THINKPIECE: PR agency rankings not meant to be a 'beauty contest'; they show the maturity of the industry

In the old days, the annual PR firm rankings were an occasion of breast-beating by agencies that moved up on the list.

In the old days, the annual PR firm rankings were an occasion of breast-beating by agencies that moved up on the list. This year, bragging rights have been replaced by business insights. Agency CEOs are far more interested in the business implications of the public relations industry's 32% growth in 1999 and 140% increase over the past five years.

With the good news come difficult decisions for the business people who lead these firms. For example, the capital intensive and talent short technology sector led industry growth with a 47% increase. Like all business leaders today, agency CEOs are asking themselves whether the recent Nasdaq volatility portends that the technology bubble will burst. If not, most firms need to make major technology investments, find new sources of qualified professionals and commit to long-term leases for expanded space. It's to help agency executives make those kinds of fundamental business decisions that the Council of Public Relations Firms is conducting the agency rankings, not to have a beauty contest over revenue standings.

In fact, the rankings suggest that the real bragging rights belong to clients. The dynamic expansion of the responsibilities of the Corporate Public Relations Officer (CPRO), the primary customer of the public relations industry, is the principal driver of agency growth.

A survey announced at the spring conference of the Arthur Page Society reported that 83% of companies created or elevated the senior communicator position in the past decade. Assuming functions formerly held by other staff officers, 92% of CPROs now direct internal communications, 27% handle consumer affairs and 23% oversee advertising. And the role of practically all CPROs in their companies' Internet and technology programs is expanding rapidly.

Given the increasingly strategic role of public relations executives in today's company, broadening far beyond traditional public relations functions, it should be no surprise that PR firms are expanding their services along with their clients. It should also be no surprise that this year's rankings reflect the added revenues from non-traditional agency services like research, corporate and issues advertising, and a full range of Internet communications services. Those who wring their hands over the counting of such 'non-PR revenue' are ignoring the healthy reality of corporate communications, the expanded role of the CPRO and the innovative vitality of the PR industry.

For agencies recognize that the continued growth of their businesses is totally dependent on their CPRO clients strengthening their knowledge base - and their power base - within their corporations.

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