Small Firms, Big Success
Posted At: February 8, 2013 11 P.M.
by Katie Sanders
An outsider to the public relations industry may not always understand the many facets of the business. An image of the PR equivalent to “Mad Men” may come to mind when people think about how a company communicates or brands itself. While there are many large agencies that remotely fit this Hollywood stereotype, many practitioners spend their careers working in-house at a corporation or smaller firm. Brave practitioners may even venture out to start their own boutique firms, just as someone must have once done with big names like Edelmen, Fleishman-Hillard and Ketchum.
Focusing on Flourish
After years of working in a corporate senior management position for an international brand, Jamie Prince made the decision to begin her own boutique firm. Prince founded Flourish Integrated Communications, which is based in Greenville, S.C.
“It took me two and a half years to get the courage, lay the groundwork and finally ‘just do it,’” Prince said. “Since then, I’ve never looked back.”
Prince had previous experience working in publishing and marketing, which gave her an initial foot into the public relations industry. She said her proficient writing skills were a sign that an industry change may suit her because of the emphasis and necessity of writing in public relations. Service was another skill that she acquired from working with big firms and corporations.
“I feel very strongly that having a servant’s heart is key to the success of being a PR professional,” Prince said. “Working for and under others, in various leadership capacities, made me hone my skills for service.”
These skills have now been taken out of corporate life and into her boutique firm. Working with a specific niche of clientele with “affluent lifestyles,” Prince and the Flourish team have built the business and its name in South Carolina. Flourish, like all boutique firms, has faced obstacles in its formative years. Smaller firms have staff who not only play roles as public relations specialists or strategizers, but who also dabble in human resources, handle IT issues, manage social media, serve as webmasters and deal with accounting and business tasks. After building its business, a firm is able to outsource or hire more personnel to handle these different areas.
As with any business, there are strengths and weaknesses in both large agencies and small boutiques. Along with a smaller staff, growing the client base may be more challenging for a boutique than a large agency.
“We have to educate them that although we’re a small firm, we’re capable of great things,” Prince said. “I think in the beginning, people saw us more as a consultancy, and less of a bona fide firm.”
After a boutique becomes more established, Prince said this need to establish legitimacy becomes less of a problem and more attention is focused on the strengths of a smaller organization. Flexibility and more personal attention are obvious benefits of choosing a small PR firm. Another strength is the ability to individualize strategies and potential business with a client. Prince said that Flourish can work with organizations based on their needs and budget, rather than worry about minimum billings like many larger firms. Integrated communication techniques are also more easily employed at a boutique firm.
“Nine times out of 10, our clients come to us for public relations,” Prince said. “But we grow that business based their goals and ‘what’s missing’ in their integrated marketing to their clients and customers.”
From the Graduate’s Perspective
Liz Morris, a 2011 graduate of the University of South Carolina, has experience in large and small PR agencies. As an undergrad, Morris was a PR intern in a large hospital foundation as well as an intern for a traditional marketing and PR agency before settling down into the PR boutique lifestyle. She said her work experience, both in and out of college, taught her more about the industry than she could ever learn in the classroom.
“It’s taught me that the industry is not as segmented as it appears in the classroom,” Morris said. “It’s a fluid climate where professionals with a broad skill set are prized.”
Morris agreed that the key strengths of a PR boutique are flexibility, service and lower overhead costs. The relationships with clients are what Morris enjoys the most about working for this type of agency.
“I think that our agency structure is key to allowing a more natural working relationship,” Morris said. “[It’s a] structure that considers the company’s overarching goals, in addition to its communication goals.”
Flourish, like many small firms, is seen as a hybrid firm. This classification improves its business because of the diversity of techniques and strategies that can be employed. Staff members at a boutique firm play a large role in contributing their individual expertise to make the firm successful and encourage growth. This effort serves clients both in their strategy and in their bottom line.
Morris said the smaller agency personnel are what attract organizations and clients. The challenge is to create and produce quality work that can compete with agencies with more resources. After successful campaigns and projects, then the task becomes to promote its services.
“It falls to us [the personnel] to get our brand and work out there,” Morris said. “It’s important that when it comes time to pick an agency, you aren’t hearing about us for the first time.”
Advice for the Big and Small
Although it may be tough to start a new PR firm, the rewards are definitely attainable. In 2012, Flourish Integrated Communications won a South Carolina PRSA Mercury Award in the Integrated Communications division and recently opened a new division of the company, Flourish Events.
Whether your passion lies in a boutique firm, large agency, in-house communications or nonprofit work, Prince gives advices for any practitioner during interviews or career “soul-searching.”
“Your attitude tells me more about you than anything else,” Prince said. “So if there’s an area you really want to stand out, it’s being positive, upbeat and spirited about what you do, even if you don’t really know, at first, what you’re doing.”