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HCA benchmarking survey

Recruitment and staff retention are identified as the biggest issues facing specialist healthcare PR agencies

Healthcare PR agencies enjoyed a prosperous 2004 with average turnover increasing by 20 per cent and net income rising 15 per cent on 2003, according to the 2004/05 Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) Benchmarking Survey.

However, while agencies are optimistic about the future with 82 per cent forecasting growth in gross billings in 2005, many are concerned about the dearth of high-calibre staff and have identified recruitment as one of the biggest issues facing the healthcare PR companies.

ìThe survey has confirmed a need to grow the talent pool of healthcare PR consultants,î said Fiona Hall, chair of the Agency Benchmarking Survey. ìWe need to do a better job at attracting people at all levels into the discipline, from the pharmaceutical industry, from other fields of PR and also directly from university. The HCA is currently considering recruitment as a focus for next year.î

In 2004, 91 per cent of agencies expected to increase headcount, but difficulty in finding suitable candidates has led to significant recruitment costs as agencies turn to recruitment consultants to aid they search. Recruitment costs rose 33 per cent between 2003 and 2004, and while staff incentive schemes were common, the majority of this expense was recruitment agency fees.

Staff retention is also an issue with agencies experiencing, on average, a 23 per cent rate of turnover. As a result, developing and motivating staff are becoming increasingly important and are expected to trigger a rise in training spend. Flexible working is also more common.

Changing the pitching process

New business is forecast to make a significant contribution to agency growth. However with PR companies spending around 10 per cent of the prospective fees for the programme on pitch preparation, agencies have suggested a number of changes that could be made to improve the process.

According to the survey, agencies would like to see clearer briefs, better communication and clarity throughout the process and more realistic time-scales. It was also suggested that fewer agencies should be invited to pitch, with the ideal number being either two or three depending on the budget for the programme. Agencies believe that this could be achieved if clients were more thorough in their selection at the credentials stage.

A number of agencies voiced concerns about the increase in the number of unsuccessful pitches, 26 per cent of which related to incidences where no agency was appointed. This is seen as a worrying trend because of the significant resource and investment needed. This figure has increased year-on-year since 2002

Procurement issues

While agencies said the procurement process was beneficial where it helped to cement ìtrue partnershipsî with the potential for long-term commitment, they felt there was an inappropriate commoditisation of agency services and increased pressure for volume discounts.

Practices for programme evaluation remained inadequate in 2004 with just 5 per cent of the total budget allocated to evaluation: 5 per cent lower than the 10 per cent recommended by the HCA. There are also concerns about how the evaluation budget is spent; figures suggest that most of it is spent on measurement of immediate outputs - media coverage and events - and not the analysis of outcomes and impact of PR activity on the client's business.

2nd September 2008

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