A year of aspirations

As 2004 kicks off with a sense of optimism, John N. Frank asks clients and agencies just what it is they want from one another.

As 2004 kicks off with a sense of optimism, John N. Frank asks clients and agencies just what it is they want from one another.

The recession has been particularly hard on the PR business. Corporate budget cuts and business failures have translated into smaller PR budgets, which have spurred agency layoffs. Smaller corporate staffs at many companies have felt harried to produce in an environment that focused first on short-term results and only parenthetically on longer-term concerns. What PR assignments were being made often revolved around tactical work on very specific projects that could produce measurable sales results. "Every function within an organization has had to justify its existence," says Simon Sproule, VP of corporate communications at Nissan North America. With that as background, it's little wonder that when PRWeek asked a cross-section of corporate and agency people what they're wishing for from one another in 2004, their answers centered on the hope that business would pick up along with the economy, and that PR could again turn its attention to strategic issues and programs. A desire for strategic thinking "As the economy continues to improve, agencies are leaner and smarter than they were before," explains Neil Mortine, president of FahlgrenMortine, the PR division of Fahlgren in Columbus, OH. "I would hope clients look to us for more strategic thinking. We became a little more tactical during the recession, and I hope we can become partners again instead." James Boyd, director of PR, North America for Singapore Airlines, echoes Mortine's desire to see more strategic PR thinking in 2004. "It would be good to see more very senior agency folks not being completely removed from the foundation of the business, picking up the phone and being able to deliver the flawless pitch or to use their expertise to write in an impactful way," he says. "It seems odd that the more experienced you become in this industry, the less time you spend utilizing the experience we've worked so hard to gain." Jack Horner, president of Jack Horner Communications in Pittsburgh, says some of his clients have already been asking for more strategic thinking. "We've had several clients take us deeper inside their business this year," he says. "They're including us in more strategic meetings, even giving us on-site office space. The result is a more seamless relationship and greater understanding of their culture and what works. The extra awareness has created more meaningful recommendations from our account teams and bull's-eye work. My wish is for clients who think of their agencies as vendors to instead think of them as family." Jeff Winton, group VP, global communications at Schering-Plough, wants his firms to think globally and strategically. "The pharmaceutical industry has been revolutionized due to the internet and other tools that are making this much more of a global marketplace," he says. "So rather than focusing on the US and then merely sending the US-centric press release out to the other global markets for translation and distribution, I would like to see agencies think about other strategic ways in which to communicate a client's messages and priorities outside the US." He adds, "I wish that agencies would think more strategically about a client's business instead of focusing solely on tactical execution. Clients hire agencies to be strategic partners, and we value their input and thinking regarding our business, even if we don't agree." Nancy Turett, president of Edelman's healthcare practice, says agencies are ready for the challenge Winton poses, and wishes that "our clients would engage us more actively in planning for a new business model for the pharmaceutical industry. The new model will be one of increased partnership and risk-sharing - with patients, health professionals, managed care, and governments. This is where PR and public affairs types have a lot to offer." She continues, "I also wish our clients - and we - would really figure out something that would be in everybody's best interest, a way to make 'global' business not only strategy, but also implementation in key markets." Bill Imada, chairman and CEO of The IW Group, would like from his clients "a willingness to try a different approach to public relations, including the use of new market channels and tactics. For them to look outside - not just outside of their offices, but outside of their neighborhoods and communities and see, feel, and experience all the changes around them. And we want access. More of their time and energy. A taste of their thinking." Increased integration Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates in San Francisco, hopes to see companies improve coordination between communications programs, as well as better integrate PR, advertising, government relations, and other marketing endeavors. "That's what's going to help corporations develop consistent messages, stay on top of issues, and communicate better with their own employees and the public," says Singer. "I'd also like to see clients spend more time developing better relationships with the public, government, and media. E-mail and the web are fabulous, fabulous tools. But there's nothing like the building of personal relationships and trust, and that's something that all clients need to spend a great deal of time on." "All PR is local," adds Singer. "I think we're going to see growth of the local PR agency. They have the most insight, they have the expertise, and they are on the ground." Singer also predicts tremendous growth in the need for public affairs and government-relations expertise, as this will continue to be more and more important to corporations, particularly in California, which has a new governor, and San Francisco, which has a new mayor. "I also think we're going to see PR firms morphing more into management consulting firms," says Singer. "More and more companies are turning to agencies that have a real depth and knowledge beyond the things you typically think of when you think of PR firms." Dave Drobis, the retiring chairman and senior partner at Ketchum, doesn't like to get caught up in the distinction between tactics and strategy, saying it belittles such PR basics as media relations. Rather, he sees PR agencies re-emphasizing their role as counselors. "I know that what is a lot of value is the consulting objectivity that we have for clients," he says. "My wish is that the clients understand that agencies really do want to provide good counsel and become partners." Unlike others, Harris Diamond, CEO at Weber Shandwick, says he hasn't seen clients cutting back on strategic initiatives during the recession. He expects companies to do more brand building in 2004. "I think we're going to see some momentum. Clearly I'm more optimistic than I have been in the last few years." So is Tom Galvin, VP of public affairs at VeriSign. Corporate scandals of recent years have put corporations on the defensive, he maintains. That must change in 2004. Companies and agencies need to focus on the "optimistic side of things, and use their creativity to tell a positive story, not just blunt the negative stories," he says. "The tech industry has been down for so long, there's a lot of fatigue, a lack of risk taking, and a lack of creative ideas. If agencies are unable to shake that fatigue, then companies should replace them." The spread of honesty The corporate-honesty issues hit home for Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates. "I believe both clients and their outside PR counselors need to become more honest in communicating first to each other, and then to external audiences in 2004. We must not be viewed as simply 'yes' people to our clients. We must be counselors," says Paul. "Counselors tell their clients the truth, especially when they don't want to hear it. Communicating these difficult messages requires humility, patience, and a reliance on strong ethics and morality in decision making. Our clients are surrounded by enough yes people in their lives. We must be honest with them at all costs. We must be willing to walk away when we know our clients still have a strong pattern of lying after patiently and consistently counseling them to tell the truth." Drobis says agencies and corporate PR people must serve as a barometer for corporate ethics, telling executives how a company's publics will react to various actions. Sproule wants firms to understand what corporate PR departments have been through in the recession. "They have to continue to have a real sense of urgency about your business and realize the pressure in-house is under," he says. "Firms must realize that big, flashy events aren't enough; we need strategic thinking. They need to feel they are part of the action. Be innovative and don't get discouraged if nine of 10 of your ideas get rejected. If an agency comes up with a great idea, it will get funded." Rebecca Tillet, director/team leader, US pharmaceuticals at Pfizer, also wants greater understanding - on several levels. "Despite all the talk about wanting to measure results," she says, "why do we continue to see presentations and plans with only media impressions for metrics? For measurement, we wish agencies would start thinking impact, not just outcome. We also wish more agencies paid attention to the table stakes - documents with no typos; transparent, accurate, and timely accounting; rapidly returned phone calls - in this business." Most of all, though, Tillet wants "more senior attention. Don't leave media pitching to junior people - reporters hate that, but agencies continue to ignore that fact. Don't leave the task of analyzing media monitoring to junior account staff. It's meant to make you and us smarter about the competitive environment, so provide insights and recommendations with your media monitoring reports. And make sure senior management is handling quality control on an ongoing basis - as opposed to only when there's an issue - so that we spend less time rewriting or redoing the work." One area sure to see funding this year is public affairs work, thanks to the Presidential election, congressional races, and various state elections. "It's unfair competition to PR firms who need media coverage, but it will be a boon to some PR firms who are handling senatorial, congressional, and governors' races," says Ofield Dukes, president of Ofield Dukes & Associates and a veteran of Presidential campaigns dating back to 1972. Dukes also has been leading the PRSA's diversity efforts the past three years, and he sees the industry continuing to work on that issue in 2004. "The PR industry has been slow in dealing with diversity compared with Fortune 500 companies," he maintains. "PR firms have to gain an expertise in diversity in order to gain a critical advantage in the marketplace." Consistent measurement Another area on PR's wish list for 2004 is measurement. Tom Jones, executive director of communications for Novartis, wishes that "all agencies would come together and agree on a consistent system of measuring PR that is flexible, but not elusive; something that has guidelines to calibrate reporting impressions evenly, and a formula for pointing to what PR delivers against an organization's business goals." Sproule says, "Communications is at the tipping point to gain credibility in the boardroom but we have to deliver, and that means measurement must be a key focus. The technology of measurement will to get more sophisticated. I think the PR industry is hungry for measurement tools to prove its case." Susan Noonan, president of Euro RSCG Life NRP, reveals a far more ambitious wish list. "We wish that our corporate clients would successfully complete many financings, giving them large war chests to spend on PR," she says, tongue in cheek. "We wish our marketing clients would launch many brand extensions and additional indications with large patient populations for their products. We wish our clients would move all their communications business to Euro RSCG Life." And Schering-Plough's Winton has the final word on what many a corporate PR pro would likely echo this year or any other: "I wish agencies would train their inexperienced, junior staff members on someone else's business."
  • Additional reporting on this piece by PRWeek editorial staff. ----- Predictions for the PR industry "In 2004, you'll hear lots of talk about economic recovery and lots of PR firms wondering where it is." Jack Horner, president, Jack Horner Communications "PR programs will be in competition with the Presidential campaign, and they will be short-changed." Ofield Dukes, president, Ofield Dukes & Associates "Tech is becoming hot again. New technology was a dirty word. But convergence and VoIP (voice over internet Protocol) are being talked about and are coming back in a way that will have people spending money again." Tom Galvin, VP of public affairs, VeriSign "This year, media will be dominated by celebrity court cases and the elections." Simon Sproule, VP of corporate communications, Nissan North America "We're going to go back to more mergers and acquisitions, there's going to be more opportunities." Dave Drobis, retiring chairman and senior partner, Ketchum "More public demands on the diversification of corporate boards, including more women and people of color. More budget dollars for public relations programs directed toward Hispanics/ Latinos, Asia-Pacific Americans, and the LGBT markets. And more advertising and marketing firms starting public relations divisions." Bill Imada, Chairman & CEO, IW Group "We're hoping to see financial communications come back as investors return to the markets. You hope the business confidence returns." Harris Diamond, CEO, Weber Shandwick "From a client-agency perspective, I predict further transparency [in the client-agency relationship] as corporations expand the role of PR agencies." Christian Flathman, public relations manager, Michelin North America "I think (and hope) that 2004 will see a bit more confidence in the way clients communicate with their audiences. They will be looking at their agencies to help them begin taking 'safe risks' in their marketing. As practitioners, I think we need to be careful not to push our clients too far, but walk with them toward a more confident public profile." Michael Bayer, managing director/corporate communications, Financial Dynamics "Roll-ups/acquisitions of PR and other marketing service companies will focus on more niche players as the remaining large independents look toward marketing networks to expand their capabilities rather than cede control to holding companies offering 'unpredictable' earn-out opportunities. But the next big phase in agency acquisition activity will be the growth of internal management groups (second generations of corporate leaders) who will leverage the companies' assets to buy out current ownership." Mike Bawden, President & CEO, Brand Central Station "Advertising revenue in major media won't return to previous levels for a long, long time. Major advertisers are shifting - permanently - to integrated strategies that include a larger role for public relations. And anticorporate activism will become a much more serious problem for big companies - especially those with global brands." Doug Pinkham, President, The Public Affairs Council "The price of measurement will drop by 50% and major new do-it-yourself tools will bring measurement to small businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The biggest growth for PR will be in the nonprofit segment as well as for research. The new 'hot' topic in communications circles will be web metrics and search-engine marketing metrics. And China will be the new 'must have' country when corporations look for agency and research capabilities." Katie Paine, CEO, KD Paine & Partners

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