A week after the monarchy appeared on the verge of collapse, Lynne Franks, queen of the “Ab Fab” PR world, did what some thought our own monarch should do – she abdicated.
Last month, Lynne Franks PR dropped its creator’s name and reinvented itself as Life PR, ironically because of Franks’ image problem.
It was the first symbolic act of an industry that is struggling to face up to a rapidly changing media landscape, one that is providing new problems and new opportunities.
As the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, demonstrated, the PR industry is having to contend with unprecedented television news coverage. Whereas ten years ago there was three hours of TV news, now there are 11 hours of terrestrial news, two 24-hour news channels and dozens more about to hit the screens.
In ten years the number of magazines in the UK has nearly doubled, from 1,500 to 2,700, and the number of newspapers and magazines covering business issues has increased by 40 per cent in four years.
The relaxation of media controls and deregulation has also given rise to increased sponsorship opportunities and an growing tendency for advertorials to replace expensive advertising.
Any outside observer would think that PR consultancies are uniquely placed to take advantage of the new environment. But the industry is guilty of being too slow to react to the new situation and is still suffering from a lack of self-confidence.
Martin Loat, managing director of Propeller Marketing Communications which specialises in PR for media companies, says: “Before PR was driven by the written word, press releases led media relations; now video clips and pictures are the most important and press releases are an afterthought.”
Yet few PR consultancies, including his own, have hired specialist broadcasting people. Most are still geared to working with the print media.
Secondly, PR people are still failing to place themselves at the centre of corporate decision-making. Recent examples of this include Lever Brother’s disastrous handling of the Persil Power fiasco and Shell’s handling of the Brent Spar and Nigeria crises.
David McLaren, chief executive of Shell’s PR agency Hill & Knowlton, says the oil giant’s ponderous response to the crises indicated that it did not understand modern media. “The board continued to issue statements in elaborate Oxford English in response to being ripped apart by tabloids using words of two syllables.”
Loat says the language reflects a lack of any real understanding of consumers and a failure of PR people to get to the centre of the decision-making process. “There is a continual struggle for recognition – it is still highly unusual for PR people in big companies to have the ear of the boss. Often these are only consulted when there is a problem and then it’s usually too late,” he says.
As with the advertising industry, management consultants have made in-roads at board level, getting involved with PR-related issues. The issue is not only cultural but structural. PR consultancies have been slow to adapt to the new environment. They have only recently started to address, in any systematic way, client fears about effectiveness and outsourcing.
New technology and the relaxation of regulations should mean a greater involvement for PR companies, but they are having to argue their case more than ever against aggressive ad agencies and management consultancies for greater involvement.
Agencies want to be seen less as the vacuous Absolutely Fabulous operations, epitomised by Lynne Franks, and more as grown-up, sophisticated communications operations. One example is Hill & Knowlton, which is working with WPP sister research company Millward Brown to produce tracking research into the effectiveness of editorial endorsement which will be published next spring.
Much of PR planning in the past has been intuitive. The modern PR agency is starting to employ “scientific” language to fight its corner in the marketing mix. McLaren believes that in the future PR agencies may start to employ media planners in the same way that ad agencies do.
Hill & Knowlton is about to hire an account planner for the first time. It is also developing software with WPP sister ad agency J Walter Thompson to develop media targeting packages. There are 15 packages aimed at targeting, planning and evaluating PR campaigns through different media.
“We are borrowing the techniques developed by the ad world and applying them to PR,” says McLaren. “It will help us to concentrate our PR activity on crucial markets and reduce waste.”
A further indication is that PR consultancies are increasingly modelling themselves on ad agencies. Two years ago, the Quentin Bell Organisation reorganised its consumer division along ad agency lines, splitting into three units: media relations; media promotions; and events management; with a team of account handlers working across the sections.
Part of Life PR’s new makeover was the launch of a PR division, a planning and a media department working with account teams.
In response to new technologies, several PR consultancies have set up new media units and divisions to develop Websites for clients. They have developed brand-specific Websites, and are getting the brands onto existing Websites, involving discussion groups, chat lines and home pages.
With digital TV the editorial power of programmes will become stronger. It will let audiences order programmes on demand; 30-second commercials which fit around programmes will become meaningless in the new digital environment. PR companies should be able to provide fully packaged stories and programmes to the channels and, for events such as London Fashion Week, be able to offload costs.
The emergence of digital TV and the Internet provides more opportunities for companies to become content providers. The new media environments call for PR consultancies to hire people who are not schooled in print media PR but have a deeper understanding of the new markets.
To cope with the extra demand, PR consultants should be hiring broadcast specialists and programme-makers, as well as new media specialists.
The fragmentation of audiences, the explosion in media costs and the blurring of lines between editorial and advertising provides new opportunities for PR consultants. They could become editorial content providers in the same way that advertising agencies moved from being media buyers to providing artwork for ads and later started to produce commercials for clients.
Ironically, it is people without a PR background, like Richard Branson, who have taught the industry a valuable lesson about content provision.
Another technique is to create content. Branson creates PR events that TV and newspapers want to cover, such as his attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. It helps to gain coverage and exposure in a way that spot advertising could never hope to achieve in the modern media environment.
Some clients see events and festivals as a way of getting away from the clutter of TV to target specific groups. Holsten, for instance, recently came off TV to concentrate on its festival programme.
But there is a danger that the event becomes more important than the message, as happened with the Pepsi Blue launch last year. “It was a complete waste of effort, it painted Concorde Blue and shipped a load of supermodels over to say what? That the Pepsi can is now blue, everyone said, ‘very nice, but so what?’,” says Mark Borkowski of Mark Borkowski PR.
Though in the Pepsi Blue case it could be argued that the main issue was a misplaced branding decision, rather than inappropriate PR, it does indicate that one-off events and stunts cannot replace consistent brand messages.
“Events are all well,” says Loat, “but they cannot get a consistent brand message across that you are in control of – for this you need to look at other marketing communications such as advertising.”
Loat says that there is a danger of “dumbing down”. Distilling brand values into fewer images and sound bites may take value from the brand, but the imperative to get noticed is too great.
“Companies need to combine the strong simple visual images with other communications which get the brand message across,” he says.
Another consequence of the media explosion has been the impact on news values.
Julia Hobsbawm, joint managing director of Hobsbawm McCauley PR and a council member of the Institute of Public Relations, says the news of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was followed by reflections on all aspects of her life and gave PR opportunities for areas such as anti-drink driving and charities. The growth of media talking about media gives many more opportunities for PR involvement.
Hill & Knowlton’s McLaren says that a further consequence of the growth in media is that journalists have become more intrusive. And clients are increasingly concerned about reputation and accountability. “It has a profound impact on the way companies operate where actions in one area have repercussions in others which blurs the lines,” he says. “A chairman’s salary is as important for The Mirror as the FT.”
He says this blurring of boundaries means that companies also have to restructure to meet the new environment, integrating corporate affairs with the marketing function.
Similarly, as Shell demonstrates, there is also a need for quicker, simpler response to stories in straightforward language and personality endorsement.
Because of this there is increasing need to attach spokespeople to brands in order to satisfy the needs of increasingly voracious media, which in turn results in companies “dumbing down” British media.
Despite all the self-analysis, name changing, research commissioning and restructuring activity, the tabloid media has an amazing ability to bring the PR industry back to earth. As Borkowski poignantly says the process can be amazingly straightforward: “Often journalists want to know who your brand spokesman is – and who he is shagging.”
Life PR et al take note.