THE YEAR AHEAD: Future challenges

PRWeek asks industry experts about major PR issues facing their sector this year.

Most senior communicators will be glad to have seen the back of 2002 with its economic and reputational challenges, but will this year be any better? Probably not for most sectors.

PRWeek invited senior PROs and agency managers in four key business sectors to highlight the PR challenges they anticipate for their sector in the coming year. What each prognosis shows is that reputation is a major concern for most of them.

In financial services, consumers have become increasingly confused by the range of savings products available against the backdrop of a stock market that has provided poor return on equity. The highly-publicised closure of company pensions has added to reputational threats for providers.

Airlines are facing a mixture of economic challenges, public concerns over safety and new regulatory controls that will each pose challenges to their reputations. Steady improvements in tourism and business travel since the terrorist attacks on New York hold hope for airlines, but issues such as environmental taxation and increased charges for the use of landing facilities at airports will impact on competitiveness and potentially on corporate social responsibility. Add to that the demands for more UK runway capacity and a potential war in Iraq, and it becomes clear that airlines face a year of major issues.

One of the most vibrant sectors has been healthcare and pharmaceuticals. But major changes in the NHS and the way drugs are prescribed will create new audiences and demand new ways of communicating with them.

Even with such potential turmoil looming, continuing support of professional development for healthcare workers remains a key initiative for pharmaceuticals firms.

Faced with a potential collapse in consumer confidence this year, retailers are preparing to keep consumers and investors informed on a range of issues. CSR is a rising concern for retailers. The whole sector, in particular supermarkets, is anticipating increased pressure from consumers to demonstrate CSR in their product sourcing, while simultaneously providing value to shareholders.

FINANCIAL SERVICES PENSIONS PUT CONSUMERS IN SPOTLIGHT

Emma Byrne, group director of corp comms, Egg

'The DIY boom in recent years is being mirrored in the levels of consumer interest in personal finance. In the national press the personal finance pages are growing and becoming a lot less product-led and far more issues-led.

'The current economic climate is encouraging people to take a more holistic approach to managing their finances. Products to consolidate borrowings are being encouraged by borrowing providers.

'One such product is called "Aggregation", which allows you to look at all of your financial undertakings on one balance sheet on your PC. It allows individuals to manage their finances, an important trend that communicators in financial services companies will need to pay attention to in 2003, as technology is allowing people to better understand their own financial situation.

'We will see more Aggregation services offered this year, helping people to make their money go further. The personal financial pages are becoming broader in content because of this trend.

'It's a fantastic PR opportunity to start communicating with more clarity about money. The challenge is to talk to consumers in an engaging way, and make it not such a bogey subject. PR will have to be not just about offering the best product but communicating about it in a way that makes the topic alive and engaging.

The customer experience must be about more than just the product but a relationship - a two-way conversation that gives information to the customer.

'At the start of 2003, we're expecting another depressed ISA season.

People are looking for a fixed return on their investment. The PR challenge is to demystify ISAs. As soon as you talk about 'investments', people switch off. Using plain English is key to doing that.'

Jonathan Flint, MD, Citigate Dewe Rogerson

'Much has been written about the compounding impact of poor equity returns, low interest rates, along with collapsing promises made to savers.

An over supply of providers, products, and choice all contribute to consumer confusion. Booming property markets appear to many as the most compelling proposition for long-term savings. Add in an unprecedented level of central government intervention and we face an 'issue rich' environment.

'Much of the jam in the PR doughnut for 2003 will be derived from those organisations that choose to take the lead on the issues facing the sector.

Thought-leadership at its best is driven by the key question: 'what do you want to be famous for?'

'Behind every issue lurks a rich seam of news hooks. By way of example, the financial services industry has put considerable resources behind defining 'the Savings Gap'. There has been less analysis of consequences if the great British public were to stop spending.

'At the heart of the issues debate lies the confused consumer. An increasingly informed consumer audience devours the personal finances pages but there are legions who view the weekly 'money' sections as lining for their budgie cages. The challenge is to explore new avenues. Broadcast is certainly an attractive medium, as are the social affairs, comment columns and political pages of every national in the country and where PR/public affairs/government relations is absolutely fundamental to success and forcing change.

'Change is likely to come this year. Pressure is building, driven by strident media views, for something significant to be introduced.

'Stakeholder pensions have blancmanged; final salary schemes are closing; annuity values are historically low. The remarkable thing is that it hasn't blown up into an even larger-scale scandal - although this might come next year. What is certain is that the most creative and committed will find solutions and drive long-term customer value through new ideas and effective communication.'

AIRLINES A BATTLE TO RESTORE CONFIDENCE IN FLYING

Iain Burns, head of corporate comms, BA

'Communicating confidence will be the vital issue for airlines.

'Confidence in our ability to deliver our business recovery plan. Confidence that it remains safe to fly. With reliability and reassurance our watchwords, British Airways' position as an industry leader in safety and security remains key to our brand. We remain the media's first port of call when they want to be briefed on industry developments, be it locked cockpit doors or the latest on-board CCTV technology.

'Confidence that our business will survive and prosper while others around us face potential failure after probably the most brutal 18 months in commercial aviation history. Communications will play a key role in broadening our customer base and associating BA with excellent value and a strong customer service ethic.

'In Europe we will be watching with interest how our main continental competitors, Lufthansa and Air France, cope with the onslaught of the no frills carriers now that easyJet and Ryanair have also set up shop in their backyards. Our PR counterparts in Frankfurt and Paris will need to be ready.

'Aero-politics will also be fascinating. The airline industry's campaigning for extra airport runways in Britain involves sophisticated lobbying across government, press and public in the face of some well-organised pressure groups.

'In Brussels, the airlines are watching closely how Europe will choose to use its new-found powers to negotiate air treaties between EU Member States and Washington. The US-UK agreement, which dictates which airlines fly in and out of Heathrow, has been among the most tortuous in international law. The debate on how wide-ranging those new powers actually are will continue to exercise both the lawyers and the lobbyists.

'With influence on international agreements being wrested from Whitehall, airline public affairs specialists will have to target their energies differently in 2003.'

David Brain, joint chief exec, Weber Shandwick UK

'Getting consumers on planes could well be the biggest challenge of all given recent terrorist missile attacks and the debate about armed air marshals.

'But there are also a range of other concerns facing airlines. In addition to anticipated increases in air traffic control charges and landing fees this year, the Treasury intends to explore tax measures aimed at encouraging airlines to take more account of their environmental impact. This announcement was echoed recently by the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, the industry regulator, who expressed support for a 'polluter pays' regime for airlines.

'Support for environmental taxation is growing under the Government's current consultation.

'Combine environmental taxation with the anticipated increases in costs and charges, and there is a serious possibility that demand for air travel will be severely depressed this year as carriers, particularly the low cost carriers, increase fares to pay for their new liabilities. Although no airline would argue that it should be exempt from contributing to the environmental costs of its operations (many do already) it will be vital for the industry to meet this issue with realistic and pragmatic solutions if it is to avoid excessive regulation in an area which will impact directly on competitiveness.

'2003 will see the advent of a significant new period in EU aviation relations with countries outside of the Union. Last month's judgement by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which declared several bilateral agreements between EU Member States and the US illegal, has already undermined severely the ability of member states to conduct bilateral negotiations for the benefit of their respective airlines, airports and consumers.

While the UK Government considers its position, airlines and airports should be taking every opportunity to ensure their voices are heard.

'Last, but not least ,there is the threat of war. Any outbreak of hostilities will see an immediate dip in demand and force carriers into a brand new communications battle aimed at winning public confidence on issues of safety and security.'

HEALTHCARE CHANGES AT THE NHS WILL ALTER COMMUNICATIONS

Jill Markham, corporate affairs director, Wyeth

'A key focus for the coming year - and indeed in years to come - is ensuring we are continuing to support best practice initiatives and continue to build good relationships with key influencers such as healthcare professionals, purchasers, policy makers and implementers, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), and patient organisations, to ensure common objectives.

'Some initiatives for us in 2003 include programmes supporting concordance (improving patients' use of medicines), effective implementation of National Service Frameworks in key therapy areas, such as mental health, and contributing to the education of patients and healthcare professionals.

'Continuing professional development is another key area for us. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists need to spend time keeping up to date with disease areas, methods of treatment and management of medical conditions. The pharmaceutical industry, through the sponsorship of conferences, courses and other educational meetings, plays a key role in providing appropriate and balanced information to healthcare professionals.'

RETAIL AN END TO THE CONSUMER BOOM IS LOOMING

Pip Wood, head of media, J Sainsbury

'A year is a long time in any industry but in retail it's an eon. The only sure thing is the unexpected.

'Retail is news as it touches everyone's everyday lives and its sheer reach means it is drawn into many bigger issues. Property costs and planning restrictions continue to influence the pace and shape of growth. As major employers, we're always attentive to social legislation affecting labour issues and the current economic backdrop of deflationary pressures set against rising costs constantly demands a delicate balancing act of disparate messages from communications specialists.

'We're prudent with shareholders' money and must give a good return on investment, yet we must not be too harsh on suppliers. Consumers demand the best value for money but we must source often unfeasible amounts of UK product to support the home economy. In food retailing we also face a host of dietary and nutrition issues for which we are not directly responsible but inextricably attached.

'You can usually plan or get good warning of bigger industry issues.

Surprises tend to come from consumer and general news - health scares, stock issues, changing trends. A two-minute silence or should you close the store? Prince Charles or Tony Blair mention 'farming' and the day's agenda takes shape.'

Catherine Warne, MD, Red Door Communications

'Changes for 2003 are focused on integration of effort and resources to meet common aims - the merger of the Medicines Control Agency (MCA) and the Medical Devices Agency (MDA) in April, the new GP contract, further National Service Frameworks and the initiation of the Citizens Council to name but a few.

'Next year will, we hope, see a drive towards more activities to educate and inform patients and the general public about conditions, and how they can be managed effectively. Communication to the lay public must be balanced, fair and educational in nature but also get across key messages about therapeutic areas. In addition, effective communication with the healthcare professional is critical to ensure they do not feel threatened by the 'informed patient'.

'For the first time pharmacists and nurses will be able to prescribe drugs (supplementary prescribing) - according to plans unveiled in November by Health Minister Lord Philip Hunt. This in turn means there is a whole new audience with whom we need to communicate effectively.

'For next year and beyond, consultancies must ensure they have teams with the right skills mix and experience to meet clients' needs - never was it more important to deliver excellent, consistent, senior consulting.'

Allan Biggar, MD, Burson Marsteller

'2003 is going to be a tough economic year. With every person owing over £2,300 on credit cards and a drop in the use of in-house store cards, consumers are wising up to the risks of interest rises and the ending credit boom backed by rocketing house prices. That in turn throws up fresh challenges for retail PR.

'Besides the few exceptions of successful retail formulas, those stores which are proving most adept in the difficult economic climate are discount and low-cost chains.

'Low-cost retail stores are appealing to efficient purchasing, leaving the retail giants and premium brands facing a serious, growing challenge.

'At the higher end of retail, the challenge is how to apply PR to a luxury brand against a climate of diminished individual purchasing power and the ending credit card boom without risk to the brand.

'The second challenge is how to develop a low end sector brand and make it relevant. There is little depth to a budget brand and establishing brand personality is a mighty challenge, not least since budget brands' winning formula is keeping costs such as marketing and PR to a minimum.

'In the middle are the trusted brands which represent quality and value for money. Arguably, those brands face some of the hardest challenges in maintaining market share. However, their PR investment, past and future, should pay dividends.

'Successful retail PR is based around not only emotive intangibles but also tangible value added to customers.'

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