Confessions of a good PR consultant

This is an article by Douglas Smith.
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Client handling skills are as much the key to success in public relations as they have always been in far older professions: medicine, law, architecture or, no doubt, even the very oldest, says Douglas Smith.

I won’t compare what we do to the oldest profession, but this has certainly been my experience during nearly fifty years in, as I prefer to call it, our communications ‘craft’.

Clearly deciding what you should be doing and then doing it well are critical factors. But convincing clients actually to carry out what you see as a proper programme, or to react swiftly to any crisis, is even more important.

It is often far harder than logic alone should ensure, calling for a combination of skills – clarity of expression in both writing and speech (the use image-forming words); determination; character; even a touch of charm. Churchillian stuff, indeed, but don’t be too concerned if you are yourself not strong in every area. A famous American PR trailblazer, Ed Bernays, covers this aspect commandingly in his book ‘Public Relations’ (1952).

The chapter called ‘The Ideal Public Relations Man’ (don’t fret, ladies, he meant you too) spells out the priorities with fluent skill. He is especially strong on the need for discretion, objectivity and logic.

First, however, in this context we need to define the word ‘client’. We are not simply talking about consultancies: the larger and faster-growing ranks of in-house practitioners are also in our frame, some commanding today’s top-level salaries to prove the point.

If one works for example, within a local authority, your clients are technically the general public. But in effect senior councillors and chief officers, earning more than cabinet ministers, are the people who really cut the mustard. How to win their support is also what we are discussing here.

Good sense dictates that one builds the strongest relationship if there is common ground on aims and how to achieve them. Aristotle said “you cannot agree with someone who denies the first principle.” So convincing your client of the value of public relations to them must be the start.

Definitions of public relations abound, many varying only in their pomposity. My own is simplistic: PR equals Performance Recognition. Be good first and only then tell people about it.

This takes one to the heart of any organisation with which, of course, your top clients will be more familiar than yourself. But they might also be blind to certain defects that could well emerge in any communications exercise.

The well tried SWOT analysis (Strengths; Weaknesses; Opportunities;Threats) is as good a start as any for an initial and continuing public relations programme.

Step one: research

Consult carefully on this with other specialists. Research deeply. Study the overall scene. As any warrior will tell you: ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’.

Time is also well spent in the quest for suitable allies. Here the client is certain to be helpful but you should have your own candidates in the communications context. Hopefully what will emerge is a strong plan mutually agreed – the basis for success in any venture.

Occasionally, of course, you do not have time for these luxuries. There could be an immediate crisis pending as the reason for your being called in at the start. Such a firefighting scenario is common in political public relations, or ‘public affairs’ if you will, but most practitioners come into contact with it sooner or later.

May I cite a personal example, necessarily succinct. Our consultancy was called upon by a district council concerned that the country’s local government minister would overturn recommendations made by an inspector, after a full public inquiry, to prevent development of a small woodland site.

Action was swiftly required. We aroused the media. Burning a Minister in effigy is always a strong television attraction and in this case it attracted national newspaper coverage as well. No marks for guessing who manufactured the splendid effigy.

All-party political groups were rallied across the country, for what we argued was a matter of national principle. Remember the need for allies, drawn as widely as possible.

Fortunately a new Minister was then appointed in the customary July reshuffle. Good luck helps in such matters but he still needed to be persuaded to change his predecessor’s viewpoint.

Research had, however, revealed a far better, larger site for housing nearby. This was quietly presented to him, together with an opportunity to announce a change at the Party Conference in October, the first major speech in his new post.

A reception-cum-rally of local councils opposed to any change in the public inquiry principle was arranged for the evening prior to this speech. The Minister knew then he would face a noisy response if he retained the current stance – but was anyway by now convinced of the alternative.

A change of view was duly indicated at the reception and, of course, wildly applauded at the Conference itself. Victory after only fourteen weeks of campaigning.

Step two: develop relationships

A modest fee income, therefore, but rich rewards longer term. We had convinced a new player – those with the alternative site in their hands – of our worth. They became close colleagues for seven further years.

The reference to rapid action is important in any wider programmes. Clearly one cannot easily anticipate such events but crisis management plans are wise to cover the risks as much as possible.

It pays, for instance, to make political and civil service friends before you have need of them. Again, strong personal trust is forged in the preparations required. And, of course, it is your client who himself becomes concerned with such significant contacts.

Step three: media matters

Time to discuss media coverage overall. At the dawn of public relations as a business, press contact played a major role. After all, there was little television, limited radio, no websites – and most of the players had themselves been journalists in their original careers.

More recently one gains the impression that seeking out such exposure is considered by some to be almost demeaning. ‘Grand strategy’ – much more dignified – should be the PR person’s main role, they claim.

Not so, in my view. Your top client enjoys personal media coverage just as much as most of us, and more so if it falls into the blue chip category.

Handling senior clients, I have always aimed at seeing them at least twice yearly on top management TV programmes as a guru if possible. Most are well able to cope with such a role; if not there are skilful presentational guides to coach them along.

Nothing binds the main client more closely than such coverage, including seminar appearances if the venue is right. Today we tend to aim at a Parliamentary setting which has the added asset of a wider media grasp. Follow-up through articles in trade media is relatively easy then to achieve.

Always remember that the smallest stories can, with a little imagination, gain a coverage which impresses. One client long gone, manufactured electrical dimmer switches, hardly the most dramatic of products.

Selecting the well-known pre-Christmas silly season for coverage, we organised a party for people surnamed ‘Dimmer’. A small tribe arrived to receive their Xmas gifts (again no prizes for guessing what they were) alongside either distant relatives or new family faces.

A low-cost, light-hearted function which made the nationals in diary pieces and some local TV as well. Our client proudly told the tale for years.

Or take the City of Plymouth, occasionally visited (with Council encouragement) by foreign, usually American, Drakes, anxious to discover any connection with the famous Sir Francis. Not readily proved but welcomed and worthy of a picture with the current Lord Mayor, wearing the same chain carried by his famous predecessor. Coverage here was extensive, especially across the United States.

Modest cost but high value – and another satisfied client.

Step 4: PR confidential

After some years it is remarkable how close one can personally become to key clients. Shared, often difficult, experiences produce a bond. The fact that you are quasi-independent allows a top executive to treat you as a confidante in many issues. He may well have few others with whom to confide.

Ensure you are as neutral and friendly with others in the organisation as possible but above all retain the top contact.

If there is a palace revolution, it is an altogether different matter but again, from my experience, professional reputation can always be a strong factor.

Those who master client respect hold their posts lengthily. Peter Hunt (a former CIPR president and much else) has been working with Coca Cola for nearly fifty years. Michael Joyce (a retired consultant and early PRCA chairman) advised a leading security company for thirty years.

Now in their eighties, both are quiet, charming but determined men and top professionals to boot. Ed Bernays lived to be a hundred. There’s perhaps a lesson to be learned from that fact as well.

Douglas Smith HonFCIPR is still active at Westminster where he was recently elected to the first ‘Public Affairs’ journal’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. He won a similar distinction from PR Week in 1990. Douglas is a former Chairman of the PRCA, President of CIPR and President of CERP Consultants – a unique professional hat-trick.

Photo credit: Victoria Crampton – Ptarmigan

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