What are the most common complaints about external PR advisers?
First, that after a short honeymoon, work is often handed to
inexperienced juniors. Second, that standards of service and delivery
are patchy - agencies over-promise and under-deliver.
The two, of course, are often linked. How many times has one heard
clients complain that, having been won over by the senior people at the
presentation, most of the work and responsibility for the relationship
is quickly handed to the person in the agency who happens to have spare
capacity at that moment? It is not surprising that the quality of work
This is not unique to PR. Advisers and consultants are, after all, there
to be complained about, be they corporate lawyers or merchant
But there is a difference with PR. It is less established than the old
professions, and is thus having to work that much harder to adapt to the
needs of clients who are themselves becoming more demanding and more
A major factor driving this change is the steady rise in the calibre and
status of in-house communications directors. This is partly
generational, with top executives increasingly aware that good
communications are as central to the success of their business,
organisation or campaign as, for example, a good IT system.
As a result, more senior, experienced people are being made responsible
for communications, often with properly resourced departments. Many of
these communications directors are quite properly part of the executive
management committee, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes
a board-level responsibility.
For external communications advisers, this means not just raising their
game, but changing their entire approach. The days when lobbyists could
get away with being glorified escort agencies, or PR firms could simply
offer arms and legs support are passing. The mundane monitoring that has
been the bread and butter of lobbying is now available on the web and
big communications departments need less help with the routine
implementation and process-driven work that has been the stock-in-trade
of many agencies.
Rather, what chairmen, chief executives and their communications
directors increasingly want, and expect, is intelligent, independent
advice and support from senior, experienced practitioners.
How to satisfy that demand is one of the key challenges facing
communications firms. Many of them, to my mind, have chosen a route
which will make it more difficult to deliver sustained quality of
advice, as they go for size and, in many cases, build a one-stop shop
covering lobbying, financial, corporate and consumer PR.
But in the multi-disciplinary communications company, experience
suggests that quality of people is bound to be patchy. The senior
people, those the client actually respects and wants, have to spend a
lot of time managing the overall business and, frequently, covering up
for the shortcomings of colleagues. The result? Service suffers,
attention to detail flags, clarity of thinking is reduced - and the
client loses out.
As the marketing services behemoths swallow up more and more agencies,
and the medium-sized strain to become big, the challenge of how to raise
the calibre of advisers and the quality of advice can too often be an
afterthought. Of course, size brings advantages - broader reach and
deeper resources. But if it is a sustained senior-level relationship and
consistent quality of thinking a client wants, the answer is more likely
to be found in the deliberately small, advice-focused consultancy.