DENVER, Februayr 17—Competitive intelligence is the respectable face of corporate espionage, and it’s a growing business. The Society of Corporate Intelligence Professionals has a roster of more than 7,000 members, at companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Dow Chemical to Intel. Simmons College in Boston recently announced that it would offer a graduate degree program in competitive intelligence. And now the public relations industry is getting in on the act.

Denver-based BRW LeGrand announced this week that it has formed a new Business Intelligence Group, dedicated to gathering, analyzing, and protecting information. The group will be led by George Dennis, a vice president, who joins BRW LeGrand, from Telcordia Technologies, a $2 billion telecommunications software and engineering provider, where he was director of competitive intelligence.

The BI Group collects, analyzes and delivers information—intelligence activities executives use to make decisions, such as profiling a new competitor that appeared overnight, recommending specific strategies for safeguarding proprietary information, tracking what stockholders and customers are saying about specific companies on the Net, conducting win-loss reviews and developing trade show strategies to maximize a company’s investment in the event.

“It’s really about building more strategic relationships with our clients,” says agency chairman Bob Wolper. “If we can better understand how our clients are seen by their current and former customers and their competitors, we can craft messages that address whatever concerns are being raised and build stronger relationships.”

He adds that BRW’s public relations activities could also lead to opportunities for Dennis. “If we are conducting a cyber-assessment and there’s a lot of negative discussion on the Internet, George’s firm might be engaged to find out where that discussion is coming from.”

“Business intelligence focuses on getting hold of information that is in the public domain, but not necessarily published, and that helps you craft your future strategy,” says Dennis. “It includes what’s going on with competitors, customers, regulators, the media. It goes further than data mining, but it doesn’t drift into espionage. There are strict ethical guidelines.”

When he worked in-house at Telcordia, Dennis says, his assignments ranged from “finding out if a competitor’s product was real or just a press release” to “where is a new product being beta-tested” to working with business units to make sure they understood the necessity and the techniques of protecting the company’s own data.

“If I am in a frequent flyer lounge at an airport waiting to go to a trade show, I know I’m going to see a lot of my competitors heading for the same show,” he says. “That’s an opportunity to sit down and share road warrior stories, and maybe get comfortable enough that you learn what your competitors have planned for the show.”

“It’s amazing what people don’t know about protecting information,” adds Wolper.

While most large companies either have competitive intelligence units in-house or turn to outside consultants for help on occasion, the use of intelligence gathering is most pronounced among technology companies, which make up about 25 percent of BRW’s client base. The practice garnered a lot of attention last year when investigators for Oracle were found to have dug through the garbage of trade and activist groups working for competitor Microsoft.

So-called “refuse archeology” is a legal gray area, Dennis says, because the law is not clear about whether private property becomes public when it is thrown out. “But we can advise our clients about what other people look for when they go through garbage,” he says.
He stresses the importance of ethics. “There are federal and state laws that we operate within,” Dennis says. “But the bottom line is that we shouldn’t be doing anything we would be embarrassed to see on 60 Minutes.”