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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
News
David Ryall in Harry Potter
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015