PR consultancies are at last being taken seriously by clients, but writes Martin Croft, they must offer creativity, value for money, accountability and be able to work with the client before they can expect selection

SBHD: PR consultancies are at last being taken seriously by clients, but writes Martin Croft, they must offer creativity, value for money, accountability and be able to work with the client before they can expect selection

Be careful if you ever have to ask marketing directors what criteria they use when they select a public relations consultancy – you may find yourself deafened by the silence. It seems that while marketers are happy to talk about the selection of a particular advertising agency, they are far less willing to talk about their reasons for choosing a PR consultancy or indeed, any other below-the-line agency.

In fact, the response of one marketing director to the question was a curt: “I hire a PR consultancy to handle questions from journalists. So you’ll have to talk to them.” An honest reply, but, given that the premise of this article was to talk to clients, not a useful one.

But more useful than the response from one company’s switchboard operator, who revealed that though the company used a PR consultancy, she could not say which one it was because it was company policy “not to give out this sort of information”.

One reason why many marketers appear unwilling to raise their heads above the parapet is their fear of becoming the target for a salvo of new business letters from PR consultancies.

This attitude to public relations – where clients regard PR people as performing a necessary, but distasteful function – is changing, but not quickly enough. Too many clients are still unable to view public relations as an integral part of a marketing strategy, and lose out by not maximising what should be a valuable part of the marketing communications mix.

If they are unable to overcome this distaste for PR, then it is unlikely that they will be able to choose their PR agency on a truly rational basis.

Colin Thompson, director of the Public Relations Consultants Association, believes that many clients get the PR agency they deserve. “Clients look at cost, above all else. Too many of them go for the cheapest agency, without checking to see if it has the ability to do the job. I get a lot of complaints from clients who have picked up what I call cowboys. But they won’t make the same mistake twice.”

The PRCA will not recommend PR agencies, but it can run clients’ criteria through its database of agencies and pull off the names of those agencies that match through what it calls its “referral system”.

The sort of criteria clients tend to provide the PRCA with for this service are the size (either number of employees or turnover); the location; and whether or not the agency has experience of a particular industry. Often, clients will be looking for agencies that have some experience of their market sector, or of a related one. As Thompson says: “You don’t want to engage someone who has to spend the first month or two learning about your business.”

Judging from the PRCA’s experience, more clients are beginning to take care over how they select a PR consultancy. Thompson says that in 1992, when the database was set up, some £2m of business (in terms of fee income) went through. In 1993, the amount increased to £7m, while in 1994 it was £14m.

Thompson’s view is that clients’ criteria for picking an agency should be the ability to do the job they want done, membership of some form of accreditation scheme and last, but by no means least, whether or not there is a personality conflict. If a client and a PR person don’t get on, then there’s no point in working together.

Suzanne Finch is general manager of The Public Relations Register, which is part of the Advertising Agency Register. She believes that clients are looking for strong experience in the chosen area; personality; good media contacts and the ability to handle the media; and a proven track record in getting results.

But above all, Finch says: “they are looking for value-for-money and creativity”. She says that they are also much more interested in what she calls “results-oriented agencies”, and in agencies that can offer some form of evaluation package. There are a number of off-the-peg software packages that help keep track of and evaluate PR coverage, and many of the larger agencies have also developed their own systems.

The PRR, which was established in 1982 with the support of the PRCA, works in much the same way as the AAR does for above-the-line agencies. Clients provide a brief giving their exact requirements, which enables the PRR to prepare an initial list of consultancies.

Clients select which agencies they wish to hear more about, and then visit the PRR offices where they are provided with current background information, client lists, biographical details, relevant case histories and samples of work. From this, they can draw up a shortlist. The PRR strongly recommends that they meet each of the agencies on their shortlist, to make sure that the “chemistry” between the individuals is right. Clients then issue a brief and invite their selected agencies to pitch.

As with the PRCA, the PRR does not recommend agencies, it simply helps clients with the selection process. “Clients want to short-circuit this and do it in the least time-consuming way,” says Finch.

In addition to being impartial, both the PRCA’s referral system and the Public Relations Register are totally confidential services. Agencies never find out that someone has been looking at their information, let alone who – unless, of course, the client contacts them and invites them to pitch for the business. This confidentiality, Thompson and Finch stress, is vitally important, whether a client wants to switch agencies, or to appoint one for the first time.

One company which understands the role that public relations should be playing is garden products company Flymo. Marketing manager Andrew Mackay says: “Public relations has to be integrated fully into the marketing plan. Our PR consultancy is part of the same group as our advertising agency, so there’s a real synergy between them.”

Flymo’s PR consultancy The Rowland Company was appointed without a formal pitch. Mackay says that it was more of a “gradual process”. Flymo was looking for a strategic approach to PR work. The company operates in an industry where there is both a strong trade press and a strong consumer press, and much of its marketing activity is driven by new product development. While it is important that its PR consultancy has a strong responsive capability to deal with tactical opportunities, Mackay says that strategic issues – particularly around product development – are an important aspect of its marketing communications.

Another element is branding. He says: “We need our PR consultancy to have broad experience in handling strong retail-driven brands.”

Finally, Mackay echoes Finch’s view of evaluation. He says it is “by no means a crude analysis of press coverage. It’s very much a question of attitude. We can assess the agency on the interest being generated in the consumer press. For example, when we launched the Garden Vac (a garden vacuum cleaner) we received excellent editorial coverage – our expectations were surpassed”.

Shirley Horn, director of corporate communications at Hewlett-Packard, went through the process of picking a PR agency last year. She looks for three main points: “Proven expertise in my particular area – which in my case means corporate PR and hi-tech. Knowledge of – and an indication of committment to – operational management systems, including measurement. Clear accountability is very important. I don’t want an agency that’s going to baulk at total accountability.

“In fact, the agency I chose – Countrywide – has BS5750. If you’ve gone through that process, you can do it for a client. As Hewlett-Packard is committed to total quality management world- wide, our suppliers have to be too. The final criterion is the team. It’s absolutely critical that there is the right chemistry.”

While Flymo was looking for an agency with strong retail brand experience, other clients want different, though equally specialist, experience. Clients will use different types of agencies for different types of business – it is rare that one public relations consultancy has real experience in more than two or three areas.

“You wouldn’t want to give a food PR account to a specialist City PR firm, and vice versa,” says Finch.

The Institute of Sales Promotion is one organisation to appoint recently a public relations consultancy for the first time. The ISP’s secretary general Sue Short says that the three most important factors, from the institute’s point of view, are sector experience; being able to work with the ISP’s management team; the ability to generate proposals which provide an appropriate balance between visibility, represented by regular, ongoing press coverage; and the development of deeper issues.

“It was essential to have a PR focus that understood totally both the institute and the sector it works within,” says Short.

Clients who intend to use PR effectively know that they will have to work closely with their PR consultants, and be in their company, far more than with any other marketing discipline. If they can’t get on, the relationship is doomed from the start.

Short’s final point – the ability to handle both ongoing routine press work and deeper, strategic issues – is also echoed by many other clients.

But the other selection criterion that appears just as often is cost or value-for-money. Clients are demanding accountability from their PR consultancies, just as they are with other marketing services agencies.

PR is perhaps the most difficult of the marketing communications channels to assess properly, since it is about attitudes, but consultancies that want to be taken seriously in the future have realised that they must deliver quantifiable results.

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