When Texas-based agency Ferrell & Spell first put one of its
clients through an intense "discovery session" to determine its key
messages, president J. Spell realized something very important about his
Ferrell & Spell had become "strategists," the ultimate goal of many PR
"For the first time, we weren't just doing 'stuff' for somebody,"
recalls Spell. "We were discussing business goals and where the company
We were operating from a better knowledge of the client and his
We were speaking to him with more confidence and from a position of
"You're dealing at a higher level within the organization," says Susan
A. Noonan, president and CEO of Noonan/Russo. "We realized we'd crossed
the line from being mere tacticians to being strategists when we found
that we were telling clients, 'We know that's what you think you want,
but here's what you really need.'" Noonan/Russo has twice been asked to
join the board of directors of client companies, "and that's pretty
flattering," Noonan says.
Beyond press releases
A higher level of client involvement has been evolving for some years,
but it accelerated dramatically with the rise of hi-tech clients. These
new, often small companies with new products in new categories needed
more from PR firms than mere tactical execution. They needed help with
branding in the broadest sense, which called for an understanding of
disciplines beyond media relations.
"This move toward strategy came about in part because we saw management
consulting firms and even IT consultants taking on a lot of work that
belongs to PR, like corporate social responsibility," says Richard
Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman Worldwide. "But it is also a
response to a more complicated world, where it's no longer sufficient to
persuade a small, elite group of key influencers. With the proliferation
of media, you have to address all the different stakeholders."
Jack Bergen, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, adds
that the move toward a more strategic approach also speaks to companies'
bottom-line issues. "Concerns about business outcomes, like a higher
stock price or better employee retention, rather than simply
communications output, like more clips, are pushing our profession to be
Indeed, as clients show a keener interest in the return on their PR
investment, agencies are being held to a higher set of standards.
"Clients want to see a link between media impressions and business
objectives," says Bergen.
To that end, the Council of Public Relations Firms is working with
Wirthlin Worldwide to develop a methodology for measuring return on PR
This growing concern about how various PR programs fit into a company's
overall corporate strategy will become more intense as the accounting
world becomes increasingly interested in the financial value of less
tangible assets such as "brand."
"As that interest intensifies," says Bergen, "things like reputation
management will become more important. So PR programs must become more
relevant to corporate strategy, and PR firms must work more closely with
Of course, tactics and execution will always be important
responsibilities of PR agencies, but involvement in the initial stages
of a campaign's creation is also crucial. "Strategy and tactics must
work together, but too many firms are still order takers," says Howard
Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. "Too often, order takers
don't analyze. They just do what the client directs them to do - like
pitching a story whether it has merit or not - and they waste the
media's time and the client's money."
"Competent tactical implementation is always important," says Sabrina
Horn, president of the Horn Group, a San Francisco-based hi-tech
"But PR that is purely tactical - that produces a lot of press releases
at the direction of the client, for example - is no longer good enough
in this economy."
Noonan agrees. "In the last 10 years or so, PR has become much more
sophisticated," she says. "Clients are demanding that you understand
their business needs, and they want you to demonstrate how this or that
tactic is not just going to boost sales, but how it's going to increase
market share or boost customer retention."
Knowledge is power
Greater access to clients and more information about them are essential
if PR agencies are to offer valuable counsel. "Fortunately, clients
today tend to understand the need for deeper up-front analysis - for
discussions with financial analysts, advocacy groups, professional
associations and media before a PR plan is ever developed," says Nancy
Rueth, president of PResence Euro RSCG.
Bergen notes that PR firms now have access to more research tools than
ever before, and they are using them to develop strategic muscle. "Lack
of research has always been a deficiency of our profession, but now
there are new resources available on the Internet and new products and
processes designed especially for PR firms," he says.
As the public becomes increasingly skeptical about the messages they
receive, it is urgent that messages are grounded in strong research -
and they must be highly targeted. "If your work isn't research-based and
message-tested, it's not going to be worth much," Edelman says.
Targeting your research
A number of research firms offer services that PR firms can employ. For
instance, Yankelovich Monitor's Mindbase helps craft more effective
marketing messages, while the Roper Starch Custom Research division
offers proprietary research and consulting services.
Harris Interactive has been especially aggressive in the development of
research products and services. Its Corporate Image Assessment service
diagnoses how brands are perceived by various markets. Harris' Product
Positioning tool helps determine how the market perceives existing
products, while its Reputation Quotient service assesses how different
stakeholders feel about a company.
Some marketing communications companies have developed their own
proprietary processes that other PR firms can use. Ferrell & Spell uses
the "Turning the Telescope" process developed by Tustin, CA-based
advertising agency TH&M. "We hold half-day 'discovery sessions' with the
CEO and other key people to help develop messages and positioning,"
Spell says. "But instead of looking outside at what the market seems to
demand, we 'turn the telescope' inward to look at the history, people
and culture of the client and its product or service."
Niehaus Ryan Wong, a West Coast tech firm, has developed a month-long
research process called "Architecture of Identity." The result is a
"meta-communications model or platform that identifies a client's
vision, positioning and voice, and can be used by the client's ad
agency, direct marketing firm and even its sales force," says chairman
William Ryan. "It doesn't just guide PR activities, though a media
relations plan is included that decides what kind of stories to tell."
The result, if implemented correctly, ensures that communications
efforts support the client's business goals.
Noonan says PR that is not sufficiently grounded in sophisticated
analysis of a client's business "may create a lot of noise and even
awareness, but this awareness doesn't serve any defined objective."
Unfortunately, she notes, a lot of firms "don't know enough about any
one industry or segment to define an objective." As a result, they end
up doing project work rather than leading their clients and developing
advisory relationships that endure. "They're vendors," she says.
Agency expertise is also increasingly important. Noonan works for dozens
of biotech and pharmaceutical clients and says her firm's level of
expertise enables it to offer sound counsel. "We understand our
audiences - doctors, managed-care companies, investors - so we know how
to design a powerful PR program."
Twenty percent of Noonan/Russo's staffers have advanced degrees, "with
specialized knowledge of healthcare," Noonan notes. "They can offer
skills others cannot - in product-line assessment, managed care and even
The skeptics of strategy
But strategic PR is also subject to skepticism among some who wonder
whether "strategy" is simply another empty buzzword.
"People who are very good at tactical execution are rightly suspicious
of 'strategy,'" Bergen says. "That's because it's often made to look
like some higher intellectual activity - or an excuse to bill at higher
Strategic counsel is usually done by more senior people, and it is more
expensive. People are also skeptical because they see the word
'strategic' thrown around so loosely."
Others suspect that an emphasis on strategy means an abandonment of
competent execution. "But even firms that are excellent strategists must
have the executional capability to implement the strategy," Bergen says.
"You can't divorce the two."
Still others balk at the thought of expecting clients to pay up-front
for research and analysis. "Analysis means a client has to spend more
time and money in the early stages, which they don't always want to do,"
Noonan explains. "But making the investment at that point means the
tactical implementation will be leaner and meaner."
Not all clients will understand, Noonan says, but even the skeptics
concede that PR firms are working differently and thinking differently
now, and there's no turning back.
"Being 'strategic' may be chic, but for good PR firms at this point in
our profession, 'strategy' should be a given, not a competitive edge,"
10 signs that you're operating tactically rather than strategically
1 You do little or no analysis of the client's business situation
2 Your staff consists almost exclusively of mass communications majors
with little knowledge of business
3 In business pitches, you spend most of the time talking about your
accomplishments rather than a client's needs
4 When you land a new account, you recommend a program after meeting
only with the communications division
5 Your lobby is stocked with PR trades but not The Wall Street Journal,
Forbes or Harvard Business Review. (Which do you think clients expect
you to read?)
6 The messages you are expected to take to the media are developed
without your involvement
7 You recommend the same basic program, with few variations, to all
8 You find that you must refer most questions about the client's
business back to the client
9 You measure your value by the number of media impressions you
10 Your work is limited to projects, and you have not developed many
long-term advisory relationships with your clients.