PUBLIC RELATIONS: PR does the business - PR is being taken more seriously in management circles but how can the sector turn this opportunity to its advantage? Robert Gray reports

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.

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

programmes.



This change in perception has come about because of a change in

substance.



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

250,000.



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’

(92%).



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

than advertising.



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

business.



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.



Bigger budgets



Looking to the future, the survey discovered that 10% of respondents

planned to increase PR spend by 50% or more over the next three

years.



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

boards.



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

more.



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

be.’



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

services sector.



’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

residual reluctance.



Corporate culture



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

media.



’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

Proof campaign.



’You need to link evaluation in with research and planning,’ adds

Miles.



’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

consistency.



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

lead agency.



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.



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