After many years in the agency world—from boutiques to multinationals—I found myself in that magical place called in-house. As a client, I looked forward to developing a companywide communications strategy. I envisioned following an orderly protocol for media relations, being the internal expert and adviser to senior management, and having smart agency partners.
The reality was very different. Senior executives called journalists directly without consulting my department. PR firms were considered vendors, to be held at arm’s length. Communications strategy was frequently a work in progress.
The bottom line: Being on the client side comes with a whole set of issues and challenges that few agency people understand or take into account. Here are a few lessons from the other side of the table, based on my experience as a client at two different companies, working with several major PR firms.
1. Agency teams are myopic. Working with the agency is just one small part of a typical client’s job. Want to really understand why a client doesn’t get back to you with those edits or feedback on a proposal? Spend time with them. Ask them about their job, what they’re responsible for, how they like to work with an agency/team members, and what their bosses expect. Not only will you come away with a greater respect for the client’s depth and breadth of responsibilities, you may discover ways to make a real difference in their work and grow your business in the process.
2. Service trumps all. Creativity and strategic skills are the price of entry, but what would sometimes set agency teams apart was how quickly they returned my calls. Would you believe that I regularly had trouble getting monthly reports from one mega-firm whose fee was more than $50,000 per month? Poor service can drag down the entire relationship.
3. The best teams take responsibility. Even when they’re not responsible. Though ideally a single e-mail or call from an account person should put an issue back in the client’s court for resolution, it often doesn’t work that way. Myopia aside, helping to keep me on top of my job helped avoid the black-hole syndrome for the best teams I partnered with, and it helped our relationship even more. Don’t confuse a lack of response with a lack of interest.
4. Budgets are sacred. Few things upset a client more than a mishandled budget, and agency people can be cavalier, or even sloppy, about overages. Don’t let it happen—but if it does, launch an early warning system and be prepared with potential solutions.
5. Perfection is hard to come by. Not all executives are great with media, and not all corporate stories are compelling. It’s just a fact of life that an agency must sometimes work with raw material that’s less than ideal. Though concerns need to be expressed and realistic expectations set, the agency’s job is to help me make the best of the situation by working hard, not complaining about what is lacking. A team that does that will earn my respect—and my business.
Patricia Gibney has held senior communications positions both in-house and at major public relations firms. She was most recently director of communications at Avaya. The article originally ran on CrenshawCommunications.com.