How do you do PR for accounting businesses? This article for Accountancy Age explores the question
The media and the credibility of your message
By Quentin Langley
Dateline 31 August 2001
The promotion of professional services used to have the collegiate atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. Overtly seeking to win business away from one’s professional colleagues was frowned upon and, even regulated. But for decades the regulations have been falling away.
Under a resolution agreed in July and taking effect in November the final restrictions exclusive to the accounting profession are being dropped by ICAEW. The only remaining restrictions – for example on comparative advertising - are in line with the general Code of the Advertising Standards Authority.
In particular the larger firms are investing a great deal more in public
relations. "PwC has a real commitment to its PR work," according to Jon
Bunn, UK Head of Media Relations for PwC. "The real advantage that PR has
over advertising or marketing is the third party endorsement. We can say
what we like about ourselves, but what a publication or broadcaster says
carries real weight".
The same message was also stressed by Jo Swabey of Horwath Clark Whitehill. “Our corporate messages are always more credible on the editorial pages because readers know we had to convince the editor of what we were saying. Our partners understand the crucial role this has in enhancing our reputation”.
Kevin Russell at Ernst & Young reinforced this message: “In the digital world people are able to tune out adverts. It is editorial coverage that counts”.
PR is also of growing importance in the mid-tier. Graham Whitehead is the first in-house manager to take responsibility for PR at Mazars Neville Russell. “We followed the normal pattern of dipping our toe into the water of PR using an agency and now employing our first full time PR manager”. Other mid-tier firms are also focussing more of their PR budget on an in-house team. "Regionally we use five agencies" explained Anne Blackie of HLB Kidsons, "but we now do all our national and London PR internally as we feel it is easier to co-ordinate and better value for money."
According to Gavin Houlgate, who has just joined KPMG to run Corporate Communications from Global PR consultancy Weber Shandwick, it is important for accounting firms to make intelligent use of consultancies: “The better consultancies are focussing more on strategic advice than on implementation. That is the way they can provide a value for money service.” Tim Prizeman has made the opposite journey from Arthur Andersen, Touche Ross and BDO Binder Hamlyn to be being a director of Kelso Consulting. He also has the opposite view: "strategy is easy. It is quality implementation that is hard". He can certainly cite impressive achievements for current clients including Moore Stephens and law firm Norton Rose. "When you consider the full cost of employing people in house, including office space, training, press entertainment, holidays, etc, a consultancy fee is very competitive."
In a business that depends on selling expertise partners cannot simply delegate PR, either to an in-house department or to a consultancy. It is important to budget time as well as money to making the strategy a success. “That’s why the relationship of trust is so important” according to Milan Dalal of Grant Thornton. “Partners know the value of the work we do and that I would not pull them out of a meeting unless the need was urgent”.
Kevin Russell has the same view: “Partners are recognising the increasing importance of PR. Some have being a spokesperson for the firm as part of their job description and for them it is likely to become part of their assessment as well”. Tim Alexander at RSM Robson Rhodes agrees: "The main component of a partner's role is client facing, and delivery to clients is central to their objective setting. But they have a role in promoting the firm and that is reflected in objectives too."
And such pressures are unlikely to diminish. “Media deadlines are getting tighter” explains Anne Groves of Andersen. “As an increasing number of publications update their websites far more frequently than their printed version a journalist’s deadline will typically be expressed in minutes, not hours”. Does the partnership culture’s consensual decision making make it harder to meet these fast deadlines?
"There is certainly a culture of consensus," confirmed Emma Thorogood of Deloitte & Touche, "but there is also a growing commercial culture and Partners recognise business realities".
Melissa Deegan of BDO Stoy Hayward thinks that the partnership structure helps her to meet deadlines: “there are more people empowered to make decisions, at least within their own area of expertise. When I need an answer and someone is unavailable I can often look elsewhere”.
To journalists accounting firms are largely undifferentiated brands. A journalist who needs a comment on tax, say, or corporate recovery does not mind which firm it comes from. That too imposes stresses on PR teams. "We really have to earn our place in any story” according to Anne Groves. “And if we fail to produce usable comments on time twice in a row the journalist will stop asking”.
Public relations is about managing your relationships with your key publics. Plainly existing and potential clients are at the heart of this strategy, but for Ian Buckley, Chief Executive of the Tenon Group, there is another core audience: investors. Tenon has retained investor relation specialists working on its behalf with its City audience.
Regional and trade media are an important target in the highly competitive market outside the FTSE. Most mid-tier firms are focussed very heavily on this market. “Outside the FTSE 350 there is a growing market which has been effectively vacated by the Big 5. That’s where we see a significant market opportunity” explained Ian Buckley. Jo Swabey agrees: “owner managed businesses are one of our core markets.” Though Melissa Deegan stresses not the size of the firm or its ownership structure: “we are seeking ambitious entrepreneurial led businesses”. It is RSM Robson Rhodes that rejects this consensus: "we have never conceded the quoted sector to our big competitors. Our experience shows that we can sell services even to the largest corporates and for the middle market, we are highly relevant. We offer value for money through quality, not discounts." according
to Tim Alexander.
"The changing global business climate makes it certain that accounting and consulting firms will devote more energy to communicating with their stakeholders. Within that communications mix PR is sure to take an ever larger share" concluded Emma Thorogood.
Quentin Langley is a member or the International Committee of the Institute of Public Relations.
Copyright © Quentin Langley 31 August 2001