America’s leading public relations firms score high marks from their clients for customer service, account management and administrative efficiency, but do less well when it comes to creativity, strategy and planning, and evaluation, according to a new study conducted by InsightExpress on behalf of The Holmes Group and Kelly & Lugbauer.

The study is designed to provide robust and detailed information about client satisfaction to participating agencies—including all of the 15 largest public relations firms in the U.S. and more than a dozen small and midsize firms—but also provides insight into overall client attitudes toward their PR agencies, and suggests that despite three difficult years, the best public relations firms continue to satisfy their clients.

On the most basic measure of satisfaction, the vast majority (87.1 percent) of respondents—including corporate communications, marketing, public affairs and investor relations executives—indicated they would hire their current public relations firm again. Just 12.9 percent indicated they would likely not rehire their current firm.

When asked to rate their firm, more than a third (35.2 percent) gave it the highest mark (excellent), while another 28 percent rated it very good, and 19 percent rated it good. Only 4 percent of respondents rated their firm either extremely or very poor.

“The survey results demonstrate that while overall client satisfaction with agencies is high, agencies continue to score highest on administrative and tactical factors and considerably lower on the quality of their thinking and their ability to measure their success,” says Cathy Lugbauer, Kelly & Lugbauer Partner and survey co-sponsor . “The results raise the issue of how the PR agency industry can continue to improve the strategic value they bring to their clients and serves as a call to action for continued emphasis on research, planning, new thinking and measurement.”

There was a high level of satisfaction on almost all the 40 criteria examined by the survey, with a majority of clients indicating they were either very of extremely satisfied with their firms (indicated by a score of six or seven on a scale of 1-7).

Agencies scored the highest marks (an average of 5.78 on a scale of 1-7) on criteria related to the quality of their account teams. They also scored high marks on criteria related to budgeting (5.77); administrative systems (5.73); and execution process (5.68). Slightly lower were scores for messaging (5.65); account leadership (5.58); and implementation skills (5.57).

But firms scored their lowest marks on criteria related to the quality of their thinking and their ability to measure success. They scored an average of 5.31 for strategy and planning; 5.29 for creativity; and 5.26 for measurement.

“While the scores in this area are not bad, with most clients rating their firms either very good or extremely good, they suggest there’s plenty of room for improvement if agencies want to delight their customers,” says Paul Holmes, editor of The Holmes Report and survey co-sponsor. “The fact that firms score poorly on measurement—an elusive Holy Grail for the industry as a whole—is not surprising. But it’s somewhat surprising that firms score lower marks for both strategy and creativity. The latter is something on which many firms pride themselves.

“One interpretation would be that during the recession, PR firms made a great effort to get their processes—administrative and budgeting and account management—in order. But they need to improve people’s skills—strategic thinking and creativity—as well as processes, and they need to be prepared to challenge clients more, to provide risky ideas. The results of our survey suggest that clients are eager for bolder thinking.”

As far as individual questions were concerned, firms scored the highest marks on criteria such as collaborates respectfully with our staff (6.21); enforces quality control and confidentiality standards (5.88); provides compensation arrangements that work for more (5.80); delivers agreed upon results (5.76); understands our industry and business (5.75); and bills in a timely and accurate manner (5.75).

They scored the lowest marks on criteria such as presenting and justifying risky concepts with potentially high returns (4.88); using research to create goals and programs (5.04); measuring results against business objectives (5.12); providing vision and new thinking (5.36); and staying fresh, introducing new ideas, people and approaches (5.38).

About the respondents

More than 770 clients responded to the survey. About 30 percent identified themselves as responsible for marketing communications; 28 percent were responsible for corporate communications; 23 percent for public relations; the rest were divided among public affairs, investor relations, employee communications and other.

About a third (33 percent) identified themselves as being at the vice president level or above; 37 percent were director level; and 24 percent were manager level.

The consumer products category was best represented among respondents, with 27 percent from that sector; 23 percent of respondents represented technology companies; 12.5 percent were from healthcare companies; 11 percent were from nonprofit companies; 9 percent were from industrial companies; 7 percent from professional services; 6.5 percent from financial services; and 4 percent from government agencies.

Most respondents (57 percent) are using their public relations firms for marketing communications support, while 17 percent use firms for corporate communications, 8 percent use firms for public affairs; and 3 percent use firms for crisis communications. Less than 1 percent use firms for investor relations or for internal communications exclusively, although 8 percent say they use firms for all of the above.

More than 40 percent of respondents came from companies with less than $500 million in annual revenues; another 11 percent came from companies with less than $1 billion in revenues; another 21 percent were from companies with less than $5 billion in revenues; and another 18 percent were from companies with less than $25 billion. Just 9 percent of respondents were from companies with more than $25 billion in revenues.