PR support services should do what is marked on the tin - support public relations. There can be a huge disparity, however, in the value that various support services, whether offered by external suppliers or PR consultancies, add to public relations campaigns.
In part two of our Tools of the Trade series this year, we move on from online products to four other support services - media evaluation, media training, radio promotions, and conference and event management - and look at how the PR industry can use these tools effectively to achieve better results.
Like the PR industry, support services have been hit by reduced budgets; but many companies report that the economic climate has actually given business a boost. As far as radio and media relations are concerned, for example, this could be down to the need to squeeze as much value out of budgets as possible, whereas pressure to justify spend on all marketing activities has opened up new avenues for media evaluation.
This is a boon for a sector that must sometimes feel it is banging its head against a brick wall. As Association of Media Evaluation Companies (AMEC) chairman Mark Westaby says: 'Savvy in-house people are starting to realise evaluation can justify their budgets and tie PR back to real business benefits. But too many PR agencies still don't get that PR is just a means to achieve business ends, and are defensive about evaluation.'
Whatever support services you use, it makes sense to evaluate, if only to enable you to prove that you've chosen the best, most cost-effective tools to reach your target audience.
'There is no area of media relations where there are more charlatans at work than media training,' states Peter Morgan, who spent 20 years at the BBC and now runs Weber Shandwick's media training division with former Sunday Times political editor Michael Prescott.
A growing number of PR consultancies are offering media training to clients, either run in-house or in partnership with an external supplier. Morgan's division works for companies regardless of whether or not they are a client of the PR consultancy.
He says whichever media trainer you choose, you should always check what the people who are doing the training really know about the media. That 'good deal' may not be such great value for money if trainers have what Morgan calls 'flaky CVs'.
At Kaizo, which offers in-house training and often works with Kevin Isherwood at Isherwood Communications, director Rosemary Brook says media training is 'an absolutely critical tool'.
'Not all our clients are going to face Jeremy Paxman, but media training serves the purpose of a very focused catalyst for clarifying and refining messages and their simple delivery. Good media training is part of a communications programme, it's not just about techniques,' says Brook.
Isherwood confirms he is increasingly seeing companies use media training sessions as workshops to develop messages and responses to issues, particularly in crisis management situations, where arguments can be tested to see if they are watertight.
The lessons used in media training can be useful in face-to-face briefings with all stakeholders and the media, as well as negotiation and lobbying.
This is one of the reasons it can be extremely cost-effective.
Isherwood is also keen that training takes place in context. He says: 'Media training should be integrated into business strategy, with directors thinking about their relevant media in terms of journalists being conduits to their marketplace and opinion-makers. Too often it is thought of as a bolt-on extra.'
ITPR Group chairman Bob Dearsley concurs: 'I am always astonished at how few people can explain what they do concisely and clearly. Media training is about knowing what you want to say and how to say it, avoiding the negative, and how to explain your key messages, irrespective of the questions you are asked.'
As well as all the basics, two techniques are increasingly being used to hone directors' performances.
Video can be a good tool in putting people through their paces, so they can see exactly how they performed. Trainers such as Isherwood also find using realistic mock radio and television studios invaluable, as they give the interviewee a far better sense of what to expect under the lights and when faced with real cameras or micro-phones than 'classroom' teaching.
Radio has seen a resurgenece of interest from marketers recently. In the year to March 2003, spend on sponsored and editorial radio went up more than 12.1 per cent to £71.9m, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. That compares with much slower growth or stagnation in most marketing sectors.
Beehive Marketing MD Lisa Cann used to work for the BBC World Service, and is passionate about the power of radio. She believes radio is often underestimated in terms of its 'stickiness and the way it gets into people's heads and stays there'.
The key to this is the very personal relationship people have with radio presenters - they are trusted friends, and people simply don't have the same relationship with their daily paper as they do with their breakfast or drivetime presenter.
However, Cann warns: 'Radio can be really good value for money, as long as companies know who they are targeting and why - the "spray and pray" approach doesn't work better with radio than any other medium.'
Specialist radio agencies are often brought in by PR professionals, and at USP Radio Projects, client services director Martine Ainsworth Wells says radio does work best as part of a wider campaign and is most often used for consumer PR, 'to bring a press campaign to life,' whether it is for product launches, brand extensions or in-store promotions.
But radio can also work well for business and educational PR, as long as programmes and audiences are targeted correctly, and a big story on a respected radio station can lead to pick-up by the press and TV broadcasters.
One of the other attractions of radio is its flexibility. As well as advertising, radio promotions can be part of the editorial content of the station - from presenters talking about a product, to celebrity or expert guests, to sponsorship of elements such as the weather or travel - at a far lower cost than TV.
And it looks like radio will be even more of a key tool in the future.
PROs are being targeted by the backers of a new measurement system that is set to overhaul how radio audiences are measured. German firm GfK last month unveiled the first results of its National Broadcast Media Survey, which uses data drawn from wristwatches worn by 1,000 viewers and listeners.
The new system, which also measures TV audience, claims to be more accurate, taking in 'channel hoppers' who listen for less than five minutes as well as so called 'out of home' listeners in cars.
The system, which challenges existing measurement body RAJAR, has shown that the BBC dominates radio with BBC Radio 4 having 17.9 million adult listeners per week while talkSport had eight million. That compares to the two million estimated for talkSport by Rajar.
Radio specialist Markettiers4DC marketing manager Simon Sanders says this shows radio is no longer the poor cousin of the press: 'There are more and more stations demanding more and more content, especially with the rise of digital. Speech radio in particular has had its light hidden under a bushel, and true listening figures will make it easier to justify the use of radio. But that doesn't mean sending a team of people to storm the studio - presenters despise that kind of stunt.'
Conferences and events
The press conference is dead. 'Unless it's really compelling news, journalists simply won't do press conferences,' says Graham Drew, who in his role as associate director of Shine Communications - before recently moving to Chime Communications public relations division - had not staged a press conference for more than two years. 'It's a lot of expense for clients, and usually it's down to ego.'
If you need to tell everyone something at the same time, use email. If you want to build relationships with the media, see them one-on-one. If you decide that a press conference is appropriate, however, you must create reasons for the media to attend.
Advice is to keep it short, pithy and full of statistics, as well as holding it in a great venue.
Dearsley also has some common-sense advice for making the most of journalists at exhibitions and trade shows, which are another key events tool: 'You need people on the floor who can spot journalists. If companies can't readily spot their target journalists, their PR companies should know them by sight and proposition them on why they should spend time with you, as opposed to your competitors.'
A well-run conference or event allows companies to spend more time with guests and network under less pressurised circumstances than at an exhibition stand. Nevertheless, event organiser Creative Force director Kim Wilkins stresses: 'Events must not be perceived as a bribe. Conferences and events should always be written into a marketing plan, and if you make your guests feel welcome, you give them a good idea of what it would be like to work with you.' Wilkins also says conferences can be a cost-effective marketing tool, but only if they are researched and planned well, and carefully targeted.
Any kind of conference or event must be an integral part of a communications strategy rather than being tacked on the side for it to work best as a PR tool. Is the event worthwhile? Is it at the right time? Is the agenda topical? Have you got a good mix of speakers, including some controversial ones? Are there goodies for the press, so you will get coverage?
Partner at conference and event organiser Acclaim Simon Hambley says he has seen a 'tightening up' of conference targeting and agendas throughout the downturn, as more companies need to be careful about what they spend and have to be sure that they will get adequate return from their investment.
'Events give the opportunity to meet stakeholders, unlike any other medium,' says Hambley. 'They can really help to build relationships. A good conference isn't cheap but, in terms of what you get back with face-to-face time with the audience, it is more cost-effective than individual meetings.
But it has to be done properly and be part of the marketing mix.'
Media evaluation is one of the most hotly debated PR tools of all. Operations director at evaluation company Mantra Matt West echoes the long-held view of many in the sector when he says that, unless PR practitioners grasp the importance of proper evaluation, the industry will suffer.
'There's a lack of management discipline across a lot of the PR industry - real evaluation is seen as a "nice-to-have", whereas other parts of marcoms see it as a vital tool. It's a real problem. Usually it is easier for us to go straight to the marketing department as they are used to handling research and know what to do with it. The question is whether PR practitioners want to be more strategic and management-savvy, or whether they just want to use their PR skills.'
West sees this as being a particular issue for PR consultants, although there are advocates of proper evaluation within the agency world. Brook is firm about evaluation's place as a core PR tool - but only when it is used properly. Kaizo has used external evaluation systems as well as its own ValueFlow system for every campaign.
'People are inclined to get hung up on media evaluation in isolation rather than fitting it into context of delivery on business objectives, says Brook. Clients are also inclined to get wedded to one or other system, which can be awkward if you find it isn't appropriate for the programme you're doing.'
Whatever evaluation toolbox or system is preferred, the biggest impact on the sector is the use of electronic measurement in conjunction with human analysis, and online access to the results. Carma International European managing director Tom Vesey says completely electronic evaluation may be at least ten years off but, in the meantime, there's no excuse for companies not to use some form of evaluation.
At the bottom end of the scale there are CD-ROMs for small businesses and charities to do simple self-analysis, up to extremely expensive exercises for multinational corporations.
'Evaluation must be budgeted as part of the overall communications exercise, but it is cost-effective if sufficient time is given to thinking it through,' says Vesey.
That's the key message from all of these tools of the PR trade: they can work wonders for clients, but only if they are planned and truly integrated into the broader comms armoury.