PR: it's the way you tell it

If you're in the takeover game or just launching a green product, you need help convincing the public. Who can you turn to? David Aaronovitch reports

In the beginning there was only advertising. You had a product (a kitchen gadget designed to shell pecans, for the sake of argument). You hired an agency. They thought up a jingle. You bought space in a newspaper or on radio or in a TV commercial break. That was it. Your image was based on what you said about what you sold. You were Pecoshell - no questions asked.

Then life began to get complicated. For a start, customers - or consumers, as they were becoming known - stopped taking companies on trust, and started demanding excellent, prompt service, good advice and truthful answers to queries. Was it true, as Which? reported, that a third of your gadgets exploded when first switched on?

Some, like the students in the Seventies who boycotted Barclays over South African investments, even began to judge a firm by its ethical or political behaviour. Others demonstrated outside your Leamington HQ, claiming that Pecoshell employed Sri Lankan toddlers on slave wages in caves outside Colombo.

But the clincher was the revelation of what could be achieved without directly paying for it. Delia Smugg mentions pecans in her cookery series and sales go through the roof. A report comes out suggesting that pecans may cause impotence, and profits plummet. Advertising cannot create the first, nor can it deal with the second.

PR can. It is the business of relying on someone else to tell the story for you. "Third-party endorsement is what it's all about," says Deborah Botwood, until recently vice-president, corporate relations, at Visa International. "The message has so much more credence if it comes from an independent source."

So PR is (like politics) about manipulation. The good PR adviser calculates how this story will run, what spin to put on it, what needs to be said and to whom. Images are remodelled, renewed or wiped clean.

Or not. A bad PR decision can be disastrous. Shell's recent difficulties in Nigeria were awful enough to demand a campaign which, at the very least, showed how open, undevious and (where wrong) genuinely contrite the company was. Instead, it opted for a strategy of limited disclosure. Shell emerged smelling of raw sewage.

No wonder, then, that 1994 was a bumper year for the PR companies. PR Week reveals that the top 150 agencies increased fee income from pounds 221m to pounds 254m. And 1995 is likely to have been even better.

But who will do the best job for you? Well, that depends on what needs doing. Are you launching a new product, in desperate need of crisis management, trying to attract the attention of the glitterati, or fighting off a takeover bid? All of the above? These could be the companies for you ...

ETHICS MAN 1

Your company is involved in a major environmental disaster. Who're you gonna call? Shandwick ...

James Poole, director: "The first thing I do is get hold of senior management and ascertain the facts. It is usually only top management who can move with enough speed to find out the facts. In the case of an environmental disaster, you need to get hold of the experts who are trusted by the public. It is important to get a third party with a neutral point of view. If the company is unequivocably responsible, then it is best to admit it and concentrate on what is going to be done about it. The important thing is to be upfront and truthful."

ETHICS MAN 2

Just developed the new CFC-free fridge, the first truly commercial electric car, or the recyclable suit? Go for the specialists with links to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Folk like Media Natura and Hill and Knowlton. Media Natura's recent clients include the International Committee of the Red Cross, the WWF, the World Bank and Cafedirect.

Michael Keating, director of Media Natura: "We would first get the client to find out who they can sell the product to, and then work out a solid but funky way of getting to that audience. We're most popular with semi- ethicals - people who feel strongly about environmental and social issues but don't have the opportunities to demonstrate that concern. We see our role as allowing them to express that concern (ie, by buying fairly traded coffee, and so on). We specialise in products with a conscience - we won't just do anything for anybody."

TAKEOVER 1

Your company is the target of a hostile bid. You need to influence the institutional investors and the financial and business pages. A good bet is Dewe Rogerson, which recently successfully defended Amec from a hostile bid.

Anthony Carlisle, executive chairman: "Our job is to assemble the arguments against a bid and to determine how these are to be presented in defence documents. It is the responsibility of agencies to maintain a dialogue with journalists and get some feedback on what attitudes are in the media. The real danger here is to react to noise, but it is the quality of the arguments against a takeover made to the company's shareholders that is important".

TAKEOVER 2

Now you're the predator. You need to knock the management of the target firm without devaluing the asset. How about Citigate, which advised Granada on both its controversial takeovers, Forte and LWT?

David Wright, chief executive of Citigate: "Our job is to ensure that every reason behind our clients' moves is understood by the City and the financial world in general. There is nothing sinister about it: it is the process of supplying information in the legally correct form."

HIP AND SWINGING

You're opening an up-market nightclub, where rich folk can rub bare shoulders with paedophile pop stars. Who will get you talked about? Freud Communications recently launched the Criterion Restaurant, the Viper Club and the Prada and Dolce e Gabbana shops.

Alex Johnston, creative director: "People gravitate towards celebrities. One approach is to put these people in your club and exploit it in the media. However, a client might want their reputation to travel by word of mouth. This is higher risk, but with potentially higher returns. It creates an 'it must be very exclusive' appeal: you position yourself as a hot ticket. It's 'let people discover me'. As soon as you're all over Vogue or the Sun, your exclusivity is gone."

NEW NEW NEW

It's a new product and needs to be launched upon a suspicious world. Try a leading consumer PR agency like Lexis. Their clients include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Superdrug, Clarks Shoes, Gordon's Gin.

Tim Adams, joint managing director of Lexis Public Relations: "We would take a very close look at the brief, research it independently and draw our own, objective conclusions before presenting our recommendations. Our approach is to develop sound strategies and creative ideas which are underpinned by measurable results. But if the company's product were shoddy, and they were unwilling to take action to change, we wouldn't touch them. We don't apply whitewash."

ME ME ME

You're a big player. You want to stay that way. Everybody from the Prime Minister down needs to feel good about you. Je vous recommande Burson- Marsteller. They handle Sainsbury's, BT and various Unilever companies.

Jane Ferguson, managing director, marketing division, Burson-Marsteller: "Corporate branding has become a buzzword of the Nineties, but marketeers recognise that it is not as simple as putting a corporate logo everywhere. To reap the benefits of familiarity that corporate brands can bestow on products and services, companies must ensure that they manage the brand consistently inside and outside the company - and that there is a guardian who has responsibility. 'Living the brand' is also important, bringing your brand remit to life: you've got to act and behave a certain way in every area of the business. Third, you've also got an established equity to protect, for nobody's safe: the more equity you have, the more is at stake, as with Marks and Spencer of late."

GETTING ON THE MAP

You're a young, adventurous travel company. You have exclusive access to the beautiful and, until recently, war-ravaged country of Canaria. Who will help you change the punter's perception of the place?Hill & Knowlton have worked with the tourist boards of Botswana and Trentino, an Italian principality.

Antony Snow, chairman: "We would have to make sure the political mood in the country had genuinely changed. We would have to talk to tourists, travel writers and tour operators. We would also have to be sure the tourist infrastructure was in good working order. We could then begin to develop positive messages that are true, credible and attractive to potential tourists. We would also maintain a close liaison with the Foreign Office, and groom respectable spokespeople for the new destination - a native with some stature, ideally."

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SCOTT HUGHES

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