The 2021 Asia-Pacific Communications Index, a landmark study of Asia-Pacific in-house communications professionals, today reveals that PR firms are largely indispensable to their clients, but poorly understood. 

Conducted by the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors (APACD) in conjunction with Ruder Finn Asia, the study — which polled more than 120 senior in-house communications executives (including APACD members) across the region — launched last week by reporting renewed confidence among the sector, despite some significant concerns. 

In the latest instalment, PRovoke Media focuses on the client-agency relationship, including insights into budgets, geography, servicing, effectiveness and more. More than 80% of respondents report that they retain an agency, with almost two-thirds (63%) using the services of multiple consultancies.  

Expenditure & evaluation

Notably, the highest proportion of clients (24%) spend more than US$2m a year on PR agency support. But the next highest (18%) spends less than $50k, and more than half of respondents (52%) spend less than $250k per year.  

Most clients (62%) do not expect to change their PR agency spend this year. There is less certainty, however, when it comes to agency selection, with only 46% confident they will not make a change. "Depends on agency staff turnover and the team's ability to move as quickly as us," said one respondent. 

Reassuringly for the consultancy sector, 56% of respondents believe they could not do their jobs without external PR support. When asked why, most clients pointed to resourcing issues: "not enough bandwidth to cope with business demands", "not enough resources to manage external projects and engagement", "workload and external view in."

However, there is much greater cause for concern when in-house communications leaders are asked whether PR firms are effective in measuring their value. Three in 10 are unconvinced, while the majority (53%) only see them as being somewhat effective in terms of proving value. Only 17% are confident of PR firm effectiveness. 

The open-ended responses to this question are revealing. "Agencies are more supportive when trying to get a job but towards the end, clients are left with junior staff and measurement are not communicated," said one client. "Instead it it is used when they need to secure another job."

"Still not using effective ROI measures, too focused on outputs not outcomes," added another, while a third client said: "It’s often smoke and mirrors, vanity metrics rather than authentic behavioural change."

"Most don't use market research or the latest SaaS products and services that help with this," concluded an in-house comms director. "Those that don't/can't don't/won't work for us."

"When our industry gets it right, with smart thinking, solutions and people, we can do truly amazing things and win the respect from all parties," said Ruder Finn EVP of global risk and reputation Charles Lankester. "It amazes me how, after all these years, our industry is still schizophrenic and we have failed to secure our own reputation when we do such good work for clients. It is vital our community redefines who and what we are and do and ensure our sector is taken seriously and respected on the client side. This should not be a hard task: the work many of us do is superb and if our entire industry can lift up the bar, we can achieve anything."

Services & support

Media relations continues to dominate in terms of PR agency services that are called on by clients, accounting for 71% of all responses. Corporate reputation (55%) and crisis communications (50%) also rank high, well ahead of such areas as public affairs (28%), consumer marketing (12%) and — perhaps most surprising of all — employee engagement (3.4%). 

When it comes to geography, Southeast Asia ranks as the most important sub-region for PR agency support (3.63 out of 5), ahead of Mainland China (3.05) and India (2.97). The Greater Bay Area, the Hong Kong government's much-touted vision of the city's golden future, comes last (2.50).

"The Index clearly shows that clients are open to third-party help (and are investing in it) provided they can get help they perceive as valuable," added RFI Asia SVP David Ko. "I completely understand the challenges many in our industry face, but ensuring clients get access to the entire spectrum of talent, especially senior talent, at any consultancy must be a promise we keep. Our message to the client community is simple: we hear you and keep challenging us to do better. We want to be your valued, trusted partners: keep us real and on-point. We promise to do the same for you, bringing insightful thinking, brilliant campaigns and measurable value to your work, your careers and your organisations."