Why don't you call me some time?

Networking is a vital skill for PROs. Steve Smethurst uncovers effective ways to make and cultivate contacts

It is fair to say that Harry Cymbler, the former head of UK PR at Tower Records and now founder and director of Hot Cherry PR, is not a big fan of networking. 'These twice-a-month, press-the-flesh events are designed for people without any ideas or contacts,' he growls. 'They teach individuals to be uncreative and lazy. The brand managers I know much prefer a great idea that lands on their desk as opposed to drunken PR talk in a crowded, smoky, noisy room.'

Cymbler is surely not alone in this view – indeed, many PROs dread these events for their artificiality and awkward bonhomie. However, others believe they are integral to business generation, and that the skills they demand are vital to the PRO's armoury. Grayling PR director Fiona Reece argues that traditional networking is not just about new business opportunities – it is a skill that can and should be learned.

'It is at the heart of PR,' she says. 'But if you go to an industry event, there's nothing more cringe-worthy than hearing someone selling an agency or a product.'

While networking events abound, sheer volume does not guarantee success. 'If you are too direct, people close down,' Reece adds. 'You can't go in saying, "Are you interested in a new PR agency?". There are rules to follow.'

To start with, PROs need to be objective about their business and what they can offer a potential client. Forster Company director Amanda Powell says: 'The trick is to identify what benefit you can bring to the people you meet. So if I bump into the marketing director of Hilton Hotels, instead of saying "I'm in travel PR", I could rephrase it to "I help hotels around the world to hit the headlines".'

A further way to build relationships is to share contacts. 'As a PR consultant you have to come across as an expert in the field,' says Reece. 'You might have a client others could work with – that might be a better initial approach than just going in for the kill.'

Networking takes up time, and one essential skill is being selective about which events to attend. NHPR managing director Nicola Hunt says she focuses on just a few important events. She is a member of the Academy for Chief Executives and the Recruitment Society, which hold quarterly and monthly events around the country. Hunt also takes advantage of the contacts she makes when speaking at conferences. In January, for example, she is giving up two days of her time to speak at a conference for HR directors and CEOs. 'I'm being quite hard-nosed about it,' she explains. 'I won't earn any money, but I will meet lots of people.'

Hunt strongly believes that PROs must match events to different needs. 'As a small PR company, all of our new business comes in through referrals, and networking is a great way to keep those referrals live,' she explains.

Another meeting house is the 'Willy Sutton network' – a social event as much as a forum for dealmaking. The name comes from Willy Sutton, who was a bank robber in the 1920s. Famously, when put on trial, he was asked why he robbed banks. 'Because that's where the money is,' was his logical reply. 

Attracting the money-men to these events is Mike Bayler, founder of The Rights Marketing Company. He says that the club arose from 'a desire to have some kind of fellowship or society of people who could meet up every few months to discuss what they had learned from the marketplace'.

Yet there is one strong contradiction about this club. Bayler denies that it is a 'true' networking event, but admits that its relaxed atmosphere can ease the path to commerce.

'People aren't there to schmooze or to make contacts,' he says. 'Which of course means that once the pressure is off, everyone starts to schmooze and to make contacts.'

Contradictory it may be, but Bayler believes the informality of the event is its greatest strength. 'It's not one of those events where people wander round with those tragic name stickers on their lapels,' he says. 'There's no guest speaker – the whole idea is to gather 15 or 20 people, sit around, change places, introduce each other and update acquaintances on what has happened since they last met.'

Hunt, who is also a member, says the last session she attended 'was a riot'.

Build your own network
Willy Sutton numbers are limited and it is invitation-only, so would Hunt advocate others setting up their own networks? 'Why not? It's very easy in any sector to think you know everything,' she argues.

'A successful networking event is where you come away having learned something or helped someone else to see something in a different way.'

Effective networking, however, is not just about events. Alison Hope, lead facilitator at training company People Aspects, has advised many PROs on how to improve their networking skills and stresses that useful connections can be made anywhere. Her message is to think creatively. 'Don't always go to "normal" networking events,' she asserts. 'Think about awards ceremonies and trade conferences.
And the more generous you are with your own connections and contacts, the more you'll get back.'

This adds weight to Cymbler's theory that networking should be a state of mind. As Grayling's Reece can testify, opportunism can bring rewards. A few years ago she travelled to Jordan to take part in a charity bike ride in aid of Scope. Cycling up a 'massively steep' hill, she got chatting to the person riding next to her. He turned out to be the marketing manager for Disneyland Paris. That meeting led to another charity bike ride, this time from Calais to Disneyland Paris.
From contacts made there, Reece won major new business.

Networking is sometimes a chore and it is certainly time-consuming. But with the right attitude and careful preparation it can be a profitable, even pleasurable, experience for both prospective clients and PROs – maybe even Harry Cymbler.

PR Networks you should know about

1. these4walls
Despite humble beginnings – it began as four people in a Fleet Street pub – these4walls (www.t4w.co.uk) now has nearly 2,000 members, regular monthly meetings and seminars with such titles as 'Has marketing become the latest form of pollution?' Founding partners are Adrian Chitty, a communications consultant at Good Relations, the PR division of Chime Group, and James Gordon-MacIntosh, associate director at Seventy Seven, the consumer PR arm of Fishburn Hedges.

2. The Mandrake
A networking event created by Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson, although running of the club has now passed to Charlie Hoult, CEO at Loewy Group. The events feature guest speakers, champagne and pizza, and are geared towards entrepreneurs and business people with an interest in marcoms. Recent speakers have included shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin; ex-Sun editor David Yelland and Birmingham City CEO Karren Brady. 'Although it's quite high-level,' says Hoult, 'anyone who wants to come can email me. I can't promise anything, but we encourage the bold.' charlie.hoult@loewygroup.com

3. Speed networking
Like speed dating, a tightly structured event in which you can meet up to 20 people in one evening. Companies offering this include www.sixdegreesnetwork.co.uk, ('We don't do breakfast. We don't do golf. We do business!'); www.speed-networking.net ('The fastest way to positively impact your business'); and www.60secondnetworking.com ('Now this is effective networking!'). All work on the same premise, that face-to-face meetings – even just three-minutes long – are better than cold calls.

4. Pecha Kucha
Tokyo-based Klein Dytham Architects came up with this concept and Icon magazine has brought it to London. Pecha Kucha, the Japanese for 'chit chat', is the name given to nights at the ICA, London. Sixteen participants get to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each, meaning the audience experiences 'an exhilarating range' of speakers and images over the course of the evening. It is aimed at people in architecture, design and the arts. The next event is on 9 February. For more information email icon@icon-magazine.co.uk with Pecha Kucha as the subject.

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