Analysis: The time to look inward has arrived

A research project launched last week by the Department of Trade and Industry and the IPR has been hailed as the most in-depth examination of the industry to date. Holly Williams explains why

It has been almost a decade since the UK PR industry was put under the microscope in a study on the size and scale of that proposed by the DTI and the IPR last week. The research promises to be one of the most ambitious analyses of the PR sector ever conducted in the UK.

The last large-scale study was conducted nine years ago by the DTI, independent of PR trade bodies. Compiled by management consultants BDO Stoy Hayward, it concluded there was a clear case for PR as a contributor to bottom-line performance.

Uncannily accurate, the report predicted a surge in public sector PR spend, demand for internal comms and opportunities in niche areas, such as healthcare - all of which are now major growth areas for PROs.

It also warned that 'the image of the PR sector is prone to damage from the activities of more maverick practitioners', which has, of course, been followed in recent years by a flurry of negative stories and high profile PR misdemeanours.

The survey helped cement PR as a successful business tool, but was narrower in its methodology than that embarked on last week.

In the current project, hundreds of in-house practitioners, agency PROs and clients will be quizzed nationwide for the survey, with a common goal to develop the industry's first comprehensive best practice guide.

And the consensus suggests there is hardly a better time for a study of this kind. After another year of tabloid mauling and falling in-house budgets and agency fee income, the industry is in dire need of an image overhaul and it is hoped the study will go some way towards addressing this.

The DTI's backing of the study alone is a much-needed endorsement, helping further prove the case for PR as a key driver of business.

Secondly, the development of best practice guidelines will be crucial in the future development of PR and in securing some of the bigger budgets currently afforded to its cousins in advertising and marketing.

The DTI's motives for throwing its weight behind the campaign are clear: the PR industry, aside from being a growing business sector, is capable of boosting the country's small businesses and even of driving growth in the whole UK economy.

DTI Minister of State for E-Commerce and Competitiveness Stephen Timms is keen to demonstrate his support of PR as a discipline.

He told PRWeek the project aims to 'prompt a step-change in the understanding and use of best practice in the sector, for the benefit of both the businesses and clients,' but identifies issues, such as a lack of measurement and evaluation standards, as holding the industry back.

'PR has long been recognised as a particular UK strength, but the industry continues to have difficulty in developing accepted evaluation tools,' he says.

'This project will hopefully address this area so that the effectiveness of PR as a competitive tool can be clearly demonstrated.'

The DTI has now joined forces with the IPR to widen the 1994 study, encompassing agency and in-house PROs and importantly - general management from the client side.

IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor says the project is unique: 'Nothing like this has been done before in terms of scale and government backing.

We are coming at it with a fresh approach - there's going to be an inclusion of a great swathe of people in focus groups and questionnaire samples.'

A steering group has been formed with over 30 leading figures from the PR industry, the IPR, PRCA, government, academia and business. Chaired by hatch-group CEO Michael Murphy, it will meet later this month to debate methodology samples.

Murphy believes now is the time for getting back to basics: 'Consultancy margins have gone from 19 per cent in 1998 to nine per cent in 2001, so the agency sector has suffered in business terms and has not been in a position to invest in areas like training, product development and evaluation,' he says.

'The industry owes it to itself to look at key issues and now is a good time to take stock and look at the future.'

The research, by The European Centre for Business Excellence, will have four major themes: policy and strategy, processes, people and performance.

It is expected that the study will survey around 500 people and include fly-on-the-wall site visits to both in-house departments and agencies.

Results will be ready by September, producing a report that aims to provide a database of good practice, alongside a run-down of the sort of bad practice that needs eliminating.

A website will allow easy access to the findings which will be analysed at a conference pencilled in for the autumn.

Far from filing the results away, the IPR and DTI aim to use the research to best effect. And if the report is to contribute in any way to the future of the PR industry and wider UK economy, then the hard work will only really begin when the study ends.

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