Choosing a Communications Consultant

A communications consultant can be a valuable partner, bringing an external perspective and useful experience, but there are a range of issues that should be considered before making such an appointment.

Why use a consultant?

Communications consultants provide a wide range of advice and services including public relations, media relations, publications and design, online communications, internal communications, public affairs and government relations, and events management. Communications strategy – helping to use some or all of these techniques to create a coherent set of messages for a defined set of audiences – is something that most consultants will claim to provide.

Setting clear objectives is critical, not only for the overall project but also for managing and setting expectations: define which elements of the project the consultant should be involved with, be clear about timescales, resources, and how the project will be evaluated. Decide whether it is one-off assistance with a specific project that is required or the retained services of a consultant on an on-going basis.

It is important to acknowledge from the outset that, while appointing a communications consultant will give additional resource and expertise, managing the work of the consultant is a task in itself. To get the most from a consultant allow adequate management time as well as budgeting for the financial cost.

Budgeting for the project

The question of fees can be difficult to address. Larger consultancies are generally more expensive than smaller ones; London-based consultancies more expensive than provincial and local ones. Small local consultancies might charge £250 to £500 a day as a flat rate as might individual consultants with strong specialist experience. Larger consultancies are likely to have a sliding scale of charges based on the seniority of the individual working on your project, from £200 a day to in excess of £2,000 a day in exceptional cases. Almost all consultancies will want to provide a cost quote to deliver the whole project: hourly and daily rates are only strictly relevant if you intend to retain the consultancy on an on-going basis, although they will allow you to make an initial evaluation of the likely costs and compare consultancies.

Starting the search

There are a vast range of consultants from one-man-bands to international businesses. Small consultancies and individual consultants are often cost-effective but can have limited resources and, in many cases, are specialists in a narrow field. Larger consultancies have the benefit of wider and more flexible resources but may be more expensive and do not necessarily have the specific experience a project might need.

It is sensible to discuss requirements with two or three different consultants or consultancies in order to find the most appropriate partner. There are many ways of identifying potential consultants, from the Yellow Pages to personal recommendation. The Office of External Affairs and Communications can make recommendations. Or, contact the Chartered Institute of Public Relations or the Public Relations Consultants Association for lists of consultants. The internet is a valuable resource since virtually all good communications consultants will have a website which should help with the initial selection. It is also worth considering whether there are potential consultants amongst your alumni.

Making your choice

When a shortlist has been identified, seek expressions of interest. A face-to-face meeting is the most effective way to evaluate the consultant and for them to see whether the project suits their expertise. At this meeting, it is usual to ask for a brief presentation covering relevant experience, professional background, existing clients, charges and how the charging structure works, how they report, and their initial thoughts on the project. If you are talking to a large consultancy identify the specific individuals who will be working on the project and what experience they have, and identify the project manager. It is not usual for consultants to charge a fee for taking part in the selection process.

As well as answering your questions, consultants will have questions of their own and it pays to prepare for them. They will want to confirm their understanding of the project, especially your definition of a successful outcome and they may ask what financial resources you are allocating to the task. Given the distinctive nature of collegiate Cambridge, it is important that consultants understand how your College operates, especially your decision-making processes.

Managing the relationship

Once a consultant has been chosen it is important for them to build a strong understanding of the communications and management needs and the culture of the College for which they are working. It is important for colleagues to understand how and why a consultant has been appointed, what is due to be achieved with the consultant’s help and how this fits with the College’s overall direction or strategy.

Regular reporting is essential so that the project can be managed effectively and the consultant can monitor progress and ensure that he or she is delivering what is needed. It is important to be open with the consultants – the consultant may well provide a useful perspective on things that might have been missed under a more restrictive management regime. The consultant needs to know if there are problems with any of the work they are producing.

Evaluating success

Evaluating the success of a project should be considered from the beginning, not only by setting appropriate and specific objectives but also by planning any necessary research that will inform the evaluation. It is important that the consultant understands how the work will be evaluated. The days of PR evaluation based solely on media coverage are long gone; today’s consultant expects to influence and change attitudes and behaviours and evaluation will need to be sophisticated enough to capture these achievements.