Platform: Investment will return PR to the real world - The reluctance of some PR agencies to invest substantially in staff training has come home to roost, says Crispin Manners

The word ’virtual’ has become the word of the moment. It can convey positive messages such as real progress in working practices embodied in ’the virtual company’ and ’the virtual network’.

The word ’virtual’ has become the word of the moment. It can convey

positive messages such as real progress in working practices embodied in

’the virtual company’ and ’the virtual network’.

The best known phrase - ’virtual reality’ - has been recognised as

having a multitude of beneficial applications such as working in

hazardous environments, cutting the cost of expensive and complex

training or simply having fun.

But, for good or bad, virtual is just that - virtual, not quite there,

intangible, unreal.

Nowhere is this truer than in the PR industry. In the boom period of the

late 1980s, it was not uncommon for PR companies to pitch for business

without the capacity to deliver. And, when the business was won, the PR

agency concerned would scurry around trying to find the people necessary

to deliver on the promises made. Clients convinced by the ’virtual pitch

team’, soon found the reality less than totally satisfying!

This practice had a number of harmful side effects, including damaging

the professional status of the PR industry, dramatically increasing the

rates of staff turnover through a rampant poaching process and, hiding

inadequacies in people investment by hyping salaries - often for fairly

mediocre performers.

In my view it is laughable for many PR consultancies to call themselves

a ’people business’ because they simply do not invest in people. The

industry average for training expenditure is less than half of one

percent of payroll.

Excellent companies spend between eight and ten per cent of payroll. It

is no coincidence that the PR companies that have performed best

throughout the recession - in many cases experiencing compound growth

rates of over 25 per cent - have all invested in training at levels way

above the industry average.

Not surprisingly, the recession of the early 1990s saw the feast

merchants enjoy a famine. Salaries were adjusted downwards and clients

intent on receiving better value, voted with their feet, resulting in

shrinking revenues for many consultancies. As an industry we should

practice what we preach. We would never advise our clients to use the

’virtual pitch team’. We would say ’invest in your people and only

promise what you can deliver.’

I believe consultancies should be contractually bound by service level

agreements which not only identify the activities and the expected

output, but also the key people on the team. This would achieve two

things. It would stop companies recruiting after the event, with the

consequent reduction in poaching and inflationary impact on salaries.

And, it would force those people intent on growth, to hire ahead of

growth and invest in training so that the skills resident with the few

become widely dispersed across the many.

There is no doubt that the more buoyant economy we are currently

experiencing will increase the temptation to use the virtual pitch team.

One could say that clients who buy from such organisations get what they

deserve, but wouldn’t it be better if they were to get what they were


Crispin Manners is a member of the PRCA’s Professional Practices

Committee and chief executive of the Argyll Consultancies.

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