The indiscreet charm of Lord Bell: Boom times continue for PR industry

'Gizza job. I can do that. All you gotta do is walk in a straight line! I can walk straight!"

-- Yosser Hughes, Boys From The Blackstuff (1983) 

There is an argument that white collar workers such as journalists should be better-equipped than their 1980s working-class counterparts to change careers when redundancy throws them out of a job.

At the moment, the PR industry looks like a good option for some.

Admittedly, PR is probably not the kind of 'new experiment'that Clay Shirky suspects will 'might give us the journalism we need'during the next couple of decades.

But PR is growing. With the obvious exception of the City, recession hasn't touched it. Not seriously.

In Jon Slattery's recent piece for the Guardian on redundancies in the regional press, the number of references to journalists looking for employment in PR is striking.

"The best jobs in the regions are now in council PR,'one ex-editor tells Slattery. "They pay well, are professional and no one's shouting at you,". A 24-year-old reporter who has just left his job on a 'top daily in the north'tells Slattery: 'All the young journalists wanted to get out and work as council PRs."

It's not just local government that's hiring, either.

Last week, the marketing services group Chime Communications (which makes 55% of its revenues from PR) reported organic revenue growth of 10% during 2008.

Dig a bit deeper, and the story gets better. Operating profits from PR activities rose by 30%. Chime, it seems, has just delivered on its promise -- made in 2005 -- to double its revenues in three years.

Certainly, some of that growth came from acqusitions. But look at the average fee that Chime charges its clients. In 2005, it was £60,000. In 2008, having climbed steadily, it was £81,000.

Chime is run by Tim Bell, the PR guru who worked alongside the Saatchi brothers to advise Margaret Thatcher in her pomp.

Last week, Bell told the FT that Chime experienced growth during January and February. He added: 'Two months out of 12 tell me that it will be a perfectly good year."

He won't be alone. In early March, Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP reported like-for-like growth of 4% in PR and lobbying revenues during 2008.

All of this may come as a surprise to Jeff Jarvis, who questions whether PR agencies can maintain their revenue streams while being 'open and transparent'(as conversational marketing requires).

Jarvis argues that the web and social media will 'cut out'all of the middlemen -- not just journalists, but PROs and advertising executives, too.

There's no sign of this happening.  On the demand side, PR agencies appear to be benefiting as corporate marketers cut back their advertising budgets. PR is a highly effective, and relatively cheap, alternative.

Meanwhile, the PR industry's leading edge is embroiled in an effort to turn social media to its advantage. Happily, this connects parts of the industry to the growth engines of the digital economy.

The supply side economics of PR are similarly benign. As newsdesks shrink, their reliance on PR output necessarily increases. Yes, PR activity is growing as a proportion of overall marketing budgets. But no: increasing levels of competitive noise and a shrinking pool of publications don't seem to be a problem -- yet.

The opportunities for the PR industry are expanding as Big Media slashes jobs. Real money is moving away from the media and into the space occupied by these opportunities.

The former regional journalists who cross over on the The Dark Side will benefit. Good luck to them: we should be grateful for small mercies.


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