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
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
While PR agencies continue to suffer their industry’s fluffy or
underhand reputation, they are gradually gaining in confidence and
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
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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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