May 1, 2010
5 Comments

Do management consultants make good PR people?

During my travels around Asia these past few weeks, I keep hearing about how management consulting firms are trying to get into the public relations business.

I reckon that we PR people can take this two ways:

  1. As a promising sign that the rising PR trade is now so powerful and profitable that it is ‘worthy’ of cross-sectoral competition from other providers of professional services who now want to get into our act.
  2. As a sad commentary on how the PR industry has failed to keep its promises with clients, who insist on a quality of especially corporate communications counsel that existing providers aren’t providing in ample or consistent measure.

There is truth in each of these perspectives, and so the PR industry should prepare itself for increasing competition from the newcomers. They are not trying to do PR by purchasing established PR firms, and they are not tending to recruit high-profile senior PR talent. Instead, management consultants are in most cases simply adding PR consulting to their existing range of advisory services. Rather than attract real PR people, most are simply putting on a PR hat.

Is this because management consultants have such a low opinion of PR consultants that they see communications as an easy add-on for people of their own advanced acumen? Or is it because they are somehow arrogant, believing that someone successful in their famous firm can become easily expert in a field so ‘simple’ as PR? I’m not going to attempt to answer such questions here, but it is noteworthy how the new front being opened in the PR war is so devoid of actual PR professionals.

It shows, too, and that may limit the commercial success of these raiding missions into PR territory.

The other day a famous management consulting firm circulated a white paper on measuring word-of-mouth marketing. With the prestige of the firm’s powerful brand behind it, I was prepared for an impressive experience. But when I flipped through one sophomoric page after another, instead of the expected ‘thought leadership,’ I found obvious observations about very basic 101-level PR concepts which were written with an overblown style and an attempted profundity. Accompanying the written article was a simple diagram of FisherPrice-level communications thinking.

If it isn’t the hubris of condescending professional services brands that will limit the appeal of their new PR offer, then it is the leadership limitations of the PR industry that will increase it. Our own profession — sometimes egged-on by false industry prophets — has often believed its own hype about how PR people deserve a ‘seat at the table,’ even though as a trade we’ve repeatedly shown that we have no business being there much of the time.

Others have traditionally held the biggest marketing cards and owned the most advanced research information, so we PR folks have been found quantitatively and qualitatively wanting in comparison. But now the balance of power is shifting PR’s way. Our traditional strength in relationship management is being amplified by the easy reach and measurability of digital. Technology may be causing a disintermediation in the global recruitment business (why pay a 30% headhunting fee when we have LinkedIn?), but so far it is helping to further extend the existing capabilities of the global PR business.

PR’s knack for distilling a client’s complexity into simple and compelling content (drawing on our skills as media storytellers), then sharing it persuasively with people across platforms in the right sequence comes naturally only with years of practiced experience. It is difficult to replicate this kind of thinking suddenly from an outside industry where, on a good day, PR will always only be a notch up from afterthought status.

The main thing going on is that there is a growing market for ‘big brain’ PR and clients are financing a flight to quality. Regardless of its traditional designation, the firm that can provide c-level answers to vexing communications questions will command a premium in the marketplace.

5 Comments
  1. Erik Cornelius on May 2, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    I agree with your statement: “Others have traditionally held the biggest marketing cards and owned the most advanced research information, so we PR folks have been found quantitatively and qualitatively wanting in comparison.”

    This has been especially true in terms of owning good, empirical data around which to 1.) craft better communication campaigns and 2.) set a baseline to measure the success of those campaigns. Recognizing the need for insight-generating data really gets to the heart of Burson-Marsteller’s evidence-based approach.

    On a related note, the entry of management consulting firms into the PR field reminds me of how IBM opened its Global Business Services division several years ago. With it, IBM offers management consulting services with loss-leader pricing in order to sell more lucrative enterprise technology solutions. At this point I don’t think it’s clear whether management consulting firms will offer PR consulting as a margin-booting add on to their existing portfolio of services or as another potential avenue for bringing in new clients. In either case, it will be interesting to see how they handle execution of PR campaigns without experienced practitioners.

  2. That is what I am hearing. Competition is growing in all industries and all sectors.

  3. What ought to be clear to everyone — managment consultants and public relations managers alike — is that communications will succeed only if the message is Meaningful, Relevant and Helpful to its audience. That’s one of the major reasons that research shows 92% of information is forgotten in the first 24 hours.

    Or, as Napoleon Hill, author of “Think and Grow Rich” pointed out — it is useless to try to tell a person something until you have first made them want to listen.

    This is where public relations professionals should excell compared to the mangement consultants. They should be expert in the use of third-party endorsements, quantitative evidence and the power of the truth. Whoever does this best will succeed.

  4. I agree with your statement: “Others have traditionally held the biggest marketing cards and owned the most advanced research information, so we PR folks have been found quantitatively and qualitatively wanting in comparison.”

    This has been especially true in terms of owning good, empirical data around which to 1.) craft better communication campaigns and 2.) set a baseline to measure the success of those campaigns. Recognizing the need for insight-generating data really gets to the heart of Burson-Marsteller’s evidence-based approach.

    On a related note, the entry of management consulting firms into the PR field reminds me of how IBM opened its Global Business Services division several years ago. With it, IBM offers management consulting services with loss-leader pricing in order to sell more lucrative enterprise technology solutions. At this point I don’t think it’s clear whether management consulting firms will offer PR consulting as a margin-booting add on to their existing portfolio of services or as another potential avenue for bringing in new clients. In either case, it will be interesting to see how they handle execution of PR campaigns without experienced practitioners.

  5. Pingback: management consultants get it right…and wrong | steve bowen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*