Client - PR Agency Relationships: It's a Matter of Trust
It seems like everywhere you turn these days you read about another breach of trust between some commercial or goverment institution and the public. The recent revelations regarding the manipulation of the Libor rates by Barclays is just the latest in a disheartening series of cases, including Facebook's IPO mess; JP Morgan's bad derivative bets and subsequent disclosure that its traders have been hiding losses; Penn State's mishandling of the Sandusky child abuse case; and many more.
It feels like trust is at an all time low. In fact, this recent data from Gallup supports this sentiment. This got me thinking about trust and how critical it is for a client-agency relationship to succeed. It seems obvious, since we are talking about public relations after all. But unfortunately, far too many relationships become ones based on a vendor-supplier dynamic rather than a trusted partner relationship.
There a hundreds of reasons why this happens -- far too many to cover here. So, rather than trying to "cure' the problem after its developed, let's talk about what you can do to prevent problems in the first place and start a relationship from the beginning with a strong foundation of trust.
- Start with a reality check. This is required for both sides. Clients need to take emotion out of their self assessment. Clients are engaging a PR agency to help them refine their story and get the word because they are sure they aren't getting the attention they deserve. It is crucial at the outset that the client understand the reality of their position. Who knows about them? Are the assets in place to make the program successful? How different are they from others in the market? Do they understand what and how long it will take to get the kind of coverage they want? Fundamentally, is there a story there? As for the agency, don't promise or agree to results that are highly unlikely just to win the business. Bottom line is be honest with each other to begin with.
- Avoid the "investment" expectations. Too often I've heard prospective clients talk about how they are going to be "bigger than XXX" and that if the agency invests -- i.e., provides services above the budget -- that they will reap the rewards later when the client becomes the next big thing. This never works out. Clients need to remember how an agency works. It's a pretty simple business model. All agencies basically operate on a time and materials basis, with everyone expected to hit a number of billable hours every day. There is no capital sitting somewhere from which to draw on to fund agency operations. Asking an agency to invest, is essentially asking them to lose money. On the other hand, agencies often contribute to this situation voluntarily, either because they want to win the business or to retain it. Bottom line here is the agency needs to deliver results, but the client also needs to pay for the cost of those results.
- Collaborative goal setting. Clients and agencies need to set goals as a team. This goes hand in hand with the reality check actitivites starting out the relationship. Dictating a profile in the Wall Street Journal cannot not be the starting point of this conversation. Begin with realistic goals that include some quick return possibilities so that everyone can see immediate traction for the program. It also helps to tier the goals into expected and stretch goals.
- Provide financial transparency. If 'finanical' and 'surprise' come up together in the conversation then you know you have a problem. Once the budget is agreed to, it's the agency's responsibility to keep the client fully aware of how actitivies are tracking to the budget. A best practice is to communicate how much of the budget has been used at the end of each week or first thing Monday morning. This will enable you to adjust priorities as needed. From a client's perspective, be willing to listen if the agency says that they can't cover all of the activities under the budget. A response of "I don't care, just get it done within the budget" does not show you are a partners. Work together to find a middle ground.
- Nip issues in the bud. Too often both parties are reticent to bring up their concerns about performance or expectations until it's a real problem. The sooner these are addressed the sooner course corrections can me made and the program can get on track.
Like any relationship, those between agencies and clients start with the best of intentions. But good intentions by themselves will not ensure a successful outcome. The more collaborative and transparent you are at the start will go a long way to avoiding problems down the road and making the relationship a win-win for both parties.
What some other things you think are important for building trust between clients and agencies?