Industry Standards: Selling the benefits of standards procedure - The move by three international PR associations to endorse a set of industry-wide standards is laudable but unless agencies are forced to comply with them, it may be a pointless gesture

Last month in Finland representatives of three international PR associations met before a gathering of 500 senior practitioners to endorse a set of standards designed to improve and measure the quality of their members’ work.

Last month in Finland representatives of three international PR

associations met before a gathering of 500 senior practitioners to endorse

a set of standards designed to improve and measure the quality of their

members’ work.



By signing the grandly titled Helsinki Charter, the presidents of the

International Committee of Public Relations Consultancies Association,

European Confederation of Public Relations and the International Public

Relations Association affirmed their commitment to raising standards in

the industry.



The charter states: ’All individual practitioners, as well as consultants,

should endeavour to obtain quality certification and to apply systems for

continuous evaluation, performance control and quality improvement.’



One of the guides produced to accompany the charter, written for the

International Institute for Quality in Public Relations, is an attempt to

write down every stage of the PR process. The result is a list of 155

steps. The premise is that agencies and in-house teams can ensure quality

by standardising and recording their work, using these steps. Many of the

recommendations referred to as Minimum Quality Standards, should already

be common practice.



Following MQS does not in itself lead to a quality certificate, but is

intended to prepare businesses for the internationally recognised

certificate ISO 9000, which is awarded by the International Standards

Organisation.



But, quite apart from the logistics of its implementation, there is a

major question mark over whether it is worth trying to impose set

standards on agencies.



Warren Newman, a former IPR chairman and now chief executive of British

amusement industry association BACTA, sees little advantage in quality

certification. ’I am wary that quality certification can become management

gobbledygook,’ he says.



’When we choose a PR firm we choose it on the quality of its people,

analysis and what we believe will be the quality of their execution. I’m

not going to appoint someone because they’ve got a quality mark.’



’The mistake is for consultancies to believe that this kind of standard

will win them business in the marketplace.’



However, Sandra Macleod, IPRA council member and managing director of

media analyst CARMA International, believes the demand for quality

certification will come from clients. IPRA is encouraging members on both

the agency and client sides, to persuade their organisations to go for

certification.



According to Macleod, some clients have to hire quality certified agencies

or risk losing their own kite mark. Companies with certification include

big names like Dow Corning, Unilever and IBM.



However they still account for a minority of clients and are unlikely to

provide the business incentive that will spur agencies into embarking on

the long process of quality certification. The demand for an industry

standard is more likely to come from agencies. ’The PR profession still

has a bad image,’ says PRCA executive director Chris McDowall.



The PRCA already requires basic standards from its members and plans to

extend them. They are useful to companies internally, but perhaps their

most important function is in keeping the cowboys at bay.



McDowall explains: ’There are a number of people out there who promise big

things and do not deliver. What we are saying to the market is use our

members and be assured that you’ll get a good service.’



Macleod, whose company CARMA has achieved ISO accreditation, believes that

as companies grow, a set of standards and procedures can ensure that its

founders’ principles and values are adopted by the whole organisation.



This is particularly useful to international agencies in trying to ensure

the same basic quality of service across national boundaries. IPRA

president Roger Hayes believes there should be minimum international

standards not just within companies but across the industry. He says:

’Internationally we all need to work more closely as a seamless network.

That’s the strength that will turn PR into a profession.’



On a more basic level, standards save time and are cost effective.

Although it is difficult to measure creative excellence and analytical

ability, standards can provide the discipline to channel creative talent,

and an insurance policy against loss of key staff.



’The day that the creative gets run over by a bus you are basically up a

gum tree if they haven’t written things down and followed procedures,’

says Macleod.



Many agencies, however, have yet to be convinced of the value of quality

certificates. Under 20 per cent of PRCA members have either ISO 9000 or

the other widely-recognised kite mark Investors in People.



And practitioners in the UK, along with Japan, are among the more

enlightened when it comes to certification. IPRA alone has over 1,000

members in 70 countries to convince, and they in turn have to convince

their organisations.



IPRA has no immediate plans to make MQS compulsory. Macleod says: ’You

have got to sell the declaration. If you make it an automatic requirement

you would lose you entire membership bar two.’



But, unless there is some form of financial motivation for agencies to

adopt these standards, the Helsinki charter will end up a dinosaur.Without

demand in the market for quality certification, the only way to ensure its

application would be for trade associations like IPRA to make it a

condition of membership.



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