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
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 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
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
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,’
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
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.