EDITORIAL: Agencies that recognize and learn from their competitors' strengths can benefit from them

Agency X will tell a PRWeek reporter that it's having its best year since 2000, it is looking at upper-single-digit growth, it's hiring at every level, and it's expanding rapidly in several global markets.

Agency X will tell a PRWeek reporter that it's having its best year since 2000, it is looking at upper-single-digit growth, it's hiring at every level, and it's expanding rapidly in several global markets.

Agency X will tell a PRWeek reporter that it's having its best year since 2000, it is looking at upper-single-digit growth, it's hiring at every level, and it's expanding rapidly in several global markets.

Nonsense, retorts Agency X's competitor. That firm is losing key accounts, its top people are frantically calling headhunters from their cell phones, and its former flagship office in a major European capital is running on fumes.

The source of the negative vibe will often be a disgruntled agency employee who is job hunting, according to those passing on the tidbits. Clearly the advice proffered to most job hunters - not to bash one's current employer in a job interview - goes unheeded by many in PR.

Also, scuttlebutt comes from the informal chatter that occurs during such events as the PR Seminar (which will never be accessible to the likes of us at PRWeek), meetings of the Council of PR Firms, and other venues where agency heads congregate. If some are to be believed, whispered exchanges even include revenue figures for those firms belonging to publicly traded holding companies and which are constrained from rankings by their interpretation of Sarbanes-Oxley.

Given our opportunity to talk to a range of levels within an agency, its clients, leadership, and competitors, we can figure out which stories ring true and which ones reek of unfounded dish. But it is really rare to hear an agency's competitor praise it as an entity or bash it with real authority. Individual staff members may be singled out. Certainly some will marvel at a firm's exceptionally close relationship with a particular client. Identifying the truly aspirational firms, though, the ones that others seek to emulate in structure, strategy, or service, is incredibly difficult.

We have surveyed clients to find out what differentiates PR agencies, but how do firms establish great reputations amongst themselves? In this era of less transparency about agency performance, it would be advantageous for all agencies to speak more thoughtfully about their competitors and really consider what attributes define their success or failure beyond the rumor mill and well-known account wins or losses.

PR pros must heed 'public' part of their work

No sooner had last week's editorial about scrutiny of PR professionals been penned that it emerged that a Financial Dynamics staff member had written a letter to the Financial Times about former NYSE CEO Dick Grasso without disclosing that he worked for a PR firm representing an interested party (to say the least).

FD's Brian Maddox told PRWeek that the letter was intended as a personal viewpoint, not that of his clients, but it was proof yet again that there is no gray area to hide in these days. Eric Starkman, principal of Starkman & Associates, which is working with Grasso, wasted no time reveling in the moral high ground gained from Maddox's misstep and found a great opportunity to make his client's case.

Whether Maddox's letter was personal or not, the incident shows an embarrassing lack of judgment. The word "public" is in the job description for a reason, requiring its practitioners to earn the "trust" part on their own.

- Julia Hood

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