Public relations is one of the fastest-growing professions in the UK. According to some estimates, the rate of growth for PR jobs has been higher than of any other management function over the last 15 years.
The Institute of Public Relations estimates that the industry has grown 15% since then. In 1999, the combined income of the top 150 agencies was £436m. The US business is thriving too. At the last count, it employed more than 110,000 people. The top 100 US firms earn more than £2.5bn between them, and their income grew by nearly 30% between 1998 and 1999.
As clients retained a tight rein on budgets, 2003 was tough and challenging for many PR agencies as they struggled to build up their income or turn a profit. The bigger the agency, the harder it seemed to be to perform well. More than half of those in the Top 20 saw fee income decline below 2002 levels. But it wasn't only the big guns that took a pounding. Many smaller agencies also had to lick their wounds.
As with many other sectors, many of the top PR companies are owned by the big four agency holding companies: WPP Group, Omnicom, Interpublic Group and Publicis Groupe.
Within most large agency groups, PR has grown from representing a quarter of the business five years ago to half of all income today.
The UK industry is the most developed in Europe. This is partly a reflection of the strength of the country's media, which is powerful, competitive and independent, but also because the UK has traditionally been used as a launch pad by US PR networks looking to expand into Europe.
Groups like WPP and Interpublic are keen to invest in PR agencies because, although advertising is still a growth industry, PR is growing faster.
With the exception of Weber Shandwick, almost all of the world's big international networks were founded in the US, where public relations was recognised as a distinct practice and profession as early as the 20s. By the mid-60s, the largest US agencies, Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton, had offices in London. The evolution of their international networks in Europe, the Middle East and Asia was made possible by the expansion of American multinationals such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, which wanted their PR and advertising advisers to follow them into new markets.
The public relations agency
Public relations is about reputation, which is based on what you do, what you say and what people say about you. We advise clients on how what they say and do will impact on their reputation among all their interested publics, be they customers, staff, management, suppliers, local communities, investors, regulators or politicians. All kinds of organisations seek PR advice, from businesses to charities, political parties to public bodies.
Individuals also seek PR advice, either on how to manage careers in the public eye or unexpected attention from the media, although they generally go to individual publicists rather than agencies. This has gone hand in hand with the rise of the celebrity and is epitomised by the likes of Max Clifford.
A PR agency aims to get its clients' message across through opinion formers rather than through paid-for advertising. It either communicates with opinion formers directly or through the press. It tries to secure positive third-party support, working with journalists, financial analysts, political groups, professional advisers and campaigning groups. If you pick up a national newspaper you will find 50% of the content is generated by PR agencies. On the City and financial pages it is probably 75%, sometimes more.
PR can be broken down into three principal disciplines and most agencies are particularly strong in one or two of these.
The biggest discipline by far is consumer PR, where the agency helps to design and implement campaigns to promote a brand, or particular products or services, to customers. Most of the large national and international agencies have a consumer PR arm.
Financial is the second-largest and often the most lucrative discipline, where agencies are called on to manage a business's reputation among financial journalists, analysts and ultimately investors. Financial PR consultants help companies manage the announcement of their annual results and are also brought in to manage communications during stock market flotations, takeover battles and acquisitions.
Lobbying and public affairs
Lobbying, or public affairs, is the third distinct discipline. Companies, public bodies and charities get advice from lobbying agencies on how to put their case to government, politicians and local councils. Lobbyists will alert their clients to political and regulatory issues that could affect them and help them to map out the political landscape.
A fourth discipline, corporate communications, runs across the other three. Corporate communications is about protecting a company's overall reputation, rather than promoting its products or services.
There has also been huge expansion in public relations for specialist industry sectors such as technology and healthcare. PR agencies not only implement campaigns, but help to plan them and measure their success.
The PR agency structure
In most other agencies, there are four tiers of responsibility. Each agency is headed by a managing director or chief executive. Beneath them, directors lead particular strands of business. They are often responsible for one discipline in the PR spectrum, such as financial communication, lobbying or consumer PR.
Each client account is run by an account director and, beneath them, the account manager looks after the client on a day-to-day basis. Below them, the account executives will do much of the tactical implementation of the PR programme, talking to journalists, writing press releases, organising events. A typical account executive would work for two to three clients.
According to PR Week's Salary Survey 2004 one in three communications directors in the private sector are earning more than £100,000 a year. A quarter of consultancy bosses take home more than £60,000 – the top salary bracket for agencies – yet just 8% of their counterparts in the public sector fall into their top bracket of more than £80,000.
The findings showed that additional benefits to salaries are featuring more prominently within remuneration packages, with a trend towards more “lifestyle” benefits, such as flexi-hours, maternity and paternity leave arrangements over and above statutory requirements.
There are two principal PR trade associations in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (IPR) (www.cipr.co.uk) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) (www.martex.co.uk/prca).
The IPR represents individuals within the industry, both those working for agencies or in-house for companies, public bodies and charities. It hosts a conference each autumn and highlights best practice in the industry through the CIPR Excellence Awards and the Young Communicator Awards.
The institute has been campaigning to improve standards of professionalism in PR and increase its standing in the business world by encouraging consultants and clients to measure and evaluate PR campaigns.
The CIPR approves a number of college courses and runs its own continuous professional development scheme for established practitioners. The institute offers student membership for £25 a year and the benefits include networking events, careers advice, help with finding work experience or a job, mentoring and reading lists. The institute has developed its continuous professional development scheme in conjunction with the PRCA, which represents consultancies as opposed to individuals.
All PR businesses which join the PRCA have to meet certain basic requirements for accounting, training and professional ethics, and have to be of a certain size. The association runs a referral system, which puts potential clients in touch with agencies, and a recruitment service. The association also supports the PRCA diploma in public relations at the West Herts College (www.westherts.ac.uk). Its website includes a directory of its members, with contact details and links to their homepages.
There are a number of smaller UK-based organisations for those in the communications business.
The Association of Professional Political Consultants represents lobbying agencies, and the Investor Relations Society's members are individuals working in the field of financial communications.
Interpublic Group: Weber Shandwick, Lowe Partners Worldwide, McCann Erickson Worldwide, Golin/Harris International, BSMG Worldwide
WPP Group: Hill & Knowlton, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, The Shire Hall Group, Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe, Finsbury, GCI, APCO
Publicis Groupe: Manning Selvage & Lee
Omnicom Group: Countrywide Porter Novelli, Ketchum, Freud Communications, Fishburn Hedges, Gavin Anderson, Brodeur Worldwide, GPC, Fleishman Hillard
Chime Communications: Bell Pottinger Communications, The Good Relations Group
Havas: Grayling, Westminster Strategy, Biss Lancaster Euro RSCG, Leedex GTPR
The Ultimate Spin Doctor: The Life and Fast Times of Tim Bell by Mark Hollingsworth, Coronet, 1997
Lord Bell, now chairman of Chime Communications, became a trusted adviser of Margaret Thatcher's during his years at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Invisible Persuaders by David Michie, Bantam, 1998
An insider's view of how PR men and women affect company share prices, the way we vote and what we buy.
Crystallising Public Opinion by Edward Bernays, 1923.
Still talked about today, this book is a seminal text by an American regarded as one of the founding fathers of PR.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations' website includes comprehensive reading lists for general information, case studies, financial PR, internal communications and many other areas.