PR Face2Face: Jerry Swerling, Principal of Swerling & Associates
Jerry Swerling has more than 30 years of experience as a senior-level communications professional and educator. Today he serves in two capacities.
Today he serves in two capacities. He is the Principal of Swerling & Associates, a consultancy he formed in 1996 that specializes in the management of agency reviews, the optimization of agency/client relationships, the evaluation of communications programs and the resolution of PR organizational issues.
His consulting clients have included (among others) General Motors, Cisco Systems, Home Depot, Silicon Graphics, Toyota Motors, State Farm Insurance, Intuit, the American Cancer Society National Office, Honda North America, Symantec, Dairy Management, Inc., and Kinko’s.
He also serves as Director of Public Relations Studies at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. At USC he is responsible for the management of both the undergraduate and graduate programs in public relations, including curriculum development and the recruitment of faculty and students. At USC he also serves as Director of the USC Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center, the mission of which is to conduct applied research aimed at advancing the study, practice and value of PR. He also teaches at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
How did you end up providing search services for corporations looking for PR firms?
I spent a long time in the agency year – 34 years – a vast majority in senior positions on the agency side.
About eight years ago, I decided it was time for a new chapter in my life, to go on a new path.
I started with a virtual agency, as I am very into technology. I thought it would be a great opportunity, and it was a success. However, it became too much of an administrative job, the same traps that tired me of the agency work. The strategic client work is great, it is the admin work that is not so great.
Two things happened at the same time. It was kismet. I got a call from Honda Motors, whom I had known for years. They were beginning to embark on an agency search, and there were time challenges; they asked me for help in managing the search. I thought about it for five seconds, and just jumped on it.
It was the right opportunity at the right time.
And, as the car industry is a small, close-knit community, I ended up doing a lot of work with the car firms: GM, Kia, Mitsubishi, Honda, among others. Then, I expanded beyond automobiles, into Cisco Systems, Home Depot, American Cancer Society, State Farm Insurance and more.
The firm also does management consulting, helping PR firms with how they are structured, their existing client relationships. That niche part of my business has become firmer and firmer as time has gone by.
Simultaneously, I also got a call from USC when they were looking for someone to rebuild the PR masters program. I got the assignment and have been here ever since.
I am very fortunate. USC is the full-time job, for sure, but I also am able to do the consulting and it goes very well. The two things complement each other, because I hear the latest things in PR practices, which find their way back into the USC curriculum.
As a small PR shop, how can I become more involved in the RFP process?
That is a really crucial question. I know a lot of small and mid-sized agencies in the field – and had started one such shop – and have great empathy for them.
First, it is important that the agency knows itself, knows its strengths and weaknesses, and has a very clear strategy for what the agency wants to be. The agency has to recognize that as part of its identity, that they should not go after every request for proposal that they would not normally participate in. There needs to be a conscious decision in what the agency does and does not want to participate in. Just because there is an RFP, does not mean the agency should participate.
Second, when working with consultants – I get hired by large organizations to consult – I have to ask what type of agency these large organizations seek. I always carefully analyze the corporation’s need, and if I believe that a small or medium firm can do the work, they are in the RFP process.
But, I realize that responding to an RFP is a time intensive process. I try not to put the smaller or medium sized agencies through the exercise process if there is not a chance. It just isn’t fair. The small firms can not afford the time or money in the big review – that is going to cost a fortune – which they cannot win.
It comes back to knowing thyself – and realizing that the agency might not want to compete in these reviews.
As for getting on the radar with consultants, for Swerling Associates it is simple. Send me an email (email@example.com) and I will send you back the agency questionnaire. It’s made up of 10 to 12 questions, asking about the number of people at the agency, specialties, ownership. It’s the basic questions. When I get the answers, the agency goes into my database.
Every review is a clean slate. I look at the client’s needs, go through the database and find what the corporation is searching for in an agency. Does the client list fit the needs and level of experience? It’s a whole new process each time.
The best advice I can give a small agency? Identify your niche. Be crystal clear on who you are, and what you want to be. If you want to be the best healthcare boutique, get the staff, and promote that fact. Let the companies in your niche know about you. And, just as importantly, don’t go after consumer RFPs.
Just to reiterate, here are the golden rules:
For communications professionals, it’s all about the execution. It’s a pretty simple process.
While the industry – according to the latest O’Dwyer’s figures – aw some great growth, hiring has been somewhat stagnant. Do you see a recovery on its way for firms and for hiring?
There is a big time recovery and it’s on its way. It’s happening.
USC conducts a PR GAP study, and we noted that the industry bottomed out in 2003; we are now in the midst of sifting through the data on the most recent GAP study, and it looks like a pretty significant turnaround for the industry as a whole.
It is a lot more robust. I am not sure if across the board it has improved – well, not 100 percent, but I get the sense that it is strong and robust, but there is uncertainty because of the different talk out there on the economy. Companies and firms are cautious, in this general environment.
Clients are cautious, and we will never see the free spending like we did in the past. But, graduating students are being hired left and right.
As I have many students who read my blog – and you are a professor at USC – what types of things are you telling students to be aware of in PR?
Our program at USC is a very professionally oriented program, and the students get a pretty sound feeling of what PR is in both the graduate and undergraduate program. We emphasize ethics, professionalism, transparency, and strategic thinking as opposed to tactical thinking.
In terms of expectations, they are pretty set and clear, which is a good testament. And they are getting quickly hired, and more and more job openings are out there, which is why I say a recovery is on its way.
What impact do you think blogs have on the field of public relations? Have you thought of starting a blog for the RFP process, or on your company?
Blogs are having a profound impact and effect in PR, from a full variety of standpoints. It is like what you are doing with the Musings from POP! PR blog – you are an important voice in the industry, and the more voices the better.
Communications should be two-way in nature, and that’s what blogs are doing. With more voices in the profession, there are more resources, and more participation.
The impact blogs are having on strategy development? All of these corporate crises, organizational challenges, journalist challenges, these pose a new challenge to the industry, and you have to factor blogs into the strategy.
You have to monitor the channel, and these are just additional channels to get the message out there. Blogs are just part of for proactive and reactive campaigns. It’s offense and defense at times.
Blogs are adding voices to the profession, and our industry is learning both the defensive strategic use of blogs in crisis communications and the such, and the offensive strategic use of blogs, to announce new products and campaigns.
As for a Swerling and Associates blog? Right now, I just don’t have the time. It would be an important thing, and my blog would be not only on the firm, but on the industry as a whole. There are so many things that can be done with blogs, and it’s all exciting, but I have to prioritize my time, and with the firm and USC, blogging is just too much right now.
Do you think PR firms that have a blogging practice have a better shot in the RFP process, or that it is still too new a tool?
I think it varies with the client. Some clients get blogging and its significance, and the new communications channels that are opening up. In those cases, the companies that understand the blogosphere have a leg up in those proposals.
But, the traditional clients do not see the blog as a channel. So, for them, it’s not a big deal. The cautious, conservative client might not see it now, but they will see it down the road. Even the most conservative company can get dinged by a blog, and they need to be aware of it.
But, all agencies should understand and see the impact blogs are having. You have to see the blog in the overall communications context. It’s part of communications, part of the whole.
It’s part of the mass media, it’s part of person-to-person communications.
Right now, there seems to be a lot of discussions on the differences between public relations and publicity. Is there a difference?
Among the people I know, that discussion had ended. The origins of publicity are the old days of just getting the name in the paper. The overall field has matured to the point where you are dealing with the CEO of an organization, and these folks think in more sophisticated ways than just publicity, and are able to see the whole communications system.
You have to see communications as a total network and system, with each channel working in conjunction in one network. The channels change, but it’s always the same. Mass media is one part of the system. Blogs are part of the system. Interpersonal communications is part of the system. Publicity is not the end-all, be-all but is part of strategic public relations or strategic media relations.
The world is going – among corporate America, non profits, government – it’s going the strategic round. Publicity is very important, especially in the entertainment world. That’s a legitimate role. But, for other avenues, it is part of the strategic mix.
What are your clients looking for – media relations or strategy and counsel or a mix of the two?
None of my clients are the types that are just looking for media relations, but always asking for more.
They ask how can communications help realize organizational goals, help the company to succeed. They are open to any answer, but it has to be persuasive and strategically sound
Depending on the client and the campaign, it might be media relations. But it might not be. It might be an influencer outreach program. It might be targeting a large demographic group with six specific tactics.
Any agency that says it is best at media relations is putting itself ahead of the client. It is about what is on the client’s mind, not just media relations. It’s always about meeting the client’s objectives.
Sometimes that is coverage, but you need to find out what the client wants and needs.
Are clients still a little gun-shy from the dot-com era, where the strategy and counsel might not have been the best from the agencies?
Things have certainly changed. The era of the celebrity CEO is over, a byproduct of the dot-com phenomenon.
Clients are not skeptical, but they really want strategically sound thinking. Clients are not looking for the silver bullet, and understand that it might be 3 small ideas working in tangent to get the desired results.
In a lot of cases, clients are more thoughtful of what they want and what they need.
The reason we saw the celebrity CEOs was because most of the dot-coms had no business plans, no business models and PR people needed to tell some story – they went for personality, not substance.
What concerns are your clients raising during the RFP process?
The concerns I see raised are about cost, about the good value of the money being spent, about the good thinking and good work that comes out of the relationship. Clients are worried about the chemistry of the team and with the team.
It’s all the classic issues.
Clients have to recognize they are hiring a group of people – and we don’t let the old bait and switch happen in our reviews. The people in the pitch are placed in the contract.
In general, bait and switch does not happen much. It has reached a mythic level, but it’s not happening like it used to. Clients don’t let it happen.
What is a sure-fire winning proposal – one that will knock the socks off the competition?
You have to recognize that when the client is looking at the proposal, it’s not in an isolation chamber. The proposal that wins is the one that stands out as different. When the potential client is looking at the proposals, they are at it with five other proposals.
What can you do to win? Personalize the proposal to the client’s needs, relying on thought and insight, not sizzle. A sophisticated client is not impressed by the sizzle. The agency needs to make the proposal special to the client, make the client feels special, and make sure the proposal is thoughtful.
If you do not want to win the pitch, go with a boilerplate proposal. The boilerplate is a quick death. PR firms need to get out of that mindset that they can cookie-cutter the proposals.
As the head of PR Studies at USC, have you instituted a blogging and Wiki practice so the students are adept at the latest communications tools?
Because of my own consulting work, we are aware of everything out there. I watch presentations from the best agencies in the world. And, I think that that’s great for my students, and ask the agencies if I can use certain ideas for my students curriculum.
We all want to advance the field, so the agencies always say yes.
As for USC, a lot of our adjuncts are the top people in the field. We have Tom Tardio, the CEO of Rogers & Cowan, teaching here. We have Richard Kline, the head of Hill & Knowlton West Coast, teaching here. We have Paul Flug, the head of Universal Studies teaching here. We have Brenda Lynch, the head of Manning Salvage and Lee teaching here.
We rely on adjuncts for timely information and practices.
What is the process you go through when talking to clients in the initial stages of the RFP process?
It’s a very rigorous process. We start with the questionnaire, meeting with the public relations/communications team.
We find out their needs, how they define conflict, their good or bad agency experiences in the past.
We meet with the internal stakeholders – HR, CEO, marketing departments – and any other persons and functions in the organization for which PR might provide services or support.
We sit with them and interview. We get a sound picture of what they need, and synthesize, and go over the report with the client lead. We develop a profile of the ideal agency.
And it always works. We have filled 35 to 40 reviews, and they have all been successes.
How do you size up the various proposals that come in from the RFP process?
First, they are all standard because the PR agencies answer the questions I provide. It is an apples to apples comparison, which is why an agency needs to make its proposal thoughtful, not sizzle.
We send out Request for Credentials, which is a very specific questionnaire. We go through the answers the agencies provide, score the answers, and then rank all of the firms.
We end up with a total, compare the rankings, and then work with the client to guide them through the decision process.
You have to think in the terms that the client is reading the same questions and answers, and literally comparing them all together. An agency needs to have their proposal stand out and be special.
Any last advice on winning RFPs?
Especially for the small and midsize firms, I think that we may go through a renaissance for the small and midsize firms. We’ve gone through the era of the large firms, who went out and bought a lot of small firms, and the pendulum is swinging back, with even clients open to hearing from the middle-size firm.
A recent RFP for a spirits company included two mid-sized, independent firms. Those firms fit the criteria, and were invited to send in a proposal.
Clients are open to seeing a variety of firms, and open to all prospects – from the entrepreneurial firm to the large agency.
The best advice I can give a PR is to do a good job knowing and marketing who you are.
He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.