If the world’s largest PR consultancy chooses to drop the term PR from
its corporate branding in order to take on a broader role, where does
that leave the rest of the industry?
Burson-Marsteller’s decision to re-style itself as a ‘perception
management’ consultancy (PR Week 23 February) is more than simply a
cosmetic exercise. It is instead a very public declaration of intent.
When the world’s largest public relations consultancy chooses to discard
the term PR from its corporate branding, clearly something is afoot.
Quite simply, B-M’s senior management has come to see that PR is too
narrow a term to encapsulate all of the services provided by the
Yet B-M’s decision to downplay its PR heritage in favour of a broader,
catch-all communications label begs the question, what direction is the
business taking? And how does it intend to position itself in the
marketplace if it is no longer just a PR agency?
But before these matters can be addressed satisfactorily, the decision
to adopt the perception management tag needs to be set in context. For
the way B-M is presenting itself to the outside world is linked
inextricably to the structural changes taking place within the
Briefly, over the next 18 months or so B-M will undergo a worldwide
restructuring. Rather than running its business along geographical
lines, as it has in the past, the consultancy will be split into ten
‘practice areas’ including healthcare, technology, public affairs,
government, corporate and perception management consulting/knowledge.
Each of these practices will be headed up by a practice chair, a senior
executive who will be able to call on support from B-M consultants
working in the same practice area, wherever they are in the world. The
restructuring will also see the advent of global client managers within
Healthcare is so far the only area where this restructuring has been
effected. B-M worldwide vice chairman Edna Kissmann has been appointed
chair of the global healthcare practice and at the same time is client
leader for Johnson & Johnson. The other practice chairs will be
appointed in the coming months.
Outwardly, B-M has sought to underscore this wide-ranging internal
change by creating a new name for the services it provides. By plumping
for perception management as its badge, it has flagged up the fact that
it sees itself as being as much in the field of business advice as PR.
According to B-M European president and CEO Ferry de Bakker the
consultancy will ‘focus on business rather than just communications
objectives’. That’s pretty unambiguous: B-M intends to offer management
consultancy as well as PR advice.
To an extent this has already begun to happen. In Denmark recently B-M
beat heavyweight management consultants McKinsey and Co and Andersen
Consulting to land a change of management programme for three county
hospitals. This must have been particularly galling for Andersen, which
is a B-M client.
What then do management consultancies make of B-M’s encroachment onto
‘For PRs I can see that management consultancy is a natural expansion,
but it’s not an easy one,’ says a partner in well-known international
firm of management consultants. ‘In my opinion chief executives will see
PR people as just that - people who communicate messages rather than
develop the content.’
‘The thing that worries me is the word perception because what we are
trying to do is get people to face up to and deal with the reality of
change,’ says Mike Jeans, director of global change management at KPMG
Consulting. However, Jeans adds that he ‘doesn’t argue’ with what B-M is
trying to do in focusing on business results as much as communication.
One concern that B-M will have to tackle is the possibility that by
becoming more involved with management issues they will lose their
identity as PR experts.
‘There’s a risk they could make themselves more bland than specific,’
says PA Consulting management group member Bridget Skelton.
Kissmann doesn’t think this will be a problem. ‘We have to make it very
clear that we’re in two kinds of business,’ she says. ‘We’re in a
consulting business and an execution business, and we don’t intend to
abandon one for the other.’
B-M will continue to work alongside management consultants in the areas
where it doesn’t have the skills base to act alone - such as finance or
IT-related management consultancy. But where the management consultancy
brief has more of a communications bent, in areas such as change
management, B-M will often tackle the task on its own.
Once appointed, B-M will, says Kissmann, try to ‘find the perceptual
lever’ - that is, work out what it is that causes a client to be seen in
a particular way by the public, investors, its customers and so on. As
this perception often has a direct bearing on a company’s performance
and value, it is not to be taken lightly.
While developing the perception management concept, B-M carried out
research to show that companies were valued on more than tangible assets
and results. It tracked the shares of the world’s six largest
pharmaceutical companies over a five year period.
According to Kissmann the research showed that 15 per cent of the
companies’ market capitalisation was ‘not explicable in a rational way,
it was down to perception’.
It will be intriguing to see what B-M’s clients make of all this a year
and a half from now when the changes are complete. Will they approve? Or
will they simply be baffled that the public relations company they hired
has transmogrified into a firm of perception management consultants with