The client and PR agency relationship challenges and solutions, by BlackBerry’s Varghese M. Thomas

PR agencies can be crucial to bottom line success. They are a business tool to ensure that the brand is always before the target group, that the brand sets up and continues the conversation with the target constituency and a constant check on the pulse of that constituency is maintained. We all agree that a client-agency relations should always be built on a foundation of trust, mutual sharing of ideas, information and creativity.

The problem, however, is with the way PR agency and client relationships are struck and nurtured.  A Bedford Group study showed that client-agency relationships are not long lasting. In 1984, the average client-agency relationship would last 7.2 years; in 1997 that number shrank by 25 per cent to 5.3 years; today it is less than three years. What’s impacting client-agency relationships? What is missing in the relationship that sometimes makes it go sour almost overnight? How can both agency and clients overcome the challenges and address mutual issues effectively?

I’ll first take a stab at trying to explain what is lacking in one word: mojo. There is a lack of magic in the relationship, a lack of chemistry.  One of the biggest shifts I have seen in the recent past is that of strategic thinking moving more to the client side with more agencies hired to do project-based, tactical work. And there’s enough fodder to kick off some self-reflection on both sides.

As a corporate communications professionals – what are the expectations from the agency? PR agencies need to provide solutions after understanding the client’s business or the industry environment. Which means that the PR agencies are expected to arrive for meetings aware of how the client’s stocks are performing this morning, what the social network buzz is on the client, or even if the client has a new CEO.

This is not to say that clients are blameless. They too need to take a step forward, invest time and energy is bringing the PR agency closer to them, both emotionally and in a business sense.  It is extremely critical for the client to treat their agency as a strategic partner and not just hands and legs.

Here are the top three lessons for clients that will help change their mind-set towards the agency and ensure the agency delivers more bang for the buck:

1. Share business goals. Ensure that the agency works in harmony with business needs and not in isolation.

2. Bring the agency into confidence with regard to problems that impact customer, employees, competition, governance, legislation and product evolution. Make them an integral part of your business.

3. Ensure that company resources make more time available to interact with the PR team, often. PR agencies complain that they haven’t managed to interact closely enough with senior stakeholders. Discussions and sharing ideas bring about better integration (and go much further than increased budgets!).

In reality, the meetings with stakeholders are the ones that will help PR narrate great stories – which are what PR is all about.

Here are the top three lessons for PR agencies that can help improve relationships:

1. Make people available for regular conversations. Share, discuss, debate, as if both parties own the product and the brand.

2. Do the research. Is there a way for you to know more than the client? I believe there is: a PR agency has its ear to the ground, to consumers and markets. Be proactive, take the initiative, provide the client with industry insights and intelligence.

3. Discuss PR strategy and get it into a realistic plan that is event specific. Every PR problem is unique and even if it is not, treat it as unique. You will see better results.

I truly believe there are five critical elements that drive great client/agency relationships:

1. Commitment. Whatever the task ahead, nothing will happen until there is total commitment to succeed. With commitment, all kinds of benefits flow: energy, passion, and creativity. If both sides treat the relationship as a long-term bond, real rewards will result.

2. Communication. More client/agency relationships dissolve over miscommunication than for any other reason. Be specific about what you need, establish clear goals, timelines and budgets. Listen to opinions and value input. Without good communication, there can be no trust. Without trust, there can be no relationship.

3. Expectations. In this fiercely competitive age agencies must work harder than ever to attract, keep and develop great clients. Smart ones will help their clients to manage expectations and keep them realistic.

4. Honesty. Both the agency and client must act with impeccable honesty and integrity. Agencies need to work in a climate of openness and be willing to commit to their point of view, even if it means challenging client perceptions. Equally, clients must be free to give input and provide tough feedback if they believe that their agency is missing the mark, Above all, it must remain constructive and be received by both teams with open minds.

5. Respect. When you hire an agency or agree to represent a client, respect them for the experts they are. The worst thing clients can do is constrain their agency by becoming the de facto expert on all things. The worst thing agencies can do is tell clients how to run their business. Respect the agency to do what it does best.

Varghese M. Thomas is Director of Corporate Communications for BlackBerry India & Greater China

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