International PR Tip No. 5 ??? Learning from the engineers

We PR folks, often, like to picture ourselves as artists, philosophers, writers, setting ourselves apart from the ordinary folks working with such unsexy things as numbers (‘the controllers’, ‘the purchasing people’) or screwdrivers (‘the engineers’, ‘the manufacturing people’) who know nothing about the art of communication of course.
Yet it may be worth looking over their shoulders here and there, since these people usually know a lot about processes, efficiencies, and – yes! – cost savings. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend more of our precious budgets on, well, the art of communications rather than hardware, printing, shipping, and all sorts of other supplies?
That’s why taking an ‘industrial’ look at organizing communications enables ‘the PR folks’ to eventually get more bang for the buck, especially in a complex international environment. And all of a sudden, purchasing people can turn from nuisances (forcing us to fly on airlines we don’t like) into allies, and engineering can become a discipline to learn from.
A classical industrial process, approximately, looks like this:

If we forget our PR hubris for a moment, there’s a lot of similarities to a PR process:

And as such, there are several touch points where industrial thinking can be applied in order to make this process more efficient and effective.

Here’s some examples:
Conception/Program Creation Stage:
It sort of seems obvious that, in order to implement an overarching corporate strategy, there should be one general program for implementation. Reality however is often quite different – with plenty of local agencies coming up with, and being paid for concepts and all sorts of creative ideas. As if at BMW, every country would employ engineers to develop their local variety of the new 3 class. Wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it? Neither does it make sense in PR. Therefore consolidating program development from many into one hand – be it a central in-house team, or one agency – is an essential step towards efficiency and effectiveness.
Production Phase:
Yes, I believe one can look at the contents and tools of PR campaigns as ‘products’ – be it a press release, a picture, a brochure, a video, a website or an event. And just like in industrial production, one should look at consolidating the number of suppliers to each of those products. This could mean, for instance, working with one (or a few differently specialized) layout shop, printing house, web developer, photo agency, shipping and storing company, translator office, etc.
Also, just like an industrial producer would figure out which factory is best suited to make a certain product, it one should look at where a specific PR service or tool can best be bought or made. For programming a website or creating a layout, for example, geographical closeness isn’t really crucial – and there are very good people doing this at very low cost in India, for example. For other services, like for example printing, it may be more important to have somebody nearby for hands-on checks and approvals.
In any case, consolidation will always bring about two significant advantages:
One advantage is cost savings through economies of scale. Assigning a couple of dozen photo shootings to one (international) agency rather than having three or four shots each done in various markets by small local shops should yield leverage for lower prices and paybacks. Printing and storing press packs or CDs centrally with one supplier gives plenty of room for negotiating rates impossible to match by any local market provider.
The second advantage is consistency – in terms of quality, but also in terms of tonality, look & feel, correctness of corporate design etc. I wouldn’t believe any in-house corporate communications officer claiming she has never seen corporate ID violated or (maybe worse) ignored in locally produced materials.
Sounds obvious? Yes it does, but again reality all too often has the old boys’ networks where a local MD or press officer “has always worked” with this and that old buddy.

Coverage Phase:
Another big-time saving opportunity is media monitoring, where still most organizations use local suppliers in each market who deliver at different quality in different formats, shapes and sizes and, of course, at different prices. Imagine you’re doing PR in twenty markets and create an average of 50 press clippings monthly in each of them, and let’s assume you pay an average of 3 euros per clipping. That makes 12,000 clippings annually at a cost of 36,000 euro. Quite some money, isn’t it? Of course, having it all split up in small local buckets, it is hard to realize the complete spending in the first place.
If consolidating this work with one international supplier only gives you a 10% discount (and you’ll get more, I promise), you’d have a nice 3,600 quit to spend on proper analysis, on additional PR activities, or just add to the bottom line; and you’d probably get an online platform consolidating all the coverage for free.
I’ve done this once, and I still remember the fun when sitting with the purchasing guys through a “Reverse Auction” watching competing suppliers underbid each other. Well, yes, those instruments exist – it would be stupid for PR, of all departments, not to use them, wouldn’t it?
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