Profile Builders

How do design groups contemplating PR for the first time – or bruised from a bad past experience – work their way towards successful PR that informs the media about their business and their work? Jacky Hyams finds out

PR costs money and it can be difficult to quantify the results. From a journalist’s perspective, PR people do not always seem to understand the fine line between promoting their client and being over-protective – or even obstructive – when dealing with the media. Any good PR person knows that their raison d’être is not to act as a “roadblock” between the press and the client. And design is very much a people industry; a good design PR has to understand the personality of the client consultancy and the way it works.

Cost is another key factor. Both individuals and agencies operate on a day rate or per project basis. The discrepancy in fees is huge: some individuals charge daily rates of around £250-£275 – this can stretch to double with some – and agencies can be even more expensive. Expenditure can run from £l5 000 per annum to £l00 000, depending on the size of the outfit and what you want to achieve with PR.

“Design is still a very niche area for a PR,” says Margaret O’Brien, a former journalist who has worked as a design PR, both in-house and as a freelance consultant, over the past decade.

“The bottom line, for me, is to see design PR as a sales tool. But the tricky thing when performing PR for design is that there is a limited audience. A design group needs a platform within the marketing or trade press and the national press. And that’s hard work.”

And the national press rarely sees the relevance of the design element of a story. “Journalists will take a story from a design group and find out who did the advertising,” says O’Brien. “When it appears, you might think the story was placed by the ad agency – and you’re lucky if the design group gets a brand mention.”

O’Brien feels that young design consultancies should proceed with caution before rushing headlong into PR. “When companies start up they have very little to show for quite a while.

“The way forward is for the design consultancy to work out a narrow strategy beforehand. They’ve got to be focused and agree on a message that makes them different. The PR agency has to understand where the design group is going in terms of growth, so it can go out and get some lateral press coverage, not just design and marketing press.”

Simon John at 12-strong brand consultancy Ergo says where many design groups go wrong is hiring someone and thinking PR will just happen. “They think ‘doing good lunch’ is all it needs. The real trick is to develop ideas in the open market which create points of discussion, interest and dialogue. It’s critical that you know exactly what you want to say, what kind of animal you want the business to be perceived as, for instance, are you a strategic animal or a design purist?

“With trade PR, the idea is to create a sense of greater discussion about the business we’re in – sometimes that’s missing. With national press it’s much harder. You have to be observant about the bigger trends in the market to link them into big stories. Widgets galore won’t work.”

Ergo has used Margaret O’Brien for over a year. Before that it used another consultancy. “But we parted company because we weren’t getting what we wanted,” says John.

Another experienced design PR, Charlotte Borger, says there are times when a design consultancy can liaise with the media without outside help. “People can manage quite a bit themselves. They think by hiring someone they can get results, which isn’t always the case,” she says.

Young print design group Browns has taken this approach. “We’ve never used a PR outfit and probably never will,” says Browns’ Jonathan Ellery. “PR isn’t rocket science. You can’t employ a PR company to make you something you’re not.”

Browns has designed and published promotional books in collaboration with photographers, which act to enhance the group’s image. It is currently working on a book with shopping centre Bluewater. “We get good PR because we do interesting work, it’s not a manufactured strategy. We do send out press releases – but only if we’re doing something interesting. If you base your culture on what you do well and stay true to that, you’ll get good PR,” Ellery adds.

Mary Lewis at Lewis Moberly agrees, although she has an in-house press contact. “Having a PR company is another demand. We want to be doing what comes naturally. And because we work on quite high profile projects, like [South Bank wine attraction] Vinopolis, you get caught up in naturally generated PR. And, of course, if you win awards that’s more PR, too. We get PR spin-off that way and, for us, that seems to be enough. To me, PR is what we do all the time; we manage clients’ brands in the same way that we manage our own.”

Kerry Morgan is Lewis Moberly’s PR contact. “Kerry deals with the PR that comes our way; she’s not generating it,” explains Lewis. “Her job is actually much broader than PR – she’s the first point of contact for clients who want to know more about us.”

Lewis’ advice to anyone who feels they need PR is this: “Get known through your work. Otherwise you’re relying on PR to inflate something that might not be there.”

A number of consultancies, particularly bigger organisations, have also solved the PR dilemma with an in-house person, perhaps someone who can work on new business simultaneously and create more awareness about the company as a brand. Enterprise IG, Pentagram, BDG McColl, Interbrand Newell and Sorrell and Lambie-Nairn all have in-house contacts; but then, apparently, they can afford an extra full-time salary which doesn’t directly generate or contribute to fee-income.

“At RSCG Conran Design we had an external PR and it was all based on column inches,” says Fitch creative director Tim Greenhalgh. “Having an in-house PR like Katie Arkell [at Fitch] means our PR is equally focused on internal matters.”

“In-house PR is more economical, though that’s not our main reason for doing it,” says Charles Wright, managing director at Wolff Olins, which has run an in-house PR set-up for five years.

“We have a team of three in-house people in London with one person in our Madrid office and one in Lisbon. Doing it in-house also makes it easier to co-ordinate across the countries.” At the same time, Wolff Olins’ New York office has an external PR agency.

Other groups find that a mix of both in-house and external PR works well. David Stuart at The Partners says: “Our in-house PR person, Steph Brown, has been doing the job for five years. Externally, we’ve used Jane Howard PR for over a year – and we’ve been very happy with them.” The work is split, with Brown handling marketing and design trade press and Howard liaising with national press and vertical media.

The image conscious Attik takes a similar approach. “For us, image and perception are all important; we realised we had to manipulate it three years ago,” says Tim Watson at The Attik.

“We haven’t spent that much on PR, but it’s worked really well. We had a troublesome relationship with a few PR companies because we couldn’t get the input we wanted. They’d come to meetings, write down our ideas – and they might do them if we were lucky.”

A year ago, The Attik gave account manager Rachel Sykes its in-house PR responsibility. “It’s made a massive difference having that internal resource,” says Watson.

For specific PR projects, the group uses Grappa. “They’re the first people we’ve come across who’ve had a clue what we’re going on about,” says Watson.

Another factor which makes design PR complicated is the confidentiality on which many clients insist. “Often, we can’t even talk about winning a project because the client doesn’t want the world to know it’s up for grabs,” says Lewis. This is as frustrating for a journalist as it is for the design consultancy, but one which can be worked around with the use of embargoed information.

It appears quite clear that the relationship between design companies and PR only works properly when both parties have a clear understanding of each others’ needs.

And while every design consultancy thinks it is unique, in reality this is not always the case. An ability to combine strategy with creativity is not a USP.

“As much as design consultancies think they have something to say, a lot of them don’t,” says Margaret O’Brien. This can be as frustrating for the PR people as the designers themselves.

Getting it right, first time

  • Don’t be scared to say something in the press that may raise a few eyebrows – being ultra-cautious is not PR.
  • PR consultants with a number of design clients may encounter clashes of interest. Other groups that your PR handles should have different disciplines and attitudes to yours.
  • Don’t rush to explain all to the media – be focused about what you’re saying.
  • Don’t be fooled. Consultancies can put together a very slick presentation but you may find the person who presents the PR set-up may never work on your account. Find out beforehand exactly who will be working on the account and get to meet them before you sign.
  • Don’t expect results overnight – PR is a slow process. Allow at least six months to get results.
  • Make sure there is someone – a good PA or a new business person – in your consultancy who will work closely with the PR consultant. It is a step towards clearer communication.
  • Set up a rigid, once-monthly update meeting with the PR company or individual.
  • Make sure you ask how many hours the PR consultant will work on the account each week – not being clear in advance could mean you find yourself working with a junior account handler.
  • Cast the net wide for ideas internally; everyone in your company can contribute.
  • Try to select a company or person with experience in your field. Always ask yourself: ‘Is the chemistry right?’
  • Ask a prospective PR for examples of their journalistic style. You don’t want to present yourself as an academic company when you are all about creative, yet commercial design.

    We asked design groups for a candid appraisal of their external PR. Here’s what they told us:

    Jonathan Sands, Elmwood

    PR, Rush Appleby

    ‘We’ve used them for a year and while we’re happy, I don’t think we get the best value for money from them yet – but that’s as much our fault as theirs. It’s a balance; we need a much greater discipline internally to feed them with stories that they generate. They need to be more proactive in farming stories from us.

    ‘The dialogue changes with the publication. It’s a fine line and complex, too. Journalists prefer to speak to the horse’s mouth rather than a third party. It would be wrong to allow Rush Appleby to be the voice of Elmwood; we have to be the voice of Elmwood.’

    Gabriel Murray at Rodney Fitch

    PR, Mandarin

    ‘We’ve used them for a couple of years and the service is good. Their value to us is that the PR is managed through the calendar, as it were. PR is vitally important for us, from staff morale to company profile. In-house PR is fine if you have a turnover of £20m, but when you are a relatively focused design strategy consultancy, it is much better to outsource. A lot of our work is confidential and the design press all want their scoop – the PR people are incredibly useful in the management of that.’

    Glenn Kinnersley, Kinnersley Kent Design

    PR, Grappa

    ‘It’s often difficult to assess the value of PR, it shouldn’t be seen as a direct marketing tool. Two years ago we made a decision to improve our profile. We saw a few PR companies and chose Grappa on the basis that it had done a lot more retail work than the others and retail is our main business.

    ‘So far, it has been very good. What Grappa brings to us are proactive ideas, sometimes on other avenues that aren’t strictly PR exercises.’

    Steven May Russell, Small Fry

    PR, Charlotte Borger

    ‘We’ve used PR for the past five years. We did try a large agency first and that was completely useless. Our needs in the face of their requirements were so minimal, we weren’t served well at all.

    ‘Sometimes Charlotte works with us, sometimes we do our own PR. You do need a reasonably-sized job to make it worthwhile for a PR and it’s quite hard to make a story out of something that doesn’t compromise commercial confidentiality. So we either work it out beforehand and feed it through to Charlotte, or we’ll have a germ of an idea and bounce it off her. She’s keen, motivated and understands our needs – but we’re never going to have a great demand for PR. My advice to anyone thinking of PR is: find someone with an empathy for what you do, rather than just an understanding of the industry.’

    Who they are and who they serve

    Alaoui Booth Brewer Riddiford (project basis), FMS

    Armadillo Siebert Head

    Blue Bear Brandsmiths, Coutts Retail Communications (in-store p.o.s), Lumsden Design Partnership, Tableau Design & Marketing (Web design)

    Caroline Collett Ashley Carter, Greig & Stephenson, Met Studio Design

    Charlotte Borger Bamber Forsyth, Design Business Association, Small Fry, Virgile & Stone

    Deborah Richardson Carter Wong & Partners, CDT Design, Charles Leon Associates, Ideo, Lippa Pearce Design, Objectives, Thomas Manss & Co, Tilney Shane

    Eulogy Basten Greenhill Andrews

    Grappa Brown Inc, 2Cs Communications, Design Effectiveness Awards, Kinnersley Kent Design, MetaDesign

    Harrington Dragon

    Harvard PR FLG 2l (Web design)

    Jane Howard The Partners

    Joanna Scott Coarsie Naysmith, Studio Deep End, Thomas Heatherwick

    Kate Killeen Springetts, Studio Hagger

    Lucy Davison Currently on maternity leave, but clients are Coley Porter Bell and Tilney Shane

    Mandarin Axis Design Europe, Bang Creative, Cairnes, Citrus, Creative Action, Gillespies, Haskoll & Co, QED, Redhouse Lane, Rodney Fitch & Co, Shelton Fleming, Silver & Co, The Workroom

    Margaret O’Brien Bradley McGurk (Dublin), Ergo, Pearlfisher, Williams Murray Banks (consultancy basis)

    Rush Appleby BBC Resources, CLK.MPL, Design Bridge, Elmwood, Rufus Leonard, Roger Felton Associates

    Sue Finnigan Glazer, Thumb

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