ANALYSIS: Client Survey - Wanted: quality pros, good writers, results

If your approach to getting new business is to dazzle potential clients with two-hour multimedia extravaganzas touting your global reach, Internet-savvy and vast research machinery, maybe it’s time to think again.

If your approach to getting new business is to dazzle potential clients with two-hour multimedia extravaganzas touting your global reach, Internet-savvy and vast research machinery, maybe it’s time to think again.

If your approach to getting new business is to dazzle potential

clients with two-hour multimedia extravaganzas touting your global

reach, Internet-savvy and vast research machinery, maybe it’s time to

think again.

One of the most intriguing findings of the recent Harris/Impulse

Research survey is that when it comes to selecting new PR firms, the

leading factor clients look at is the quality of the account team

they’ll be dealing with. When it comes to satisfaction with PR firms

they already work with, meeting deadlines and keeping promises ranks as

most important.

Flash and panache might get you in the door, but having people who can

deliver the goods on time is still what it’s all about in a service

business like public relations. And for some PR pros and corporate PR

managers, the study’s results simply reinforce what they already


Just ask Tom Panelas, head of PR at Encyclopaedia Britannica, who has

spent a good portion of the year searching for a PR firm to work on his

company’s new Web offering. ’Anyone who’s ever worked with PR firms on

the client side learns very quickly that no matter how good a firm is,

there are people who are weak,’ he says. When he talks to potential PR

firms, he wants to hear about their strategy, but he also wants to know

he’ll be working with people he considers sharp enough to get his job


Results are everything

Paul Raab, director of corporate PR for consulting firm AT Kearney,


’The single most important criteria is the ability to get results.’ When

he talks to a firm, he wants to know ’who is responsible for results?’

He says it’s nice to work with people you like, but it’s more important

to get results for your PR investment.

That view jives with the Harris/Impulse survey, which found that the

chemistry factor ranked only eighth among criteria that prompt potential

clients to hire a PR firm - and only 10th when it comes to evaluating a

current agency’s performance (see bar chart). ’After six months, a year,

two years, it goes back again to the quality of the people,’ says Dan

Edelman. If you are performing well, the issue of chemistry rarely comes


That may represent a fundamental change from the early days of PR, says

Impulse president Bob Novick, who has been involved on the client side

of PR. The business was built on personal relationships between PR pros

and clients - what Novick calls the ’schmooze factor.’ Today, ’liking

has less to do with people who are going to schmooze you up and more to

do with people who get results,’ he says. Polaroid’s VP of corporate

communications Anne McCarthy chimes in: ’PR is now a business function;

it’s no longer an ancillary, nice-to-have function.’ McCarthy looks at

the quality of account teams, especially at the team leadership


This year’s survey for the first time analyzed the correlation between

client satisfaction with PR firms and various performance criteria. At

the top of his list of factors that correlate with client satisfaction

was ’overall quality of their work’ followed by ’quality of my account

team’ and ’client service.’ Chemistry was fifth after

’thorough/attention to detail.’

Internet/online capabilities and international capabilities ranked 22nd

and 23rd out of 24 factors. Tom Harris cautions that those low rankings

may result from his survey’s methodology, saying that questionnaires may

not have reached the people who deal with their firm’s international or

Internet PR. But other industry heavyweights say the low rankings don’t

surprise them.

’It is assumed the top five to eight agencies will have international

experience,’ says Fleishman-Hillard chairman and CEO John Graham. The

same is true of Internet and research capabilities, says Edelman: ’If

they’re a relatively large firm, they assume research.’ Rich Jernstedt,

CEO of Golin/Harris International, says he sees potential clients

looking at macro issues regarding agency capabilities. But once a client

has hired a PR firm, attention turns to very micro issues such as the

quality of work and the quality of the people working on an account.

Corporate America has gone through a transformation in recent years

which has placed a premium on efficiency and constantly re-evaluating

how things are done.

For many, the easiest way to spot value is analyzing the writing quality

of materials their PR firms produce. Writing quality ranked fourth in

this year’s survey among criteria used to select a new PR firm,

leapfrogging criteria such as creativity and chemistry. ’You have to be

able to write well in order to think strategically,’ says Graham, whose

firm still gives writing tests to all potential employees. Perhaps

that’s one of the reasons Fleishman ranked at the top of the reputation

quality list in the survey.

But Polaroid’s McCarthy, looking at today’s PR landscape, laments: ’To

get the combination of a strategist who can write is rare.’

Wake up to writing skills

Britannica’s Panelas was thrilled to hear that the Harris survey

mentions writing quality, hoping it will be a wake-up call to agencies.

’I’ve almost begun to despair of getting good writing from PR firms,’ he


’It seems almost unrealistic to expect it.’ Raab won’t talk to a firm

that can’t demonstrate the writing ability of its staff. ’If your people

aren’t exceptional communicators, you certainly aren’t going to get in,’

he says. Harris notes that when he started in PR decades ago, it was

only reporters who were complaining about poorly written press releases.

’Now I’m hearing clients complaining just as much,’ he says.

While Harris attributes the decline in writing skills to the decline in

reading, Panelas thinks it has more to do with the expansion of the PR

profession. Many PR people don’t start their careers as writers anymore,

so they never have that basic writing training.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear PR firms need to emphasize writing skills

anew with their people. It’s a key selection and retention criteria in a

marketplace where clients are opting, according to the survey, to give

more and more PR work to fewer firms. Competition for PR work has become


’From the corporations standpoint, it’s a buyers’ market,’ notes John La

Sage, chairman of Burson-Marsteller’s Chicago/central region. And from a

PR firm’s standpoint, that means getting the best possible people at the

account-team level. ’This is a business where you have to trust and

believe in your account team,’ La Sage says, words that echo the study’s

results and ones that PR firms should think about before preparing that

next PowerPoint pitch.

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