… or does it just need to evolve in order to be more relevant in a changing and overwhelmed market place, as Felicities founder and managing director Alison Lowe argues in this exclusive opinion piece written for The Industry.
The fashion trade press is full of stories of disruption, a broken fashion system and an industry in crisis and through my consultancy work and as director of Felicities, I see on a daily basis the impact that the changing industry has on our fashion brands.
There are too many new, independent designers entering an already saturated market; fewer wholesale opportunities for emerging brands, so they need to find new ways of selling; changing consumer demand; a decreasing number of print publications; and an increasing cost of on-line coverage with bloggers and influencers. Then there are the many column inches given to the relevance of fashion week events and catwalk shows for buyers and print media, and the debates about the shows only being attended by a ‘rent a mob’ crowd of irrelevant influencers.
Yet one area that isn’t being openly discussed is the role of the PR and PR agency in this changing market place. Are agencies still relevant and can they deliver the results expected? There is a growing demand for more transparency and a growing number of brands are taking their PR back in house to manage, as they discover that the majority of their on-line activity and spend is reaching bots rather than potential human customers.
These concerns are creating panic in the PR industry, with agencies trying to protect and justify their roles. Are they fighting to maintain the ‘elusiveness’ of the PR function, or are they just slow to adapt to change? As the MD of Felicities, I can honestly say that I have sometimes been embarrassed by the approach of some of my fellow agencies and feel tarnished by their unethical working practises, which is damaging the industry as a whole.
I set up the Felicities agency in 2003 to offer a more genuine service to emerging brands, but we too have buried our heads in the sand for a while, pretending that we were exempt from the changes happening in the industry. But due to the daily frustrations of trying to place features on our emerging brands in ever decreasing print publications, and a growing list of contacts who have ‘gone freelance’, never mind the endless blogger and influencer requests for gifts and ridiculously high fees for posts, we realised we needed to either innovate or close the door. We decided on the former, realising that while many people are arguing that the digital age has killed the PR industry, actually the value of PR is even more significant in this saturated and overwhelmed market.
For more established labels the conventional fashion PR approach is still appropriate to an extent; recruiting a PR agency with a proven network to focus on building and maintaining relationships between the brand, publications and stylists; writing and sending out press releases; generating press coverage, product placement, and social media mentions. However, this approach needs such long-term investment, due to it taking considerable time to build relationships, create momentum and generate editorial coverage, that it is unrealistic, very expensive and inefficient for most brands.
PR agencies must stop fighting to keep this traditional model alive and believing their exclusive contact lists and relationships are the life-blood of the industry – instead they need to develop more creative and original ways of delivering PR in its broadest sense.
For smaller, independent brands the focus now has to be on them delivering genuine public relations themselves, communicating directly with their public – the consumer. This means going beyond traditional communications methods and no longer worshipping at the shrine of the press release. The phrase ‘content is king’ is true but brands need to put out content and tell stories direct to their consumers in the way the customer wants to see and hear it.
The consumer is reading less and purchasing fewer magazines and they are not interested in press releases and commercial jargon – they want the inside scoop or brand story telling in bite size formats that capture their imagination and engages them. The consumer is now much more astute and won’t waste time reading meaningless bumpf, sales pitches or deceptive hype.
So where does this leave the PR agency if the brand itself is managing the public relations, are they still relevant? The answer I believe is yes! They are actually needed more than ever, but in a new role offering different services and working in partnership with the brand rather than offering a third-party service. The partnership means the PR giving up some of the control, instead helping their clients build relationships themselves with targeted press, bloggers and influencers.
The role is now more about training the brand team, showing them how to communicate with their customers and helping them develop perpetual marketing tactics to provide great customer experiences that keep them coming back to the brand. The PR expert now needs to help the label create brand story telling that is honest and engaging to their consumer and then teach them how they can deliver this message direct through social media and on-line channels as well as through print press.
This new approach will rely on the PR agency being more transparent, not just delivering quick, worthless hits but instead working to the benefit of the brand by helping them build relationships with authentic influencers who have a more genuine, engaged following. The way forward is not about high numbers, whether in followers or number of bums on seats at a catwalk show but in the PR agencies doing the research and educating their clients on who to work with to generate the real results.
Designers and brands need to also take the time to understand PR and its value, and think about what it is they really need from a PR agency. Unfortunately, if brands don’t understand the process and what results they want, then there will still be lazy PRs out there who will offer ‘cookie-cutter’ product placement services and ambiguous retainer contracts, using their ‘network’ (read ‘rent a crowd’ or mates!) to deliver untargeted posts, tweets and insta stories or fill your fashion week event. If the activity then generates little result, both the brand and PR are at fault for not specifying the expected results and agreeing the outcomes.
For brands looking for more professional and targeted results then they need to look for a more forward-thinking agency that will work in partnership with them to develop a cohesive strategy that is sales focussed, responsive to the constantly evolving media industry, more relevant to their brand, resourceful and efficient. The brands need to be constantly reviewing their tactics to ensure that they are targeting their activity to someone who is listening and not just adding to all the ‘noise’ that everyone else is busy making.
So, having pulled our heads out of the sand – Felicities are taking a bold step in a new direction and following the example of the few innovative PR agencies that are adopting new ways of streamlining their services. We will still offer traditional PR services to those brands that are at a level that need it, but we will now develop new levels of service that work in partnership with emerging brands. Through Social PR programmes we can help brands differentiate themselves and create customised, proactive communication programmes focussing on social media and social selling. But more than anything we will remain vigilant in ensuring the services we offer are timely and appropriate to the changing marketplace and we will continue to fly the flag for a transparent and genuine PR industry.
PR will always play a primary role in the fashion industry and with content being vital to the growth of a fashion brand, the future of the PR agency is bright for those that will adapt to the new ways of working.