ANALYSIS: PR industry under the microscope

The biggest survey of the PR industry in ten years reveals an industry facing up to the many challenges of the 21st century. It covers everything from budget and fee income levels to best practice and professional training. Adam Hill sifts through the evidence

Agency PROs believe clients' PR strategies leave much to be desired, yet lack confidence in their own ability to deliver programmes on time and to budget. These are just two of the findings of the largest survey of the PR industry in a decade.

Released this week, Unlocking the Potential of Public Relations: Developing Good Practice was jointly funded by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Institute of Public Relations, working with preferred media partner PRWeek. The survey's objectives were to examine what constitutes good PR practice, raise awareness of examples of it and recommend actions to support its further development.

The research audience was made up of in-house and agency PROs, their clients and PR academics. Postal and online surveys resulted in 812 usable returns, of which 51.9 per cent came from in-house PROs and 44.4 per cent from consultancy staff.

Among these, British Airways' handling of the Concorde crash, the Labour Party's revival in 1997, Buckingham Palace and the Golden Jubilee and Cambridgeshire Police's Soham murder inquiry received professional plaudits.

In sharp contrast were the Labour Party's 2003 antics, Jarvis's response to the Potters Bar rail crash and various insurance companies' selling of endowment products - all of which were seen by respondents as 'poor' in PR terms.

However, identifying good PR practice seems relatively straightforward compared with getting the people who pay for it to see its value. Asked whether senior management in companies believe that additional resourcing of PR will have a positive impact on their organisation's overall performance, the answer from both in-house and agency PROs was 'not really'. On a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 representing 'not at all' and 6 'very much', respondents put their clients' or bosses' belief in the bottom-line impact of PR at just over 3.

Given this slightly gloomy assessment of the status of the PR industry, it is perhaps no surprise that in-house practitioners said their strategies were far less likely to be reported at board level (30 per cent) than they were internally (46 per cent). And just 10 per cent of private-sector PROs said PR strategies would grace the pages of their glossy annual reports, against 17 per cent of public sector colleagues. Less than a third (31 per cent) of respondents suggested that PR strategy is a 'regular agenda item' for board meetings, while 56 per cent said it would be there 'for major issues only'. For 7 per cent, PR strategy is simply never up for discussion in this particular forum.

All of which leads on to one of the most startling findings of the report: when asked to rate their own ability to deliver PR projects on time and to budget, just one per cent of consultancies believe they are 'excellent'.

Staggeringly, 15 per cent say they are 'poor', with 35 per cent rating themselves as just 3 out of 6. This lack of confidence may be partly explained by looking at agencies' rating of the quality of briefs they get from clients: the figures are mirrored exactly, with 15 per cent 'poor' and one per cent 'excellent'.

Agency respondents give clients a mean score of just 2.8 out of 6 on their ability to benchmark PR performance. Nearly 70 per cent score their clients at just 3 or 4 out of 6 when it comes to providing the support needed for ongoing PR projects, while clients' PR strategy-making ability is rated at 1 or 2 by 47 per cent of agencies, and at 3 or 4 by 48 per cent. Taken together, these findings are a striking illustration of the need to boost knowledge in areas such as PR procurement and management and provide a useful indication of the way ahead.

The survey also identified an area for internal action: less than 50 per cent of consultancies and in-house staff appear to have formal training and development programmes for PR professionals. The argument in favour of training has not yet been won in the industry as decisively as many think it should have been.

On research and evaluation, the survey found the most important PR parameters to be measured were audience awareness, understanding and response. Activities achieved versus plan and timeliness should also be measured, while contribution to business objectives was seen as crucial - although there was little specification from respondents of how the link to PR might be made. Share price was seen as the least effective measure of the attitudes of target groups, but there is a lack of consensus, particularly in-house, about the importance and effectiveness of audience research overall. The research suggests that the application of research techniques needs to be looked at across the board.

IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor was closely involved with the creation of the report. He says: 'If you've been close to the industry at a certain level, much of this won't come as a surprise to you. But it reinforces some of the problem areas. We are still falling down on evaluation, and in terms of internal comms there is a lot more to do.'

However, there is some good news for the future, with 84 per cent of agencies believing fee income will go up over the next five years. Nearly half of public and private sector PROs indicate there will be an increase of resources for PR, both internally and externally, over the same period.

Yet there is a need for PROs to develop their areas of expertise: understanding business strategy, planning and budget management were not seen as particularly high on the list of required competencies.

Michael Murphy, chairman of the IPR/DTI steering group, says there is good reason for the industry to be positive - so long as it acknowledges its weaker areas. 'HR development is an important part of it: attracting the right people and making sure they are properly developed. But as long as we're seen to be a non-strategic business, not listened to by board members, the amount we can charge is diminished. The important thing is to use these findings to develop a blueprint for the next five years.'

In other words, the goal is to make business leaders better understand what PR can do, while PROs reposition themselves as strategic advisers.

The hope is that this report provides the means to begin squaring that circle.

The full report is available online at www.ipr.org.uk/unlockpr and www.prweek.com

WHAT NEXT? THE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

Michael Murphy is CEO of hatch-group and served as steering group chairman for Unlocking the Potential of Public Relations

When IPR director-general Colin Farrington invited me to lead a group charged with steering a best practice project on the UK PR industry back in January, I agreed without hesitation. It had been ten years since the last major report on the industry and the IPR had obtained a 'green light' from Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt to jointly fund a fresh study.

We cast our net high and wide to form a cross-representative steering group to examine what constitutes good practice in PR, raise awareness of good practice and recommend action to support further development of PR good practice.

From this, the steering group has drawn up a list of five key recommendations to meet those objectives:

1) Collating and promoting resources on PR return on investment and how boards of directors and management teams receive and utilise PR support.

2) Extending best practice work in PR purchasing and supply to improve the quality of briefs and objective setting.

3) Establishing a PR best practice case study bank in association with the European Case Clearing House, which adapts case studies across disciplines to fit with MBAs and other business courses.

4) Creating an IPR project to develop non-financial reporting best practice across the public sector.

5) Setting up new initiatives on PR planning, research and evaluation - the tools needed to unlock the true potential of PR.

The second area we addressed reflects how PR is generally perceived.

The negative PR spin stories of recent years have tarred our entire industry with one brush, undermining our perceived value. The steering group therefore recommends that the PR industry bodies should promote standard ethical clauses in client-consultant and employment contracts, and a PR ethics module should be included in the IPR's Continuous Professional Development programme.

Finally, the group felt the industry bodies - the IPR and PRCA as well as those representing service providers to the industry - should develop a plan to improve how our industry is represented.

The report will be widely disseminated and we encourage professionals and organisations to share their views - through the IPR website - by 12 January 2004.

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