The spin that public relations agencies normally use on behalf of their clients shifts up a gear when they talk about themselves. This makes it difficult to write about PR.
Trying to identify the strengths and weaknesses of either specialist or general agencies is tough. There are no weaknesses – anywhere.
There seems to be good reasons to be either a specialist or general agency, and ultimately the decision will be based on the client’s preferences. But whether there are good reasons or not, what is certain is that the days of the highly niche technology PR agencies which communicate only with the vertical press are over.
Ten years ago, when technology was still shrouded in mystery and of interest only to IT departments, the ability of niche PR consultants to communicate to specialist publications in a language only a few people understood was a decided advantage. But the market has moved on.
Sean Gough, who is managing director of Lighthouse, which specialises in IT clients, says: “My clients tell me that IT decisions are being taken at much higher levels within companies. IT is now a serious business investment which interests the main board. This audience needs to be aware of vendor and business issues.”
This change has had an impact on the way the IT sector is covered, with a swing away from vertical media to more coverage in the national press. In fact, according to Gough, “when you are talking to a board-level audience, the specialist press doesn’t cut it”.
This means specialist knowledge of the vertical media is no longer an advantage for PR agencies. It seems more important to be able to talk about technical matters with newspaper journalists.
Gough says: “One major reseller told me that it has stopped targeting the specialist IT press. Clients feel IT press weeklies are full of regurgitated news from the US. Now they just go straight to websites of the US press.”
The move away from vertical titles, however, does not stop PR agencies specialising in various sectors – Gough himself specialises in IT, but targets consumer rather than business titles.
What this means is that PR practitioners still need to have specialist, but not nerd-like, knowledge of a subject, although not necessarily of the media.
Caraline (sic) Brown, managing director of IT specialist Midnight Communications, agrees that as the industry matures the need for a specialist knowledge base is not as important as it once was, “particularly with new media, but it is still important to know what you are talking about.
“Technology journalists hate PR people – especially if they don’t know what they are talking about. There will always be specialist media that you will need to talk to. A good PR agent should target everything,” she says.
Although PR specialists are becoming more general in their approach to media, they tend to claim the advantage over larger, general agencies through their specialist knowledge.
Juliet Bernard, managing director of marketing and design PR Bluebear, believes that larger agencies are not able to react as fast to the needs of business clients. Her experience as a client forms her attitude on large, general agencies.
Bernard says: “When I was working with Courtelle’s, Lynn Franks was our PR. She could get anything into the nationals, but had no idea how to approach the trade press, which was just as important to us. I was always rewriting their press releases.”
Bernard also believes that large, general agencies tend to ignore the trade press. She says: “They don’t want to dirty their hands with trade publications, even if they meet a crucial need for clients”.
Not surprisingly, large agencies that tend to call themselves multi-specialist disagree. Ogilvy PR has been on the acquisition trail for the past year – one reason why it can claim to have specialist knowledge and staff. Last year it bought Sector Public Relations, a specialist in financial and business-to-business, and more recently has purchased healthcare specialist Magellan. Ogilvy associate director Angela Jacklin was head of Sector PR.
Within Ogilvy PR there are four divisions – health and medical, corporate, consumer, and IT. Jacklin says: “Now my Sector PR clients are exposed to more depth of experience. A lot of them wanted to get into e-commerce and we can put them in touch with the IT division. Clients were also wanting to do things in Europe and we didn’t have a network. We can now offer them much more.”
But her background as a specialist means that Jacklin is well-versed in the trade media. She says: “We can’t afford to ignore them. Our clients expect us to know the trade media well.”
August.One split from the Text 100 group last year. It still handles IT business, most notably IBM, but the split happened because there was a desire to move away from the niche IT sector.
August.One managing director Tariq Khwaja says: “We found the briefs we were getting from technology clients were changing. Clients wanted to get into the boardroom – they wanted their names to be seen by finance directors and chief executives.
“We found increasingly that the people we were hiring had little background in technology; we were more interested in people who had run campaigns for perfumes or banks.”
Although many in PR are broadening their approach to the IT sector, it still represents a significant chunk of income for all PR agencies and is likely to remain so, particularly with the emergence of dot-coms. Of course, there is the argument that dot-coms have nothing to do with IT and more to do with retail – but the fact is the back end of dot-coms can get very technical; probably something more dot-com entrepreneurs should be aware of.
In fact, PR attitudes towards dot-coms have changed significantly over the past few months. Six months ago, they couldn’t get enough of them – now they are treating them with caution.
Brown at Midnight says: “I am sick to death of working with inexperienced people. We get about four to five leads a day from dot-coms. Initially, we would chase all of them. But now we know: for every ten companies that call, only one will become a client. A lot of people are talking a big story in dot-coms; we are looking much more carefully at who they are now.”
Khwaja is more diplomatic: “Every managing director of a dot-com start-up has passion and self belief. But you have to stand back and assess whether this is the world’s best/first/greatest thing on the Internet. We have to be more selective than we might have been.
“The other problem is that pitches normally take anything from two weeks to two months. A lot of dot-coms want to appoint someone by the end of the week. That can put an enormous strain on the agency.”
Most PR agencies say it is difficult to turn down the kind of money that is being offered by dot-coms, and, for many, they represent an increasing share of their revenue. But like the technology specialists, there are lessons to be learned from relying too heavily on one sector.