Despite employing a substantial portion of professionals in the public relations industry, agencies are the most understudied topic in public relations research. Most of the PR agency focus in public relations textbooks revolves around the shift from the use of the term agencies to firms, to emphasize the counseling function and to differentiate from advertising. Organizations, businesses and non-profits can function without agencies, but agencies cannot function without their clients. Because of this, the importance that agencies place on maintaining their relationships with their clients, can have major business implications and be the driving force towards increased business success.

Past public relations literature made illusions to a rivalry between the disciplines of public relations and advertising. Regardless of the two’s differences, the fact is that the sparse literature surrounding agency-client relations in public relations, parallel those of the more vastly studied agency-client relations of advertising.

Much of the literature found regards what brings agencies and clients together, what keeps them together and what causes them to go their separate ways. Management skills, account responsibility and significance of message and budget were all key areas that both advertising agencies and clients deemed significant. Among the more disagreeable factors, perception and creativity created the most conflict between advertising agencies and their client organizations.

The purpose of this study was to focus in on the relations between public relations agencies and their client organizations and highlight how the two perceive reasons for collaboration and the rise of conflict.

Based on previous research questions and literature, an online survey of 33 questions organized into 19 sections was curated and sent to 30,000 practitioners working in European communication departments and agencies. The analysis was composed of 2,253 responses, with six out of 10 being from practitioners working in communication departments rather than agencies. The vast majority of respondents had an academic degree ranging anywhere from a bachelors to doctorate, with most holding a master’s degree.

The results show that for every single area of questioning surrounding the reasons for hiring agencies there was significant levels of disagreement. For communication departments the top reasons for hiring agencies were creativity and innovation, additional “arms and legs” and expertise regarding specific geographies and markets. Agencies believed the top reasons they were being hired were for creativity and innovation, strategic insight and explaining communication trends and new instruments. In seven out of the nine items questioned, agencies significantly overestimated the need for their contribution by the communication departments.

The second section surrounded the sources of conflict between communication departments and agencies. In this section respondents were told to rank a top three out of eight reasons for the most important areas of conflict. For communication departments, “lack of knowledge of the client’s business and process” was ranked number one in importance, while at the same time, it was ranked sixth by agencies. Again, we see disagreement between the two as “low performance and mistakes made by agencies” receives second place as most important area of conflict from communication departments and receives the lowest ranking from agencies.

According to the results, public relations agencies and clients have polar opposite views of the sources of conflict between them and why the agencies are hired in the first place. There is an apparent perception issue existing between public relations agencies and their clients in Europe that needs to be dealt with.

To help alleviate the stress placed on agency-client relations from differing perceptions of conflict and hire:

  • The public relations community should begin trying to see past the clutter of branding/naming efforts and take agencies for what they are. There is a lot that can be learned from general agency theory and research in agency-client relations.
  • The public relations community should recognize that there is a lot to be learned from advertising. While research regarding public relations agency-client relations is limited, many of the features of agency-client relations in public relations parallel those of advertising.
  • More substantial comparative research needs to be conducted. Research is needed not only between clients and advertising, but with accountants, general management, etc. The more research that can highlight areas of conflict can ultimately be used to create harmony.
  • Agencies need to recognize that perceptual mistakes are not to be taken lightly and are more dangerous to them than to their clients. Agencies existence revolves around their partnerships with clients and regular customer satisfaction research should be done to maintain these relationships.
  • Understanding the economics of public relations agency-client relations needs to be taken seriously. Underestimating the economics of the matter can be dangerous for agencies and cause stress on the side of their clients. For many clients it is cheaper to hire services from a public relations agency than it is to hire new employees. Sometimes they just need more “arms and legs.”

As the public relations industry grows and expands further globally, research regarding quality of services and agency-client relations will increase in importance. Currently, there is not much research regarding these relationships, but there is a lot to be learned from the literature in advertising. According to this study, there is an issue of perception present between agencies and their clients and the more work that can be done to help them see eye to eye will help strengthen their partnerships and promote business success.

For the full study, visit:

Adrianna Santiago is a student at the University of Florida studying public relations and sociology. She is passionate about photography, story-telling, and people! She can be found on all social media as @adriannalsantia.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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