CRO’s Top 10 PR Firms in Corporate Responsibility 2008 

By Jay Whitehead

Top 10In the dog-eat-dog world of competing corporate reputations, one tool has stood the test of time: the PR firm. And nowhere is good PR help more valuable than in the compliance-governance-and-sustainability-dominated Corporate Responsibility market. Here’s CRO’s Top 10 PR Firms in Corporate Responsibility 2008. But don’t jump right to the list. First, you’ve got to read about the tragically ironic thing that happened on the way to the final rankings.

If you’re elbow-deep in Corporate Responsibility (CR), one thing’s for certain: You’re going to need a good PR firm. For you, here’s the good news. With this list, you’ll have an easier time finding one.

Ranking PR firms is rough trade. First there’s getting through all the hoopla of gathering the data. Then there’s deciding how much of the data you’ve just gathered is swimming in a warm bucket of spin. Next there’s picking a basis for the ranking and the number-crunching. And finally, there’s that nasty-but-
necessary girding for threats and tongue-lashings from the ranked and the non-ranked. This is a job for professionals. Children, don’t try this at home.

Our 2008 list is, like many industry rankings, perfectly imperfect. Because the list is based both on information submitted by the firms themselves and from publicly available sources, there is often some softness in the numbers. The list is designed to help you make a first cut of firms when you need a new one. Or for when you need reminding that the one you picked is still good. As it turns out, we’ve discovered that PR, like many professional services, is subject to frequent tsunamis of buyers’ remorse. The good news is that CRO’s Top 10 lists can help that feeling pass quickly.

In the list, we compare the comparables—hard data like headcounts, client counts, names and geographic coverage. And to help you a bit more, we also compared the incomparables—subjective items like slogan and website quality. Because we’re unsure which information is going to be most helpful to you, we include it all.

See CRO’s Top 10 PR Firms in Corporate Responsibility 2008 List (pdf)

A Tragically Ironic Thing

The longer I’m in the media business (I started 24 years ago), the more I agree with my writing idol Hunter S. Thompson that real life is the kingdom of the weird. To wit: One PR firm’s tragically ironic response to our Top 10 questionnaire. This firm, an arguably significant player, refused to state numbers of clients or PR pros it employs in the domain, citing a “Sarbanes-Oxley exemption.” (Hint—its website lists Microsoft, Pfizer and Statoil among its clients.)

What? A “Sarbox exemption?” Since when is Sarbox a reason to avoid giving simple metrics to trade media whose audience includes boatloads of new prospective customers? That’s as brainless as not talking to the doctor because of your sickness. Sarbox is the “Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002,” not the “Law That Says Quick, Let’s Hide from Buyers Who Read those Wacky Trade Magazines.” Worse yet, it’s possible someone at the company believed that CRO magazine, a compliance rag that covers Sarbox regularly, would be dazed and confused by college words like “Sarbanes-Oxley exemption.” Needless to say, this firm’s misguided head-dive into the sand kept it off the list.

Hey, I know what you’re thinking: Right about now, they could use a PR firm. Sorry, too late.
Let this be your free PR lesson: When the trade press sends you a questionnaire to be included in a feature on your type of service, fill it out completely, send it back promptly, then ask if you can do anything to help. And whatever you do, don’t hide behind Senator Sarbanes and Congressman Oxley. They would like it even less than I do. Trust me. I’ve spoken with both of them.

CRO’s Top 10 PR Firms Ranking Methodology

The Top 10 rankings always start with a list. And as is often the case, the list we begin with is the CRO Provider Directory, found at TheCRO.com. This is a self-service listing of every service provider in 15 categories, PR among them, that wants to be known to be serving the $37 billion Cororate Responsibility space. There happens to be 43 PR firms in the U.S. and Canada listed there at press time. To that list, we added all those on the online O’Dwyers ranking and those listed by PR Week as doing related business in the U.S. and Canada, and some we found in keyword Google searches. In total, we found 110 firms, which represented our population for Top 10 contenders.

Next, we located contact email addresses and phone numbers at as many firms as possible. Then we contacted the firms via email and phone, and sent a questionnaire asking for seven data points: 1) number of individual CR-related clients, 2) number of PR professionals working on CR-related client cases, 3) name of key CR clients, 4) new client prospect contact name, 5) 100 words on the firm’s CR practice, 6) headquarters, and 7) geographic service area. To the voluntary data submissions from the firms, we added visits to all the firm websites and searches of publicly available data sources. Some firms even listed their entire personnel roster (very helpful to us, as well as to competitors who wants to snack on their talent pool). Of the 110 firms, we received substantial data and replies from 42 firms.

From the data on 42 firms, we determined that the objective data point most indicative of rank would be the number of PR professionals working in CR-related areas. (Client counts can lie, but payroll headcount is stone cold reality.) Then, once we decided what to rank, we crunched those numbers, and came up with the Top 10.

What PR Mavens Say is On the Corporate Mind

Along the way, we asked PR firm leaders what clients and prospects are thinking. Eric Biel, Managing Director of Corporate Responsibility at Burson-Marsteller (No. 6) says he knows. “Clients want to know how their sustainability efforts measure up,” Biel says, “and how we (being Burson) can better share what we’re doing to help them create a more sustainable future.”

Rick Petersen, Senior Vice President Corporate Responsibility at Montreal-based National PR (No. 10), the mastermind behind Canada’s most famous sustainability conference, the Tremblant Forum, says clients want something else. “What clients want is to be seen as being part of the sustainability solution,” Petersen observes. “They now realize this is as much about changing behavior, processes and performance as it is about perception.”

Chris Deri of Edelman (No. 3) says corporate clients these days are as savvy and globally aware as they are demanding. Deri claims that corporations “want deep subject-matter expertise on the relevant issues and actors, but it must be combined with flawless execution across multiple geographies and PR disciplines.”

And Karyn Margolis, Vice President CSR of Manning Selvage & Lee (No. 1) thinks that the Internet age has forever changed both PR and CR. “With transparency the essence of CR, companies should use the web as a primary communications vehicle,” she asserts. “It’s accessible to all stakeholders and it’s environmentally sustainable.”

 

Battle of Slogans (in alphabetical order)

Burson-Marsteller (No. 6)
(No slogan.)

CRO: In this age of subheads on everything, Burson’s no-slogan slogan is a bold move. It forces the brand to stand on its own, a capella, unplugged. Hey, it worked for the Mamas and the Papas.

Cone (No. 9)
Slogan
: Cause branding

CRO: We like the idea of branding an industry practice and
calling it your own. In fact, it’s the same theory we went with when naming this publication CRO. We love the thought of claiming a trademark on a profession, then gifting the mark back to the industry as a sort of charitable donation. It’s so self-interested in an un-self-interested way.

DDB BIG (No. 7)
Slogan
: Big for the right reasons.

CRO: Oh sure, it’s a pun on BIG, which is actually an acronym that stands for Brand Integrity Group. But “big, for the right reasons,” that’s both a pun and politically correct, which is a tough balancing act. We like the tongue-in-cheekiness of it all...size matters and all that. Put the snicker factor in alongside the “WTF” button on DDB BIG’s weblog, and these guys go a long way toward finally injecting a smidge of humor into the otherwise deadpan CR profession.

Edelman (No. 3)
Slogan
: Pioneer thinking means making one's own judgment.

CRO: The one quote we keep remembering about pioneers is the dot-com-era nugget about knowing the pioneers from the arrows in their backs. But that’s unfair. The one thing we’ve learned about the CR profession is that it does have a pioneer feel to it and CRO pros use the word shockingly often to describe themselves. Edelman’s slogan taps that vein.

Golin Harris (No. 8)
Slogan
: Experience. Golin Harris.

CRO: Some see Golin’s slogan as a presage of the Obama “change” versus Clinton “experience” Democratic Presidential word-war, but it really refers to the firm’s 50th birthday in 2007. If you think about it, 50 years is a long time to keep a PR train running. So maybe there is something to that “experience” thing. At least that’s what us near-50-year-olds think.

Ketchum (No. 2)
Slogan
: Passion and precision.

CRO: Interesting juxtaposition; it says they care, plus they can run the campaign on time and on budget. Considering we’re shoulder-deep in a recession and heading into the uncertainty of a new Presidential administration, that’s a pretty good message.

Manning Selvage & Lee (No. 1)
Slogan
: Change the way you do business. Change the way others see you. Change the way you see yourself. Change minds.

CRO: So if this were the Democratic Presidential race, Golin Harris would be Hillary (“experience”) and Manning would be Barack (“change”). Business imitates politics. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

National PR (No. 10)
Slogan
: Growing opportunities in a shrinking world, or (in French) Opportunites a l’echelle de la planete.

CRO: The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman said “the world is flat.” Fashion designer Donna Karan said “black is the new white.” Someone in the bar the other night told me that “small is the new large.” National’s slogan is part of that new popular English wordplay game “paradox-as-paradigm.” The French version is less oxymoron, more straight-up, translated literally as “opportunities on the scale of the planet.” It works either way. But for our money, we’ll go with the French version.

Porter Novelli (No. 4)
Slogan
: Many minds. Singular results.

CRO: Groupthink? Not really. More likely, it’s a reference to Porter’s “swarming” approach to PR (my word, not theirs). I’ve been to several of their client’s CR-related media events, and the common feature is a hive-full of Porter people ready to move the story along. From a media viewpoint, it feels smart. And it seems to be working for clients.

Ruder Finn (No. 5)
Slogan: Insight. Innovation. Independence.

CRO: Alliteration is an all-time favorite trick among my friends
and colleagues who write. I’ll admit to using it as a guilty pleasure often. Does it work? Of course it does, mainly because it’s very easy for executives to remember: the three “I’s.” What could
be easier?

 

CRO Subjective Website Rank: The Best

DDB BIG (No. 7)
This site has a really cool blog, and that feature alone makes it the best. It’s also the only corporate site we’ve ever seen with a “WTF” button. (You figure out what WTF stands for. Hint: it’s sort of like FUBAR.) The site lists all staff names out there to be counted—a dangerous thing in a world filled with headhunters, but very helpful for prospective customers and reporters. It proclaims its CR focus and social issues’ expertise up-front.

Everyone Else (in alpha order)

Burson-Marsteller (No. 6)
This site features a handy tool for clients in hell: The “Global Crisis Contacts” hot button at top right on the home page. Graphics-wise, we’re unsure whether to be impressed or frightened by the animated gif of wonder woman in a black suit standing amid a blender-swirl of TV screens.

Cone (No. 9)
Being re-worked at press time, this site features a rubber band
dropping from the top, holding the firm’s logo with the proclamation “Something exciting will be happening here. Drop by again soon.”
We will.

Edelman (No. 3)
This site wins the prize for the most mouseover links on its home page (32). Also, we like that Corporate Citizenship is No. 2 on the topic menu.

Golin Harris (No. 8)
Simplest home page of the Top 10. The site’s theme revolves around the firm’s 50th anniversary, when it won PR Week’s PR Agency of the Year award. Expect the theme to evolve a bit when the firm turns 51.

Ketchum (No. 2)

As with Edelman, Corporate Citizenship is No. 2 on the topic menu. The home page features an engaging animation of a guy and girl hawking phrases. Sort of a random phrase generator.

Manning Selvage & Lee (No. 1)
If you were in web design class and wanted a classic marketing site with a flash opening, this would be it. Manning’s No. 1 rank on this year’s list demonstrates that there is little link between client wins and website innovation.

National PR (No. 10)
The Top 10’s only multilingual site, reflecting National’s roots in French-speaking Montreal. For les enterprises bilangues, National PR just wants you to recall its brand name and say Je me souviens … I remember.

Porter Novelli (No. 4)

This is the prettiest site, featuring the nicest photos. It also
provides the least text-based information of any of the Top 10, although it does have an RSS button, so you can stay up to date with RSS feeds on your cell phone.

Ruder Finn (No. 5)
Easy-to-use overlapping file folder motif, featuring revolving quotes from Nelson Mandela, Hillel, Kofi Annan and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’re inspired.