There has been strong growth in the public sector’s use of PR in recent years. In July, the Central Office of Information (COI) revealed spend on PR and sponsorship in 2006/07 was £22.7m – more than double the £10m level of just four years earlier.
These healthy business opportunities have drawn a a greater number of agencies to seek work from the public sector. But there is a strong feeling among some agencies that competing for public sector business can be a punishing and time-consuming affair. The Transport for London roster took nine months to put together while The London Assembly roster is still undecided after seven months.
Many agencies are prepared to toe the line because securing a place on one of the big rosters – for the COI, Department of Health and Department for Children, Schools and Families – is potentially so lucrative. However, some agency heads are scathing about the number of hoops they are expected to jump through.
Outgoing PRCA director general Patrick Barrow says ‘onerous’ is the word that members use most frequently to describe the government procurement process. ‘You hear repeatedly that it drills down to a level of detail impossible to fathom. There’s also a complaint that if you don’t have any experience you can’t get any experience. The COI has an understanding of the problems but there is something of a fear factor among our member agencies of being the one that gives the evidence. People are intimidated by the system to the extent that they won’t help change it.’
Of course, when it comes to spending public money there are valid reasons for a thorough procurement process. All government purchasing must comply with the UK’s obligations under the EU Procurement Directive. These obligations are embodied in UK law as the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 and are designed to ensure fair, methodical and uniform government purchasing practice.
Government service requirements over a £93,738 threshold must be advertised by publishing a contract notice or advertisement in the Official Journal of the European Union and standard minimum timescales apply to this process.
COI rosters – technically referred to as framework agreements – are renewed every four years and take approximately six months to complete. The next renewal comes in 2008. ‘We invest a great deal of man hours in renewing and establishing frameworks,’ says COI director of PR and sponsorship Oliver Hickson. ‘We received more than 170 applications for the last PR framework, so it takes time to review each application fairly.’
Hickson explains the COI’s agency evaluation criteria include expertise, rates and charges, quality control systems, client lists from public and private sector, financial soundness and size of company. Other government departments often use the COI, as its frameworks comply fully with the EU directive, saving them time and money. Individual contracts can be awarded to suppliers without going through the EU procedures again.
Therefore, Hickson argues, a supplier on a COI framework can be appointed relatively quickly. When the COI handles a pitch on behalf of government departments a shortlist of agencies from its framework are invited to pitch. From a brief being issued to an agency being appointed for a PR contract takes an average of four to six weeks.
This sounds perfectly reasonable, but getting onto a roster in the first place is where the problems usually lie. But perhaps surprisingly, some agencies feel there is real justification for this painstaking prudence.
‘It takes a long time to really check out a company, but if they didn’t there could be a huge backlash,’ points out Kinross + Render public sector division director Siobhan Griffiths.
‘They have to know agencies’ clients. A tobacco company represented by an agency that is also running a no smoking campaign would not look good.’ The agency has been promoting the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Sea Smart campaign (r) for the past four years, a public safety campaign aimed at young children and their parents. This summer celebrity mother of three Davina McCall launched a library storytelling initiative created by the agency.
Trimedia Harrison Cowley (THC) director for public sector and social change Rebecca Gudgeon accepts the rationale for thoroughness but feels the issue that needs to be addressed is ‘having to reinvent the wheel’ for every single tender opportunity. An agency can take several days to pull together the financial and policy information required for one PQQ (Pre-Qualification Questionnaire), only to have to provide slightly different information for another.
‘The COI could collate all that information once – updating it every three years – and prove that to all other departments and public bodies looking to establish rosters. This would essentially become the master PQQ for each agency,’ suggests Gudgeon.
THC is on a number of government rosters. Its campaigns include Defra’s Act on CO2 to increase everyone’s awareness of their carbon footprint and the Condom Essential Wear campaign(l) – the Department of Health’s initiative to reduce the number of people contracting STIs by targeting 18- to 24-year-olds.
London Communications Agency (LCA) director Jonny Popper says his company thinks very carefully before putting itself forward for a roster. ‘It is usually a very time-consuming process, with just as much work needed again on a real brief before any solid business arises from it. We recently pulled out of a process when the next stage required a complete and costed communications programme for a dummy project.’
Popper takes the view that rosters can, and should be, compiled based on agency credentials, case studies, references and rates. This would, he feels, enable smaller and more specialist agencies a fairer opportunity.
Interestingly, Popper’s fellow LCA director Luke Blair, a former MD of group communications at Transport for London and regular PRWeek columnist, says he has recently completed a roster process for a private sector client that was more onerous and time consuming than anything he has undergone for the public sector. He thinks it is unfair to portray the latter as the villains of the piece.
Having worked on both sides, Blair says he can see why those in senior comms positions in the public sector think it only right to ensure taxpayers’ money is rigorously assessed, especially given the size of budgets at stake
What he believes is difficult is getting the balance right between process and creativity – the two are so diametrically opposed that organisations often struggle to manage both equally well.
The vexed question of whether agencies should be paid for pitches or not comes up frequently.
The COI does not pay agencies for pitching and is adamant it has no plans to do so. But it does happen on rare occasions elsewhere in government. The Department for Children, Schools and Families paid some agencies to pitch recently, but such practices do still tend to be outnumbered by pitches that come to nothing for all of the participants.
Geronimo Communications’ chief executive Karen Harris. says: ‘Where they are looking for ideas but there’s no certainty as to whether there’s an absolute budget or that they will be going ahead with the campaign, then agencies should be paid.’
A fair chance
Otherwise, Harris believes, pitches are part of the normal business risks that come with running an agency. In her experience, the public sector tends to be very fair about explaining why pitches have been unsuccessful, with many clients readily agreeing to face-to-face debriefings.
To those rival agencies that claim there is bias or favouritism towards agencies such as Geronimo that pick up a lot of public sector business, Harris says it is simply a case of hard work to refine processes and boost conversion rates. Geronimo conducts focus group research ahead of every single public sector pitch in which it participates. This is because the public sector has so much information at its disposal that agencies cannot afford to bluff or guess.
The methodical nature of government procurement is taken for granted but Harris says she has seen some change emerging over the past year. In particular she has seen ‘more openness to creativity and innovation’ coming from government comms bosses.
Geronimo recently worked on LoveUK, a campaign to celebrate the £20bn of lottery funding given to good causes. Part of the campaign was a performance by English National Ballet (ENB) on the Millennium Bridge (r) as the ENB and the bridge have benefited from lottery funding. It has also worked on the Weight Britain campaign against childhood obesity.
The COI’s roster includes a mix of well-established agencies such as Weber Shandwick through to newer agencies like Blue Rubicon. And although it is tough for new agencies to break in, there is a sense that fresh blood is being encouraged.
Forster director Ed Gyde says: ‘Many public sector rosters now house a real diversity of consultancies – from social marketing to consumer and broadcast specialists. This sub-specialisation is a positive development in the market for interested consultancies with appropriate skill sets.’
In areas such as its ‘marketing aimed at black and ethnic minorities’ framework, the COI is not only taking a positive lead in targeting specific audience groups, but this lead is being followed elsewhere in the public sector.
This can only be good news for agencies that pride themselves on their creativity. If they can show they are also professional and effective, the public sector might not be a ‘closed shop’ for much longer.
‘AN UPHILL STRUGGLE’: Lexis PR
In November 2004 Lexis Public Relations landed a place alongside 30 other agencies on the COI’s PR roster. After an exhaustive five-month review process, government work appeared to be just around the corner.
But it proved to be a false dawn. Nearly three years on, Lexis is still to bag its first COI assignment.
‘Our relationship with the COI is one of the best relationships that we’ve never converted,’ says Lexis chief executive Margot Raggett (l). ‘It has a big roster but the awarding of business goes to a relatively small number of agencies. In reality it goes for safe options and that’s disappointing.
‘When we’ve had feedback as to why we haven’t been successful the reasons have been quite arbitrary. It can’t seem to steel itself to go for different agencies.
‘We do find it frustrating that we have been unable to convert since we made it onto the roster. We have had pitch opportunities and we do seem to get on with them marvellously.’
Raggett does not think it is simply a matter of serving time on the roster, dubbing COI business a ‘hard inner circle’ to crack. However, Lexis is keen to make its efforts and investment bear fruit.
‘This is a revenue stream that’s desirable and the work is interesting,’ she says.
Raggett says her team is itching to demonstrate what it can do on a real assignment. She fears there is something of a catch-22 situation for agencies that have not already got government work under their belts: without past experience it seems to be an uphill struggle to get the nod.
Lexis is forbidden from disclosing in which pitches it has been involved since being on the roster.
‘TRYING TO BREAK IN’: Mantra PR
Mantra PR, the corporate and consumer agency recently acquired by Loewy (PRWeek, 27 July), is keen to broaden its business into the public sector. It is not on the COI roster, but would like to secure a place there next year. At the tail end of last year Mantra picked up government work promoting the Digital Challenge.
In order to glean an understanding of how government and government-funded organisations source and use PR agencies, Mantra commissioned research from Gill Stevens, a freelance consultant with 19 years’ experience in government communications. One objective was to establish how important a place on the COI roster was in picking up business from across the public sector.
Stevens emailed 320 questionnaires to all the organisations in the COI’s IPO Directory and received 67 completed responses. Eight organisations that had used PR agencies were selected for further research.
The results show a sizeable market for PR services, and an encouraging finding for agencies without a prized slot on the COI roster is that the roster was only used in less than a quarter of appointments.
Mantra joint managing director and founder Lawrence Dore (pictured, top) says: ‘The closer to Whitehall you are the more likely it is that you will use a COI roster agency. But those further away – and we are talking here about proximity to ministers – are more likely to go off-piste.’
Only low importance was attached to previous public sector experience – which was rated only ninth out of a series of 17 factors. Previous experience of the type of PR activity required was ranked much higher at third, offering encour-agement to agencies without a strong track record with public sector clients.
In terms of the qualities organisations seek from PR agencies, the four to score most highly were specialist expertise; creative flair; the time to be proactive; and audience insights. There was also some evidence that agencies can be used to ‘persuade internal audiences’.
As to the reasons for not using PR agencies, common barriers were cost, having sufficient in-house resource and a preference for specialist agencies. Only six respondents did not see where a PR agency would add value. ‘If you can show smaller departments you can help, you are in a strong position,’ adds Dore.
The Phillis Review of Government Communications, published in January 2004, urged government departments to take a wider view of communications. The growing value being placed on agencies’ expertise and creative flair suggests this advice is now heeded.