Having taken a major hit of a -14% revenue growth between 2008 and 2009, the Belgian PR market has needed to hit back. But things are looking brighter for the small European country, with the ICCO World Report 2010 predicting a 6% increase in revenue for this year.
Ogilvy Group Belgium MD, Jeff Chertack, explains that the fiscal crisis is not a totally negative thing for the industry, saying: ‘The global economic crisis means that clients are looking for value, which PR can deliver.
‘The challenge for larger agencies is to show value, since in budget crunches the tendency would be to go for the lowest price.’
Income for the industry came in at a modest €28m in 2009 for an estimated 60% of firms associated with the national trade organisation, Belgian Public Relations Consultants Association. (BPRCA)
Languages play a key roll for PR professionals operating in Belgium due to its having three communities, three regions and four language areas, which include Dutch, French, German and bilingual Dutch-French.
With this comes the problem of not only reaching a specific national audience, but of transcending dual identity when targeting a campaign.
Chertack says: ‘In Belgium, PR professionals must account for a difference of cultures. There is a huge difference between the Flemish region and the Walloon region, with the Brussels-Capital region in the middle.
‘Media needs to be approached carefully, respecting their particularities.’
Hill & Knowlton Benelux CEO, Jeroen van Seeters explains that the most influential TV in the Flemish regions is public TV-VRT, with commercial TV RTL being adopted by the French-speaking areas.
Popular print media include: Het Laatste Nieuws, Nieuwsblad and De Standaard in Dutch, with La Derniere Heure and Le Soir for French speakers. Business media is represented by key titles: De Tijd and L’Echo.
The BPRCA cites digital and social media as the top trend for the industry. However, others believe that the PR sector is still slow to catch on.
Chertack says: ‘Digital influence depends on which part of the landscape you’re looking at. People working in marcom departments are convinced about the impact of digital influence for their brands, products and organisations. But other departments often still need to be convinced.’
Van Seeters adds: ‘Many companies feel they need to do more with social/online media, but they’re not quite sure what. There’s a clear opportunity for PR agencies to provide better guidance to their clients about what would work better for them and how they need to go about building a social media strategy: it’s not just about having a Facebook page.’
That said, one in three Belgian residents have a Facebook page and local social networking site Netlog has a firm root with the under 18 market.
With a key focus on healthcare/wellness and IT/technology, according to the ICCO, it comes as no real surprise that major brands such as L’Oreal and Solvay, and Apple, Nokia and HP thrive in the Belgian market.
A propensity towards environment and energy-based technologies also means that companies such as Bekaert and Umicore are also key to the Belgian economy.
In local terms, beer brand Duvel and food company Colruyt are also key players.
Constantly in the media spotlight due to being the home of the European Parliament, public affairs is a vital area of the comms sector in Belgium.
However, the market for public affairs would appear to be split as van Seeters explains: ‘At the local Belgian market level, public affairs and lobbying is specialised and not the purview of the big agencies. At EU level, the story is completely different, with more firms coming to Brussels every year.’
This split dichotomy doesn’t hold back the industry, rather bolsters it as the ICCO puts Belgium on its list of countries with the highest prospects of growth in the public affairs sector.
In terms of capitalising on digital media, the public affairs sector in Belgium is very much behind the curve.
Chertack says: ‘While some MEPs and commissioners have taken to Twitter and Facebook, the large majority of public Brussels has not yet caught on to using social channels as a way to better engage and communicate with the European public.’