Public Relations, the U.K. Way

By Josephs, Ray; Josephs, Juanita W. | Public Relations Journal, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Public Relations, the U.K. Way


Josephs, Ray, Josephs, Juanita W., Public Relations Journal


Princess Di, Fergie, and the rest of the royal clan may have had their public relations problems over the years, but it's not for lack of available counsel. The country that brought you fish and chips and lukewarm beer also happens to have the second-largest public relations industry in the world. While public relations in the United Kingdom is different from that of the United States in several key respects - most notably, in solicitation of new business and the degree of knowledge among clients and higher-ups about what public relations can do - boundaries between the United States and its neighbors "across the pond" are gradually blurring.

These are just a few of the conclusions we reached during a recent two-month visit to Great Britain. We interviewed top executives with the 10 largest U.K public relations firms and many smaller firms, every U.S. public relations firm with a major presence there, and a smattering of associations, boutique agencies, academic sources and others.

Here's what we found.

More than 48,000 people are employed in public relations in Britain, according to a study by the Institute of Public Relations, an association head-quartered in London. In contrast, there are 155,000 people in the United States employed in public relations, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By most estimates, about 70% of the British public relations industry is concentrated in London. Firms in Wales and Scotland account for 20%, with the remaining 10% located primarily in the Midlands, particularly the cities of Manchester and Birmingham. These ratios may soon be changing, however. As the British government privatizes utilities and other companies, many local public relations firms are rushing in to capitalize on opportunities for new business. These "provincial players" are certain to be a growing force, according to a number of industry insiders.

Economic climate

As in the United States, British public relations practitioners are clawing their way out of a recession in which budgets and staff were slashed. The British recession began earlier than the most recent U.S. recession and, unfortunately, is taking longer to reverse. Still, the country's public relations industry is faring better than its counterparts in advertising. While U.K ad agency revenues stayed flat throughout 1992 and 1993, public relations firms grew about 5% to 15% each year. Small- to medium-sized firms were the biggest gainers, reported Stephen Farish, editor of PR Week, a tabloid newspaper covering the public relations industry. Some specialty firms, such as those in health care and environmental public relations, saw robust growth. Other firms, such as those specializing in mergers and acquisitions and financial public relations, did not do as well because of limited activity in those fields.

"While the economy improved in 1993, growth is still weak, with more clients offering assignments, not annual retainers," said Roger Haywood, chairman of Kestrel Communications Ltd. in London. This trend is echoed elsewhere throughout the global economy, he said, as companies attempt to keep a lid on fixed costs, starting and stopping projects as needed.

Other industry leaders held a more cynical view. "Clients think [contracting on a per-project basis] gives them better control and keeps us more on our toes," said John de Upbaugh, deputy chief executive of Dewe Rogerson's European office in London.

As for 1994 business prospects, Colin Thompson, director of the Public Relations Consultants Association in London, forecast that business volume will increase about 10%.

U.S./U.K. ties

"There has been so much interaction in ownership, affiliation, movement of personnel and exchange of information that differences in public relations practice and performance between the world's two major English-speaking countries are gradually narrowing," said David Wright, chief executive of Citigate Communications Group Ltd. …

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