We’ve come to think of our agency as a “tween.” No longer a scrappy start-up, and increasingly finding ourselves punching above our weight-class in newbiz pitches. It’s exciting to be pitching for FORTUNE 1000 business, even if it means the competition is far more fierce. We wrestle with how to best present our credentials.

Meanwhile, the PR industry is catching-on to this whole Social Media thang: although too many agencies still view Social Media as a “checkbox” rather than a sea-change, my arguments to this effect sometimes fall on deaf ears, especially when talking to less savvy prospects.

Lastly, a friend gave me a copy of the Arthur W. Page Society report on “The Authentic Enterprise.” There were no big surprises in the study, but, it did a good job of summarizing our industry’s challenges and opportunities. For example, this quote jumped out at me:

“What happens when analysts and media – once necessary aggregators if a business wanted to reach mass audiences – lose their unique ability to reach those audiences or to legitimize the company’s message?”

This future is coming and will crush PR agencies unprepared to meet the advancing wave of change.

And yet, change is scary. Even for a bleeding-edger like me. Some of the preparation we must undergo lies far outside our comfort zone. Here are 5 random thoughts on The Future of Public Relations…

Agencies must become comfortable with the personal branding of individual employees. Agency employees will increasingly need to step out of the shadows, to serve as transparent client advocates in a community relations role. Many clients will handle this on their own with internal resources, but even in those cases we can expect Agency personnel to supplement the effort – and in the process, become well-known to various online community segments. This is a far cry from our historical role behind-the-scenes. It also is scary from a talent retention standpoint.

Agencies must do a far better job of training staff. The days of paying lip-service to Training are over. With the sunlight shining on every pitch and community interaction, woe betide the agency who lets greenhorns loose behind the keyboard.

Agencies must explain to clients – with crystal clarity – that mistakes will happen. No one likes to admit to fallibility, especially in a newbiz situation, but the reality is that mistakes will be outed. More to the point, you can do everything right but, because the Agency now often deals with (unpredictable) edge users, even their best moves risk being unfairly skewered by the community. The burden is on the Agency to plan in advance for such contingencies. No one likes surprises and, everyone appreciates an Action Plan that can be turned to in a crisis.

Agencies must help clients move from Reactive to Proactive to Interactive. This was another interesting note from the Page Society report. For years it’s been enough to offer “Rapid Reaction.” Nowadays, Agencies can differentiate by developing proactive community outreach models that minimize the impact of inevitable flare-ups. But, what’s next? Outside our comfort zone, but within our reach: collaborating with all stakeholders (executives and employees, customers, online and offline communities) on an on-going basis to help guide corporate strategy. To help companies “conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it.”

Agencies must reconsider their core value. While I think that the PR industry can legitimitely evolve to include aspects of Community Relations (a.k.a. Social Media Relations) under its banner, there are other ways to think about value. This is particularly pertinent for the hundreds of small to mid-size shops that can’t afford to compete on all fronts as they had when “Media Relations” was the universal specialty. Maybe it’s time to specialize? Is the Agency keenly tuned in to a specific vertical market (e.g., healthcare) or demographic (e.g., baby-boomers)? Start staking your claims.

These are mostly high-level musings – and there are more to consider, of course. What are your thoughts? Will you help me prepare for the future? With such high level concerns in place, my challenge will be to think about the strategies and tactics to address them for both our clients and agency. You’ll hear about these adventures (and misadventures) here at PR-Squared, ‘natch.

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