FOCUS: FINANCIAL PR - A change of tactics for City PR firms/The financial PR market is undergoing an evolution which is seeing the emphasis moving to news handling skills and political advice. Steve Bevan reports

Financial PR, say its promoters, is growing up, becoming less of a process business, more a true consultancy. Gone are the days when a financial PR firm could survive by providing a mere results posting service.

Financial PR, say its promoters, is growing up, becoming less of a

process business, more a true consultancy. Gone are the days when a

financial PR firm could survive by providing a mere results posting

service.



The talk is of added value and of strategic communications

consultancy.



Buoyed by fat profits from transactional work, many financial PR firms

have been expanding.



The experiments with bolt-on lobbying divisions may have failed but

several financial PR firms have now set-up their own corporate

divisions. Financial Dynamics and Gavin Anderson both did so last year -

following a pattern already set by Ludgate, Citigate and Shandwick.



As for lobbying - or public affairs to use the more polite term - many

firms now include this as part of the ’full service’ offer. Brunswick

has done so for some time. But now even smaller firms which have never

marketed themselves as lobbyists have found themselves called upon to

provide political advice. Rather than use a lobbying specialist, East

Midlands used its financial PR firm Finsbury for regulatory and

political advice during its negotiations with Dominion Resources.

Meanwhile Dominion’s agency The Maitland Consultancy is considering

setting up a special regulatory affairs unit.



’It’s something companies are increasingly turning to financial PR

companies to provide - particularly as they shy away from full-blown

lobbying companies in the aftermath of the cash-for-questions,’ says the

head of one financial PR firm.



The emphasis here is on feedback and advice, rather than buttonholing

MPs. Likewise, the growth in the core financial PR activity is in the

advisory role rather than the executional. This may be being driven

partly by the burgeoning in-house sector.



The merchant banking sector is one which has seen a number of new

in-house roles created, or existing ones upgraded. According to Philip

Ranger, head of corporate communications at Charterhouse, he’s not used

a FPR agency in the traditional way for almost four years. ’Five years

ago we used to use an agency for all aspects of press relations work.

Now that’s my job. I use an agency tactically rather than

strategically.’



He also makes a point which will strike a chord with many other in-house

practitioners: ’If you rely on an external source for all your advice

and strategic input, the corporate communications function remains

’well, they do events don’t they?’. I think there used to be a time,

perhaps five years ago, when you did wonder what the in-house

communications department was there for, because of the (range of)

services being purchased by clients.



Those agencies that are still offering that are finding it’s a shrinking

marketplace.’



It is a trend that has been worrying Chris Matthews, chief executive of

Shandwick Consultants. He predicts a major restructuring of the

financial PR sector. ’Big agencies are giving clients all this stuff

they don’t want - reports, stock market announcements. It’s nice but of

zero interest.



They know their industry better than we ever will - what they really

want is a particular edge in one or two areas, where they don’t have

knowledge.’



And he asks: ’Are people doing anything about it? We’re all chasing

growth and hiring staff - but many of those available are career

consultants who don’t know what it’s like on the other side.’



Richard Sermon, non-executive chairman of Shandwick Consultants predicts

a polarisation of the consultancy sector into large firms, with access

to an international network and small, niche players while the mid-size

agencies will find themselves squeezed out. He points to two factors: a

strengthening in-house sector and the need for agencies to invest in

technology.



He also sees an increasing emphasis on the core skills of consultancy -

media handling and news management - which even large in-house

departments might not necessarily have. The focus on media relations

skills is also being driven by the demands of the journalists

themselves.



As joint managing director of Square Mile, Tim Jackaman points out

papers have moved away from seeing themselves as places of record. Even

the Financial Times has reduced the amount of space it gives to smaller

company results - now running them in the form of a table. Jackaman sees

this as just the latest sign of a shift away from an emphasis on

statistics and scoops, and towards analysis and opinion. The

beneficiaries of this, he believes, will be those PR people who can show

they have real knowledge, and a finger on the trends which others

don’t.



As former Telegraph news editor, now Dewe Rogerson director, Andy

Cornelius says: ’I think these days journalists are looking for a much

better informed PR - they are looking for people who understand the

subject better. Journalists only want to speak to PR people that can

help them.’



With tougher regulation on the use of insider information, the challenge

now for PR people is to shift the basis of their relationship from leaks

to real knowledge of a particular sector - in a sense, to show the flip

side of the strategic consultancy role. Consultant Antony Wreford cites

the way some of the management consultancies have established themselves

as expert witnesses - a source of ideas and information without an

obvious promotional motive - as an example of the way this can work.



PR people, he points out, often have an international perspective which

business journalists rarely have, and can therefore be useful in

pointing out trends overseas which affect the UK.



One thing hindering PR consultancies in developing this role further may

be the lack of sector specialism - PR agencies have traditionally been

opportunist rather than specialist in their new business strategies with

the recent exception of the utilities.



According to Guardian City editor - and soon-to-be PR consultant -

Patrick Donovan, this has favoured the in-house operator: ’On particular

issues, like electricity, in-house PR teams are quite useful. Agencies

don’t necessarily have the wealth of expertise a specialist in-house

does. But we are beginning to see PROs in particular sectors being used

by journalists to give impartial advice on specfic issues.’



PRESS RELATIONS: AN INCREASING DEPENDENCY



The comment of one senior financial journalist about PR people -

’they’re all lying bastards’ - indicates the ’creative tension’ that

still exists between the two parties. There is precious little there to

indicate that financial PR is becoming more strategic and less

process-driven.



Jane Fuller, UK companies news editor at the Financial Times says the

primary value of financial PR people to her is that they can provide

access to senior executives and that they help the company write press

releases which are more transparent than the company might otherwise be

inclined to do it.



Fuller says she has also been doing the rounds of PR agencies to enlist

their help in getting better photographs - the FT made all its staff

photographers redundant last April.



Michael Walters, deputy City editor of the Daily Mail rehearses a few of

the old bugbears: press releases not delivered promptly enough, and

people given as contacts when they are away from the office.



On a more general level he points to the trend for companies to dispense

with set-piece press conferences for their annual results in favour of a

series of short briefings between the directors and selected

journalists.



It is, believes Walters, quite deliberate and part of the increasing

manipulation, designed to put more power in the hands of the PR

companies.



On a more positive note he agrees some PR people are useful in terms of

spotting trends, discussing wider issues - ’some are very useful, others

sadly aren’t’. But it is the former he will spend time on.



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