Developing Key Partnerships In Today’s Communications Context

You scratch my back, I'll stab yours. It's a nihilistic take on an amicable adage, but communications professionals know that symbiotic relationships haven't always been viable within the inner workings of organizations. For example, the Church-and-State mentality between marketing and public relations may be dissolving out of a business necessity, but that doesn't mean territorial sentiments don't linger. And what about those agency-client relationships? Some are all health and happiness, sure, but others resemble dysfunctional marriages. Communications executives know that a mental and physical evolution must take place in order to stay relevant. To aid and abet this process, consider this guide for building key partnerships to push the communications industry into a new stratosphere of relevance. An Internal Affair: Marketing-PR Partnerships Integration has been a buzzword for so long that its "buzz" is stuttering to a weak murmur. However, that doesn't undermine its importance within organizations, and a number of companies are using innovative tools to bridge historic gaps. Consider HBO. Communicators in both the marketing and public relations departments have evolved from being separate-but-equal to working in tandem. "Within the walls of HBO, it's all about collaboration," says Courteney Monroe, SVP of consumer marketing. "Digital platforms are making it even more so. It's all about asking who is talking to whom. Reaching bloggers, for example, is half PR and half marketing, so you have to work together." But how? In Monroe's case, public relations executives don't report directly to her, but that doesn't mean there isn't any cooperation. In HBO's case, an outside agency helps facilitate a close working relationship. Monroe recommends working with outside agencies that offer both marketing and public relations services. Doing so creates a triangle of communication. "We have an agency [Deep Focus] that does our digital marketing efforts, and they run point between us and the PR department," Monroe says. "It's about getting the agency to coordinate directly." Another necessary best practice? A lot of meetings to define roles and responsibilities; otherwise, some efforts will be duplicated while others are completely neglected. Few things are worse than an audience receiving two different messages from two separate departments within the same organization; if this audience happens to be media, your reputation is completely doomed. These meetings between the PR and marketing executives also serve to reassure each department that everyone is acting in the company's best interest, so everyone can leave their proprietary sentiments at the door. "[Not requiring regular meetings between public relations and marketing] is a recipe for disaster," Monroe says. "You have to divide and conquer." An External Affair: Agency-Client Partnerships Last week's issue of PR News described the contributors to the commoditization of the public relations industry: The economic downtown of the early 2000s halted the hiring spree (and the sky-high salaries), and the ratio of senior "counselors" to junior "tacticians" shifted dramatically. This, of course, occurred so that agencies and corporations could maintain the necessary 3.5 multiple to remain profitable; however, the decrease in senior communicators allowed the McKinseys of the world to swoop in, begin offering "PR-ish" services and thus filch PR's valuable clients. (For more on this, see PRN 08-13-07, "Commoditization of PR: Redefining the Standard Agency Billing Rates.") This business context requires a new approach to the agency-client partnership, as communicators are increasingly required to offer strategic counseling services in favor of traditional tactical deliverables - press releases, for example. The most important element of this partnership? A shared understanding. "A critical element in a successful client-agency relations is shared understanding," writes Roderick White, editor of Admap, in a piece entitled "Briefing Creative Agencies." However, what's missing in this shared understanding is a clear idea of what both sides want (besides mutual financial profits, of course). The shared understanding must start at the very beginning, either at the point in which the client approaches its agency-of-record with a new project, or at the point in which a client begins the search for a new agency. In either scenario, the client should consider the following (see sidebar for a thorough rundown of what every client's proposal should include to ensure a shared understanding): Requests for Proposals (RFPs) - or explanations of a project/initiative to the agency of record - should clearly define "what a communication (or campaign) is expected to deliver - the targets it should achieve, how it is expected to achieve them, and why they are important," White says. Requests should be informative, guided and challenging, but they should not be unreasonable or difficult to understand. As for the agency, its main concern should be understanding what the client is trying to achieve - "not simply for the campaign in question, but strategically, for the brand and even the whole business," White says. "How does the proposed project fit into an overall strategy?" Things agencies should be looking for outside of what the client requests include: Insights and anecdotes Market research of target audience Information regarding the success/failure of past campaigns Once a mutual understanding of expectations and deliverables has been reached, it is important to identify a timetable of checkpoints. Then, establish an understanding that if either partner isn't on the same page at a checkpoint, there will be a protocol for "re-strategizing." And, finally, always have a clear-cut billing/payment plan in which both sides are happy. As discussed in last week's issue, Tom Hoog, Senior Counsel with Hill & Knowlton, recommends using a combination of a retainer and an hourly billing rate in which the hours worked within the retainer are discounted, but the hours worked over the guaranteed minimum are billed at the usual flat rate. Once all of these issues are ironed out, it's onward and upward from there. CONTACTS: Courteney Monroe,; Roderick White, Key Stats: The Headers Every RFP Should Include The Company Business Objectives Strategy The Brand Products Mission The Market Competition Distribution The Consumer Audience Consumer Research The Task/Project/Campaign Issues/Tasks Objective Targets Target Audience Budgets Timetable Source: Roderick White, "Briefing Creative Agencies." World Advertising Research Center.

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