The already stiff requirements of the PRCA's Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) was reinforced last week with a revamped set of critieria focused on demonstrating business improvement.
PRCA director of comms Martin Cairns explains that, essentially, the main aim of the CMS will continue to be auditing consultancies to show that they are run professionally and deliver to clients what has been promised during the pitch process.
Since it was introduced in 1997 to combine elements of the ISO 9000 and Investors in People standards, while also featuring criteria specific to PR consultancies, more than 120 agencies have been awarded the CMS.
It remains open only to members of the PRCA - which in turn can only be joined by agencies with an annual fee income of £200,000 or more, a minimum of five full-time staff and a trading record of at least three years.
Yet, when agencies come to be audited for the standard - which now happens every two years, rather than every three, they will be judged on two new criteria.
As well as the previous categories - leadership and communication, business planning, financial systems, campaign management, client satisfaction, new client procedures and development of staff - the auditors will look at continuing business improvement and the agency's approach to risk management.
The relaunch of the CMS comes after a PRCA survey carried out among clients of PR companies found respondents' main concern was that an agency delivers what it has promised in the pitch process. Aside from that, the CMS audit process provides a 'kitemark' for clients that demonstrates the professionalism of the agency in question, says Cairns.
He says the standard is essentially aimed at getting a consultancy to formalise its own business procedures. Prior to audit these may already exist within the consultancy's culture, but not in written form.
The audit itself is carried out by DNV Quality Assurance. DNV commercial manager and principal lead auditor Jon Dillon-Welch explains that, since the company began to audit PR consultancies in 1997, he has noticed a dramatic improvement.
'Before, we were going in to agencies and while they might have been creatively run, they didn't have business plans or sector plans. These days, a typical agency is far more structured in what it does and far more clued up,' he says.
While DNV carries out similar audits in a wide range of industries, the company is conscious that they are dealing with a creative industry and a people business - consequently a PR agency would face a significantly different audit to, for example, a company in the manufacturing sector.
Dillon-Welch points out that, while audit day is a 'hard working day' and a 'rigorous common sense trail through the business' for the company under scrutiny, the auditing team aims to be flexible and to tailor the process to the size and type of consultancy. There's no point in treating a huge global consultancy in the same way as a small specialist start-up, he says.
But regardless of the size or type of agency, the auditors are generally looking for the same thing: evidence of the procedures and structures in place across the eight categories and evidence that these are being adhered to.
One major part of the audit is the selection of a number of client accounts for scrutiny. Auditors will try and look at a range of accounts of differing sizes and types that they would consider typical of the agency's work.
And while the main aim of this particular part of the process is to establish that the consultancy is providing the services promised during its pitch, DNV does not contact the client for feedback. Dillon-Welch says auditors can see from the type of work being carried out to what extent the agency is meeting its obligations. It will look at how the agency is communicating with the client and what kind of approval mechanisms are in place to review progress.
Another large element of the audit concentrates on discussing the agency's business plan with senior management. Once that is done, auditors will speak to staff throughout the agency to verify that the business plan is being communicated internally and that staff are acting in support of it.
Other main aspects are ensuring that staff training takes place in structured fashion, with appropriate reviews, appraisals and feedback. On the financial side, auditors are more interested in seeing that accounting controls are in place than conducting a thorough financial audit.
Throughout the process, DNV bears two main points in mind, says Dillon-Welch: 'It's their business and they can run it how they see fit. Secondly, if a client wants things done a particular way, it is not the auditors' job to question that.'
He also points out the audit process in itself provides certain benefits to the agency in question, offering an opportunity for self-examination.
Meanwhile, the auditors are likely to have lengthy experience of looking at PR agencies and can frequently offer suggestions as well as letting a consultancy know how other, unnamed, agencies approach a particular aspect of the business.
That said, a company's willingness or unwillingness to take suggestions on board should not unduly prejudice the audit.
Lexis Public Relations - with fee income of £4.7m and 75 staff - was one of four agencies that took part in the piloting of the new standard.
The agency had already obtained the old CMS standard and was due for a new audit, explains operations director Margot Raggett.
This time, however, Lexis claims the audit was 'deeper and more penetrating'.
The process began with phone calls and meetings with auditors to prepare for the audit itself.
Lexis's HR and new business managers were interviewed by auditors. As far as account handling staff were concerned, there was an internal comms challenge aimed at ensuring they wouldn't feel the audit was being 'sprung upon them'.
For Lexis the main purpose in putting itself forward was 'to think about both widening and formalising the benchmarking that we had been carrying out'.