Why do buyers hire corporate communications consultants?

SHORTLY AFTER writing a blog post on the “The ‘anything but selling’ brigade in PR“, a fervent debate began on Twitter and elsewhere, started by Robert Phillips. He argued that “PR is dead” and denounced “Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise”. Curiously, he suggested replacing PR with something called “Public Leadership”.

Personally, I don’t buy the notion that the PR networks sell bureaucracy. They are successful precisely because they offer a lower-cost alternative to expanding in-house teams. They are more easily sackable than in-house teams and their performance is more frequently monitored. Moreover, companies hire big agencies precisely because they have a huge range of in-house expertise.

Anyway, back to Mr Phillips’s point about “Public Leadership”. On the one hand, this sounds like semantics. PR practitioners – ever since Ivy Lee – have advocated that companies should lead the debate. There are significant commercial advantages in being the first to understand public opinion and act on it. On the other hand, the Twitter discussion became much stranger after Mike Love, of Burson Marsteller, asked the eminently sensible question:

Robert Phillips replied with:

Mr Phillips then denounced “mad market fundamentalists”, which made him sound like a member of some hard-Left wing pressure group. Consultancies have to market and sell their expertise, because if they didn’t, they’d go out of business. Mr Phillips didn’t seem to respond to Mike Love’s comment on KPIs, but the reason CEOs authorise significant sums for corp comms departments, reputation management, public affairs, social media engagement and the like is because they believe that how they engage with stakeholders has an effect on their reputation, which leads to sales and sustainable profits.

Were the PR industry – or whatever it could be called – to go around saying that it has nothing to do with sales, I somehow doubt it would survive for too long.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: March 31st, 2014, In Categories: Corporate Comms

How to deal with a hostile media

The PR MasterclassIN MY BOOKThe PR Masterclass, I have a chapter on dealing with incoming media calls. Among other things, it covers how to deal with potentially hostile interviews – especially useful when you’re dealing with a PR crisis. Here’s a short extract:

It is, of course, always important to assess whether a request for an interview, or other involvement, is a trap. If your business is in any way controversial – maybe you build wind turbines, which some campaigners hate – make sure you find out exactly what the journalist’s plan is.

If a journalist wants to do the dirty on you, he will be extremely vague about the nature of the intended coverage, which should be a red flag. There is no shame in resist- ing a request for an interview until the editorial line being promoted is revealed.

If you are providing an interview with an executive, and you have the slightest worry, exchange emails with the media organisation confirming what they have told you on the phone about the scope and purpose of the interview and how long it will last.

The book also covers how to respond to negative coverage, and the rare occasions when it’s appropriate to withdraw the use of a press office. It says:

There may be times – especially if your company is controversial – that you find that a publication routinely writes negative stories about you. This can be depressing, and how you deal with it requires caution.

You can order the book here.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: March 11th, 2014, In Categories: Media relations

Comment writing in Communicate magazine

Communicate magazineTHE FEBRUARY issue of Communicate magazine – a title for corporate communicators – contains a two-page spread from me about writing comment articles in national newspapers.

Writing such articles is a skill that is by no means universal among corporate communicators, but this article – an extract from my book – will get people off to a great start.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: March 11th, 2014, In Categories: Corporate Comms

The misleading measurement that’s definitely not for the benefit of buyers

WHAT’S THE principal purpose of measuring PR campaigns? Well, it’s not actually to prove to buyers (employers or clients) using honest measures that you’re doing a good job – though that a secondary reason for doing it. It is actually help people running PR campaigns to continually improve what they are doing.

If a PR practitioner – as a result of measurement – knows that nothing happened as a result of appearing in various titles, or running a Facebook campaign, he can move resources to those activities that are helping to influence the right people.

Depressingly, it seems, part of the PR industry has a third objective for measurement, which is to present clients with an entirely bogus measure of PR, in order to keep their jobs.

Tom Watson, professor of public relations at Bournemouth University, has surveyed students who went on a placement year in the PR industry. And it seems that 43.2% of placement organisations used the unethical measurement system known as Advertising Value Equivalency. It is unethical because its entire basis is inflated.

Of course, a failing head of PR can come across well by presenting the chief executive with a figure for Advertising Value Equivalency. It can make the PR department look like it is delivering excellent value for money, when in fact it’s squandering money on unfocussed and irrelevant activities.

Prof Watson is right to highlight that “AMEC members, who wrote and adopted the Barcelona Principles which barred use of AVE, are leading the way in its continued usage.”

Richard Bagnall, founder of Metrica, counters that: “The issue we have with the suppliers is that they all feel that there is still a market demand for AVEs and as they are commercial organisations they would therefore be crazy not to provide it. If one of the big suppliers stopped providing them and the others didn’t, then that company (they would argue) would be at a significant disadvantage.”

Actually, I think vendors of measurement software could learn something from CVS Pharmacy. It was always absurd that a company that was in the healthcare industry was selling cigarettes. Its announcement that it would, on its own, cease to sell cigarettes did their brand fantastic good. The publicity was significant and created a halo around the brand. A measurement company that took industry leadership and simply said that it is wrong to facilitate such ridiculous and unethical measures would, in my view, do very well.

After all, who’s going to say, “Oh, we’re retendering our measurement because X won’t let us fake our figures”?

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: March 5th, 2014, In Categories: PR strategy

Tim Traverse-Healy’s motherhood and apple pie credo

ONE OF the giants of post-World War II public relations, Tim Traverse-Healy, has published a “credo” for the PR industry. I can’t say I I’m a fan of it. It reads like something a trade union might have produced, not the reflection of a serious industry that exists to serve its clients.

Here’s what Mr Traverse-Healy writes (bear in mind that propaganda used to mean to propagate something):

I do not believe that “propaganda” for causes and issues or “publicity” for products and services are per se public relations activities, although they might form part of an overall public relations programme; similarly advertising, promotion, press agentry, and communications. I believe there exist extra dimensions to the practice of professional public relations which must be present in almost equal measure before an initiative can be so termed and which grant it societal meaning and community worth. I submit that, in accord with the universally accepted principles of Freedom of Information and Expression, these ingredients are: truth, paramount concern for the public good and genuine dialogue.

Some of that is just standard business ethics – like telling the truth. But I have never heard a client say that the core objective of their PR campaign is enrich “societal meaning”.

No doubt this credo will appeal to those who are hostile to business. But I would contend two things: firstly, the pursuit of profit by business leads to the common good. Second, that the paramount concern of a PR consultant is to improve his client’s condition. To displace that paramount concern would be unethical.

The biggest problem with the PR industry is that too often in-house PR teams and external agencies fail to help those paying for PR to meet genuine business objectives – such as generating leads, raising awareness of the brand in front of relevant prospects and improving reputation among buyers. Instead, there is considerable vagueness about what PR will achieve, with PR practitioners spouting nonsense about “two-way synchronous dialogue”. Combined with a failure in the majority of the industry to invest properly in skills, it’s hardly a surprise that many companies worry about the quality of PR personnel that they can hire.

It’s time for that to change.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: March 4th, 2014, In Categories: PR strategy