Tuesday, March 9, 2010

PR firm rankings - the battle and LA

When I was switching careers from journalism to public relations more than 15 years ago, I had the benefit of a father who was considered a leader in the industry. He suggested I meet a few of his colleagues for what were essentially informational interviews. Many of these executives and managers would point out some required reading, and almost all pointed to O'Dwyer's annual ranking of public relations firms as a starting point when looking at places where I may want to work. They also suggested I get his annual directory.

This week, O'Dwyer's again published its annual ranking of independent public relations firms with major U.S. operations.

Yet, the list is not without controversy. It wouldn't be an O'Dwyer's product without controversy. At least, not until recently.

Missing from this list is Waggener Edstrom, which in prior years would have ranked second.
Read Waggener's explanation here. And, make sure you read the comments for O'Dwyer's lengthy counter, which can also be found on his blog. Eight other firms are missing, including one of my favorites - Peppercom. PRNewswer interviews Jack about "why." O"Dwyer's offers its own explanation here.

The issue revolves around O'Dwyer's asking firms to pay to be listed, and because Jack was personally offended by how some firms treat him.

Of course, the real story is - or should be - how firms did financially in 2009. The list confirms the "heard-on-the-street" talk that this firm or that firm was struggling and laying off staff in a tough economy. For us in Los Angeles, the list is a great insight into the success of some well-known agencies as well as a chance to see how some start-ups are faring.

There are some positive stories in CA, like with Allison and Partners, IW Group, VPE, Edge, and Idea Hall. Sadly, there were more CA firms reporting declines in revenue than gainers. This simply confirms what we were hearing in 2009. (And, see how some firms reported success with a small staff!)

2010 appears brighter, based on the number of RFPs being posted in CA and talk on the street.

Yet, it's hard to know whether the O'Dwyer list will remain relevant. It's hard to find another U.S.-based news outlet where the publisher/owner lets personal bias and feelings enter so prominently into the public arena. (Does anyone see the irony that in the "comment" section of O'Dwyer stories they do not allow "personal attacks"?)

It's hard to see how O'Dwyer can remain in business or expect to keep/build readership when he is constantly biting the hand that feeds him. In an era where trust is so important to news outlets, how can O'Dwyer expect his readers to believe a PR firm list is accurate when he purposefully leaves off agencies because they did not pay for the ranking or they refused to talk to him? How can the O'Dwyer news columns be trusted if the reader has to decipher Jack's own "codes" - like "NANA" to describe the Public Relations Society of America?

This is the former journalist in me. A company refuses to talk to you or give you information? A typical newspaper would fight around the stonewalling and still find a way to report the numbers. We expect this of a newspaper and, in turn, this kind of reporting earns our trust.

O'Dwyer's is needed in the public relations industry. There is plenty of news to cover, plenty of room for comprehensive coverage of the industry. I would have rather seen more in-depth coverage about why some firms showed revenue gains in 2009, comparisons about staffing levels, etc. This is more meaningful news that I can use.

But, honestly, can I recommend to an up and coming public relations professional or college graduate that O'Dwyer's list is recommended reading? Jack? Think about the principles of journalism first.

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