Conflict is part of most client/agency relationships. But conflict resolution is also a major PR agency client service. Resolving inevitable conflicts between agency and client should follow the same pattern and pathway as resolving external conflicts on behalf of clients in their own markets.
When there’s an agency-client conflict, tough calls must be made. Money and careers are at stake, and the agency’s own reputation is on the line. This makes a win-win conflict resolution your goal, even while recognizing that this may not be possible. If not, it’s up to the agency to consider its long-term future when seeking the best solution to a bad situation.
There are several possible outcomes, ranging from publicly losing a client amid a chorus of negative publicity, all the way to strengthening the client-agency relationship—there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Before considering other options, if the agency is clearly in the wrong, there is only one workable solution: honesty. Get on a plane, meet the client face-to-face, explain what happened, admit you are in the wrong, and apologize.
At that point, the resolution is up to the client, but even if it goes badly, you’ve done your best to resolve the situation with integrity.
However, few client-agency conflicts are that black-and-white. Try to find a conflict resolution scenario that’s as close to a win-win as possible. There are usually several factors involved.
First, frequently, conflicts are not about the apparent reason. The client may seem angry about a botched press release or a dropped ball, but the real issue may be the client’s current financial situation, and its feeling that things are slipping out of control. Deeper issues are often at stake. Identifying those real issues is at the core of an effective and lasting solution to the conflict.
Conflicts between agencies and clients tend to also be human, rather than merely structural. The resolution of those conflicts may involve taking the human element off the table, either by removing an offending an agency member from the account or even terminating that individual.
While there is no all-inclusive solution to client-agency conflicts, there is a set of reliable conflict resolution steps—the same steps an agency takes when helping the client resolve an internal or external conflict.
To be effective—especially because the agency is so intimately involved—each of these steps requires a high level of self-aware objectivity on the agency’s part. While emotion may infect the conflict itself, objectivity is the key to finding a solution.
These objectives include:
• Before a conflict occurs, conduct a risk assessment. Identify potential conflicts and take prudent pro-active steps to avoid looming potential conflicts, or at least to minimize them.
• Once a conflict arises, assess the problem. This strategic process will identify the conflict’s origin, its development, its current state and possible end-game resolution scenarios.
Many conflicts are about something very different from the stated issue, and personal factors may add fuel to the fire. Home in on the real underlying source of the conflict, as well as the more obvious cause.
Steps here include:
▶ Develop strategic options
▶ Evolve an action plan
▶ What does each party really want?
▶ Can they both get what they want—is a win-win possible?
• It is also important to assess both parties’ “conflict styles.” Identify how your agency responds, and how your client responds. This will dictate both the path of the conflict and the nature of the resolution.
• Assess possible conflict resolution processes, including attack, negotiation, mediation, diplomacy, peace offering or even surrender.
▶ Determine which party will have to “give” (or if both parties have to “give”) as well as what they’ll have to give.
▶ Despite the best intentions, not all conflicts can be resolved peacefully. Sometimes, it’s essential to win, even if that means overwhelming your opponent. Decide up front if the conflict is so basic to the relationship that abandoning the client is the only resolution.
▶ While an executive at Fleishman-Hillard, a client not just ignored, but flouted our core advice, so the agency walked away from that client, costing us a seven-figure account. The agency’s integrity was deemed more important than the revenue that a compromise could generate.
Other steps include:
• Respond to the crisis. At some point, the crisis will impact both organizations; how you respond will influence the conflict’s ultimate resolution.
• Candidly accept responsibility for your part, offer a solution, and either work toward an agreement or resign the account.
• Follow through. Follow-through is where the conflict is ultimately resolved, for good or ill.
• Reputation management and image restoration. If the conflict goes public, this obviously applies to the client, but it can also apply to your agency, if you publicly lost the client. If it comes to that, how you handle the former client will impact your ability to find new clients.
Client-agency crises are unfortunately all too common. Favorable resolutions seem to be far less common.
However, by applying the same tactics that you’d apply to resolve a client’s crisis, you have a fighting chance to favorably resolve your client-agency conflict. PRN
Military Model Conflict Resolution, Applied to PR
Carl von Clausewitz is famous for pointing out that “war is nothing more but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” If you substitute “conflict” for “war,” and “politics” for “agency-client relations,” you can understand how the military approach to conflict resolution may have some applicability to resolving agency-client conflicts. Below are four possible levels of conflict resolution, per the military, applied to agency-client relations:
1. Cease fire/truce. This is a short-term agreement to put the conflict on hold, to “kick the can down the road.” This is usually adopted when both sides either want a cooling-off period, or when some external issue—a product launch, for instance —is so imminent that the client thinks changing agencies right then and there is impractical. Agencies should use this period to mend fences and see if there can be a turnaround and longer-term adoption of one of the other three conflict resolutions.
2. Armistice. This is where both sides agree to disagree; there is no victory but there is an extended end to the conflict. This is not entirely satisfactory to either party, but it is something that both agree they can live with. If this occurs, it is imperative that the agency use this time to mend fences; otherwise, t he conflict will break out again.
3. Partial victor/conditional surrender. This is the resolution where one party or the other admits primary fault—the other party mayadmit contributory fault, but that is not always required. At this point, the other party agrees to continue the relationship, perhaps under terms of a probationary period, or some other future evaluation process. There may be some staff reshuffling or even terminations in order to “bind” this agreement and eliminate the outward or apparent cause of the conflict.
4. Total victory/unconditional surrender. This is where one side wins and the other side loses, or gives in completely. In this scenario either the agency is fired, or the person behind the conflict on the client side is terminated; this action is taken in order to maintain the strong relationship the client realizes it has come to value. — N.B.
This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2014 issue of PR News.