From 31 December this year, the Public Relations Consultants Association is getting tough on standards. By that date all current and prospective members will have to attain the association's new Consultancy Management Standard - an assessment process which examines all areas of an agency's activities.
The need for a quality standard for PRCA members was first recognised during Quentin Bell's chairmanship from 1994, when he led a fundamental review of the association's objectives and support for members. This also considered higher entry criteria for PRCA membership, and the members supported moves for the introduction of a standard.
At the time there was discussion about the industry adopting the ISO9000 quality standard - traditionally used in manufacturing - or the Investors in People standard for the training and development of staff.
When Jackie Elliott became PRCA chairman in 1996, she started the ball rolling for the industry to develop its own standard by asking Dr Tom Watson - the current PRCA chairman and original architect of the CMS - to lead a small working party. He began by discussing the pros and cons of various standards with members who had already attained ISO9000 or IIP and studied quality standards in other industries with certification bodies DNV Quality Assurance (DNV) and Marketing Quality Assurance (MQA).
'ISO9000 was the broadest of quality standards but it was developed for many processes and merely sought consistency. I felt that it was not too relevant to a service industry, and especially a 'people' industry,' says Watson.
'We felt that the PR industry needed an important factor built in, which was that it would be beneficial for both consultancy managers and their clients.'
After consulting members, the PRCA Consultancy Management Standard was piloted by seven member consultancies of all sizes in several areas of the UK and was adopted by the PRCA's board from 1 January 1998.
Following four years in development, it is of little surprise that the PRCA is demanding that all members attain the CMS as a condition of entry.
According to Watson, any fears that the PRCA might lose more agencies than it gained have so far been unfounded and the association is on target for 90 per cent of members to have attained the standard by the December deadline.
However, he is at pains to point out that the CMS was developed to benefit for the industry and its members and not as a bullying tool.
'We have had some consultancies - mainly the smaller ones - that have already resigned. For some people the idea of an external standard is just anathema, however, the vast majority of consultancies see it as a benefit,' he says.
'It is a benchmarking process and agencies can stand back and look at their practices and other ways of doings things which have been developed by fellow practitioners.
'The aim is to enable agencies to offer a better, more client-focused service and the fact that there is external assessment gives consultancies a very accurate view of how they operate,' Watson adds.
The CMS is only open to PRCA members but Watson believes it is on its way to becoming a widely-copied standard around the world. It has had interest from other PR organisations, including those in the US and Germany.
In order to attain the CMS, agencies are assessed by a representative from either DNV or MQA who comes into the business and looks at practices in ten areas: business plan; financial systems; audited accounts; annual fee income; staffing levels; professional charter; campaign evaluation; client satisfaction; service delivery and training and development.
The cost of assessment is based on a day rate of approximately pounds 550 plus VAT and expenses and agencies are advised not to ask their assessor to come to do the audit until they are confident that they will pass. Agencies can test themselves on whether they are likely to pass with a 'preparatory self assessment' questionnaire from the PRCA.
The PRCA also currently holds evening seminars every month for members where one of the assessment companies talks through the procedure.
DNV assessor Jon Dillon Welch claims that although it may seem like a daunting task at first, many agencies are surprised at how much of the CMS they already have in place.
'They find that they are doing most of it anyway, but PR is a business where a lot of things tend to be done verbally and the CMS is really about having consistent practices enshrined somewhere in the business,' he says.
'I can bring benchmarking practices from other areas and the idea is to give continuous improvement. But one of the real benefits is the preparation as this forces agencies to review how they run their businesses and perhaps take a fresh approach.'
On the day of an assessment, Welch has an opening meeting at the agency where he explains what will happen during the day and how he will report.
He then asks for an overview of the company and its key sectors and clients and will select around five clients which are either key clients of the company or represent key sectors.
Once the clients are selected, he will sit with the account managers or directors as they work to follow what they do for the client, through to how the agency evaluates its own work for the client.
And any agency that is merely paying lip service to the standards while the assessor is in town is missing the point.
'I can establish fairly quickly how things are done. I look for evidence of established practices the whole time. I'm not there to look for problems but for ways to perhaps improve the systems - it is proactive,' he says.
'Although I wouldn't say that people always enjoy the process, it is fairly painless.'
Of course that's easy for him to say, but what of the agencies and people who have been through the assessment and come out the other side?
In fact, all of those questioned by PR Week enthused about the process, from large agencies to those at the smaller end of the market. They claimed that it was not only beneficial to look properly at their practices, but most applauded the way it involved staff from every level of the agency to work towards a common goal.
'It really wasn't as bad as we had anticipated and it was encouraging to find that we had many of the systems in place already,' says Sam Girdwood, Red Rooster Beauty and Consumer PR department director.
'It reassures current and prospective clients that we are a responsible agency. It's good for us - although we are considered a youth agency and some of the work we do can be a bit quirky, it has given us credibility.'
Adrian Wheeler, GCI UK chief executive and former PRCA chairman is perhaps a more predictable supporter of the CMS and believes there is a real benefit for managers which filters down to other agency staff.
'It has been very useful for us, although it is a substantially bigger job for a large agency to go through than a smaller one,' he says.
'By and large, PR firms are not distinguished by the quality of their management, as they tend to be practitioners who just love doing PR, but the point of the CMS is to correct that and to focus attention on systems.
That is one of the benefits inside the firm, that everyone knows the way that they should be doing things,' he adds.
Lesley Daley, a director of Kaizo, which was one of the first consultancies to attain the CMS, says the agency did not find the assessment process difficult as it was already quite consistent about having methodologies in place for doing certain things.
'But even with that consistency it was still very useful for us to have someone come in and cast an independent eye over how we did things. And it was very good for staff as we all knew what we were working towards and helping to deliver it.'
Tony Langham, Lansons Communications' joint managing director, adds that fear of failure should not be a factor in stopping firms from coming forward for assessment.
'We got a lot of benefit from it as the overall quality of work throughout the agency is a huge issue for us. We got a taskforce of about 15 staff involved and they found it good to talk about how they do their job. A lot of the work was formalising the processes that we had in place anyway but it did make us think about things we hadn't done before. It makes you stronger.'
The overall message from those which have already achieved the CMS is that even if consultancies are nervous about being assessed they should just go ahead and do it.
As Langham says, 'In fact, if they are scared, that's surely even more reason to do it.'
Further information can be found on the PRCA web site: www.prca.org.uk.