Public Relations Tactics

Virtual Reality: Expand Your Independent Practice Into a Virtual Agency

April 3, 2017

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In public relations and many other professions, changes in the workplace, especially due to technology, are providing greater options for connectivity and working from any location. Gone are the days of meeting in-person all the time.

As talented practitioners crave and demand greater work-life balance and flexibility, these trends naturally apply to the PR profession and allow for a new model to emerge — the virtual agency.

Public relations is a fast-moving, ever-changing profession, and the growing popularity of virtual agencies reflects that adaptability. Whether building a virtual agency from the ground up, or simply incorporating some of the model’s flexibility into your existing agency, here are some best practices to follow.

1. Build your team. Some virtual agencies consist of a principal who works with a mix of employees and subcontractors; others have a founder who uses subcontractors exclusively. Choose the option that allows you to effectively lead your team while best serving your clients, depending on your firm’s needs, your management style and overall business plan.

The subcontractor option lets you work with a variety of experts in the communications industry. This type of virtual agency often is small and highly collaborative. Subcontractors must be proactive, disciplined self-starters who are willing to take on challenges and learn new skills. They must be flexible and apply an entrepreneurial approach to achieving client goals, versus following a routine. In the subcontractor model, geographic borders don’t limit your ability to recruit talented practitioners with diverse skills and perspectives. Firms can even expand business hours based on team members’ time zones.

2. Get specific. Virtual agencies are often composed of specialists. Similar to boutique agencies, these firms can compete for major accounts due to changes in client buying behavior. Clients increasingly seek specialized, personalized attention for their business needs and goals, often requiring specific types of public relations assistance. Virtual agencies can handpick highly knowledgeable contractors and staff to serve a client’s specific needs and develop long-term strategies.

3. Engage experts. Virtual agencies can hire contractors currently working as high-level practitioners in a given field to assist with projects, providing valuable expertise and insight for clients. Another difference between a virtual agency and a traditional brick-and-mortar firm is that a virtual agency can engage a specialized contractor for a fraction of what it would cost to hire a full-time person of the same caliber. For more general projects, it’s still important to carefully align clients with employees and subcontractors whose skills and expertise best fit the client’s needs. If a client chooses your agency — whether virtual or traditional — they are relying on you to produce a result they can’t achieve on their own. It’s essential that your contractor or employee is well matched to the client.

4. Leverage technology. Countless technological tools are at our disposal, such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing, webinars, email, social media, messaging programs, and collaborative, cloud-based document services. It’s no longer necessary to be tethered to a desk in an office from 9 to 5 to work productively as a team.

As technology evolves to serve big business, virtual agencies can use the same tools, many of which are free or very affordable — as long as you have an internet connection. Technology can also help you gain new business around the globe by connecting to potential clients in niche industries via social media, message boards and industry associations such as PRSA. Virtual agencies can even collaborate with one another by connecting with complementary firms, thus expanding their client-service capabilities.

5. Embrace flexibility. Virtual agencies offer work flexibility that greatly reduces turnover. Life changes that once were job-enders —moves, growing families, illness — are now manageable. Home-based workers are no longer an exception, but rather a growing norm — an attractive option for new generations craving career flexibility.

Low overhead costs allow owners of virtual agencies to invest in top talent, no matter where in the world either is located. Some firms take advantage of in-person retreats to get the entire team working together. You might use the money you save from lower overhead to splurge on a nice get-together or even thank-you gifts for your team to help maintain positive working relationships.

6. Market your strengths. While there are many reasons why clients may prefer working with virtual agencies, the main one is that lower overhead usually translates to lower fees and higher-quality results. This new model also forces you to rethink almost everything you do, fostering an environment of innovation that clients appreciate.

In the past, it was essential to have an office, but now, how many people even have a landline phone? Keeping overhead to a minimum helps draw clients to a virtual agency. As you market yours, remember to market the entire team. While the client may have a relationship with you as the owner, they should know there are multiple experts at their disposal to provide a variety of services, even if the client’s needs change or their scope of work increases.

Launching, owning and managing a virtual PR agency is about relationships. Members of the PR profession rarely shy away from putting in extra effort to maintain and grow relationships. If you’re willing to work collaboratively and innovatively, then the virtual-agency model can provide many outstanding benefits to you, your team and most important, your clients.

Kristine Gobbo
Kristine Gobbo is founder/president of Spectrum Public Relations, a full-service marketing and PR firm located in South Florida.

Comments

Daniel Paul Keeney, APR says:

When I started my agency in 2003 after managing a mid-size traditional agency I described it a virtual agency. However, I've come to just think of it as an agency. The word 'virtual' creates a false impression that it is somehow less substantial or real than a traditional agency, which is not the case. Talent is dispersed and can be scaled and deployed on-demand, which is very similar to how most teams of multi-nationals operate. I would encourage independents considering going down the path to engaging teams to have solid agreements in place that define relationships with contractors and to be transparent with clients and prospects.

April 24, 2017

Kristine Marie Gobbo says:

I think that is a very good point, Daniel. For me, a virtual agency is a business model. However, when marketing or talking with potential clients, it's an agency. And, you are also correct that solid agreements and transparency are both important, as it should be with any solo practitioner/consultant or agency. Thank you for your feedback.

May 9, 2017

Kara Addy, APR says:

Agree! When I struck out on my own in 2003, I was the first virtual agency in my geographical market. But that was then and this is now. Today many "traditional" agencies have remote employees or employ the same virtual model. It is no longer unique. Nice piece, Kristine. I enjoyed it.

July 13, 2017

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