PUBLIC RELATIONS: PR fights for a higher ground

Some PR groups now favour an integrated approach to PR where client advertising also becomes their remit. But Jim Davies says not all in the industry feel that is the way forward

Some PR groups now favour an integrated approach to PR where client

advertising also becomes their remit. But Jim Davies says not all in the

industry feel that is the way forward

For an industry that specialises in image management, public relations

suffers from something of an image problem. Stella Hitner, managing

director of the Milton Keynes-based consultancy, the Reputation

Managers, recalls a dinner party where a friend of ten years’ standing

leaned across the table and asked her, ‘Who won this year’s Gold Cup?’

‘How on earth would I know?’ she replied. He looked quizzical.

Eventually he came out with, ‘But that’s what you do isn’t it?’; the

implication being that PR is no more than a perpetual orgy of corporate


A friend of mine, whose wife works in PR, never quite figured out what

she did for a living. Then he attended a conference where a posse of PR

women were arranging the seats for an afternoon lecture. Now, when she

comes home, he politely asks her what the chairs were like.

One possible solution is to ditch the term ‘public relations’

altogether. After all, the media landscape is changing, and, like the

other players in the communications industry, PR is having to adapt; it

is steadily evolving into a more integrated, results-oriented animal.

Which is exactly what Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR

agencies, decided to do.

In November last year, it declared itself a ‘perception management

agency’, and relaunched its European business-to-business advertising

arm, Marsteller Advertising, which had been wound down in the early 80s,

shortly after its takeover by Young and Rubicam. In the US, Marsteller

Advertising opened for business about a year ago with offices in New

York, Chicago and Pittsburgh; it already has billings of around dollars

50 million. US clients currently using both Burson-Marsteller’s

advertising and press resources include the US Treasury, Westinghouse,

Philip Morris and McDonald’s.

But just what does ‘perception management’ mean? Is it a valid,

progressive term, or yet another piece of business-speak? According to

Keith Sharp, managing director of affiliate relations at Burson-

Marsteller, ‘ultimately public relations is trying to drive a different

sort of behaviour, whether it’s people developing a brand preference;

buying shares in a certain company; getting people to join a company or

stay with a company or whatever.’ So what does it take to make people

behave in a certain way? Sharp explains: ‘It is all about moving their

perceptions towards a particular company or issue from point A to point

B; the idea being that perceptions drive attitudes, and attitudes drive


‘When we did some research and talked to clients, they saw the

perceptions or reputation of the company as perhaps not a quantifiable

asset, but certainly one of the most priceless assets they possess. What

we’re doing on our best days is managing perceptions on behalf of a


A straw poll of some of the leading lights in the PR industry, however,

revealed scepticism about the term, although there was cautious support

for the rationale behind it. Alastair Gornall, managing director of

Consolidated Communications, says: ‘PR has problems in many areas, but

its value is increasingly being understood. If I told someone I was a

‘perception manager’ they’d give me a funny look and say ‘what the

hell’s that?’. Why create a new definition? We should be concentrating

on getting the current one right.’

Hitner believes that the term has ‘the wrong values - professional

communications should be controlled and consistent, but people’s

perceptions differ widely. It’s too intangible and too vague.’ Graham

Lancaster, chairman of Biss Lancaster, adds: ‘There’s nothing wrong with

the term public relations. The calibre of work is what’s important. The

name is an irrelevance.’

Reactions to the synergistic PR/ad agency structure are more positive.

Jeff Klein, Marsteller Advertising’s chief executive officer for Europe,

admits that it’s hardly a new concept - after all, Burson-Marsteller

itself was at it way back in the 50s, and in the financial sector

companies like Dewe Rogerson have exploited a similar two-handed

strategy for some time - but it’s highly appropriate to today’s market.

‘A communications company shouldn’t have a vested interest in what it

can sell to the client,’ Klein believes. ‘It should give the client what

it needs. For too many years agencies have sold clients what they’re

best equipped to offer. How many agencies would turn round and say

‘actually, that dollars 50 million would be better spent on a direct

marketing programme’? The way we’re now structured means we can give the

client whatever is best suited to their needs.’

Consolidated’s Gornall is another strong advocate of an integrated

approach. His agency already handles Virgin Direct’s PR, but more

recently also picked up the pounds 6 million above-the-line business

(Campaign, 3 May). The formidable Indra Sinha, one-time creative

director of Collett Dickenson Pearce and one of the industry’s most

respected copywriters, is to work on the account alongside a hand-picked

team at Consolidated. ‘It will be advertising and PR working in

harmony,’ predicts Gornall, echoing Klein’s sentiments, ‘but everybody’s

going to have to get more integrated, to really think across a broad

front and offer unbiased advice.’ He estimates that 35 to 40 per cent of

PR companies (particularly in the business-to-business arena) currently

offer an integrated service, but that the numbers will inexorably grow.

Meanwhile Trevor Morris, managing director of the Quentin Bell

Organisation, sounds a note of caution and, playing devil’s advocate,

even posits the case for specialisation: ‘There’s a pre-supposition with

this that the advertising and the PR are of the same quality. I’m sure

it can work so long as neither discipline is seen as the poor relation.’

Having separate PR and advertising agencies, he continues, often creates

a valuable ‘creative tension’, an atmosphere in which original, lateral

thinking can flourish. ‘Sometimes a bit of competition isn’t a bad

thing,’ he concludes.

QBO underwent a structural reorganisation last year, modelling its

consumer division along the lines of an advertising agency. It is now

sectioned into three units: media relations, media promotions and events

management, with a team of account handlers working across departments.

‘Many people in PR do a bit of everything but aren’t good at anything,’

Morris claims. This way, he says, talents can be fostered and

streamlined working practices instituted.

Lancaster feels similar advertising-based company structures will become

more prevalent. ‘Creativity that stands out is at a premium. We’re also

really going to have to understand new media and the dynamics of the

marketplace which will mean an increased planning role and the

introduction of ‘suits’. Eventually, I can see PR agencies having

separate creative and media departments.’

One thing all parties seem agreed on is that PR is on the threshold of a

major upheaval that could change its status in the marketing mix and its

modus operandi irrevocably. But predicting just what happens next would

be as foolhardy as predicting the outcome of the Gold Cup.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus