FiftyOneZeroOne

Archive for August 2007

One of the claims being made for new media is that it gives greater access for ordinary folks to express their views and debate politics. The current US election prologue is being put forward as the first real “Internet Election”, although this claim was made for the 2004 campaign.

In his ‘Read Me First’ column in the Guardian this week, Seth Finkelstein, takes a swipe at the limited access to citizens in the recent CNN YouTube debates with a column headed, New media is just another way to pull the same old tricks. Finkelstein argues that “new media bring new media manipulation and new media exploitation” and that the method of selecting YouTube postings by a gatekeeper was the same as “contests where the winner gets a cameo appearance on a TV show”.

He goes on criticise the process further with, “ss is typical of user-generated content, despite all the hype about empowering citizens, the individual is utterly powerless, except to try to please and serve the interests of the gatekeeper and thereby obtain some attention (but not remuneration).”

There is a raft of issues that arise from this critique: would the candidates have participated in an open-access debate where they didn’t know what issues were likely to be? That’s highly unlikely, although it might make edgy broadcasting. Would broadcasters, like CNN which staged this cross-media event, give up their control and their standards of presentation? Again, highly unlikely.

So Finkelstein’s hope that a true shift in power could have occurred was forlorn before the start of the process because the broadcaster as gatekeeper has too much to defend and he recognises this in his sign-off comment: “… we should never mistake a change in media style for any advance of citizens’ power in politics”.

New media has also brought unforeseen problems for two of the UK best known brands – Vodafone (mobule phones) and First Direct (online banking) which bought packages of online advertising space on Facebook and ended up on a page giving information about the far-right British National Party (BNP). As the Guardian reports, “the move may affect other advertisers on Facebook by highlighting a current lack of control over where the multimillion page network places their bookings”. The report highlights the problem that there is little control over where where advertisements appear.

Ironically, The Guardian’s online version of the report includes a Vodafone click-through advertisement across the top of the story (or it did when this blog was being written) which again shows the problems that advertisers have when seeking associative coverage of their organisation.

Perhaps these two instances of new media problems – lack of access to a range of voices and damaging associations – make a collateral case for well-researched, targeted public relations activity. The public relations practitioner as an intermediary can have a valuable and ethical role to play in promoting genuine debate.

Having run a public relations consultancy for 18 years before switching to academic life, I know how hard it is to balance management pressures while offering top-quality advice and driving the business’s growth.

One UK firm that I admired in the 1990s was Countrywide Communications (now Porter Novelli’s UK operation) which was led by Peter Hehir. They always seemed to be doing the right things as managers; the business grew continuously; they swept up numerous industry awards; their client list was top class – and they had started the business outside London in the Oxfordshire town of Banbury.

Working alongside Peter Hehir as MD of Countrywide’s UK business was Neil Backwith. He has recently distilled his knowledge of 22 years in the consultancy front line into a new book, Managing professional communications agencies – How to double your profitability.

This book should be on the bookshelves of every communications agency manager (not just PR) around the world as it is a very accessible guide to all the elements that make the well-run consultancy business prosper. Backwith divides the book into two sections – managing the firm and its people, and managing client profitability. In the first section, he looks at short and long-term planning, capacity management and utilization, payment systems, key financial ratios and the role of the accountant. The second section looks at new business and maintaining profitability during growth (not an easy task), contract issues, procurement processes of potential clients, deal negotiation and client satisfaction.

The need for this book was illustrated by Peter Hehir at a Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) conference in London in the late 1990s. In a discussion on the need for better management of consultancies, Peter Hehir asked the audience to take a break and respond to a brief for a relatively simple media relations project. When all the answers were collated, the prices proposed ranged from £1,000 to £10,000. This range caused consternation. How could an audience representing many of the best consultancies (small, medium and international) in the UK have a 900% variation in pricing? Peter’s answer was that, self-evidently, most of us were managing our business too loosely and pricing by guess work.

Managing professional communications agencies – How to double your profitability addresses these issues and helps take the guesswork out of agency and consultancy management. The content is sound advice. None of it is in management-speak or heavily conceptualized, although the writing style is overly chatty. Whether you will “double your profitability” as the book’s title claims is questionable but you will have far greater control of your business if you take heed of its advice. Linked with the disciplines of the PRCA’s Consultancy Management Standard, the lessons from this book will make the business stronger – and give greater time to developing creative solutions for client briefs.

Backwith, N.A. (2007) Managing professional communications agencies – How to double your profitability. London: Public Relations Consultants Association.

Price £29.99. ISBN: 978 0 9517397 1 6. Available from the PRCA, Willow House, Willow Place, London SW1P 1JH


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