From shared education to global footprints, PR networks bring value to members that extends beyond new-business opportunities.
Newcomers to independent PR networks often hope to generate vast amounts of new business by becoming members, but executives at the networks say the ultimate benefits lay elsewhere.
Lucy Siegel, president and CEO of the new network Public Relations Boutique International, argues that the network's greatest gift for its members is education.
"The number one [reason] people want to join is they think it's going to be a source of new business," she explains. "But I think the number one benefit is that they're going to learn from other members. The second is visibility [with] the Web site and marketing."
Success for a network, though, hinges on communications among the members, which also represents its prime benefit.
Siegel says that a network consisting of independent firms can provide clients the best of both multinational firms and small agencies. This offers greater certainty that a client will work with senior management as opposed to junior staff, as well as have the means to reach anywhere around the world.
A cohesive front
Most notably, says John Bliss, chairman of the Worldcom Public Relations Group, members are simply able to expand the breadth and depth of their client service. To ensure members of the Worldcom network mesh well together - in this instance for client work - executives plan two meetings a year, one includes all agency chiefs while the other is with members within particular regions. They also use extensive e-mail communication and strict vetting of members through a peer-review process, Bliss says, who is also the head of New York-based Bliss PR.
"We are knit together," he adds. "Let's say I have a major client in San Francisco, and the client asks me to help out with a press conference [there]. If I'm going to refer my major client to that San Francisco firm, I'd better damn well have met them."
He cites Bitner Goodman as an example of a member that used the Worldcom network to promote a client, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, around the world.
Bitner Goodman used 13 Worldcom partners throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, to lead promotion of the Seminole Tribe and its acquisition of the Hard Rock Cafe business in March 2007 for close to $1 billion. The team did so by communicating with media in individual markets, many of which had initially harbored backward assump-tions about the nature of Native American tribes, Bliss says.
"There was a leak out of London that the tribe was one of the four finalists to acquire Hard Rock Cafe," says Bitner Goodman president Gary Bitner. "The London Times reported the story, and it was scary how they characterized American Indians with references that were sort of a throwback to the John Wayne Westerns."
IPREX chairman Jim Walsh says that his independent network benefits its members by providing a good marketing tool. It also offers a ready source of outside expertise to members and helps bring in new business for others, he says.
IPREX work tends to be regional as opposed to global, the Dublin-based Walsh adds. IPREX partner Beau Fixe, which works with France's Esomar, a market-research company based in the Netherlands that runs conferences in various European cities, serves as a good example. Work with this company has involved IPREX partners in eight countries, with Beau Fixe serving as the client's prime contractor and one point of contact.
This is the typical business model for independent PR networks, which argue that it offers the clients flexibility for multiple offices and agencies, without the exclusivity that multinational firms generally require. Walsh adds that while it might seem that independent networks would compete with big multinationals for prospective clients, this is generally not the case.
"We suffer from the IBM syndrome," he says. "No one gets sacked for buying from IBM" - or in the case of PR, from a Burson-Marsteller or Hill & Knowlton. working together
Size and connections among member offices are ultimately what counts to clients, argues Walsh, who runs Walsh Public Relations in Ireland. Clients do better to hire the firm with the best presence in a market, rather than the firm with biggest brand name in general, he says, adding that results are what matters.
Independent PR firms might try to form ad-hoc networks for particular work, but formal networks ensure not only ongoing collaboration, but also greater client confidence, says PROI president Bob Frause. His partner firms' familiarity with one another was key to beating out Publicis Groupe for an account with the Wood Products Council.
"I think the clients are looking for two things: They're looking for experience, and they're looking for confidence: 'Have you guys worked together?'" Frause says. "In a lot of instances, [nonmember] firms have never worked together, and they're basically trying to fake it."
Benefits can come in other ways, notes Jonathan Kaleski of the new PR Collective network, including the ability to band together for volume discounts on media monitoring or other services. The cost to join most networks is not particularly high, notes Kaleski and other network executives, so agencies do not take on much risk.
Participation, through meetings and other communication, sharing of business expertise or new business leads, however, determines the ultimate benefit.
"It's easy for people to come on board and wait for business to come to them," Kaleski says. "But the networks that thrive are the ones that are a collective effort."