SELLING STRATEGIC: Strategic PR is all the rage. What is it and whyis it happening?

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

firms today.

"For the first time, we weren't just doing 'stuff' for somebody,"

recalls Spell. "We were discussing business goals and where the company

was going.

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

greater authority."

"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

more strategic."

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

corporate strategists."

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

business-plan assessment."

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,"

says Rueth.

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.

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