Reputation issues power corporate practices

New client work in corporate practices, which saw a growth year in 2005 with no signs of slowing, continues to be fueled by reputation management.

New client work in corporate practices, which saw a growth year in 2005 with no signs of slowing, continues to be fueled by reputation management.

Clients are also spending more overall - perhaps not to the level of the heyday '90s, but with more confidence in the economy.

For global firms, more accounts are multinational. At Porter Novelli, for instance, there is ongoing training on how to navigate international business issues, notes Peter Hirsch, discipline leader of corporate affairs.

Corporate practices are focused on tapping into the economic expansion of nations like India and China, as well as on the flurry of business activity across the globe.

One of the more pressing global dialogues is sustainability and the corporation's role in socioeconomic affairs, Hirsch notes. "It's very interesting to see the way companies are being looked at for sustainability programs," he says.

Current reputation concerns, which have their roots, to some extent, in the corporate governance scandals of 2002, are also feeding PR budgets, says Mark Schroeder, SVP and the director of the corporate practice at M Booth & Associates.

"In a day when advertising continues to wane, I think corporations are realizing that they're going to make a bigger impact with media relations," he says.

M Booth, known for consumer expertise, is trying to build recognition for its corporate practice. Schroeder notes that the agency is working with industries ranging from financial services to biotech.

Waggener Edstrom also formalized its corporate offering in summer 2004. "A lot of companies were rising from the ashes of the dot-com bubble," says Jim Olson, SVP and corporate practice leader. "We really came to kind of an inflection point."

The agency works in the "innovation space," an area that has seen a lot of outside interest and momentum on Wall Street. These companies are also looking to build trust among stakeholders.

"They're looking to carve out their unique story within this innovation context," Olson says. "Stories are always going to be the most valuable way to communicate your business proposition."

Across firms, many corporate governance practices - created as stand-alone units in the aftermath of Enron and other crises - have now been reabsorbed under the corporate or financial communications umbrella.

But Hirsch notes that corporate governance expertise is still expected as part of any account. Clients also want to address intellectual property concerns and employee communications.
Olson seconds that point, noting the value staffers bring to the bottom line. "Employees are investors in the company, too," he says.

And clients also want to engage government audiences. At Wag Ed, the corporate team works closely with its public affairs specialists. "We can provide business with the social dimensions of a problem," Olson says.

Despite larger budgets, Schroeder notes that client spending has been strategic and calculated.

"[Clients are] unlocking some of the spending," he says. But, he adds, "It's not the late '90s where it's a free-for-all for spending."

Key Trends:

Ongoing concerns about reputation management

Greater response to a global matrix economy

Employees viewed as ambassadors

Renewed CSR emphasis

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