Ask most public relations executives their biggest industry gripes and the most popular answer is that they aren't taken seriously enough.
PR has long railed against the view that it is the poor relation of marketing communications but, as its practitioners have especially discovered in recent years, the medium seems to be the first on the list for budget cuts.
In the main, consultancies attribute the root of the problem to the lack of a voice at client boardroom level, meaning no one can speak up for the alternatives that PR can provide at the conception stage of any given communications strategy.
Adrian Brady, managing director of agency Eulogy!, believes there needs to be a more thorough understanding and acceptance of what PR can do.
'It's about time that PR sat at the same table as other marketing disciplines,' he says. 'We are going in the right direction in terms of integrating PR strategy at top level but we're not there yet. Agencies too need to be smarter in terms of proving what the basic return on PR spend is. If you look at media spend in relation to PR spend, the gap is still enormous. Our industry is being pigeon-holed, but it's about quality of thinking no matter what the discipline. We have to focus everyone's mind on the fact that PR can deliver much more than column inches.'
Recent research commissioned by Lewis Communications adds weight to the view that PR is gaining more strategic prominence within the boardroom.
In-depth interviews with 100 senior marketing figures in the UK carried out by Revelation Research showed that 50% of PR campaigns increasingly involve the chief executive.
This rise in profile at the top level has increased PR's share of marketing spend. The study showed that 65% of respondents were placing more investment in PR, citing its superior delivery of return on investment compared with advertising.
'The growing emphasis placed on measurement and evaluation by PR agencies is reaping dividends,' says Ilona Hitel, vice-president of marketing at Lewis. 'Of course we would say this, but we've always been a strong believer that for PR to work it has to have senior level buy-in. We hope that it's a long-term move rather than a short-term reaction to economic conditions.'
The sea change suggested by the results of the study has been felt by the larger PR agencies particularly, although the drivers behind the switch in attitude stem more from a financial need than a realisation of the potential of PR.
Kevin Murray, chairman of Bell Pottinger, believes PR has moved on from the days of being a marketing bolt-on. 'Clients are more educated in marketing communications now and will look to ensure their return on investment, but we haven't proved PR's strategic worth yet,' he admits.
Need for support
Though the research indicates that strategic appreciation is on the up, many agencies are not convinced that the processes in place give PR enough room to manoeuvre. 'There are still too many big brands that allocate the overseeing of the PR brief to the most junior executive, or even worse, give the brief to the advertising agency to pass on,' says Mike Morgan, managing director of The RED Consultancy. 'There are instances when PR still gets little in the way of in-house support from clients and often gets passed a second-hand brief with no control or input over the strategic handling. It's difficult to deliver results from such a starting point.'
Clearly, the strategic prominence that brands allow PR agencies is variable.
However, the fact remains that the sector is undoubtedly a buyer's market and it is up to the agencies to convince clients that they are worthy of their place alongside other communications agencies in strategic discussions.
Fiona Joyce, managing director of Countrywide Porter Novelli, believes that the PR industry has it completely wrong when it comes to promoting itself in the correct manner. 'Clients are much more savvy and if we want them to take us seriously we have to start sending out the right message,' she says. 'They want long-term delivery on investment, yet the PR industry persists in celebrating tactical stunts that only bring short-term awareness. By celebrating them, we're telling clients we can't deliver in the long-term. The industry has become about yesterday's fish and chip wrappings.'
PR consultancies are cautiously optimistic about their burgeoning role in communications strategies, but appreciate that the medium is still not getting the boardroom recognition it deserves. And clients will continue to look to PR to prove its worth before making any major changes to their approach.
Tim Evans marketing director, BT Business
'Until recently PR was regarded as too hard to measure by senior management. It was seen as an add-on to traditional activity. This often meant management didn't get involved and when budgets were tightened PR was the first thing to go.
'But times have changed: PR decisions have moved away from the marketing executives and up to director, even chief executive, level. There is buy-in from the board because we can now see a return on PR investment. Agencies are more transparent and focused on delivering results. They are measuring and evaluating performance against strict targets and deliverables, which means we can justify our PR in hard cash terms. This moves PR into a position where it is helping to generate sales leads against cost per acquisition, by delivering on-message in the right publications at the right time.'
Emma Jeffs PR manager, Dolby UK
'Coming from a PR background, I may be biased, but most firms have a high level of support and exposure of PR at board level. But I've still had moments of anguish when directors don't understand what PR can and can't do. PR practitioners often forget that not everyone has the same knowledge and experience of the industry.
'When there's a marketing representative on the board, marketing strategy and product information arrives in the PR department in good time. Because Dolby chooses to focus budgets on PR, Q&A documents and key messages are high on the agenda when launching technology. PR has increased its prominence in marketing and in the boardroom in the past few years and it's not just a cost-cutting thing - clever PR can influence the ad-weary public and opinion-formers in a way mass-market advertising can't.'
Nick Hindle head of communications, McDonald's UK
'McDonald's does not rely on advertising to establish and maintain trust. It reached its customers and stakeholders by being an active member of the local community. As one of the best-known global brands, our customers often receive more information about the brand through media stories than through our advertising.
'Media fragmentation means we cannot rely on advertising as the key driver of demand. PR agencies are tackling the same challenges and meeting the same commercial objectives as our ad agency.
'Our brand has been built on ads, but we are now using PR to expand on these messages. It also allows us to deliver different messages to reach other audiences. The bottom line is that PR has always had a seat at the McDonald's marketing table, but today it is playing a major integrated role alongside our advertising.'
Janice O'Reilly senior corporate PR manager, COI
'In the public sector it's not about PR having an increasing say in the boardroom, it's about gaining recognition of the role PR plays in the campaign mix. The secret of campaign success is effective planning; PR needs to be present at the planning stage.
'It is essential to understand that these elements are complementary, not competitive. COI recognises the importance of media-neutral planning, and this is the main reason the media planning roster was established in 2002. Clients need to have clearly defined objectives and agencies must be honest about the limitations as well as the strengths of PR.
'There is an irony that an industry concerned with image has a reputation issue of its own to be dealt with. When this is done, having a say in the boardroom will no longer be an issue.'
HOW PR STANDS
- The Communications Agencies Federation's (CAF) barometer for the fourth quarter of 2003 showed that PR consultancies were the most optimistic about the financial prospects for their agency, with 73% expressing positive feeling.
- But the CAF barometer also showed that, in relation to net reported change in agency income forecast, PR agencies remained steady while advertising and direct marketing agencies saw significant growth from the third to fourth quarter of 2003.
- Research from The PACE Partnership into how marketing services manage their key clients indicated that 100% of PR consultancies surveyed are responding well to client demands to help measure the results of their work. But only 33% of agencies could claim they had a clearly defined and agreed definition of a key client.
- According to a Revelation Research study, in-house PR managers are normally responsible for identifying potential agencies and drawing up the initial pitch list while the managing director/chief executive will only get involved in the final selection process.