Unlike their siblings in other marketing disciplines, PR agencies have tended to be parochial, sticking to the business areas they know best. Over recent years, however, many specialist PR agencies have shed their niche positioning to take a more generalist approach.
Alongside its music, media and entertainment clients such as Robbie Williams, Taylor Herring, for example, now boasts a consumer brand division. Headed by Justin Crosby, it promotes events such as the FIFPro World XI Player Awards, which this September will celebrate international football's top performers. Other PR firms to have entered new areas include Text 100, which, while moving from its business-to-business roots to embrace consumer brands such as Bang & Olufsen, has invested in media training workshops for clients.
In part this diversification has been a defence against economic downturn, since a broader base of clients or services reduces the risk of exposure. However, it also reflects a shift in the PR market and the changing perceptions of brands.
'Five or 10 years ago, technology promotion was all about bits and bytes.
Now the technology is the underlying message and the focus is on consumer benefits,' says Kerry Hallard, managing director of Buffalo Communications.
The agency, which set out as a specialist corporate hi-tech shop in 1992, now offers marketing and financial capabilities alongside media relations services.
For Buffalo, this means that working with clients such as the National Outsourcing Association is not so much about product issues, but rather about broader concerns - the possibility of a public backlash against firms that move their call centres overseas, for example. Likewise, consumer technology specialists have revamped their former hi-tech approach to products such as mobile phones to embrace lifestyle issues.
While this shift to multi-service PR solutions brings an obvious financial boon for consultancies, what benefits does it have for clients? 'One of the main advantages of approaching a broad-based agency is that a client's reputation or brands will be looked at in a holistic way,' says Jonathan Hemus, leader of Porter Novelli's corporate practice, alluding to the tendency for agencies to find solutions that play to their own strengths.
When crises loom, a multi-service agency is also more likely to have appropriate experts in the same building as the consultants handling the day-to-day PR of a brand or organisation. 'The same team of people who are building a reputation also end up protecting it,' says Hemus.
Most multi-service agencies can cross-fertilise expertise to execute campaigns that smaller specialist firms may struggle to deliver. For example, last year Weber Shandwick ran a programme to boost sales of Seven Seas cod liver oil. This involved a TV campaign, a press launch with the Arthritis Research Campaign (ARC), and mini trials of cod liver oil. According to Weber Shandwick UK and Ireland chief executive Colin Byrne, the campaign's focus came from the agency's specialist nutrition and bioscience teams. They found ARC-funded research which concluded that cod liver oil can slow joint damage caused by arthritis. 'By combining these areas of expertise we created a campaign whose sum was greater than its parts.'
This view is echoed by Stuart Smith, joint chief executive of Edelman, who points to his agency's strengths in areas such as healthcare nutrition, medical education and public affairs, which over the past two years has helped clients including SNACMA (the Snack, Nut and Crisp Manufacturers Association) stay abreast of emerging issues such as the rise in obesity.
'A good niche agency can deliver the same campaign as us in conducting UK media relations in specialist areas. Where we can add value is if something hits them like a regulatory issue. We can bring in appropriate experts quickly,' says Smith. With the greater resources the multi-service agencies typically enjoy, they also claim they can hire more heavyweight talent.
The most common reasons for approaching an agency with experience in a variety of sectors and disciplines is to revitalise a brand or engage new audiences. 'Having a broader view means you can look at taking a client into new areas,' says Dirk Singer, co-founder of Cow PR, which works across consumer, corporate, technology, sponsorship and issues-based PR. To liven up the Office for National Statistics' Expenditure and Food Survey, Cow PR recently compiled an 'average house' broadcast package featuring supermarket-style price tags to show household spend on items.
Cow PR has also worked on campaigns to get Vauxhall's second-hand car dealerships, Network Q, into the mainstream news. Last August, these activities included working with an aroma company to produce a 'new car' smell which was trialled in a dealership in Oxford. This generated more than 100 pieces of coverage across press and broadcast media. 'Someone thinking of buying a car reads a range of media. This is the crux of the matter - to treat target audiences as consumers with a broad range of interests, instead of as job titles,' says Singer.
Targeting niche audiences, on the other hand, is one of the big advantages of using a specialist agency, according to Mike King, managing director of specialist business-to-business technology PR firm Johnson King, whose clients include Enterprise Ireland. 'If you are hoping to penetrate a specific market, a more subtle approach is often necessary, requiring an agency with focused, in-depth expertise and understanding of that sector, the competitive landscape and the target media.'
This is one reason why Cisco Systems hired technology PR firm Brands2Life in the UK to complement the work of its in-house PR team and the corporate and trade communications undertaken by its EMEA PR agency Band & Brown.
Cisco's UK marketing director David Critchley highlighted Brand2Life's understanding of its business, adding that the agency's contacts within the business and broadcast media and the senior-level consultancy it offered also made it stand out.
In areas such as corporate finance and pharmaceuticals, the regulations around communications can be so complex that it would be commercial suicide not to hire a specialist. However, no generalist PR agency is without its specialisms: most big multi-service agencies position themselves as a collection of specialist teams that just happen to sit under one brand.
Likewise, there is no right choice when it comes to deciding whether to hire a niche agency or one offering a raft of services. Much depends on an organisation's objectives or PR programme, personal chemistry and, for multinationals, the trade-off between economies of scale and local expertise.
'A full-service multinational agency works best for us when its local agency operations can also service local market needs,' says Kai Boschmann, outgoing international communications director at Burger King, which takes a 'flexibility within a framework' approach to its PR. 'We complement that with local and specialist agencies where necessary.'
Helena Rafalowska, director of communications, Office for National Statistics'
We chose a generalist agency because we were looking for a creative approach and fresh ideas. Our PR brief was to look for ways to make the information we produce more interesting and to present it - particularly to a TV audience - in a way that people would relate to.
Given the huge range of information we present, we don't naturally fall into any particular specialist agency category. Agencies with specialist experience of working for the government sector can all too often approach briefs in a formulaic and conservative way.
Cow PR's proposal to use a house and contents to illustrate a survey on family spending took us beyond the usual run of ideas.
PRCA SELECTION GUIDELINES
Industry body the Public Relations Consultants Association (www.prca.org.uk) has produced a guide to selecting the right sort of PR agency for your requirements.
- Provide the potential to translate key learning/successes from one market to another.
- Generally have a bigger market and geographical spread so they can reach all audience requirements of a campaign.
- Have a bigger base of staff and in-house resources to call upon.
- Due to their size, have access to more/higher supplier discounts
- Most generalist consultancies have specialist departments.
- Have specialist expertise of markets, audiences and/or communication streams.
- Understand niche markets/audiences and how to communicate with them effectively.
- Are closely networked with key opinion-formers within niche markets.
- Provide smaller working teams and therefore the potential for strong chemistry between client and consultancy.
- Are reputed to have lower overheads to be incorporated into charge-out rates.
Graham Cluley head of corporate communications, Sophos
We use a computer security-savvy public relations team to not only promote our latest products or corporate good news stories, but also to provide time-critical comment on the latest emerging threats.
Effective media relations are important to IT security firms that wish to be seen to be responding fast as new attacks spread across the internet.
Having a specialist team that is focused solely on media relations ensures that when a big virus breaks, it has the right relationships, the technology and media know-how to communicate our message at the right level.
That is why we chose Johnson King, a specialist PR company, rather than one that also promoted dog food or reality TV shows.