Public Relations: So is this evolution or revolution? - Robert Dwek examines the growing split between the PR agencies which specialise in implementation and those which now concentrate on top-level strategic consultancy

There were many predictions at the end of the 80s - albeit usually by public relations people - that the 90s was going to be the PR decade.

There were many predictions at the end of the 80s - albeit usually

by public relations people - that the 90s was going to be the PR


The recession confused everyone, including the PR folk themselves, but

now the 90s are reaching maturity, the claim is being raised again. The

irony, of course, is that it has been in the 90s that millions of people

tuned in religiously to Absolutely Fabulous, a TV sitcom parading a very

80s version of PR.

Putting that unfortunate irony to one side and accepting that the

profession has matured mightily in the past seven years, the question

now is: where next for PR?

Alison Canning, former chief executive of Burson-Marsteller and a

founder of top PR company Cohn & Wolf UK, believes she has a pretty good

idea of where things are heading. She’s now set up on her own, with an

imaginatively titled consultancy called First & 42nd (something to do

with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Manhattan address of

the UN building).

Canning expects to spend 75% of her time doing strategic PR. She is not

interested in implementing the strategy but will do so if necessary by

subcontracting the work to a third party.

Her mission statement goes something like this: the PR label is outdated

and should be replaced by the word ’communications’. An expert offering

’communications strategy’ is a kind of management consultant who should

have direct access to chairmen and chief executives. The expert’s role

is to take a bird’s-eye view of the client’s situation and advise on any

and every form of appropriate communications: advertising, direct

marketing, promotions, PR, or whatever. The communications consultant

has no axe to grind.

Is this a mild form of megalomania, or a disconcerting delusion of


Canning says no, it’s a natural response to the encroachment of

traditional management consultants onto PR territory. ’We call ourselves

a management consultancy specialising in communications. There’s a gap

in the market for this,’ she insists.

Canning not only disowns the PR tag, she also takes a swipe at marketing

as a useful definition of corporate activity. ’The term ’marketing’ is a

bit of a misnomer these days because most marketers don’t have a product

as such. Their job is much more about influencing the way a company is

perceived and the way it acts, which is more of a communications


This change, she adds, brings with it a tension that might result in a

clash between the heads of the three main areas of corporate

communications: internal, external, and consumer. The roles of the human

resources director, the corporate affairs director and the marketing

director, she argues, are blurring together and therefore need to be

handled in a more cohesive way. A communications specialist is required

to hold everything together - which is where the likes of First & 42nd

come in.

Concluding her case, Canning declares: ’Five years ago, nobody was

talking about the corporate brand, but it’s the buzz word today. Five

years ago, nobody was talking about corporate transparency, but today

it’s on everyone’s lips. Companies can’t be invisible anymore, consumers

and activists want to know all about you. It’s a completely different

set of circumstances.’

Canning’s views might be summarised like this: PR consultants can offer

strategic advice without also offering implementation; PR audiences have

changed so much that the old delineations should now be redefined; and

since marketing itself is mutating, PR is the natural heir to the throne

in this new communications kingdom. Oh, and please don’t call it PR.

Isn’t all this rather running ahead of clients? Canning gives a candid

reply: ’Running ahead of clients is always what you do at the start of a

curve, but I’ve got six clients (including Price Waterhouse, IDV and

Inchcape) and I’ve only been in business six weeks. I do think I’m a bit

ahead of the game, but I’m convinced this is the way things are going to

go - maybe not for the whole industry, but certainly for a very large

part of it.’

Her clients seem to agree. Stephen Whitehead, IDV’s external affairs

director, put it like this:’The role of the in-house communications

specialist is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, and it demands a

broad understanding of both business and communication strategy. There

is a need for experienced external consultants to partner at this top

level and to advise on best practice, and there are very few people I

would feel confident of fielding to my top management. Alison Canning is

one of the few.’

He is unperturbed by the prospect of having to use more than one PR

company on the same project. ’Clients will assemble the best mix of

resources to meet all their requirements, and are perfectly comfortable

with buying a la carte,’ he states.

Many might see this as a back-handed compliment to the PR


But Whitehead’s lack of confidence in PR’s ability to cope with senior

management is reflected in a 1995 MORI poll of captains of industry

which showed them to have a less favourable view of PR than of either

advertising or market research. Unfortunately for Canning, the one area

viewed as less favourable than PR was management consultancy.

Putting that niggle to one side, what do Canning’s industry colleagues

make of all this radical reinvention of their profession? The strategy

versus implementation question generally seems to provoke a response

along the lines of: ’It’s OK for a newly liberated chief executive to go

off on their own offering a flashy bespoke service, but that doesn’t

bear very much relation to the real world.’

Charles Reynolds at Harvard Public Relations comments: ’The majority

opinion is still probably that agencies can offer both top-level

strategic advice and implementation at competitive rates.

’Clients benefit from having both aspects managed and implemented from

the same office. Senior strategists are on hand day-to-day to monitor

project progress and are better positioned to react quickly to changing


’In addition, within a single agency operation there is less chance of

misunderstandings or omissions when tactics are implemented at the


Jackie Elliot, chief executive of Manning Selvage & Lee, and chairman of

the Public Relations Consultants Association, knows what Canning is

talking about when she refers to management consultants invading PR

territory. ’That’s the one thing that is going to keep me awake at


They’re parking their tanks on our lawn.’

That said, she is not sure that Canning’s tactic of beating them at

their own game is the most realistic response. ’I have the greatest

respect for Alison, but the position she’s taking is not a new one.

People have always gone off, set up their new firms and said they were

going to concentrate solely on strategy.

’The implication is that the big multinational clients are not able to

get that level of strategic advice from any of the existing

consultancies, which is nonsense.’

Some PR consultants feel there is too much hype nowadays about


Says one: ’PR consultants should look at their fee income before they

say they are so keen on the strategic side. The core competence one is

peddling during the year is very often straightforward media


An element of honesty is needed about how our industry is structured and

how we spend most of our time.’

Graham Lancaster, chairman of Biss Lancaster, is another sceptic. ’The

fact that a high-profile person has chosen to offer one particular

service doesn’t mean it’s the start of a trend,’ he warns. ’We strongly

believe that clients want strategy and implementation linked together;

the eminence grise with the elbow grease.’

There are, though, some PR types who are happy to sit at the other end

of the spectrum and concentrate solely on the elbow grease. Two-Ten

Communications, a subsidiary of the Press Association, is a

long-standing specialist in placing stories with the media. It is not

interested in offering the kind of top-level strategic consultancy which

Canning espouses.

’If PR is both an art and a science, our job is the science bit,’ says

Two-Ten’s managing director Paul McFarland. But he stresses that the

implementational focus is no less important than the strategic and that

it also requires specialists: ’Anybody can fax a press release. The

trick is to fax it to the right people.’

While he is not desperate for more competition in the

implementation-only field, McFarland agrees that more strategic PR

specialists would be a good thing. Many large PR agencies, he argues,

have become inefficient and unable to exploit the talent of their senior


For this reason he ’would hope to see a polarisation of the


PR will serve its audience better if good strategists are out there

being strategists and not in-house signing invoices and handling

personnel problems’.

This reference to PR serving its audience brings us back to Canning’s

contention that PR’s different publics are blurring together - internal,

external and consumer communications all rapidly becoming one and the


Countrywide Porter Novelli, which helped Shell handle the crisis over

Brent Spar, its redundant oil production platform, sees companies

increasingly needing ’permission to operate’ by society at large. ’It’s

becoming very obvious that companies not accepted by a number of

different publics can be put under extreme pressure, maybe enough to put

them out of business,’ says managing director David Lake.

For this reason, he agrees with Canning that one way or another, clients

must take PR more seriously. ’PR is better understood today than ever

before, especially at the boardroom level. So it does become conceivable

that it is beginning to form the fulcrum around which lots of strategic

business decisions are being made, and not just marketing ones.’

Paul Philpotts, managing director of Canning’s old firm,

Burson-Marsteller, also emphasises that PR’s newly elevated role is a

result of client concerns rather than consultancy hype.

’Companies are aware as never before that they are being scrutinised by

consumers and can’t hide behind their individual product brands


Indeed, the most successful companies today are those which have made

their corporate brand into their strongest asset, such as Microsoft and

Virgin. Others, such as Hanson, with a less transparent corporate brand,

are keen to reinvent themselves.’

This corporate brand focus means that companies must now address a ’huge

number of audiences’ in order to keep their image in line with the

products they sell. ’We’re asked to address all those audiences as a

matter of course. Clients expect us to look at things in an holistic


But do these raised expectations mean a pre-eminent role for PR? Susan

Croft, a senior consultant at Hill & Knowlton, believes that all this

audience monitoring, especially with the growth of the Internet

(’clearly an editorial medium’) bodes well for PR against other

marketing disciplines.

’PR now takes a much more important place at the table because it

frequently operates in a non-partisan way and will have a view about the

total marketing mix,’ she says. ’When I started in PR, 12 years ago,

that kind of role would have been unthinkable.’

But she is sure it will ’never be the total answer. The mix is what


She points to one of her clients, Walkers Crisps, as a good example of

how PR and advertising is working together much more closely than would

have been usual in the past as a result of the transformed advertising


’Media fragmentation, which is causing a lot of heartache for

advertising people, is a huge opportunity for people in PR,’ claims

Croft. ’We have much more flexibility than they do and can change our

message or tailor it to precise groups with relative ease.’

Other PR consultancies seem happy to add other marketing disciplines to

their service. Band & Brown, for example had no problem creating a

series of roadshows when it launched a book for Reader’s Digest; and

Consolidated Communications does advertising as well as PR for its

financial services client client, Virgin Direct.

What seems clear from all this is that PR’s role is changing. Its old

definition was stale and far too constricting. There may be a place for

more strategic ’communications consultants’, there are more audiences to

address, and there is a need for someone to help clients find a way

through the minefield of fragmented media.

The old marketing certainties are just not there anymore. But whether

First & 42nd represents the start of a brave new PR trend or is just a

whimsical one-off is, well, uncertain.


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