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The five things PR agencies need from clients (and why)

Tuesday 07, Aug 2018

If we were really honest with our clients, we’d tell them, upfront, we need five things from them.

And as consultants, particularly those of us in leadership roles, we’d hold firm on those things. Or politely decline the work.

My colleagues and I have, collectively, worked with several hundred clients, over more than a century of consulting hours. When the client / consulting firm partnership is at its best, it’s because it’s supported by a few strong foundations.

Conversely, on rare occasions, when things go wrong they often do so in predictable and preventable ways. On those occasions we sometimes have this creepy feeling things were not right from the outset.

As a firm we’re increasingly looking at the patterns we see in all aspects of our work.

In this article I’m sharing what we, and others like us, see as some of the  underpinnings of smashing success in the client / agency relationship. They’re evident from the outset of most partnerships, and, when used skilfully by clients, help you get the most out of the relationship.

The five things PR agencies need from clients (and why)

1. Senior access

We need this so we understand the strategy, in its purest form. Also, so we hear the full facts (see next point)... even the things the CEO won't even tell you, or her or his direct reports yet. And so that what we do is aligned to the CEO's leadership agenda. The best outcomes we've seen over years are those that flow directly from a CEO briefing, regular access and open conversations about even the most sensitive topics.

2. Full (or nearly full) disclosure

With all the information out on the table, we can plan accordingly. This might be as simple as sharing the strategy, as it went to the Board, or as complex as a re-telling of issues from previous management over decades. Risk management documents, issues logs, legal documents and other highly sensitive materials are shared by clients who want the best possible outcome from our senior advisory work. Without this, particular in issues and crisis management engagements, we're hamstrung. Sometimes more junior executives hold on to key information. This nearly always ends badly for our client, and stops firms like ours doing our best work.

3. Willingness to understand our pricing

High quality complex work is expensive

It's an unfortunate axiom of our work that time, quality and price are related. You can have two but not three, the thinking goes. And it's mostly true. A high quality complex piece of work is expensive to produce because it usually requires senior time, deep thinking and, often, peer review. But if all clients need is 'good enough' we need to know that too, and we'll adjust accordingly. Both types of work are needed for successful long term client /PR relationships. So open conversations about which we are dealing with are helpful. Ultimately it's our job to let our clients know this, be brave about telling you what it will really cost, and make explicit the options so they can make good decisions about how to invest, and when not to.

4. Reasonable turnaround times

Sometimes, as PR and marketing firms, we make life hard for ourselves by giving clients deadlines that are not realistic given our other work in progress. There's a whole side of 'service orientation' that makes for good client relationships but poor commercial outcomes and more rushed work than is needed. On the flip side sometimes clients want low importance items quickly, and risk quality and strategic integrity in the process. Open conversations about the real deadline are needed help solve this.

On a side note, as a lead consultant in our firm, I’m notoriously bad at asking for enough time. I’ve finally broken this bad habit of short changing my team. I don’t give timelines to clients anymore without reference to more qualified people inside the firm.

5. “Quality time” & patience

From all accounts, appointing a new commercial partner of any kind can be painful. As one of our own consulting partners says "Life will get a little bit more difficult before it gets way better."

"Life will get a little bit more difficult before it gets way better."

This is for many reasons, but getting to know each other, learning clients’ businesses and establishing an effective rhythm are just three of them. Then there’s legal paperwork, scoping (essential to prevent unpleasant surprises later) and helping us forge strong relationships of respect with the CEO and other internal stakeholders. All a short term pain for longer term gain. 

So clients’ time and patience are key.

When clients want relatively trivial things immediately, it interrupts our planned workflow, risks their more important goals and eventually damages the relationship.

Finally, we are experts at what we do, but we are also human. We receive and understand information in different ways, have different professional expertise and personalities. And sometimes, mistakes are made – even by the smartest, most experienced, nicest and hardest working people on the planet.

Humility on both sides – as well as competence – goes a very long way. 

Written by Carden Calder MPRIA, Managing Director of BlueChip Communication Group