’PR practitioners who do not plan effectively are like the 18th
century itinerant quacks that sold potions of coloured water to the
sick, without any diagnosis and whatever their ailment. If we do not
carry out client ’diagnosis’, through preparatory research, any
subsequent PR activity could be way out of line,’ says independent
strategic planner David Michie.
Michie’s views, although rarely expressed in such colourful terms, are
voiced throughout PR - and not just among the planning fraternity. As
well as helping with client ’diagnosis’ many say that skilled planning -
which often involves media evaluation and market research - can simplify
key messages, add scientific weight and help to boost PR’s credibility
However, such plaudits are rarely translated into action.
Few UK agencies have dedicated planning functions, while market research
companies report that PR consultancies only make up a fraction of their
accounts. One experienced media analyst says: ’I get the impression that
many PR companies work on a ’seat-of-their-pants’ basis and are too tied
up with day-to-day concerns to think about planning.’
On the other hand, in-house, planning has a much higher profile.
Catherine Hastings, BBC head of corporate communications strategy, says
the recent creation of her role underlines the corporation’s commitment
She heads an eight-strong team and says that the commitment to planning
comes right from the top, with director-general John Birt agreeing the
corporate affairs department’s objectives.
Sandra Macleod, managing director, Europe, for media analysts Carma
International, reports: ’There is definitely a higher use of our
services from in-house PR clients, particularly pharmaceutical and
chemical companies and trade associations.’
However, many in-house PR people are still the ’pairs of hands’ which
have to implement the communications strategy after it has been hammered
out by marketers and advertising consultants.
Countrywide Porter Novelli is one of the few UK PR agencies with a
specialist planning function and a board slot - currently vacant - for a
planning director. Managing director Paul Miller, who set up
Countrywide’s UK planning function a decade ago, is surprised that other
agencies have not followed his lead.
’There is no doubt that making planning an integral part of what we do
for clients has a fundamental impact on what we can develop for them,’
’Over the last ten years we have enjoyed considerable growth and
success: I do not think that those two things are unconnected.’
Money is often a major obstacle to the growth of the PR planning
Clients are perceived as not wishing to stump up extra cash for planning
after they have appointed a consultancy, while agencies don’t often
invest in pre-pitch research in case they don’t win the business.
Jane Atkin, research and planning director with new strategic
consultancy First & 42nd, dismisses this logic.
’Getting and winning new business is always costly but, if you put money
in, you get better results,’ she says. ’If you get the strategy right,
everything falls into place. Increasingly clients are saying that
agencies win accounts not because they are creative, but because they
understand their business.’
Kieran Knights, who became Welbeck Golin/Harris’s first planning
director last year, stresses that research costs needn’t run into
thousands of pounds. Although staple methods such as media evaluation
and market research can bite into pitch or account budgets, he points
out that resources - such as libraries, media packs and the Internet -
can come very cheap, if not free.
A lack of understanding of the planning process is also seen as a factor
behind PR’s arms-length approach to the discipline. Atkin says: ’I don’t
think people really appreciate what planning and research can do. It’s
something new and I think there is a tendency to carry on doing things
in the old way.
’In PR, people tend to be ’Jacks of all trades’, with account handlers
being both creatives and implementers. There is not a natural acceptance
of specialists, unlike in advertising where there have always been
defined roles for planners and creatives. Maybe people feel
Andrew Jones, former planning director for Countrywide Porter Novelli in
the UK, also questions whether the PR industry is completely comfortable
with planning methods.
Jones, who began his career in advertising and is now strategic planning
director for Porter Novelli in Los Angeles, says: ’Many people in PR are
ex-journalists, not marketers, which has deprived them of exposure to
the type of planning techniques common in marketing-led firms.’
Some critics also feel that planning would stifle the creativity of good
Knights dismisses this argument. ’Planners have the terrible reputation
of being very process-driven: I do not see it has to be like that. Good
strategy depends on both creativity and planning,’ he says.
’As in advertising, PR needs to complement the creatives with
Too often, our work has just been supported by ’gut feel’’.
Paul Georgiou, managing director of media analysis firm Impacon, denies
that the relative difficulty of ’controlling’ the PR process - where one
cannot buy editorial coverage as one can buy advertising space - is an
’The importance of media coverage in determining the public’s perception
of companies means that the problems of controllability make planning
more, not less, important,’ he insists.
A surprising fact is that while planning is taking off sluggishly in the
UK, it is still ahead of the US where the planning discipline is less
Carma’s Macleod says: ’The level of debate and calibre of people getting
involved in the debate is much higher here than in the US.’
Porter Novelli’s Jones agrees. ’The US has a more highly-developed
market research industry but it is more ’back-room’ than in Britain. In
planning terms, the US does lag behind the UK,’ he says.
Planning proponents agree that in the next few years planning will
become as significant a PR issue as evaluation. To help reach that
stage, Ruth McNeil, marketing director of market research company
Research International UK, says PR and research professionals should
develop a closer understanding of each other’s work.
’In the past, PR has not looked over the parapet and seen how useful
research can be, while we have been baleful in selling to PR
’We all have a duty to speak to each other other and work more closely
together,’ she says.
Welbeck’s Knights, meanwhile, argues that the competitive advantage of
being research-backed will encourage more agencies to come aboard. But
he stresses that planning is not just about appointing a dedicated
director but about ensuring all account handlers are trained in the
Whatever encourages practitioners to embrace planning, the move is
likely to change both the practice and status of PR.
Raymond Wilson, Norwich Union’s group corporate affairs manager, has
been working on - an as-yet untried - system for measuring campaign
planning called Media Relations Points. He believes greater research
could change the way PRs do business.
’You might, for example, see more tactical press relations with tailored
releases being sent to individual journalists rather than general
releases being sent out wholesale,’ he says.
Others, such as consultant Michie and First & 42nd’s Atkin, believe that
PR will only make it to the top table of strategic decision-making by
adopting professional research and planning techniques.
As Countrywide Porter Novelli’s Jones says: ’There are some very able
and sophisticated people in PR but the industry’s reputation is still
tied up with Ab Fab fluffiness.
’Many agencies routinely deal with marketing departments, not PR
These guys are marketers and they want to know what the return will be
on their investment. It’s just not substantive enough to say you are
going to have a media launch and throw a party.’
COVENT GARDEN: EXPLOITING LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Welbeck Golin/Harris could be forgiven for not doing too much research
when it was invited to pitch for a marketing campaign to promote Covent
Garden Market to locals.
Located as it is, on the very edge of the market, the agency might have
assumed that it already knew the area well enough.
’It would have been easy to rely on our perceptions and assumptions in
developing a strategy, but that would have been terribly dangerous,’
stresses Welbeck’s planning director Kieran Knights.
’It was only through consumer research that we were able to present
convincing arguments and, in the event, it threw up a lot of
Welbeck commissioned market research company JLA to undertake
face-to-face interviews among 200 people who worked in the Covent Garden
The survey showed that 80 per cent of local workers visited the market,
although 57 per cent went just two or three times a year and 56 per cent
sometimes went to watch the entertainers in the Piazza.
The main incentive for shopping at Covent Garden, according to 44 per
cent of respondents, was its style and atmosphere, with 36 per cent
favouring the range of products on offer. However, 44 per cent of
shoppers were unable to name any of the shops in the market.
Following this research, Welbeck framed its communications objectives to
target consumers within the London commuter belt and to attract them to
the market while encouraging them to spend money (rather than throwing
it in the buskers’ hats).
To achieve this, it proposed using PR and advertising to promote the
market’s strengths. These were defined as the availability of exciting,
interesting and unusual products in a different, stylish and atmospheric
Knights says that Welbeck’s objectives owed much to the research
findings. ’I think that without them we would have assumed that most
shoppers were tourists. However, the research showed us that local
people did go to the market and they just had to be encouraged to
Client Nigel Mogridge, of Covent Garden Market’s owners Guardian
Properties, says that Welbeck won its three-way pitch largely because of
the strength of its research. He says that the research proved to be a
’useful body of work throughout the campaign’.
Knights adds: ’There was evidence to support our approach which meant
that we were asking our client to buy our proposals not just on trust
but on the basis of a solid rationale.’
PULP FICTION: GIVING WEIGHT TO PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
Pre-campaign research can prove vital in establishing the truth, and
convincing others of what the public thinks.
When the newsprint and newspaper industries were planning a UK education
campaign, there was no shortage of sector figures who believed they knew
what the key issues were.
Campaign co-ordinator Kathy Bradley, head of communications at the Pulp
and Paper Information Centre, says: ’The group was made up of people
from both the UK and overseas and it was very difficult to get key
messages across as everyone had a different view of what the problems
were.’ The Swindon-based PPIC opted for a two-pronged research programme
based on a Gallup poll and Carma International media evaluation.
Bradley says: ’You should know where you’re going before you set
We wanted to know what newspapers were saying about the industry and
what the public thought about it - and that’s what we got.’
The two approaches came up with broadly similar findings. Critically,
they showed high public support for recycling, confusion over whether
the industry endorsed recycling, and a misunderstanding of paper-making
methods. Many people, for example, wrongly believed that tropical
rainforest timber was used in paper-production.
The research findings reflected Bradley’s own views of what the media
and public thought. However, she feels the industry team - the Newsprint
and Newspaper Industry Environmental Action Group, which includes such
members as the Newspaper Society and the Canadian Pulp and Paper
Association - gave the findings more credence because they were based on
Faced with proven facts, it was easier to select four clear campaign
messages that fulfilled the research findings.
These messages were: trees felled for paper-making were replaced in
greater numbers, tropical rainforest wood was not used in newspapers,
the UK newspaper industry was committed to recycling and that it made a
valuable contribution to society. The messages were then delivered via
advertisements, media relations, fact sheets and an information
Bradley says the research made her task a lot easier. ’It made it very
easy to develop the key messages we wanted and to go ahead with the
campaign,’ she says. ’If we’d just sat down with all the organisations
that we represent, we’d have come up with a hotch potch of views.’
GOOD FOR BUSINESS: MIXED MESSAGES FOR MARKET LEADERS
London Business School is in the position of being able to be very
selective about its students and its media opportunities.
Despite being one of the world’s most expensive centres of learning, it
turns down ten out of every 11 applicants and, in a sector burgeoning
with competitors, accepts only 60 per cent of media opportunities.
This choosy approach reinforces LBS’s reputation as one of the most
elite international schools. To further emphasise this status,
particularly in its key student markets of Asia and North America, the
school recently undertook market research into how it was perceived.
The research, which was intended to feed into the school’s broad
communications activity, involved telephone and face-to-face interviews
with international chief executives, senior managers and human resources
As well as confirming the school’s image as a centre of excellence,
among its findings was the revelation that LBS was perceived as a
friendly and supportive institution.
Gerry Griffin, LBS’s communications director, then worked with the
school’s agency Hill and Knowlton, to interpret the different messages -
particularly the ’warm and friendly’ aspect - from a PR angle and to
tailor them to different international markets. Activity then focused
particularly on promoting LBS’s Executive Education programme for top
Subsequent projects included a symposium for 50 executives in Toronto
which, despite LBS priding itself on ’soft-sell’ PR, attracted coverage
in all the main Canadian nationals.
At the school itself, the Executive Education faculty received media
training in promoting the positive messages revealed by the
Given LBS’s role as a research-based organisation, Griffin was not
surprised it was so willing to incorporate the research results into its
’Apart from teaching students, research is our raison d’etre. It would
have been highly ironic if we had not taken the research findings
seriously,’ he said.