Global Round Table: An international meeting of minds

With a range of public relations issues under discussion, Stephanie Roberts reports on PRWeek's inaugural global round table.

Whether you're a senior PR practitioner based in the southern part of the US running Latin American accounts, or one running European accounts from London, PROs working on global business are likely to face similar trends and challenges. But local variations in culture - both financial and political - often require tailored solutions. So is it possible to formulate a coherent global strategy?

PRWeek, PRWeek US and PRReport brought together key global industry players to meet in London to debate the most pressing issues at hand. Interestingly, the same key issues - from transparency to government regulation, whether there is such a thing as a true global audience or whether procurement affects the industry on a global scale - were all brought to the table by both in-house directors of comms and agency heads.

The procurement drive

In an industry renowned for its creativity, the increasing attendance of procurement officers at pitches has become a worldwide issue. Will the number-crunchers have the last word over an industry that can sometimes be difficult to quantify?

The opinions were strong on this issue.

GCI Latin America president Jeff Hunt believes procurement is a huge concern for the industry. 'I think they (procurement officers) are having a devastating impact on the pricing and the acquisition of our service,' he says. 'They are devaluing the profession and commoditising it and I think there's a lot of pressure on us to quantify value.'

He believes that while procurement has now become a 'necessary evil' on the global scene, PROs shouldn't let procurement officers take over the selection process. He points to the difficulty of the process across a global account for one of his clients. While GCI thought it had negotiated a blended rate for Europe and a blended rate for the Americas, interpreted to mean the US and Canada, the client wanted a blended rate for Canada, the US and Latin America. 'Blending rates with Latin America and the US - that's a problem. That's procurement; wrenching that last dollar out of us,' he adds.

Indeed, debates on ROI, measurement and procurement are slightly counter to PR, adds Edelman Europe president and CEO David Brain. 'Personally, I find it one of the great attractions of our business, that it's not purely rational,' he says. 'If you are with a CEO or a marketing director, and you've got a great idea, you can generally see the value of it and so can they, although there isn't a base for financial measurement. There's an inherently unquantifiable thing that is part of the art of what we do.'

Burson-Marsteller CEO Continental Europe Carlos Lareau's main concern is that the PR industry is not really proving to clients or companies that the industry is moving business results significantly. 'The people you need to do this, those that move the needle for clients, are expensive, and you have all kinds of overhead costs, and then all these procurement chaps move in,' he says. 'They aren't going to go away. What we need to do is re-engineer our business if necessary. I do think a number of companies are questioning the value of our profession and our industry.'

Conversely, according to Ketchum senior partner global practices Rob Flaherty, procurement people can be an ally in protecting a globally consolidated account.

'They can say: "Other agencies can't play here," because our procurement model was to consolidate with one agency,' he says.

'Also, they will make sure if a rate is set, they will live up to it.' He does, however, agree that there are some frustrations, particularly with setting a unified rate worldwide.

From the client perspective, however, the procurement process can help them learn more about the agencies pitching for business, as well as assist with internal reflection. London 2012 director of communications and public affairs Mike Lee has recently put agencies through a procurement process and found exactly that. 'The agency we eventually worked with ended up going with exactly the framework that we wanted to go with in terms of defining global reach, experience and creativity,' he says.

Strategic overlay

His ultimate audience is, of course, the 125 International Olympic Committee members and there is a marketing communications strategy for each one. For Lee, heading what could justly be called a global election campaign, a global strategy is an overlay; Hill & Knowlton has secured the PR brief and will promote the bid internationally. But aside from this kind of project, is using one agency a trend for global accounts and can just one agency be used worldwide?

Patchiness between global offices of agencies is a critical factor, claims Reuters director of corporate communications Simon Walker, especially in a market such as Asia. 'I don't think we would ever use one agency to cover the world,' he admits. 'I don't believe agencies can guarantee consistency between offices. If you can afford to, I think you're better going off with different agencies.'

VisitBritain V-P strategy and communications Sandie Dawe agrees. While usually handling PR in-house, the organisation has recently started engaging PR agencies, and admits it's hard to find an agency that operates at a consistent level everywhere that VisitBritain does: 'It gets more complicated in terms of trying to run a huge campaign.'

Agencies argue, however, that a solution can be found to this challenge by introducing a 'lead-agency status'. Flaherty suggests this will help eliminate any agency proclaiming they are perfect in every region, and also reduces the risk of admitting that you're not strong in every area. Appointing a lead agency will also give some consistency. 'Doing this has helped us really globalise the whole agency by saying, OK, we need to make that area stronger in one office, and over time it does become stronger,' he says. 'In the meantime you have another of your offices working on it. Yes, the client wants global co-ordination, but they need to ask and we need to tell them honestly where we are strongest.'

Spotting value

Honesty is key and client relationship management is one of the pins that holds global accounts together. Lee, who has worked both in consultancies and in-house, says the good consultant knows how to spot the added value that is needed by the client. 'Last year, I had a consultancy that came in with an all-singing, all-dancing offer, but it was actually too big for what we were doing,' he explains. 'But as soon as they mentioned that they worked on what was most important for us, which was managing relationships with Brussels, that changed our perspective.'

GPC International senior vice-president and managing director, Brussels, Caroline Wunnerlich agrees. 'There's always going to be a role for excellent client relationship management on the agency part,' she says. 'When you are talking about a global relationship, the client needs to feel there are at least a couple of senior people who really understand their business and their needs.'

Of course, there are many agencies and in-house teams that operate on accounts across the globe, but do their target audiences actually cut across geographies? According to I-Flex Solutions senior manager, communications, Sunil Robert, one of the biggest challenges is to take the best practices and the proven methodologies of the global agency and translate them into a global media situation and drive results. 'If you look at markets such as Malaysia or Taiwan, each office is driven by different dynamics and often we sense frustration from our management side because there is sometimes an inability from the agency partners to see the big picture,' he says.

On the other hand, Weber Shandwick Germany managing director Klaus Weise argues that the problem doesn't always lie on the agency side, and that the client sometimes has weak PR managers in other countries. 'Occasionally, particularly across the technology sector, the client will change their business strategy or their communications strategy, and it can make it difficult for agencies to execute,' he says.

The 24/7 nature of the media, especially with online news, is a further reason why it can be a challenge to have country specific marketing or PR, adds Dawe. 'Now that everyone has the opportunity to see everything at anytime, you can't just launch a campaign somewhere and say "that is only specific to Poland",' she says.

Is the answer to these challenges appointing local people on the ground to carry out the accounts? After all, understanding how a local market works is imperative for all types of business. The Hoffman Agency chief executive Lou Hoffman says it depends on the talent available. 'When we were ready to enter China, we wanted someone from the market,' he said. 'We brought them to our office in Silicon Valley for 24 months and then put them in the market. You can do that once, but most of us don't have the appetite from a financial or time standpoint to do that every time.'

He also points out there could be a problem with the fact there's a lot of 'American-itis' around. 'So many of the decision makers (in PR) are American and you see a lot of them actually have in their titles "global" or "international" PR but they don't really have the knowledge base and see things strictly as an American,' he says. 'That's something that we are consistently dealing with.'

Understandably, there are challenges when running a global programme.

Yet a clear message came out of the debate and that was the need to see the big picture. 'I think we all get caught in the trap of thinking in our patch and also thinking about the here and now,' concludes Hunt. Instead, it is time to widen the focus to see where the future of global business lies.

THOSE WHO ATTENDED

David Brain, Edelman, Europe president and CEO

Sandie Dawe, VisitBritain V-P strategy and communications

Rob Flaherty, Ketchum senior partner global practices

Lou Hoffman, The Hoffman Agency CEO

Jeff Hunt, GCI Latin America president

Carlos Lareau, Burson-Marsteller CEO Continental Europe

Mike Lee, London 2012 director of communications and public affairs

Sunil Robert, I-Flex Solutions senior manager, communications

Simon Walker, Reuters director of corporate communications

Klaus Weise, Weber Shandwick Germany managing director

Caroline Wunnerlich, GPC International senior vice-president and

managing director, Brussels

WHERE WILL THE PR INDUSTRY BE IN 20 YEARS' TIME?

The global PR industry has come a long way since the 1980s, and with so many new issues affecting how it operates, such as procurement, what will the PR scene look like in 20 years time and beyond?

Encouragingly, the panel was optimistic about the future of PR, seeing it set for growth. Weise, for example, believes the attraction of advertising will continue to wane and PR will get the leading role in marketing communications, while Brain says it will be interesting to see whether the current relationship between in-house comms teams and agencies will change.

But looking into their crystal balls, these senior practitioners see more challenges ahead. Laureau believes that while the PR industry will undoubtedly be bigger, he questions whether its sophistication will grow at the same rate. And Dawe points out that people in their 20s and 30s today, who will be leading the industry in 20 years' time, will have grown up in a sophisticated commercial environment. 'The print media will be far less influential and people will rely more on 24-hour news,' she says.

'It will make PR both more and less influential.'

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