resilient – traits which will be instrumental in helping agencies thrive in a new world.