SUPPLEMENT: PUBLIC RELATIONS; Blow away the ab-fab fog

Buoyed by some notable recent successes, PR agencies are gaining in confidence and credibility, writes Danny Rogers. But how do they present themselves to PR buyers?

Buoyed by some notable recent successes, PR agencies are gaining in

confidence and credibility, writes Danny Rogers. But how do they present

themselves to PR buyers?



There’s a popular image of public relations which is not very

flattering. To the public at large, it conjures up images of Absolutely

Fabulous’s Edina, personality promoter Max Clifford or those on the

fringe of the monarchy who do ‘something in PR’. More recently, the

allegedly anti-democratic work of lobbyist Ian Greer has been added to

the mix.



For marketers, the reality is somewhat different. Integrated marketing

campaigns such as the launch of Pepsi Blue and Whitbread’s ‘ownership’

of St Patrick’s Day through its Murphy’s brand, are excellent examples

of PR bringing both creativity and demonstrable value to the marketing

top table.



While PR agencies continue to suffer their industry’s fluffy or

underhand reputation, they are gradually gaining in confidence and

credibility.



Good for them, but the marketing or communications manager who is

looking to outsource PR expertise still has to make an inspired choice

from the hundreds of agencies adorning the pages of industry directories

such as PR Week’s Contact, or Hollis.



So how does one approach such a decision and which criteria should be

applied? First you might like to consider that age-old question ‘Is size

important?’. After all, UK PR agencies range from the one-man band to

the Shandwick Group, which turns over pounds 41m a year.



Annual league tables published by PR Week and Marketing list PR

companies according to their fee income, turnover and specialist areas.



Obviously, the main benefit of choosing a large ‘generalist’ agency is

its resources. Teresa Wickham, director of corporate affairs for

Safeway, has used Countrywide Porter Novelli for the past 18 months.



‘One of the main reasons we chose Countrywide was because, as well as

the team working on our account, it could pull in other teams to

brainstorm ideas, giving us access to a broad range of creative

thinking,’ she explains.



Wickham is quick to point out that she also sees benefits in smaller

agencies, however. As well as using Countrywide for consumer PR,

Brunswick for financial PR and Westminster Strategy for lobbying, for

example, Wickham also employs two smaller agencies: Glasgow-based TMA

and Rosemary Brook PR.



Safeway’s budgets provide Wickham with the luxury of combining big

agency clout with niche expertise. As she explains: ‘TMA provides us

with knowledge of the Scottish market, while Rosemary Brook provides

long-term strategic advice. For example, she makes sure we keep on the

right track in building a family image for the brand.’



There are now specialist PR agencies in many fields, including

technology, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, youth marketing, and crisis

management, to name but a few.



Indeed, specialists have taken such a large chunk of the market that

some of the larger players have restructured their businesses to become

less generalist and more multi-specialist, with divisions competing

head-to-head with the niche players.



Still on the size question, there might be a requirement for a pan-

European or even pan-global PR programme.



For this purpose, big-name agencies such as Shandwick, Burson-Marsteller

and Hill and Knowlton have offices dotted around the world, as well as

affiliate agencies in some countries.



And other leading UK brands, such as Biss Lancaster and high-tech

specialists A-Plus are part of affiliate groups of independent agencies

(Euro RSCG and Euro-Plus respectively). These looser-knit networks claim

to provide a comparable consistency of approach across international

borders.



But as marketing services consultant Simon Hind-Tutt points out, the

critical factor is not necessarily the infrastructure, but whether the

co-ordination is harmonious. ‘International resources are important, but

only if one resource can effectively talk to and work with another.’



And there are other ways in which an international programme can be

handled. Rhona Luthi, PR manager for the luxury goods company Alfred

Dunhill, is responsible for her company’s world-wide PR strategy. But

she uses Attenborough PR - an agency without an established

international network - to help develop this strategy and roll it out

world-wide.



‘I have worked in several markets and it doesn’t matter if an agency has

offices everywhere. Localised agencies often have strong connections in

their particular market,’ she says.



But Luthi does admit that she is able to handle it this way because of

her company’s relatively strong and internationally experienced in-house

PR team.



A client based outside London looking for PR will probably have to

choose between a local, regionally-based agency and one of the top 25 PR

agencies by size, all of which are based in London and the Home

Counties.



Indeed, there are many large regional agencies, such as Harrison Cowley

in Manchester or Golley Slater in Cardiff, with strong links to local

media and local decision-makers. And with media relations becoming

increasingly electronic, it could be argued that the advantages of being

based in London are in decline.



But however impressive an agency’s resources and wherever it is based, a

crucial consideration for the PR buyer will be the agency’s track record

in creativity and delivering results for its clients.



One way to assess agencies’ calibre in creative thinking, organisational

skills and ability to achieve media coverage is by studying the

recognised awards schemes, such as that run by PR Week each year (the

1996 winners have just been announced).



Awards are allocated for best consultancy and best campaign, right

through to more specific categories such as best technology campaign,

best broadcast campaign and the writing excellence award.



The Public Relations Consultancy Association (PRCA), whose members

account for some 80% of the industry’s income, also runs its own annual

awards programme, with the results published by Marketing.



Agencies will justifiably parade their awards in their presentations,

marketing literature and reception areas. But while the judging standard

is high, some agencies do not enter the schemes and there is some

excellent work that goes unrecognised.



In terms of tangible result delivery, an ongoing PR bugbear is the lack

of any standardised industry evaluation system. There are many different

approaches for measuring editorial coverage, ranging from simple column

inches achieved or advertising value equivalents, to complex

quantitative and qualitative formulae devised by specialist evaluation

companies.



What is important is that the criteria for measuring its success are

clearly understood from the outset. In this way, regular client/agency

reviews will be more constructive and a sound judgement of performance

can be made.



Another way of testing the pedigree of an agency is to obtain references

from other companies using its services, a practice used surprisingly

rarely. Useful advice might also be obtained by asking relevant

journalists whom you regard highly or by monitoring the trade and

marketing press.



The first practical step to build a short-list could well be to use the

PRCA’s referrals system which matches PR agencies to client requirements

free of charge.



Compared to the registry for the advertising industry, this system is

relatively small scale and has come under some criticism. But Adrian

Wheeler, chairman of the PRCA’s marketing committee, says the approach

employed since 1985 is now under review. ‘From January 1997 we are

changing the computer system to make it easier for the uninitiated

enquirer to get the right answers,’ he says.



At the moment, the system handles 300 to 500 enquiries each year.

Wheeler believes the new approach will help clients provide more

information on their requirements and in turn, prioritise a more precise

selection of agencies to meet them.



There will also be a personal adviser to guide the enquirer through each

step of the process.



Wheeler explains the need for a human touch: ‘Unlike the situation in

advertising, where the product is more easily understood, half our

enquirers are not quite sure what they want because of the more complex

portfolio of services in PR.’



The Advertising Agency Register also features a public relations

register, which provides guidance and detailed information on PR

agencies, although it does come with a price tag.



All the criteria covered so far, from size and resources to specialisms

and track record, are basic qualifications that might determine a

shortlist of agencies to talk to. The next stage is more about

instinctive judgement.



Perhaps more than with any other marketing service, buying PR is about

buying people. PR’s output is often less instantly tangible than a TV

commercial, market research data or a direct mail brochure.



Its value is in the complex and strategic messages it can convey and the

editorial credibility it can deliver. This usually involves changing or

managing the perception of an organisation or product over a longer

period. In this sense, the client and the agency must work together as a

single team.



‘It’s difficult to get traditional marketers to understand the

difference between PR and advertising,’ warns Wickham. ‘You can’t always

control the message, so it requires a building-brick strategy rather

than a quick fix.’



Successful PR programmes often rely on a good chemistry or ‘fit’ between

the two parties. As Diane VandenBerg, deputy managing director of

Countrywide, puts it: ‘Talk to the principals of the companies you are

considering. Describe your requirements and arrange to meet them for an

initial discussion. Get an idea of their approach, the quality of their

people and the atmosphere in which they operate.’



Simon Rind-Tutt goes a stage further. ‘One tends to meet PR people in a

rarefied atmosphere, so make sure you meet them socially or go to spend

a day in the consultancy. It can be impressive to witness their drive,

or equally, it can be enlightening to see the lack of motivation.



‘If you are going to have the long and fruitful relationship that is

required then you need to see them warts ’n’ all,’ he claims. Only a

face-to-face encounter will enable buyers to assess whether or not they

can trust an agency with their reputation.



But beware. Will those who pitch be the same team that works on your

account?



Colin Trusler, managing director of Shandwick UK, warns: ‘It is not

unusual to have a senior team present at the pitch, giving the

impression that it will be heavily involved. Experienced PR

practitioners advise that you should ask how much time each senior

presenter expects to spend on the business.’



Mandy Macleod, PR manager for Whitbread Beer Company, says the single

most important criterion is an agency’s ability to understand her

business. ‘This is the rock that everything else centres on. Our PR

agencies must understand the brand and work as an integrated team with

our other agencies, above and below the line.’



Finally, it might come down to cost. Although as Susan Croft, senior

consultant at Hill and Knowlton, points out: ‘If the agency qualifies

how money will be spent and demonstrates a clear methodology for

measuring results, it will not be so much of an issue.’



In his book Managing the Professional Service Firm, US management guru

David H. Maister sums up the selection decision well: ‘I, the client, am

looking for that rare professional who has both technical skills and a

sincere desire to be helpful, to work with both me and my problem. The

key is empathy - the ability to enter my world and see it through my

eyes.’



------------------------------------------------------------------------

Who you gonna call?

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Public Relations Consultants Association               0171 233 6026

Institute of Public Relations (professional body)      0171 253 5151

Advertising Agency Register                            0171 437 3357

Marketing PR League Table                              0171 413 4135

PR Week Top 150 Agencies supplement                    0171 413 4391

PR Awards supplement                                   0171 413 4391

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