There is no doubt that client attitudes to PR have shifted in
recent years. For a start, it is held in much higher regard than was the
case a decade ago.
In part, this is due to the evolution of PR itself. The discipline is
now recognised as a strategic management function rather than merely the
low-grade implementation of media relations or other communications
This change in perception has come about because of a change in
A growing number of PR agencies, and indeed senior in-house staff, have
acquired the business knowledge and advisory skills to put them on a
level approaching that of management consultants. Ad Fab-style vacuity,
an image that PR consultants must still on occasion contend with, has
become a thing of the past for all but a few niche players.
But although the elevated status of PR seems to be accepted by many
client companies, there has been little research to support the
contention. That is why Countrywide Porter Novelli’s survey ’The Future
of Public Relations’ is to be welcomed.
Countrywide - one of the UK’s top five PR consultancies and part of the
Omnicom group - commissioned an independent researcher to probe client
attitudes, actions and future intentions with regard to PR. The research
was conducted among marketing and corporate affairs directors at 50 of
the UK’s leading companies.
Some 64% of the sample have an annual PR budget in excess of pounds
Of these, 75% spend over pounds 500,000.
Results show that PR is no longer seen as a peripheral activity when it
comes to marketing communications: 94% of respondents said that PR was
used to support marketing strategy in their business. Other high-scoring
prompted roles for PR were reputation management (96%), issues
management (90%) and it being ’integral to business objectives’
The latter finding will gladden the hearts of many senior practitioners
who argue that PR’s place is central to corporate decision-making. But
if it is to broaden its influence, practitioners will need to develop
greater commercial understanding.
The survey also pointed to an improvement in PR’s status in comparison
with other marketing disciplines. A total of 58% of respondents gave it
equal standing with advertising, while 8% felt it was more important
In terms of the key PR services bought, media relations and
corporate/brand management led the way. More intriguingly, 28% cited
cause-related marketing, 24% culture change and 16% employee
communications - again underlining PR’s move to the heart of
Cause-related marketing (CRM) is certainly an area where several PR
consultancies, Countrywide among them, believe they can offer clients
valuable advice by combining their marketing communications skills with
a knowledge of reputation management. It is an essential balance as any
client entering into a CRM programme stands to have its image affected
by the actions and philosophy of its charity partner.
’Companies are looking at what in the past they might have called
charitable donations,’ says Diane VandenBurg, Countrywide Porter Novelli
marketing director. ’Now they want it to do a different job, to work
harder for them for greater purpose. That is good news for companies.’
And probably good news for PR as well.
Looking to the future, the survey discovered that 10% of respondents
planned to increase PR spend by 50% or more over the next three
A further 56% intended increasing expenditure by up to 50%.
Predictions unearthed by the research include the assertion that PR will
grow in importance at board level; that it is an increasingly useful
tool for reaching ever-more sophisticated consumers; and that clients
will demand more thorough measurement and evaluation. As one anonymous
comment from the survey put it, the ’evaluation process must be
strengthened and clients must invest more’ in it.
Among the other unattributed comments from respondents were that PR ’is
now seen as an integral part of the marketing ethos’, that it has become
more ’professional’ with enhanced service quality, and that client
companies would benefit from having more ’PR-oriented people’ on their
But do clients and PR consultancies support the findings of the
Countrywide survey? And what is the future of PR?
’Clients seem to be falling into two camps,’ says Alison Miles,
new-business director at PR consultancy Grayling. ’Some still see PR as
an arms-and-legs affair, such as sending out press releases. But then
there are the enlightened groups of people who really understand what PR
can do. They want a partnership with a PR consultancy where they can
take its advice.’
’What we now see is that CEOs and chairmen of large companies have a
much better understanding of how PR can help them and their companies,’
says Railtrack corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst. ’Many look
for strategic guidance on communications from someone who can think as
quickly and sharply as they can and who sees the bigger picture.’
While this is good news for the PR industry there is little evidence to
suggest that the largest companies will begin appointing corporate
communications specialists to their main boards. Although PR advice has
become valued it is not yet seen as indispensable in the boardroom.
Gareth Zundel, group PR director at PR consultancy Harvard, believes
that most established agencies in the marketplace offer a broadly
comparable implementation service. That being so, in the future the
’differentiator’ between them will be the quality of their strategic
offering. Consequently, consultants with a lot of strategic experience
will be more in demand, and assuredly their time will cost clients
But why should PR be the discipline to which clients look for strategic
advice? Zundel thinks it is because PR practitioners have an insight
into the client company and opinion in the wider world.
’A PR agency connects at a lot of levels with a company, from product
level to human resources to its managing director,’ he says. ’While
externally you are in touch with a lot of media, so you are a barometer
of what is happening. When it gets to strategic advice - brand
positioning or message planning - we have a lot of evidence by which to
evaluate and judge what the effect of a certain positioning will
The overwhelming majority of respondents to Countrywide’s survey said
they used PR to support marketing strategy, indicating that it has
become a more established marketing discipline. Norwich Union group
brand manager Thomas Cowper Johnson thinks it has become less of a ’poor
cousin’, adding that it is of enormous importance in the financial
’It’s always had the problem of being the bit of marketing activity you
can’t directly control, with the result that some people have been
reluctant to use it,’ he says. But greater understanding of the nature
of PR, and the credibility that third-party endorsement brings to a
product, service or corporation, is overcoming the little amount of
Many companies have long embraced PR. Software giant Microsoft, for
example, ensures that PR sensitivity is ingrained in its corporate
culture, with many of its staff trained to make contact with the
’PR is one of the most important aspects of the marketing mix,’ says
Microsoft UK marketing services director Shaun Orpen. ’If I was down to
the last pound of marketing money, it would be spent on PR.’
Evaluation, as the survey indicates, is becoming more of an issue.
Samantha Munro, head of consumer PR at Grant Butler Coomber, thinks that
’all agencies will have to fall into line’ and offer clients an
acceptable level of campaign measurement. The importance of this is
highlighted by Marketing’s sister title PR Week, which is banging the
drum for more measurement and evaluation on a weekly basis with its
’You need to link evaluation in with research and planning,’ adds
’You almost need to think about it before you start on the ideas.’
There is one intriguing paradox, however. The strategic advice that more
consultancies are offering is harder to evaluate than implementation
work such as media relations programmes. So there will always be some
elements of PR that will remain difficult to quantify.
But what no one disputes is that for PR to be effective it must be based
on an in-depth knowledge of the client and its business. Says Miles:
’Depth of knowledge is all. You can really only advise a client
appropriately if you understand where they are coming from. We must not
lose sight of the fact that PR is about the bottom line.’
The continuing globalisation of business and the growing
internationalisation of media, with the Internet in particular
transcending national borders, means that PR will similarly become a
more global affair. That process has already begun.
There is a trend for clients to appoint heads of global communications
to oversee strategy across the world, thereby ensuring brand message
Of course, how this is implemented varies: some clients prefer to
cherry-pick their own agencies from market to market, others opt for an
owned network, others still a network of affiliates co-ordinated by a
The system that works best is debatable, and probably varies from brief
to brief. Not open to question are the basic facts that PR has become
more strategic, international and closer to the heart of business.