The PR industry has grappled with squeezed revenues over the last year, and those firms providing support services also endured a rough ride.
In the face of this, the industry has increasingly bonded. Head of the marketing group of AMEC (Association of Media Evaluation Companies) Giselle Bodie claims that more firms than ever have sought to become AMEC members.
In fact, out of a global media evaluation industry worth in the region of £29m, £19m is given to AMEC members.
Service providers have invested time and resources to improve their offerings. The first noticeable trend is that technology, and more particularly digitalisation, has shaken up the world of media monitoring. New production and delivery methods have upped the stakes in terms of quality, speed and flexibility. In addition, web-enabled services have put control back in the hands of the end user, allowing clients to define search terms, set up email alerts, trawl archives and make cost and time savings.
However, for the full service monitoring agencies, the Holy Grail of fully integrating broadcast with online and print monitoring has yet to be achie-ved. Service providers report that while clients want greater value for money, they are also becoming more sophisticated in their expectations.
'The emphasis has changed from "what are people saying about my company?" to "where is the debate heading on the issues that could impact my reputation longer-term?",' says internet research and communications consultancy Infonic managing director Mark Bunting.
To find out what's new in the four key areas of press cuttings, market research, online monitoring and broadcast monitoring, PRWeek spoke to the market leaders.
The big news in press cuttings is di-gitalisation. Over the past 18 months, the likes of Durrants and Romeike Media Intelligence have ploughed investment into developing digital production platforms. Simply put, these systems use optical scanners to search more efficiently for keywords.
In the past month, Durrants has also launched a password-protected internet portal for delivery, which allows users to log in and view their clippings whenever or wherever they are.
Last November, Thomson Intermedia relaunched its National News Index as NewsMetrics. This updated service delivers quantitative and qualitative analysis of the day's news via the internet to the desktop every morning.
Users can view online and print press cuttings by 8am, plan journalist responses, compare coverage to competitors, take snap-shots of share of voice and view the effect of press coverage against share price.
The letters page of PRWeek is testimony to the fact that not all clients are happy with digital developments - with some bemoaning the apparent loss of colour copies. But both Durrants and Romeike still offer delivery in all formats, from originals to faxes and by email.
Similarly, while cuttings agencies such as Press Index have embraced the future and are using new technology to build electronic cuttings databases for clients, others, including the International Press Cutting Bureau are sticking with the traditional scissors and glue methods of providing clippings.
However, digital production and delivery, have opened up areas of uncertainty with respect to copyright. The Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), which represents most of the UK's weeklies, has defined the rules for digital licences for some time, although there are still restrictions on News International titles.
The Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), the body which represents magazine publishers, has yet to finalise details. Changes are expected soon, but for email delivery, cuttings agencies still have to provide clients with summaries rather than a verbatim copy of the relevant article itself.
In this newly competitive arena, providers are being coy about how much organisations can expect to pay for their services.
For PR professionals, market research is a broad church embracing everything from headline surveys to monitoring performance and tracking reputation.
Certainly, a tougher media environment means that generating publicity using surveys demands greater creativity and, according to The David Lewis Consultancy managing director Cynthia Hemming, journalists increasingly expect statistics to be backed by relevant studies.
Despite the market research industry experiencing zero growth over the past 12 months, there have been significant developments. The most important being the transition from traditional telephone, postal and face-to-face interviews to online techniques.
A number of organisations, including MORI and the NOP Research Group, have developed online panels, which has brought benefits in terms of speed and costs for PR. For example, buying a question on a typical phone omnibus costs around £700 for a sample size of 2,000 and usually takes a weekend. However, the same exercise can now be undertaken online for around £450, with same day turnaround.
Likewise, NOP has started experimenting with SMS panels. While this technology is most suited to younger demographics with shorter surveys, the research group claims that typically two thirds of respondents reply within five minutes.
There have also been developments in reputation management research.
For example, for the past six months, Echo Research has been working with the boards of quoted companies to help them focus on the key drivers of relative share price performance, relative to their peers, based on the perceptions of analysts and the media.
This year, the company launched its Sonar product, which uses a mix of content analysis and interviewing to help organisations identify and handle perceived risks in the near future.
This tool is being used by corporates in the pharmaceutical industry and, depending on levels of service, costs range from £10,000 to £150,000.
Online monitoring has become more sophisticated, both in terms of technology and the insights it can provide.
For example, this month sees the launch of version 4.0 of CyberAlert, the internet-based media monitoring service, offered in the UK through Internet Reputation Services.
This upgrade is promising daily monitoring of 13,000 media sites, 63,000 Usenet newsgroups and 20,000 message boards and forums in 17 languages.
Other improvements include filters for greater clip relevance and the caching of clips in full-colour HTML format. Later this year, this service should be integrated with a broadcast monitoring option.
'The result is a more time-efficient and cost-effective news monitoring solution that enables clients to achieve more effective measurement,' says Internet Reputation Services MD David Phillips.
News portal NewsNow has updated its online monitoring services to include breaking news in over 15 languages from thousands of online sources.
These include international, national and regional titles, newswires, magazines and press releases across the key areas of current affairs, business and finance, IT, sport and entertainment.
In addition to such technical developments, online monitoring is moving beyond simple identification of what's out there, towards providing more insightful analysis. 'Clients want quality, not quantity. Telling them everything is less important than picking out one or two really useful pieces of information each week,' says Infonic's Bunting .
His organisation has developed a number of new services, including a set of strategic analysis products and a reputation management tool. The latter will analyse online publications from NGOs, activist groups, government and regulatory bodies, as well as traditional online media, to help clients benchmark themselves against competitors.
Basic tracking of media sites, newsgroups and forums by keyword remains the bread and butter of online monitoring, with prices as low as £150 to £200 a month. Costs for issues monitoring can range between £2,000 to £10,000 per month.
Over the past 12 months, Teletrax, the joint venture between Medialink and Phillips, has extended its monitoring capabilities from VNRs to mainstream broadcasting. Originally developed as a means of tracking corporate videos, since last April, the service has used an embedded digital watermark to monitor all output from broadcasters including Reuters and more recently, NBC News. Teletrax is currently in discussions to bring other broadcasters on board, both in the UK and globally.
The most recent development in broadcast monitoring is the use of digital capacities for capturing data and delivering clips to clients. For example, following Taylor Nelson Sofres's acquisition of BMC News last year, TNS Media Intelligence launched morethannews.com in August. This service monitors the key elements of news, current affairs and consumer programmes, which are then carefully profiled and directed to a secure, client-dedicated archive immediately accessible via the internet.
Similarly, Media Research, which works predominantly in the entertainment broadcast monitoring business, has spent two years and just under £2m developing a service which digitally records broadcasts, sorts them quickly and delivers clips to clients in a variety of formats from streamed internet files to DVD and good old VHS.
According to Media Research managing director Gary Gordon, this service will be entirely web-enabled within the next six months, with SMS alerts arriving soon after. This July the company will extend its regional radio capacity from 22 to 60 stations.
The advantages of digital capture and delivery are many, not least in terms of quality, convenience and speed. For example, Gordon claims typical turnaround times have shrunk from two to three hours for VHS delivery by courier in central London to five minutes for a short media clip streamed over the internet to a PC anywhere in the UK. In addition, automated systems mean broadcast monitoring services can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Currently, depending on the brief, number of key words selected and hits generated, a broadcast monitoring service is likely cost between £200 and £700 a month.
Metrica has also introduced MyMetrica an new interactive web-based media analysis tool, costs for which start at £500.
Technological breakthroughs, particularly in the area of digital development, appear to have strengthened support services offering just at a time when PROs need these tools to help cement boardroom support.