Insight: Public relations – Image: A work in progress.

The promotion of professional services used to have the collegiate atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club. Seeking to win business overtly from one’s professional colleagues was frowned upon and even regulated. But for decades the regulations have been falling away.

Under a resolution agreed in July and taking effect next month, the final restrictions exclusive to the accounting profession are being dropped by ICAEW. The only remaining restrictions – for example, on comparative advertising – are in line with the general code of the Advertising Standards Authority.

In particular, the larger firms are investing a great deal more in public relations. ‘PwC has a real commitment to its PR work,’ according to Jon Bunn, UK head of media relations at PwC. ‘The real advantage that PR has over advertising or marketing is the third party endorsement. We can say what we like about ourselves, but what a publication or broadcaster says carries real weight.’

Jo Swabey PR manager at Horwath Clark Whitehill, agrees: ‘Our corporate messages are always more credible on the editorial pages because readers know we had to convince the editor of what we were saying. Our partners understand the crucial role this has in enhancing our reputation.’

If anything, PR is growing in importance within mid-tier firms. Graham Whitehead is the first in-house manager to take responsibility for PR at Mazars Neville Russell. ‘We followed the normal pattern of dipping our toe into the water of PR using an agency and now employing our first full-time PR manager.’ Other mid-tier firms are also focusing more of their PR budget on an in-house team. ‘Regionally we use five agencies,’ explains Anne Blackie of HLB Kidsons, ‘but we now do all our national and London PR internally as we feel it is easier to co-ordinate and better value for money.’

According to Gavin Houlgate, who has just joined KPMG from consultancy Weber Shandwick to run the firm’s corporate communications, it is important for accounting firms to make intelligent use of consultancies: ‘The better consultancies are focusing more on strategic advice than on implementation. That is the way they can provide a value-for-money service.’

Tim Prizeman has made the opposite journey from Arthur Andersen, Touche Ross and BDO Binder Hamlyn to PR agency Kelso Consulting, where he is a director. For him though, implementation is key. ‘Strategy is easy. It is quality implementation that is hard,’ he says. ‘When you consider the full cost of employing people in-house, including office space, training, press entertainment, holidays, etc, a consultancy fee is very competitive.’

In a business that depends on selling expertise, partners cannot simply delegate PR, either to an in-house department or to a consultancy. It is important to budget time as well as money to making the strategy a success. ‘That’s why the relationship of trust is so important,’ according to Milan Dalal, national communications manager at Grant Thornton. ‘Partners know the value of the work we do and that I would not pull them out of a meeting unless the need was urgent.’

Kevin Russell, head of national media relations at Ernst & Young, shares that view: ‘Partners are recognising the increasing importance of PR.

Some have the role of spokesperson for the firm as part of their job description and for them it is likely to become part of their assessment as well.’

Therefore, does the partnership culture of consensual decision-making mean it is harder to meet ever-shorter deadlines? ‘There is certainly a culture of consensus,’ says Emma Thorogood, media relations manager at Deloitte & Touche, ‘but there is also a growing commercial culture and partners recognise business realities.’

To journalists, accounting firms are largely undifferentiated brands.

A journalist who needs a comment on, say, tax or corporate recovery does not mind which firm it comes from. That, too, imposes stresses on PR teams.

‘We really have to earn our place in any story,’ says Anne Groves, head of PR at Andersen. ‘And if we fail to produce usable comments on time twice in a row, the journalist will stop asking.’

Public relations is about managing your relationships with your target audiences. Plainly, existing and potential clients are at the heart of this strategy, but for Ian Buckley, chief executive of Tenon, there is another core audience: investors. Tenon has retained investor-relation specialists working on its behalf with its City audience.

Regional and trade media are an important target in the highly-competitive market outside the FTSE. Most mid-tier firms are focused very heavily on this market.

‘Outside the FTSE 350 there is a growing market which has been effectively vacated by the Big Five. That’s where we see a significant market opportunity,’ explains Buckley. Horwath’s Swabey agrees: ‘Owner-managed businesses are one of our core markets.’

It is RSM Robson Rhodes that rejects this consensus: ‘We have never conceded the quoted sector to our big competitors. Our experience shows that we can sell services even to the largest corporates, and for the middle market we are highly relevant.’

Thorogood argues: ‘The changing global business climate makes it certain that accounting and consulting firms will devote more energy to communicating with their stakeholders.

‘Within that communications mix, PR is sure to take an ever larger share.’

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