EDITORIAL: Guesswork isn't good enough when it comes to the disparity between Harris' survey and reality

A front-page story on the results of the Harris/Impulse Research PR Client Survey appeared in this magazine's September 30 issue. The most compelling data from the study was a reported 21% increase in the average PR budget in 2002. That figure, and the implication behind it, was directly at odds with my own introductory editorial, where I cited the continuing contraction of budgets as an enduring source of problems for PR firms.

A front-page story on the results of the Harris/Impulse Research PR Client Survey appeared in this magazine's September 30 issue. The most compelling data from the study was a reported 21% increase in the average PR budget in 2002. That figure, and the implication behind it, was directly at odds with my own introductory editorial, where I cited the continuing contraction of budgets as an enduring source of problems for PR firms.

Stunned surprise was the general response to the Harris results, as few firms have seen the benefits of any budget increases. In fact, many have felt the strain of meeting maximum expectations at minimal cost. Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, wrote in a letter to PRWeek that the figure was inconsistent with the organization's own surveys. Anecdotal evidence agrees with her. News of even more large-agency layoffs over the past two weeks only reinforces the sense of disconnect between the experiences of PR firms and their clients. PR leaders have advanced their theories as to why this disparity between agency and client perceptions exists. But there is no comfortable scenario that explains the inconsistency. Either companies are securing larger PR budgets but not using them externally, or a false optimism pushed budgets higher only temporarily - before they had time to filter down to the agencies. Corporations may be limiting the use of vendors like PR firms, but boosting their own operations internally. Guessing is not good enough. We need to do a better job of understanding this number, and why it contradicts the experiences of so many in the industry. Whatever the explanation, there is no excuse for not comprehending the reality behind the numbers and the corporate experience, either for those reporting on the PR business, or those working within it. Smith & Wesson shot itself in the foot An article in The Wall Street Journal last week detailed Smith & Wesson's retreat from its 2000 position to restrict marketing of its handguns, in exchange for an agreement with the Clinton administration that would settle a slew of lawsuits. The company, with its reputation severely wounded by the deal, experienced such a monumental drop in sales that the CEO was forced to resign and Tomkins PLC, the British parent company, sold it to an Arizona outfit. Once the Bush administration was voted in, the Clinton deal was dropped. According to the Journal, Robert Scott, the company's new president, is intent on restoring the company's reputation among its most important constituency: gun buyers. At the National Rifle Association's 2001 annual convention, Scott wore his patriotism on his sleeve, literally, with lapel buttons that identified Smith & Wesson as "American Made, American Owned." Reputation is now vital to Smith & Wesson's future. The company is still struggling, but showing signs of growing financial strength. The company's experience makes one wonder how it is that the gun lobby seems so impervious to the weight of public opinion, even while a sniper is terrorizing the Washington, DC suburbs. A self-inflicted wound should not be the only way to bring a company down, much less an industry that is widely reviled. -Julia Hood

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