PR consultancy – backwards and forwards

17 Jan

Hobsbawm I've updated my selective listing of UK PR consultancies, based primarily on those that are Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) members.

It's been a chore as it's a couple of years since I created the list.

But the changes have been remarkable; what lessons can we learn from this?

  • The PRCA is a trade association, not a professional body. Its previous policy of restricting membership to larger consultancy businesses has been reversed, as this was leading to an ever smaller membership. Associate memberships have been scrapped, so all are now full members.
  • Most of the new members are smaller marcoms and promotional agencies who avoid the use of the 'c word' (consultancy) on their websites. Among some of these new recruits are celebrity and consumer agencies such as Borkowski who have previously shunned professional memberships. 
  • Some large, well-known consultancies (eg Edelman, Brunswick) choose not to be members of the PRCA.
  • Consolidation continues (EHPR has just been absorbed into Trimedia), but the sector remains dynamic (there are very low barriers to entry). So while the sector shrinks at one end, it expands at the other.
  • There's very little common ground between the promotional agencies and the consultancies specialising in corporate, financial, political or healthcare work. The PRCA began by splitting away from the then Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR). There's a case for the PRCA itself splitting into specialist trade associations – but there remains a more compelling case for it to merge back into the CIPR to provide a stronger single voice for the UK PR sector. 

  What will happen in 2009? I predict a scramble for the life rafts:

  • Consolidation will continue – not just because of a lack of capital, but mainly because of a lack of management expertise in the sector (human capital). But fragmentation will also continue as consultants seek to specialise, more mid-career practitioners offer themselves as consultants, and the lessons of small is beautiful are re-learned. 
  • There will continue to be a shift from advertising to 'below the line' promotional techniques such as public relations. But those seeking to win these marketing budgets will have to demonstrate rigorous methodologies for evaluating outcomes.
  • Everyone is looking for growth sectors and services. The public sector now looks more attractive than the private sector – and I note how one consultancy focuses on public sector and not-for-profit clients. I also note how one award-winning local government PR team is now a PRCA consultancy in a reversal of how public-private partnerships usually work.
  • In terms of services, social media appears promising. But how to make a professional service out of what Clay Shirky describes as mass amateurisation

Photo: Julia Hobsbawm by Learn4Life on Flickr 

One Response to “PR consultancy – backwards and forwards”

  1. Gareth Thompson 04/02/2009 at 2:38 pm #

    Richard,
    What a task indeed. Let me comment on one of your observations.
    “Some large, well-known consultancies (eg Edelman, Brunswick) choose not to be members of the PRCA.”
    Yes. Good point.
    Brunswick and others actively choose not to be involved in the PRCA. Indeed, they view their absence as a positive move in positioning terms.
    Perhaps because of their City advisory work, some financial and corporate PR shops aspire to deliver the value of other corporate advisers such as management consultants, brokers and investment bankers. So not being in the PRCA is part of their PR strategy!
    Best wishes,
    Gareth

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