The Council of PR Firms is in the process of changing its
leadership. Kimberly Krautter asks whether the new officers need to
reach out and answer some of their critics among small firms.
Belts are tightening across America. For large PR firms, the response is
often to shed staff (maybe even offices), restructure resources to areas
where work is still coming in, and sometimes to sacrifice pricing to
keep the agency busy. But how should a small firm react to such a market
in order to survive the downturn, given that it hasn't got the staff or
offices to cut?
That's just the type of problem the Council of PR Firms was developed to
help tackle. But despite the Council's determination to help small firms
with such issues, it has emerged in the last few weeks that critics in
the ranks of small firms are questioning the relevance of the Council to
The Council's membership dues are scaled to encourage involvement by
boutiques and multinationals alike, with the assessment based on the
idea that all agencies pay 0.065% of US revenues. But for some, the
impression remains that the Council is biased toward large member
However mistakenly, many refer to the Council as "Drobis' group" or
"Drobis' lot," in reference to Ketchum chairman Dave Drobis. He
certainly had a hand in the foundation of the Council, but is no longer
on the executive board. Some also claim that those who pay higher dues
($50,000 annually), must get more in return than their smaller
brethren. And they point to the fact that the Council's last board was
heavily biased toward large networks.
There are actually three tiers of Council membership: Tier 1 is firms
under $5 million, Tier 2 contains the bulk of the membership
(firms earning $5 million-$75 million annually), and Tier
3 includes those firms with revenues exceeding $75 million. While
there are only a handful of agencies in the latter category, last year's
list of Council officers read like a who's who of large firms: BSMG,
Edelman, Fleishman-Hillard, Golin/Harris, Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum,
Weber Shandwick, Porter Novelli, and Publicis Dialog were all
However, Jack Bergen says that Council bylaws ensure that elections
limit top-tier agencies to six slots in order to ensure equal
representation across the membership. "The problem is that once a firm
grows to over $10 million, it's more likely to get bought," says
Bergen. Such post-election activity accounted for the disproportionate
make-up of last year's board.
But the tier construct shows clearly the CPRF's aim to ensure balanced
leadership. One hundred of the 126 agency members are independents, and
roughly half of those are from the smaller ranks.
However, the middle tier seems too broad. The operational challenges of
a $5 million shop versus one above $20 million are akin to
a college football player trying to make the NFL. "I agree," says
Bergen. "We may need to look at changing the bylaws to add another tier
that more accurately reflects this.
"One thing I will argue vociferously against is that big firms dominate
because they pay the biggest dues," says Bergen. "Quite frankly, it's
often the independents that use our resources the most."
Small firms react
But some of the smaller firms are talking about forming supplemental
groups to address issues specific to their companies. Shelly Spector,
president of Spector & Associates, is a current member of the Council,
but her dissatisfaction with the organization led her to create an ad
hoc, web-based group focused squarely on the needs of the independent PR
Spector says that a group dubbed the National Association of Independent
PR Agencies is forming as a loose affiliation of independent firms.
She won't reveal the names of the half-dozen firms working with her, but
she says, "The number-one purpose is to allow people to meet at will
online, and in private, to share confidences about firm management."
Spector & Associates is hosting the group's website, naipra.com. She
says the organization does not have a traditional form, and will not
collect dues. Asked how the formless entity will function, "It's to help
us compete against the Goliaths," Spector responds.
But she adds that her interest in the new group does not preclude
Council membership. She is encouraged to learn that the board of
directors now more accurately reflects her peers, but she says she would
like to see the group address ethical issues and the protection of
intellectual properties when pitching clients.
Helen Vollmer, CEO of her eponymous PR agency (and also an incoming
Council officer), says, "It's what you put into it, as it is with any
other relationship." Not soothing words to the wounded, but Vollmer
speaks from her own experience.
"My point of view is that whenever I needed something, I would call.
Sometimes I had to go look for the information, but whenever I've asked
for it, I've gotten it."
Vollmer cites white papers on contracts, salaries, fee pricing
guidelines, and other studies commissioned by the Council which, in the
absence of her membership, would either be out of her reach or
Critics, though, say that calls to the Council have gone unanswered,
while others say that the answers they received included case studies
relevant to large agency experiences, neglecting the realities of
non-networked firms. Chips are forming on independent agency
Sabrina Horn, CEO of the Horn Group, is a past and current board member,
and a vociferous defender of the interests of independents. She admits
that the concerns of her peers have some merit: "Sometimes I sit in
these meetings, and I hear these big guys talking about situations like
the incredible client bureaucracy they have to deal with, and I've
thought, 'I don't have clients like that.' But the information that
comes to me when I hear discussions of their problems is still
Horn says the fact that independents now make up the majority of the
2002 board of directors will increase the voice of those in the lower
brackets, and will attract other independents to join. Membership
development, however, depends on building awareness, something the
Council seems to have been surprisingly quiet about.
War stories vary
Among small firms, there is a range of experiences with the Council.
Non-member Sara Stabile, president of boutique Hi-Impact PR in San
Francisco, believes she could have benefited from Council membership
when her firm suffered expansion and retraction whiplash last year. "I
haven't had a real mentor, and I now think the Council could have
provided that resource," says Stabile. She now considers the net $100 per month it would have cost her to join a missed investment.
Andrew Plesser, president of Plesser Associates in New York, says that
he was aware of the organization as little more than a voice for the
"It's always interesting to me what the big guys are doing, but with a
small firm like mine of eight people and roughly $2 million, it
just didn't seem relevant."
Marco Greenberg, president of NYPR, is a current member of the council,
but he is debating whether to renew. He says that he agrees with
Vollmer's sentiments, and says that he has been remiss in putting in as
much personal time into his membership as he could have. "It's
difficult," says Greenberg.
"I'm often too busy managing clients, employees and new business, so on
the list of daily priorities, involvement in the Council doesn't always
make the cut."
According to Horn, the Council is set to publish white papers on those
very topics and others, including enforceable non-compete
"Ironically, it seems what we really need is a little PR for the
Council," Horn says. Bergen admits this may be true: "One of my great
frustrations, that I don't think I've overcome in my three years with
the Council, is that some of our members don't know the great work that
has been done," says Bergen.
Certainly, it seems some small firms still need convincing.