Why do buyers hire corporate communications consultants?


Shortly 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 permanent 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:

What would clients get from a Public Leadership agency instead of PR? @citizenrobert @PRCA_UK What would you sell them? What are KPIs? — Mike Love (@therealitygap) March 27, 2014

Robert Phillips replied with:

@therealitygap @PRCA_UK why are you so obsessed with selling? This runs to the heart of the PR problem — Robert Phillips (@citizenrobert) March 27, 2014

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.