The RFP was similar to hundreds of others that Meredith L. Eaton, N. America head of PR firm Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had completed during her career. This one, though, included an unusual question: “How can our brand build and maintain a strong relationship with your PR firm?” At first, Eaton thought the question didn’t belong in an RFP. She reasoned nearly all the respondents would include being open, honest and respectful in their answer. How would any PR firm stand out?
Eventually she realized it didn't matter. Including the question in the RFP “showed that the brand was really thinking about how to make this new partnership work,” she says. “The brand wanted to get it right…so it could build a long-lasting relationship” with a PR firm. In addition, of course, it wanted to avoid issuing another RFP any time soon.
Eaton’s view on how brands can build better relationships with PR firms tracks with many of the responses we heard from communicators. Success centers on setting goals early, respecting the other side, integrating your forces, and yes, prioritizing honest and open communication.
In theory, the brand-PR firm relationship should be an easy hurdle for professional communicators, right? Authenticity, integration, communication and goal setting are the PR pro's stock-in-trade. So why isn’t Shangri-La a common descriptor for brand-PR agency relationships?
Let’s start at the beginning. Hiring. Authenticity at this early stage is critical. For example, if you’re looking for a yes-man, “don’t hire an agency,” says Hinda Mitchell, president, Inspire PR Group. “The best agency-client relationships involve spirited conversations and yes, even conflict,” she adds. Without the ability to speak honestly, agencies are unable to provide honest counsel.
Eaton concurs: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” This goes for agencies and brands, of course. Both sides need to communicate clearly and regularly. "Brand-agency relationships fail when communication fails and when there is not crystal-clear agreement on goals and expectations," says Michelle Mastrobattista, SVP, creative & client services, Solomon McCown.
After the hiring process things sometimes fall apart when one or both sides fail to listen to the other. “There needs to be careful listening and thoughtfulness on both sides of the table,” argues Mastrobattista.
In addition, goal setting at this early stage is critical. Brands “need to really be clear in articulating their objectives,” says Inspire’s Mitchell. “That will help the agency craft the right strategy to meet those objectives successfully.” Without early goal setting, brand executives can succumb to unrealistic expectations.
One of the best ways to destroy a brand-PR firm relationship is for a brand to ignore the advice offered. “Problems arise when individuals feel they are not being heard,” Mastrobattista says. Often this is an ego situation. The PR firm believes it's the expert and brand executives feel they know their audience best. There are few easy answers. Being open to new ideas and mutual respect can help smooth the wrinkles, of course.
Similarly, trouble can occur when a brand doesn’t know how to communicate the PR firm’s advice up the chain. This tends to result in “unrealistic expectations lingering among the brand’s executive team or board,” Eaton says.
We're on the Same Team
Another critical issue relates to transparency. Some brands prefer to keep their PR agencies at arm’s length. “As agencies, we view ourselves as an extension of the clients’ internal teams,” Mastrobattista says, echoing the view of several of those we interviewed. But, adds Eaton, “If a brand doesn’t keep an agency up to speed on new developments or internal discussions, the agency will be trying to give advice or form a plan with only half the pieces of the puzzle.” Adds Mitchell, “If you don’t include your agency in the strategic conversations that matter, they can’t be in a position to do their best work on your behalf.”
Integrating PR agency staff is the “best” way brands can improve their relationships with their PR firms, says Cessie Cerrato, VP, PR, Palace Resorts. In addition to weekly status calls and meetings with PR agency executives, Cerrato has agency staff attend Palace’s sales meetings and internal conferences. She also invites them to employee events. This boosts agencies’ “full understanding” of the brand’s needs and its internal operations, she says. This knowledge makes agencies much more effective partners, Cerrato says.
A Brand-PR Agency Checklist
- Trust and respect each other –Be open to new advice and ideas
- Be open and transparent – Say what you mean and mean what you say
- Talk regularly – Stay in close communication around campaigns, activity and updates
- Keep the agency in the loop – Include the PR agency in internal developments, as much as possible
- Be realistic – Understand the limitations of a campaign and set reasonable expectations
- One team – Recognize we’re all on the same team, working toward the same goals
Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow Seth: @skarenstein