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The bad-on-paper problem

18 May

You know about good-on-paper people? They tick all the boxes – on paper. In person, they can be disappointing to meet: there's just no chemistry.

Many public relations consultants are good-on-paper, I feel – perhaps because dating is such a good metaphor for the competitive pursuit of client relationships.

Most undergraduate students are the reverse of this. They're confident presenters and persuasive and personable individuals. It's just that they're bad-on-paper. When you come to read their essays you realise that inside that confident exterior lurk the thought processes and writing skills of a child.

Of course, it's easier to fix the bad-on-paper problem than the good-on-paper problem. Students have time on their side and need to be told when and why their written words let them down. The obvious fix for a good-on-paper consultant who's not winning new business is to be more modest – advice they're unlikely to heed in a recession.

Still growing, just

6 Mar

WPP's results are closely watched as they say so much about the relative performance of various marketing services including public relations. They also give a global view. There's a straw to cling on to, but worse is expected from 2009:

Public relations and public affairs was the fastest growing communications services sector on a like-for-like basis. New technologies and new media have, once again, demonstrated the power of editorial publicity through fast-growing new applications such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia… In addition, public relations and public affairs have benefitted [sic] from the impact of polling techniques, which have provided a more scientific basis for the industry.

Turning shares into stakes

5 Feb

I've enjoyed a sporadic virtual presence at Davos thanks to many media reports and online commentary. My highlight? This phrase stands out in Richard Edelman's summary:

“You cannot think about shareholder value without considering stakeholders. Any business that wants to endure must have trust and agreement of society for legitimacy." Ian Davis, McKinsey.

It's interesting to note that management consultants are focusing on more than the bottom line (perhaps it's inevitable). But it poses a challenge to PR consultants, because this should be our natural territory. What's the purpose of public relations? To help establish and maintain the social legitimacy of organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. We've recommended and conducted communications audits for many years; who's going to be first to conduct a legitimacy audit?

Welcome to the age of legitimacy. Prepare to move on from the age of marketing and branding.

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 


13 Nov

John Harris has written an extended feature on Matthew Freud’s connections to the worlds of politics, media and celebrity. It reads rather like an appendix to Miller and Dinan’s A Century of Spin: the author can’t quite pin his subject down, but clearly senses there’s something wrong in someone having this much influence.

Having a famous great-grandfather, being the son of well-known MP and broadcaster, having Rupert Murdoch as father-in-law must confer advantages. I suspect it encouraged him to take risks, because you can see Freud’s progress as an entrepreneurial success story – how someone who did not go to university built a business and became connected to the most powerful people in the country. He’s earned the money he’s spending on private jets and lavish parties, though John Harris sees him as the Great Gatsby of our age.

How to be bad

19 Aug

As reported in Management Today, entrepreneur Guy Kingston is so fed up with ‘dodgy PR agents’ he’s trying to find Britain’s worst public relations agent.

He lists 9 signs of a bad PR agent – a reasonable list of bad practice indicators.

What’s unsaid is that a good PR consultant (note how I prefer to use the c word) will choose to develop long-term business relationships with the best clients. The problem here, as so often, probably comes down to expectation management. Short-term publicity does not always equate to long-term reputation, which is why payment by results is usually such a bad choice (it ensures the focus is only on tomorrow’s headines whether good, bad or ugly). Seven PR agents in just over a year does suggest a focus on the short-term.

Yet this stunt’s clearly gained him some publicity. Either he’s going alone and shows he’s learnt the rules of the game or – quite possibly – this was dreamed up by his latest ‘scumbag masquerading as a PR agent.’ If so, it’s a textbook example of how to turn around a difficult client. Trebles all round!

Kafka on PR

3 Oct

It’s Peter Kafka, and it’s The Top Ten Lies PR Agencies Tell Their Clients.