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Consultancies are failing to deliver; Report shows concern at lack of service Business Staff.

Poor working relationships with clients, rather than lack of basic skills, is the biggest gripe about PR agencies, according to a survey by Birmingham-based communications consultants Whitfield Rush.

The survey of more than 650 senior in-house communicators showed that 90 per cent wanted their consultants to be pro-active and full of good ideas and more than three-quarters looked for consultants who can operate as an extension of their in-house team.

Yet fewer than ten per cent of clients believed that consultancies were likely to deliver this level of service.

In-house communicators wanted a consultancy which was prepared to get to know their business, so that they could add greatest value to in-house operations. However, most consultancies were not making the effort to satisfy this request.

A third of clients found that the most annoying aspect of their dealings with PR agencies was their failure to understand their business.

Next in the complaints league was the lack of support at key times (25 per cent) and lack of commitment to the client's team (21 per cent).

Perhaps predictably, no client believed that they were very likely to get value for money from a consultancy and, perhaps even more predictably, more than a quarter said that bills were the single thing which most annoyed them about working with a consultancy.

According to Whitfield Rush partner Kim Fernihough, a former communications manager at Boots The Chemists and Avon Cosmetics, the survey revealed the natural tension between consultancy and client. She said: 'A common complaint I hear from consultancies is that clients do not involve them enough. But this survey proves that clients actually do want close and long-term relationships so that their consultancies can work with them as an integral part of their team.

'Instead, it seems that both clients and consultancies are avoiding commitment in their relationships. I think we're seeing the communications equivalent of a one-night stand and neither party is satisfied.

'To deliver maximum value, consultancies have to invest in improving client relationships, and at the same time, in-house people need to really let their advisers get close to their business.'

But the survey had some good news for the PR specialists.

Clients believed that media relations skills were the consultants' forte with three in four clients using them for press liaison, to generate positive coverage and for their writing skills.

There were few complaints, too, about the standard of basic skills.

Clients were positive about the external perspective which consultancies bring (58 per cent) and the additional resources which they offer at busy times (31 per cent).

The biggest gap between what clients expect and what consultancies actually deliver was in the area of highest skill - strategic advice, planning and crisis and issues management.

Less than five per cent of in-house PR operators believed that consultancies were very likely to have these skills.

Whitfield Rush partner, Mr Jonathan Reay, a former Grayling director, said: 'Training and staff development is clearly having an effect on raising the standards of good solid media relations skills among consultants.

'Five years ago I would have expected the biggest area of complaint to have revolved around basic skills rather than relationships.

'However, the standard of strategic advice and other more sophisticated services remains poor. Consultancies will have to continue to invest in people to bring them up to the levels expected by clients.'

According to the survey there was great room for improvement for consultancies to enhance the value they brought to clients.

One third of clients (32 per cent) were not at all confident that their public relations resource was delivering maximum value.

'There is clearly a big opportunity for both in-house teams and consultancies to do more to improve understanding of one another's aims and objectives and for consultancies to work hard on giving their clients the sort of relationship they want,' said Ms Fernihough.

Whitfield Rush specialise in helping companies get the best out of their PR resources.
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Author:Lewis, Colin
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 4, 2000
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