Few business sectors have been through the transformation that
telecommunications has in the past decade.
For most people telecommunications used to mean telephones, but new
technology has blurred the distinction between telecoms and IT, while
steady world-wide deregulation is stimulating a fast-moving and highly
competitive global industry.
The emerging products and services are increasingly seen as business
enablers or lifestyle enhancers and this culture shift has led to an
explosion of new marketing and PR opportunities.
’Telecoms is the agency’s biggest focus area at the moment,’ says Tari
Hibbitt, managing director of Edelman’s business and technology
division, ’It is the fastest growing of all the technology areas.’
Katie King, associate director at Text 100 agrees: ’Telecoms is still
the fastest growing international business market and is now worth more
than USdollars 500 million (pounds 312 million) world wide.’
So where is the PR growth actually occurring?
’There’s been a renewed focus on the corporate affairs side,’ says Jean
Gomes managing director of DPA Corporate Communications. ’Telecoms
companies are huge money generators and they need to explain themselves
BT faced a lot of criticism in the past over attempted mergers but it
has now pulled it off.’
The telecoms corporate landscape has changed dramatically this year.
Last autumn, after BT had unveiled its proposed merger with US company
MCI, global giant Cable and Wireless announced the merging of its
Mercury business, with three cable companies, into a huge UK telecoms
group called Cable and Wireless Communications.
Having been regularly outflanked by Mercury in the early days of
privatisation, BT now seems to have got its PR act in gear. Last
November, BT took home the Grand Prix at the Advertising Effectiveness
Awards for the ’It’s good to talk’ campaign. Shortly afterwards it
announced a commitment to a complete social and ethical audit - an
independent assessment of how it treats staff, customers and other
BT and its competitors also realise corporate PR must now be handled on
a global scale.
’1998 will bring full liberalisation in European telecoms. The jostling
for position ahead of that by European and non-European telecoms
companies is a hot political potato,’ says Tony Burgess-Webb executive
vice-president of Hill and Knowlton International.
Hill and Knowlton has handled the PR for BT’s Global Challenge yacht
sponsorship - a key initiative in establishing BT as a global brand.
However competitor Mercury’s corporate branding remains in doubt.
Mercury Communications suspended brand advertising in late October while
parent Cable Wireless decides on future direction.
’No major decisions have yet been taken,’ says a spokesperson for Cable
and Wireless, but she hints: ’Our chief executive Dick Brown has spoken
of the need to make customers more aware of the relations between Cable
and Wireless and our group companies.’
At a business-to-business PR level, DPA’s Gomes says the big change is
that business people are becoming more telecoms literate. ’For a long
time telecoms was technology driven. Now sectors such as insurance are
going through a metamorphosis with firms slashing costs by using
automated ’call centres’. As telecoms has recognised the need to talk
business benefits, PR has followed suit, avoiding jargon and unravelling
the communications process,’ he says.
Text 100’s King says technology PR has now become broad-based PR for
technology companies: ’It is a buyer’s market in telecoms and today’s
customer is far more astute. The key is to sit down with a client, find
out what differentiates their solution and develop creative means to
King gives an example of Text 100’s work for BT Global Satellite
Services, which has involved photographing communications satellite
dishes in dramatically different environments around the world.
Edelman’s Hibbitt goes further and claims her agency’s whole approach to
telecoms marketing communications has evolved.
’Our business and technology division now works regularly with consumer
and public affairs divisions. We set up special teams for our clients,’
So is there any point in still having technology divisions? ’Yes,’ says
Hibbett, ’there’s still technology issues that have to be understood and
communicated by specialists.’
Sally Costerton, managing director of the Abacus agency sees the
telecoms sector as dividing into two areas: ’PR for mobile telecoms
suppliers in particular requires consumer expertise. Handsets are now
commodity products, the technology is becoming irrelevant and brands are
the big issue,’ she says.
’However on the commercial side, where multi-national companies are now
running business-critical applications through telephone lines, IT
experience is becoming more, rather than less, important.’
Costerton says Abacus is finding a lot of crossover between telecoms
clients and more general IT accounts: ’The business network is the guts
of most telecoms companies, and you need to have the right blend of IT
and corporate skills to advise clients effectively.’
She adds: ’As the corporate sands shift in the current wave of merger
and acquisitions fever, you also need to be nifty and flexible.’
Hibbitt agrees that the main PR challenge can now be in dealing with
client conflicts and partnerships. ’There are now so many joint ventures
that you really need to keep your eyes open. As friends and foes can
change quickly, agencies need to look at relationships with clients on a
long-term basis and, if there is conflict, deal with it issue by issue.
The key is partnership and clients need agencies that can work on a
EMC director Tanya Bunney, whose client Nynex is involved in the Cable
and Wireless merger strategy, says: ’You can work out a client PR
programme at the beginning of the year, then two months later find a
major acquisition has completely changed priorities. It can also lead to
a complete confusion of messages in the marketplace.’
So can a smaller independent such as EMC really hope to compete with
world-wide groups like Hill and Knowlton or Edelman in an increasingly
global telecoms market?
Bunney believes it can through increased network activity. ’Although EMC
is a UK company, we are part of a network called Euro-PR which works
across 17 countries. These deliberate alliances can work in our favour
as we work harder to keep our reputation with journalists,’ she
As for the future, Bunney believes the current corporate upheavals will
last for a couple of years but over five years there will be
She is already considering a new wave of business opportunities: ’As
multimedia becomes more prevalent we are looking at work for independent
service providers, particularly in vertical markets.’
CASE STUDY: TPS OFFERS A NEW CONCEPT IN COMMUNICATIONS
In the summer of 1995, small British software company Telecommunications
Premium Services launched a new telecoms concept on to the UK market:
the TPS Personal Assistant.
The idea was to provide businessmen or individuals with a personal
telecoms number that covered all forms of communication: telephone,
facsimile or cellular phones.
The software offered the ability to automatically transfer calls to
their target depending on his or her scheduled location. In the case of
unavailability it could revert to voice mail and store faxes.
The ultimate aim of TPS was to sell the software to a telecoms provider
who would in turn provide it as an added value service to its
’The challenge was that there was no existing market and no consumer
product available,’ says Edelman account director Sue Rizello.
Rizello and her team embarked on a year long media relations-based
programme which concentrated on putting the technology into context by
creating situations where it would be of benefit.
The theme of the campaign was enabling the user to stay in control of
their communications rather than telecoms controlling them.
Edelman’s journalist trial programme focused on unusually close
relations with the reviewers, seeking regular feedback and providing
The agency produced by-lined features and supported these with cartoons
showing the cumbersome nature of a modern business cards that had to
show all potential contact numbers.
BBC World Service used the Personal Assistant as a feature item which
stimulated an excited response from the organiser of the Notting Hill
Carnival who was listening in. And European Business News created a
number of scenarios using the technology.
In the spring of 1996, TPS successfully licensed the software to Cellnet
who launched the service as Cellnet Personal Assistant.
CASE STUDY: THE CHANGING NATURE OF MERCURY
In June Mercury Communications, Cable and Wireless’ UK subsidiary,
announced that it was to invest pounds 300 million in data services over
the next five years.
The company has professed an aim to grow its share of the data market
from five per cent to 25 per cent by the year 2000 and anticipates that
a significant part of its revenue will come from data services by the
turn of the century.
A PR-led initiative dubbed ’DataLink 2000’ was launched to change the
market’s perception of Mercury from a voice company, with some
specialist data skills, to ’a voice and data company, where data is a
fundamental part of its core business.’
Mercury implemented an integrated campaign through a team that comprised
its in-house PR resource, agency DPA Corporate Communications and
Marcomms specialist Revolution.
Since June, there has been a hectic schedule of new service launches
including Internet services for business and residential users in
October and ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode - the broad bandwidth
pinnacle of data services) in October.
Mercury has combined group press conferences with one-to-one briefings
and brought in senior personnel such as chief executive Peter
Howell-Davies and director of products and services Jim Reynolds to
explain the new applications simply.
’It has been the best PR effort that Mercury has implemented for some
time,’ says Sandra Richardson, Mercury’s trade and technical media
manager, ’We have already generated between four and five hundred
cuttings. The coverage has also featured the key messages, which include
the strong commitment to, and investment in, the technology and
positioning of Mercury as a leading edge player in datacoms.’
NBC Super Channel and London News Network have both carried features,
while the Financial Times has written about Mercury’s datacomms’
initiative on three occasions.
In terms of business leads, Richardson says each service launch has
generated hundreds of customer enquiries, although the actual number of
conversions will emerge further down the line due to the long-lead time
of such strategic corporate decisions.