New practice areas open up world of possibilities

To better reflect new business trends and serve clients, PR agencies of all sizes are starting new practices like never before.

To better reflect new business trends and serve clients, PR agencies of all sizes are starting new practices like never before.

But for these new areas to succeed, their contributions must extend beyond marketing gimmickry by including significant new resources and executive expertise.

Of late, "congressional oversight" practices have been popular agency additions - including new offerings from APCO Worldwide and Dittus Communications - to help companies prepare for tough questioning by the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Meanwhile, Edelman, like a number of other firms, is touting corporations' environmentally friendly behavior with its recently added CleanTech practice. The vast Baby Boom population, now retiring in droves, also prompted Fleishman-Hillard's FH Boom group.

New practices are also intended to boost firms' bottom lines, notes Lipman Hearne MD and principal Rodney Ferguson. "It's the Willie Sutton effect," he says. "Agencies go where the money is."

But which comes first: the clients or the practices? As with any paradox, agency execs say the answer is a bit of both. At Levick Strategic Communications, which recently added a diversity practice to its food and crisis litigation, financial and regulatory, and international practices, new areas form after a few clients with similar needs indicate a trend, says agency president and CEO Richard Levick.

"In the beginning, it's just moving chairs. But after that, you realize you have this real expertise in-house and that it's important to market it," he adds. "Then you can start to recruit more people in the area, and the marketing supports both business development and additional recruitment."

Sometimes a new practice reflects a concrete structural or behavioral change within a firm, as opposed to something it has already done. With its new Global Rapid Response Team, for example, Worldcom Public Relations Group established a global network of firms available around the clock for clients with a brewing crisis that cuts across international borders.

Firms that are part of the Worldcom international network might previously have been able to call upon one another in a pinch. However, work on global crises was handled somewhat informally, with no guarantees that a person or firm would be instantly reachable, says the head of the new practice, Calgary-based Tom Donoghue.

"Now I've got team leaders in Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific," he says. "I can get on the phone at 3am in Tokyo when I've got a problem [with] my client in India and this person can deal with [it] a lot faster than I can. You make one phone call and can start cascading calls and resources very quickly."

Some executives confidentially note that establishing a variety of practices can create territorial billing issues among staffers in different areas. But Tom Squitieri, senior media advisor and head of a new corporate executive communications practice at Dittus, says firms should - and typically do - quickly tame those inner billing machinations because they know that keeping clients happy requires offering a variety of services across multiple practice areas.

Key points:

Business trends can dictate the formation of new practice areas within firms

Specific practices help in new-business development and staff recruitment

Don't pigeonhole clients. Their needs typically fall into multiple practice areas

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