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P.R. specialization.


How to Understand What You Buy

People often try to evaluate a public relations firm with only a partial understanding of what public relations is all about.

Remember the story of the blind men describing the elephant? The one who touched its broad side described it as "very like a wall"; the one who touched its tail said it was like a rope, and so on.

Public relations is outside professional consulting. As such, it is often evaluated on the same basis as consulting advice from law firms and chartered accountants, advertising agencies and computer consultants, stockbrokers and personnel agencies.

Public relations firms are like all of those in some respects like none of them in others.

Sorting out where PR fits among all those other models of external advice will contribute much to helping you select the right PR firm for your requirements.

Here's How To Begin Sorting:

1. Reputation: an absolute necessity. All the consulting professions mentioned have had some exposure to mass merchandising, storefront operations and `no-frills' techniques; but so far they have made little headway replacing word-of-mouth referral as the greatest source of new business.

Good advice by definition requires confidence in, and a willingness to work, with the person offering it. You get advice from someone you already know, about prospective advice-givers you do not know.

Consulting cannot realistically fit moulds of product specification and low bid. Ask business people whose opinions you respect whom they would recommend for public relations counsel. You might even ask journalists who they trust and respect.

2. Specialization In Your Industry: a non-starter. One common objective of public relations is to make someone a recognized expert in a particular field. If that's what you want to do, why are you looking for another recognized expert?

Some kinds of consultants, like computer software developers, must know in detail how your industry works. With experience in many companies in your industry, they can offer cost-effective, relevant global solutions.

Getting news media or government attention, however, does not lend itself very well to global approaches. What works today won't necessarily be the way to do it tomorrow, nor will the same approach work for everyone.

In Canada, finding a PR specialist in your industry is difficult. Some U.S. PR firms specialize in one industry, but in the Canadian market, specialization means either a very large industry or a very small PR firm, and usually both.

Many PR firms have several clients from the same industry simply because they've been referred by and to colleagues.

3. Absence Of Conflict: potentially a problem, but not a great risk. This is the other side of the coin from industry specialization. Law firms search diligently through corporate records to ensure they won't expose themselves to conflicts of interest. That's understandable in the adversary situations that the legal profession entails.

Advertising agencies spend clients' money on sometimes limited availabilities of broadcast time or publication space. In very precise market analyses, it's understandable that one agency should only make those decisions on behalf of one auto maker, or one distiller, and so on.

Clearly, an anti-smoking lobby group and a tobacco manufacturer could not credibly use the same public relations firm, but there are few such "clear-cut" conflicts in public relations.

PR firms don't "use up" available publication space with an announcement either. News value, credibility and timing will have more to do with whether or not the announcement gets news media attention. PR firms can and do readily represent the best interests of several clients in the same field and do so honorably and professionally.

Doing so shortens the learning curve before they understand the issues in your industry. More important though, they tend to enhance credibility and improve the level of specialist media contact in that field.

On a daily basis, it makes sense for a PR firm to have different consultants representing the interests of potentially competing clients. Beyond that, however, assessing the potential for conflict of interest is a judgement call between the PR firms' management and the clients. Ask a potential PR counsel what other clients he (or she) represents and how to avoid conflict.

4. Degree of Continuity: important to consider. Some consulting resources are needed only occasionally; others are kept on retainers.

You may have one law firm on a retainer basis and go elsewhere for, say, registration of patents. Likewise, you may use a generalist PR firm on a retainer basis and go to a specialist in sports promotions if you're about to sponsor a major competition.

The apparent savings by contracting PR services only on a project basis may be an illusion, however. You'll incur inevitable gearing-up time costs whenever you start a new project, and you risk losing opportunities when there isn't time to start looking.

Here's a very simple example. Last summer, when Daniels Development Corporation suffered a devastating fire at the Copperfield condominium townhouse project in Toronto, the firm decided to rebuild at the original prices paid by its customers. That decision was made despite an easy "Act of God" escape clause from sales contracts and the potential to profit from soaring real estate values.

The company deserved credit for that decision and got it--because there was a PR firm on board before the fire, which helped the firm clearly communicate to all publics the day after the fire.

It also gives a client more continuity if you have your regular PR firm arrange for the special-project help. They will go to specialists they're accustomed to working with, and be able to co-ordinate matters more smoothly.

5. Professional Competence: another absolute. In every consulting operation, the skills of the individuals working on your account will be important. Before you commit to a PR firm on the basis of impressive general credentials, find out exactly who will be working on your account? Is the star always in Montreal and the trainee working for you?

Find out how much bench strength there is. While your consultant is on vacation or your speechwriter is elsewhere, will the firm be able to come up with a quality alternate at short notice?

6. General Capacity: your call. Before you commit to an ambitious yearly PR plan, is the firm large enough to handle all of it? If a major crisis comes up overnight, will everyone be busy doing someone else's annual report? Will your annual report be late because they're solving someone else's crisis?

As is the case with many other types of consulting operations, it could become necessary for a PR person to be physically located at your office for a period of time. Ask how your prospective PR counsel would supply that person.

Particularly with current prospects for higher trade activity levels with the U.S., you may need a PR firm with a presence in U.S. markets, too. Find out what they can offer you if you need to have some contact with the media in San Francisco, New York or, for that matter, London?

7. Standard Value Analysis: some things never change. You need to know the basics just as you would buying any other important commodity or service. That is, how financially stable and established is the PR firm? What's its track record? Does it exist as more than a support extension of the founder?

There's no reason to ignore price, either, as far as that is possible. On what basis does the PR firm expect to be paid, and how will you be able to measure how much things are costing? Make sure you won't be exposing yourself to unpleasant fiscal surprises.

8. Finally, The Intangibles: you'll know when you see them. Just like your lawyer and your accountant, you've got to feel right about your PR counsel. You don't necessarily want a buddy, but you want to work with people you trust, people you're confident know what they're doing and who take your account seriously.

All the credentials in the world won't count if you don't get that nice, warm feeling. If you're not comfortable working with the PR firm's staff, you won't be candid enough to get the value you could from them anyway.

PHOTO : David Eisenstadt, APR President The Communications Group Inc.

David Eisenstadt, APR is president of Toronto-based The Communications Group Inc., the exclusive Canadian partner of The Pinnacle Group, Inc. He is international chairman of the Public Relations Society of America's Counselors Academy.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:public relations
Author:Eisenstadt, David
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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