Eric Morgenstern, president-CEO of Morningstar Communications, had just finished a client meeting at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City last week when he went over to the company’s kitchen, opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water to take back to his office. Was this a brazen act that might cost Morgenstern some credibility with his client? Hardly. Morgenstern said that breaking into the client’s fridge reflects the familiarity he has with the PR crew at Blue Cross Blue Shied Kansas City.
“It’s an embodiment of being an extension of the team,” he said. In fact, he considers himself a “partner” to Blue Cross Blue Shield Kansas City as well as other top clients such as Grundfos and Hallmark Business Connections. “A partner is, ‘What are we doing and how we can help you think it through?’ versus a vendor, which is an order taker,” he said.
As the PR industry undergoes dramatic change and traditional media channels are upended by digital communications, the relationship between companies and PR agencies may be at a crossroads.
No longer satisfied with being pigeonholed as a “vendor,” agencies are stepping up their efforts (and offering more varied expertise and talent) in order to bring more cohesion to agency-client relations and cultivate long-term relationships.
PR agencies now meet more frequently with clients, pay much closer attention to clients’ budgetary concerns and realize that they have to play nice in the sandbox with other marketing disciplines (read: advertising and digital shops), as integrated communications becomes the norm.
On the other side of the table, brands are increasingly demanding that PR agencies offer a full spectrum of services and behave more like a business. Agencies must also demonstrate that they are a quick study when it comes to new media tools and social channels. Otherwise, brands might seek other partners.
“I need a much higher level of expertise than I ever needed before,” said George Stenitzer, VP of communications for Tellab s, a telecommunications company that designs and manufactures equipment for service providers. “I need [PR execs] with a deep background of the telecom industry up and down the line,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of bringing them up to speed.”
Stenitzer now works with two PR agencies. He has worked for several years with London-based CCgroup, which focuses its PR efforts on crafting Tellabs’ messages for international markets, and in May he brought Denver-based VisiTech on board to help Tellabs better penetrate U.S. markets. Stenitzer also works with a handful of freelancers.
Stenitzer’s in-house PR team, PR agencies and freelancers have a conference call once a week to discuss what’s top of mind for Tellabs’ PR efforts and what’s in the pipeline. “We have to make sure we have 360-degree visibility, and everyone knows what everybody else is doing,” he said. “Everyone has to know dates (for PR efforts like blogging and content creation, for example) and deliverables.”
He added, “It used to be that agencies could stand out if they had people who knew how to write and how to pitch. But what’s changed is now I need PR agencies to know my buyers and my industry.”
Morgenstern, meanwhile, said that in addition to working closely with the CEOs of his clients, he deploys a three-pronged strategy to enhance agency-client relations.
1. Always go to clients with ideas, “not for ideas,” Morgenstern said, which may breed uncertainty among clients.
2. Never surprise a client with a billing. “Clients should know that you care more about their budget than they do,” he said.
3. “Institutionalize” the client relationship by constantly asking a series of questions: What are we doing that you like? What are we doing that you don’t like? What do you wish we were doing that we are not?
With tighter relationships, however, sometimes comes closer scrutiny from the client, in terms of dealing more frequently with procurement officers.
“It can be a pain point for agencies and client partners,” said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, whose clients include Bank of America, GM and Unilever.
Polansky outlined three tactics agencies can use to smooth relations with procurement departments.
1. Education: Demonstrate how the agency brings value to the table.
2. Open dialogue: Polansky said this is paramount in agency-client relations. “From a procurement perspective, the client needs to understand agency compensation models and how the two parties can create the basis for a productive and equitable relationship,” he said.
3. Be reasonable: “Be sure to have an agreement on the scope of work, what it includes and doesn’t include,” Polansky said.
Procurement, of course, is just one piece of a larger puzzle that both sides of the table need to figure out. “The expectation is that agency partners have a broad view and deep knowledge of the companies they are representing,” Polansky said. “Agencies need to understand the connection between reputation and valuation of an enterprise and, alongside that, the relationship between corporate reputation and brand reputation.” PRN
Eric Morgenstern, firstname.lastname@example.org; Andy Polansky, email@example.com; George Stenitzer, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Agency-Client Relations On The Digital Front
After working as a client for more than 15 years, two years ago I moved to the agency side, where I now help different clients with their digital communications programs. Having worked both sides of the street, I’ve seen both good and bad in client-agency relationships, and have a few tips for both parties to create beneficial partnerships for digital projects.
1) Don’t be afraid to challenge. All too often, clients see what others have done and want the same thing, even though it may not make sense for their audience or market. The desire to chase the “shiny object” happens to all of us, but it is the duty of the digital agency to ensure that before time, effort and money are spent, the initiative can achieve the business’s strategic objectives. To be a true partner, an agency has to overcome the desire to “serve” by just giving clients what they want, and instead act as a learned counsel.
2) Don’t allow yourself to be boxed in. We have a tendency to operate in silos—marketing folks provide marketing solutions while PR folks focus on PR. The job of a good digital agency is to create solutions that reflect how people now find and use information. That solution may not be one that is exclusively about public relations. It also may involve marketing or customer service. A good agency will take time to understand the client’s organization and work to create bridges between different functional areas to help a program succeed.
3) Be respectful. This is one principle that is forgotten all too often. Respect is at the core of any solid relationship, and it works both ways. To get the most from an agency, the client should treat it more as a partner and less as a service provider. At the same time, the agency partner should take time to better understand the world its client operates in, the hurdles it needs to overcome and its vision. It is through mutual respect that great work is accomplished.
Marc Monseau is a managing partner of Mint Collective and former director of corporate communications and social media at Johnson & Johnson. Follow him on Twitter, @mdmonseau.