Anthony Hilton: Advertising reels from PR threat

One thing that seems to mark out this recession as different from those of the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s is that the suffering in the PR business is less acute.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

It probably does not feel like that, particularly for finance directors of agencies as they seek to reconcile revenues with budgets that bear only a passing resemblance to the reality in the marketplace. It may also seem far-fetched to CEOs in the big firms whose huge overheads are no longer covered easily by buoyant revenues and who have for some months now been quietly shedding staff while seeking to pretend to the outside world that it is business as usual.

It is clearly not easy out there and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But there still have not been the spectacular collapses of major firms that have been a hallmark of previous downturns.

Now in part this is clearly because PR is a much more grown-up industry than it used to be and the professionalism has brought a much higher quality of financial control. But one suspects that is not the whole story. There seems, for example, to be a mismatch between what is happening in advertising and what is happening elsewhere in the comms industry. Advertising is behaving true to form and is dire, particularly in the traditional media of newspapers, magazines and ITV.

The intriguing possibility this raises is the extent to which PR is being seen as a substitute for advertising, instead of suffering with it. Could it be the comms industry is holding up relatively well because what used to be advertising spend is being channelled in its direction? The argument is that with the growth of the internet, with social networking, viral information and blogging, it has become possible for the skilled PR practitioner to deliver mass audiences, and at the same time control the message, in a way they never could when they had to rely on traditional media. It is said that in the US most big PR consultancies already derive up to a quarter of their income from web-based comms. Given that recessions fuel innovation, this could be a transformational moment.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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