Some PR agencies have weathered the COVID-19 era better than others. But let’s be blunt: it’s ugly out there for just about everyone.

Established communications firms with a diverse portfolio of clients and a deep suite of service lines, from social to digital to creative services, are mostly faring better than one-trick-ponies specializing in one industry or on one core service such as media relations.

Put another way, PR agencies without a digital game or a strong focus on content strategy are floundering as clients demand solid mileage out of their PR spends. Bean counters are counting beans, yeah?

Even agencies doing okay by today’s standards are still barely treading water relative to the last decade of soaring profits and uninterrupted confidence in earnings. In 2020, staying anywhere in (or near) the black is cause to do quarantine cartwheels.

Against this backdrop, even the quote-unquote successful PR agencies are grappling with a vexing problem as this pandemic persists in the United States. The problem is big. It’s really big. It’s the elephant in the virtual room for agency leadership: the bulk of their PR teams don’t feel safe returning to the office until there’s a vaccine.

And those gorgeous (empty) ergonomic chairs in glassed-in conference rooms named “SOMA” and “BACK BAY” and “QUEENS” represent huge overhead for traditional PR agencies paying for multiple pushpins on the map. A commanding city view means nothing when nobody’s there to see it.

So, across the country PR agencies are forced to make difficult decisions about what – or who — to prioritize as “must haves” until the economy regains its footing in 2021. Or 2022. Or 202_?

Real estate leases are iron-clad, and PR professionals are the real money makers. Yet operating expenses must come down, so something has got to give.

My best guess is that nationally PR agencies will shed a full one-third of their dedicated office spaces by mid-2021. I also expect office-shedding conglomerate PR firms to gobble up hobbled competitors at fire sale prices. Not so much to acquire the staff, mind you, but to acquire the stable of paying clients.

What this all means is that a major shakeout is coming in the PR industry. Consolidation is coming. Humility is coming.

What it means for PR professionals is that it’s time to prioritize your own career growth and get as smart as possible about measurement, analytics, business strategy, digital. Make yourself even smarter and more valuable so you’ll always find a home.

For clients of legacy PR agencies it means team turnover may be higher than you’d like over the next year as your firm confronts the COVID economy. It’s just inevitable when a face-to-face world became distance-oriented.

The weeks and months ahead will define the next decade of the PR industry. At Crackle, we intend to help shape the course.

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