PR consultancy management – the book to buy!

Posted on: August 1, 2007

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


2 Responses to "PR consultancy management – the book to buy!"

Thanks for this useful tip. I’d just been thinking how little there is in the public relations literature on consultancy management.

I still refer to Jon White and Laura Mazur’s Strategic Communications Management from the early 1990s. David Maister is excellent, but isn’t writing specifically about public relations.

Will add Neil Backwith to my list.

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