It would be easy to dismiss Burson-Marsteller’s decision to reinvent
itself as a ‘perception mangament consultancy’ as a classic case of
public relationspuff, a cynical attempt to gain credibility by
distancing itself from the very thing on which it was built - the
practice of public relations.
It is, says the agency, just part of a major re-structuring styled along
management consultancy lines and reflects the fact that its focus is
increasingly on business rather than communications objectives.
Few would disagree that public relationshas an image problem. Often it
is defined in its very narrowest sense, to mean the practice of media
relations, or worse, as some sort of black art in which base metal is
miraculously turned into fools gold by the judicious application of half
truths and lies.
Certainly Burson-Marsteller has a point when it says public relations no
longer accurately describes the range of its activities and that
management perception is arguably a better description. But is there not
a very real danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water? That,
in the battle for a place in what UK chief executive Alison Canning
calls the ‘superleague’ of business consultancies, B-M is ditching the
very thing that gives it an edge over its rivals from the advertising
and management consultancy sectors - its PR heritage?
Just two months ago PR Week reported that one of the biggest accountancy
firms KPMG was looking for a PR agency to boost the profile of its
management consultancy arm. Management consultants, admitted the firm,
are not very good at explaining what they do.
More recently we reported that advertising agency McCann Erickson was
looking to buy a PR agency. Many others have already done so.
Everyone, it seems, is learning to value PR except perhaps the PR
agencies themselves and, according to B-M’s research, clients.
If it is true that the very mention of the term is enough to make the
company chairman’s eyes glaze over, then isn’t it up to PR agencies or
more particularly, the company’s own corporate affairs director to
explain why PR is important. And if they haven’t twigged that there
might be something in this PR thing, what hope is there that they are
going to sit up and take notice of a practice as ill-defined - and
sinister sounding - as ‘perception management’
Rather than cutting and running, shouldn’t PR firms be explaining what
they do more effectively rather than trying to think up new labels for
it. How can they hope to ‘manage perception’s for others if they cannot
do it for themselves?