Public affairs: Mobilising the skills employed in the US

The industry is waiting to see whether Bozell Sawyer Miller’s purchase of Charles Barker will introduce some of the US group’s more specialised skills.

The industry is waiting to see whether Bozell Sawyer Miller’s

purchase of Charles Barker will introduce some of the US group’s more

specialised skills.



The acquisition of Charles Barker by US PR group Bozell Sawyer Miller

speaks volumes for the rebuilding of the British agency’s brand name and

reputation. BSM chairman and CEO Harris Diamond went so far as to

confess he willingly paid a ’premium’ price, valuing Charles Barker at

over pounds 10.5 million.



But regard for Charles Barker’s resurgent achievements should not be

allowed to obscure what its newly adoptive parent brings to the

relationship.



As well as its ad agency links - including Delaney Fletcher Bozell in

the UK - the US firm has an unusual structure covering what are by

British standards some uncommon areas of expertise.



BSM is split into five operating units. One of these, Bozell PR, is a

straightforward public relations and marketing agency. The other four

are of greater interest.



Sawyer Miller Consulting specialises in strategic work, Bozell/Eskew in

’advocacy advertising’, KRC Research in issues campaign research and

planning, and Strategic Alliances Group in grassroots mobilisation

programmes.



The growth of strategic consulting is a well covered trend, with the

larger international owned groups and a mini-wave of boutique agencies

set up by experienced practitioners - such as David Wynne-Morgan’s WMC

Communications and Alison Canning’s First and 42nd - all vying to tap

into remunerative, high-level advisory briefs.



However, BMC’s other areas of activity are arguably less well-known in

the UK. ’They certainly have some things we don’t have here,’ says

Charles Barker chief executive Tim Sutton. Charles Barker, says Sutton,

will examine these areas of expertise and consider whether they would be

effective if applied to the UK. This begs a number of questions.



What precisely do these areas of specialisation entail? Are they new at

all? And might agencies over here, perhaps led by Charles Barker, alter

their structure to take on board the BSM model?



Advocacy advertising is the use of tactical advertising with an issues

message to support a lobbying-style campaign. This sort of advertising

is relatively common in the US - even on TV, complete with toll-free

numbers - and is a lucrative area for Bozell/Eskew which does about

dollars 70-80 million worth a year.



’It takes quite difficult issues and runs advertising to support PR,

rather than the other way round,’ adds Sutton.



However, lobbying specialists taking charge of advertising for issues

campaigns is by no means exceptional in the US. Grey Advertising owned

public affairs company APCO Associates, for example, although without a

separate advocacy advertising arm, operates in the same way.



In the UK, there has been a long tradition of financial PR companies

handling client’s tactical advertising. But with the odd exception, such

as Burson-Marsteller’s Marsteller Advertising, there have been fewer

instances of PR controlling advertising for issues-related

campaigns.



There may indeed be scope for this to develop in the UK but there is one

major hindrance to its growth - lack of access to TV. The Independent

Television Commission’s code on advertising bans politically-related

messages.



Industry opinion is divided on grassroots mobilisation - a technique

whereby agencies encourage and support local community groups to push

their own message.



’The US method is much more to mobilise the public and alter

opinion ... but these services don’t travel,’ says Public Policy Unit

managing director Charles Miller.



Alison Canning, a former UK chief executive of B-M before she set up

First and 42nd, thinks that grassroots expertise has been available on

these shores for some time. B-M, for one, has this capability. ’It’s the

same thing carved up in another way,’ she says.



Lowe Bell Political received plaudits (among them PR Week Campaign of

the Year, 1995) for its work to halt Post Office privatisation which

featured a substantial grassroots dimension by supporting local

campaigning. Last week’s massive show of support for fox hunting in Hyde

Park was also organised on a local basis. But PRCA chairman and Manning

Selvage and Lee chief executive Jackie Elliot believes there has

hitherto been little grassroots activity in the UK on the scale that is

seen on the other side of the Atlantic.



’Because of the much more constrained size of the UK market and media

you can’t localise issues to the extent you can in the US,’ says

Elliot.



’There might be a backlash against a London firm sending in its

grassroots hit squad to handle a local community issue. But if it were

properly managed there’s no reason why we couldn’t see more of it.’



On the matter of campaign planning, the consensus is that a number of UK

agencies - notably Countrywide Porter-Novelli and the Quentin Bell

Organisation - have already embraced the in-depth research ethic that

characterises the creation of major advertising campaigns.



Where BSM differs, says Harris, is that KRC works predominantly on

qualitative and quantitative research on public affairs issues - most of

it carried out proactively at the behest of BSM rather than in response

to client requests.



On the face of it it seems highly unlikely that Charles Barker will be

restructured in BSM’s image. At the same time, however, the agency will

surely try out some of the techniques mastered by its American

parent.



Whether in the fullness of time other agencies in the UK look to set up

specialist teams devoted to grassroots mobilisation, advertising

advocacy and the like is an intriguing prospect.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in