Analysis: End of 192 escalates PR battle for market share

From August Bank Holiday weekend, the phone number 192 is to disappear, taking BT's monopoly on directory enquiries with it. Adam Hill looks at the PR battle between the new services vying to dominate the market.

For the first time, the public has a choice over whom to call for directory enquiry services.

These services, all carrying the prefix 118, offer PROs a gilt-edged invitation to help clients capitalise on a deregulated market. Yet, while most consumers appear to be aware of the change, recent surveys suggest that only a third are actually using any of the new services.

In theory, providers such as BT, with its 118 500 replacement, and Yell, with its 118 247, should at least have the benefit of brand loyalty to carry them into this brave new world.

Yell head of press Jon Salmon says: 'Yellow Pages is a trusted household brand, and it makes sense to ally the new product with that heritage.

We feel that we're distinctive, and our niche will be the depth of classified business information we offer.'

Yell has hired Nelson Bostock Communications to handle national and regional media relations activity, in support of radio adverts featuring Cold Feet star James Nesbitt.

Meanwhile, Fishburn Hedges will deal with BT's business and City audiences, with Shine Communications handling its consumer brief.

BT Consumer head of PR Damian Peachy says: 'Directory enquiries is not the sexiest subject on earth. The challenge for both of them is ensuring that 118 500 and other services are featured in every article about the switchover.

'With Shine, we are asking how we target vertical sectors with new services like cinema listings and TV guides, while Fishburn Hedges will be flagging up the new revenue potential these services are bringing.'

In the run-up to the 192 switch-off, BT has seemed locked in a tiff with perhaps the most high-profile of the new service providers, The Number 118-118. Both have had their knuckles rapped by Oftel over aspects of their promotions, but The Number director of communications William Ostrom, formerly head of corporate comms at O2, is bullish.

He insists PR will not simply be an adjunct to the ad campaign, which has seen 118-118's moustachioed pair of runners plastered over TV screens and billboards.

'I prefer to put it another way and say the two have to be inseparable.

Whatever advertising you have, it has to be "PRable",' Ostrom says. 'We thought the runners had a good chance of creating a cult following, being retro guys who were a bit quirky, running around shouting. The worst thing we could do was over-promote the brand.'

The Number, a subsidiary of US firm InfoNXX, originally hired Jackie Cooper PR, although Ostrom insists this was always on a strict six-month contract 'before we'd developed the brand'.

Consumer work is now done by Brazil, run by former Le Fevre Communications director Joshua Van Raalte (PRWeek, 15 August). He says PR activity has been focused on emphasising The Number's local job creation potential at call-centres in Cardiff and Plymouth, getting the runners into the media (including via a charity deal to sell replica running vests through Cancer Research shops), and explaining deregulation to journalists.

Catering only for business customers, Cable & Wireless finds itself in an unusual position among the key new players. In addition to offering a 118 099 service to business customers, the group offers its own packaged directory services that other businesses can sell on as their own.

Cable & Wireless PR manager Nicola Porter explains: 'It's a question of educating our business customers: they need to know the number is changing and they need to educate their own employees. Around four per cent of work phone bills are for directory enquiries, and that is likely to increase because there will be new services.'

Brodeur Worldwide has been briefing business and telecoms trade journalists on the company's behalf.

However, not everyone is convinced there is any great sophistication needed in PR terms at present.

Lisa Richardson, marketing officer at 118 866, a subsidiary of German telecoms giant Telegate, says: 'It is a complex change. It's unusual to be introducing a new brand in competition with a lot of companies all doing something new. At the moment, we are just trying to get the number out, and once people are au fait with that we can look at the PR stories that will highlight our uniqueness.'

The company is using QBO Bell Pottinger to ramp up PR activity later in the year. 'There is a lot of clutter out there and people are confused about what all these 118 numbers are. They are waiting until 24 August, when they have to change.'

Ostrom concludes: 'In PR terms, we are trying to rise above the noise.

I have lost count of the number of press reports that refer to competitors but give our number. The confusion is working for us.'

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