OP-ED: PR counseling has benefited companies for decades

A March 24 USA Today article ("A skewed view of advertising" by Bruce Horovitz) highlighted the "outside the box" thinking of a particular advertising agency. The agency sold clients on new approaches other than 30-second commercials - like a cross-country trek for an automobile client and a "Night Night" Virgin Airways book on the business-class sleeper seat.

A March 24 USA Today article ("A skewed view of advertising" by Bruce Horovitz) highlighted the "outside the box" thinking of a particular advertising agency. The agency sold clients on new approaches other than 30-second commercials - like a cross-country trek for an automobile client and a "Night Night" Virgin Airways book on the business-class sleeper seat.

It was a great profile for the ad agency. However, booklets placed within reach of a specific customer and cross-country special events often have been the tactics of solid, strategic PR plans. Remember the 1984 AT&T Torch Relay (with Burson-Marsteller) or "Yard-Man Mow Across America" (with Edelman)? In a letter to the editor of USA Today, I pointed out that there was an irony in profiling and congratulating an ad agency for doing PR. PR clients and their firms have been successfully building product and brand images with the help of special events and targeted direct-to-consumer outreach for years. (I suggested equal space for a profile on the value of PR.) PR counseling has contributed measurably to the success of companies and products for decades. I came to appreciate the longevity of the PR counseling industry while developing the council's new approach to marketing member firms. Under the banner of "America's Leading PR Firms," we've created a way to categorize member firms by size and scope. We believe firms that support the industry through membership in the Council of Public Relations Firms deserve recognition; we are promoting council firms through on- and off-line promotion. This campaign is tied to the development of new guidelines and more stringent membership criteria, all designed to help clients identify the firms that best meet their needs. An interesting fact that surfaced during the "America's Leading PR Firms" data collection is the maturity of the PR consulting industry. The average length of time member firms have been in business is approximately 20 years. The member firms with the greatest longevity, according to our records, are Ketchum (81 years), Edward Howard (79), Hill & Knowlton (75), and MS&L (66). Many firms, including Burson, Cushman/Amberg, Edelman, Fleishman-Hillard, and Dix & Eaton, have served clients for more than 50 years. And the "youngsters" of the group, with at least 25 but less than 45 years of service, include Bliss Gouverneur & Associates, Epley Associates, DeVries Public Relations, Dorland Public Relations, Gibbs & Soell Public Relations, Golin/Harris, LVM Group, Makovsky & Co., Paul Werth Associates, Porter Novelli, Schenkein, Weber Shandwick, and The Weiser Group. Many of these firms have created programs that brought recognition to their clients. Award-winning programs like National Soup Month (Campbell and Golin/Harris, 1984), Old-Timers Baseball Classic (Cracker Jacks and Ketchum, 1983), and the 39-day Pony Express Race (Pony Express and Carl Byoir & Associates, 1980) were and still are considered smart programs. The creators and implementers of these PR campaigns were as creative and strategic as their advertising counterparts, and the programs delivered value. Many firms kept the client relationships alive for years. We don't track longevity of client-agency relationships, but an enduring relationship is a reliable indicator of successful programs. Maybe that should be an award category? The age of a PR agency is but one indication of business smarts and the ability to deliver value. When you look at the growth of some firms, you come face-to-face with firms in touch with today's client needs of delivering tailored messages to targeted audiences. Several firms specialize in key industry sectors like healthcare, technology, consumer goods, and professional services. Consider these award winning-programs: the launch of XM Satellite Radio (with PainePR); the repositioning of AVI BioPharma and its antisense therapy (with Waggener Edstrom); and the multicultural Lactaid education campaign (with Euro RSCG Magnet). These programs and others like them have helped introduce tech advances and influence a firm's ability to secure financing, garner attention from government subcommittees, increase sales, and create new markets. Some ad agencies are discovering what PR firms have known for decades: PR works to change minds and behaviors. As we consider the growth and changes in the PR industry, let's get out there and communicate the successes of effective multi-dimensional PR campaigns so that we can capture clients' attention and budgets - and maybe a profile or two in USA Today.
  • Kathy Cripps is the president of the Council of Public Relations Firms.

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