For a few years now, senior executives at the giant multinational public relations agencies have been glancing nervously over their shoulders at the equally giant management consulting firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and McKinsey, concerned that one day they will figure out how to make healthy margins in the high-end PR business and start siphoning of the most intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding assignments.
At the same time, veteran Ohio public relations consultant Diane Roman Fusco has been experiencing first hand what the marriage of PR and management consulting looks like. As a principal at IMR Global, Fusco has been integrating strategic communications into a broader management consulting business for the past four years, and doing so quite successfully. The methodology she and her colleagues at IMR have been taking may not provide a blueprint for PWC and McKinsey, but it does indicate demand for a more strategic approach to communications.
“I’m not saying the way we do it is better or worse,” Fusco says. “It’s different. It might not work for everybody, but it works for us.”
Fusco was one of three partners who took over Cleveland agency William Silverman & Company after its founder retired in the early 90s. In a short space of time it became apparent that the partners wanted to take the firm in different directions, and the firm was disbanded. Soon after, Fusco joined forces with what was then Orion Consulting, a management-consulting firm with a specialization in healthcare and government work. Orion was later acquired by technology consulting specialist IMR Global, which itself recently entered into a merger agreement with Canadian information technology outfit CGI Group.
“The founder of Orion was my first client, 20 years ago,” says Fusco. “I was considering various options, including joining another firm or going out on my own, and I talked to him about what he thought about us working together. He was very receptive. He told me one thing: if you can figure out how to tell the client how he can make money you’ll be successful.”
Not everyone was as immediately enthusiastic however. Fusco remembers being introduced to one of the firm’s consultants, who seemed genuinely puzzled by her presence. “The clients I work with don’t need parties planned,” he told her, apparently seriously. She had to explain that public relations was a little more sophisticated than that. Even so, there’s still some sensitivity about how to describe what she brings to the mix.
“The company offers full service management consulting and as part of that I provide full-service management communications consulting,” says Fusco, who explains that IMR steers clear of describing what she does as public relations, preferring terms such as business communications and marketing consulting. “In reality it not that much different [from strategic public relations counsel] but it’s perceived to be more strategic, more tied to organizational strategy” she says.
Over time, Fusco has become an accepted partner, thanks to her relentless focus on business results. “I think public relations firms today are very results oriented,” she says. “But in the consulting world results are measured differently. They are packaged in terms of broader business strategy.”
As Fusco has demonstrated her ability to deliver business results, she has found herself involved in more projects that don’t initially include a communications component.
“As we have demonstrated the added value that the communications component can bring to clients, the other practices have started to come to me rather than the other way around,” Fusco says. “If they are responding to an RFP, they think about how integrating communications strategy can make their offering stronger. It’s become a differentiating factor.”
Today, Fusco has a staff of four communications people, mostly recruited from a standard PR background.
“The most difficult challenge is to train them to think like management consultants,” she says. “That means even when we are asked to do something tactical we have to ask how it ties back to business strategy. We would fall apart quickly if we didn’t tie everything we do back to the bigger corporate strategy.”
While many management-consulting firms have focused their attention on change management, bolting internal communications programs on to process-driven programs, most of Fusco’s work at IMR has been externally focused.
As an example of how public relations can be integrated into the broader consulting offering, she points to the example of a healthcare company asked to respond to a federal inquiry. While the company was not under investigation itself, its response was critical, and it had retained a Big Five consulting firm to produce a financial report that would support its legal arguments.
“They wanted to know if we could help them produce a persuasive report based around the financial data,” says Fusco. “Public relations is all about persuasion, and what we do really well is that kind of information-intensive communications. We helped them develop the report. Now what the company is doing is taking the report we developed and working it into its overall brand strategy.”
Most of the assignments that Fusco gets called in on are at a similarly strategic level—one of the things that make the management consulting environment the right one for her.
“The biggest benefit is that I get access to C-level officers,” says Fusco. “The only downside is that I don’t have another senior PR person around to bounce ideas off, the way I did in the agency business. And I suppose we aren’t top-of-mind if someone is looking primarily for creative, for execution. Some PR people would be really bored with that. Some of my staff found it boring, and went back to traditional PR firms. But it’s an environment I like.”
Another advantage is that as part of a management-consulting outfit, she gets to bill at an hourly rate considerably higher than most people who have a PR firm’s name on their business cards. “If I am brought in on a traditional management consulting assignment, my fees are never questioned,” she says. “If I go out to try to sell PR services on their own, my fees would be lower.”
Does she see herself as part of a movement that might threaten the PR industry? Hardly.
“A couple of years ago I was asked to give a presentation about the work I was doing to a group of public relations people,” she says. “There was a lot of concern about management consultants encroaching on PR’s turf. But the fact is that management consultants have been in the brand development business for a long time. There’s nothing new about what’s happening today.”