Focus on Partnership & Flexibility

We would be hard-pressed to find PR professionals who say they've enjoyed the effects of the economic downturn. But in many ways, today's tight budgets have made for more efficient and effective agency/client relationships. Clients are demanding more and higher-quality service. And as agencies struggle to retain - and even grow - their business, they are delivering with bottom line-oriented results. Partnering on PR As we polled our experts, we heard one word come up again and again. "Partnership" is the hallmark of strong agency/client relations in today's market, and the most secure relationships are based on this fundamental principle. "The notion of partnering is much stronger than it was a few years ago," says Cathy Ackermann, CEO of Ackermann PR. "Clients want agencies that are very tuned in to their businesses." "The definition of a good client is a partner," says Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick. Client organizations like MapInfo require their agencies to know their businesses as if they were employees of the organization. Angela Girard, senior PR manager for the company, brings her agency of record, Schwartz Communications, in on everything from changes in the boilerplate to major organizational overhauls. That way, the agency is able to seamlessly align its communications goals for the company with the corporation's own business goals. And that alignment is key in an environment when everything the agency does has to tie back to the bottom line. "In this business climate, we have to prove everything and be able to quantify every program," Girard says. "PR is not immune." MapInfo has always recognized the importance of media awareness generated through its relationship with Schwartz. But in the past year, in order to sell senior management on the PR program, Girard asked the agency for more. She requested that it begin creating regular metrics reports she could bring to senior executives to prove the worth of the publicity. In fact, most agencies have seen an increased demand for media metrics and other measures of the value of the services they're delivering to clients. Many are stepping up reports on ROI from quarterly to monthly or even weekly. They also report they're being more vigilant about defining goals up-front. Delivering an ROI report that consists of a competitive analysis of media hits will be impressive only to the client that brought on an agency to increase media visibility. That same report might be of little use to a client looking to sway opinion on Capitol Hill or among a target group of consumers. "We start every new relationship with a client action profile," says Ackermann. The research-driven profile uncovers the client's needs and allows the agency to align its communications priorities with those needs. The Integration Challenge Aligning communications with clients' needs also means aligning PR messages with other forms of communications coming from the company. Client organizations should expect a PR firm to consider how PR complements and enhances other company communications channels, including sales and advertising. "Clients want to see how advertising will fit, how PR will fit, how marketing will fit. They're spending a tremendous amount, and they want to know it's all playing together," says Weber Shandwick's Diamond. Integration may very well mean putting added responsibilities on your agency's plate. Linda Lyons of Gelphman Associates has had clients ask for everything from participation in the development of advertising and brochures to more involvement in the investor community. "There are fewer people in our clients' organizations to do things," Lyons says. "They have begun to rely on PR agencies to get more bang for the buck and make sure PR goals integrate with marketing communications goals." And clients relying on an agency to go beyond media relations or public affairs functions are also relying on it for enhanced resources, says Diamond. If a client is taking advantage of the agency's resources for reaching consumers, they may well want resources for reaching legislators in Washington. Carefully consider what resources you may want to leverage down the road at the beginning of your relationship with the agency, and be sure that the agency is able to deliver. Communicating for Better Communications Developing an integrated approach to all your messaging also means being more proactive about communicating with your partner PR firm. "If [the agency] is totally shocked and surprised at an annual review, then shame on us," says Harlan Teller, chief client officer for Hill and Knowlton. Teller says the agency should foster an open, honest, and most importantly, constant dialogue with the client. But the client also has a responsibility to keep the lines of communication open. "When I'm disappointed or upset, I don't hesitate to call [the agency team leader]," says MapInfo's Girard. Girard considers it "standard operating procedure" to keep her agency constantly in the loop. Those informal communications are crucial, but formal reviews and audits still have their place. In fact, formal "pulse checks" are growing more frequent with the increasing demand for feedback on ROI. Recommendations on the timing of audits and reviews vary. But look for your agency to deliver formal results at least quarterly, if not monthly. And if you're using the agency for a shorter-term project, you may want to look for results even on a weekly basis. Gelphman's Lyons recommends a weekly phone meeting with your agency to update account team members and get feedback on the results they've produced that week. Then hold more formal audits at agreed-upon intervals to address two issues: how the relationship is progressing in terms of chemistry and attentiveness with the account team, and how results are meeting your expectations. H&K's Teller also advises that you look for an agency that provides open access to the most senior levels of the agency in case you're dissatisfied with your communications with the account team. Clients should set their sights for their agencies high, he says. H&K recently created the "chief client officer" role and is now developing a career track for employees who want to focus specifically on client service. "Client retention is really the primary strategy for keeping us moving ahead." Client Missteps Like any good partnership, a sound agency/client relationship is a two-way street. Don't expect an agency to deliver if you aren't doing your part to maintain the relationship. Harlan Teller, chief client officer and president of the global corporate practice at Hill and Knowlton, outlines four key areas for client vigilance: 1. Develop a clear definition of victory at the beginning of the relationship. "We may have an idea about what good performance is, and the client may have an idea that we don't share." 2. Manage expectations proactively. Make sure senior management has a clear understanding from the very beginning of what expectations for the agency are so there won't be any surprises or disappointments down the road. 3. Give agencies the access they need. "If we don't have access to a client's senior management, and a relationship with the C-suite, it impairs our ability to deliver results," Teller says. 4. Be realistic about budgets. Understand that you're not going to get 50 million impressions with $10,000. Work with your agency to understand what parts of your desired program are realistic given the dollars available.

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