FOCUS: RESEARCH & PLANNING - Reap the benefits of being prepared/In planning terms the UK is leading the US, but even in Britain some PR practitioners seem reluctant to look too far ahead. Rebecca Dowman reports

’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.

’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

and professionalism.

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

to planning.

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,’

he says.

’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

insuperable hurdle.

’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.’


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.’


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

formal research.

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.’


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

communications planning.

’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.

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