The past month has seen a number of shake-ups in the world of fashion public relations, with multiple agencies like Black Frame and Siren PR either voluntarily closing shop or shutting down because they couldn’t keep the business afloat. But fashion PR isn’t dying, it’s evolving.
According to several agencies, brands are both asking for and being provided with a wider range of services outside of a typical PR agency’s purview from competitors. This includes creating marketing content that would normally be the work of freelancers and advising on relationships with investors. While brands want more from their PR teams, the risk is that agencies will stretch themselves too thin.
“We are no longer seen as media relations experts,” said Jason Miller, vp of social and PR at OH Partners, whose clients include Airbnb. “First, our team is increasingly asked to drive brand strategies, creative discussions and ideas that can become broader marketing initiatives versus the other way around; that has given us a seat at the strategic table. Secondly, we’re being asked to have a bigger say at connecting all points of story-telling and communication under a singular strategy, versus previously siloed groups.”
In the past six months, Jennifer Bett Communications, a 6-year-old agency that represents Naadam and Thakoon, introduced two new divisions within the company to better serve the changing needs of their clients: a thought leadership division and one dedicated to content.
Founder Jennifer Meyer said that for many startup brands, the individual founders are assets that need to be promoted in addition to the brand itself. JBC’s in-house thought leadership division is dedicated entirely to getting those founders speaking appearances at conferences and other placements that position them as experts.
According to Meyer, this has an important and larger effect. Many startup fashion brands don’t just need PR to drive up revenue and get attention from customers; they also need help attracting investor interest.
“We firmly believe that PR can grow and scale a brand,” said Melissa Duren Conner, partner and managing director at JBC. “Investors aren’t just investing in brands, they’re investing in founders, and they want to know that the founder is someone who knows what they’re talking about. We’ve generated hundreds of millions of investment for our brands. That’s a really important KPI and something that both agencies and brands don’t always think about. Jennifer and I have been in this business for a long time. We have a network of venture capitalists that we talk to.”
Other agencies and brands agree that companies are looking for more than just a traditional media placement from PR executives. According to Aaron Luo, co-founder of DTC handbag brand Caraa, PR can be essential in helping brands build their identity and messaging beyond individual campaigns. Caraa works with Linda Gaunt Communications.
“The most important thing for a young brand is to determine the brand ethos, its mission and its license to exist,” Luo said. “I often see young brands starting to engage celebrities and influencers right away without a cohesive brand message. That’s something you have to nail down first.”
Miller said brands are asking more from his firm constantly.
“For those clients who having long-term goals to sell or drive investor income, we do help plan short- and long-term communications and brand strategies that are aimed at both the high-level brand health, awareness and revenue results,” Miller said. “Relevance is king in the attention economy, and we’re definitely seeing a higher premium based on strategies and ideas that are driven at the brand level rather than promoting individual products or services.”
But there’s also a danger for agencies that try to be everything to everyone, including financial strain. When Siren PR abruptly shut down at the end of January, founder Winnie Beattie said it was because the company was no longer able to financially operate.
Meyer said that one of the reasons PR agencies often fail is that they try to also become influencer agencies and facilitate relationships with celebrities. Siren had expanded into those two areas two years before it shuttered.
“We’ve seen lots of agencies try to get into influencer marketing, and that’s just never appealed to us,” Meyer said. “It’s doable, but for us that gets too far away from what PR should do. Personally I think if a PR agency is paying someone to promote the brand, it means the brand story isn’t strong enough and it needs to get reworked. It’s not that influencer marketing doesn’t work; I just don’t think PR agencies should be doing it.”