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Being an Effective Agency Client

Especially in the high-tech electronics industry, public relations is critical to building demand for products coming down the supply chain pipe. Electronics OEMs that want to succeed often partner with a PR agency, but the success or failure of a partnership depends greatly on the customer being a good client.

What great agency clients do
Since public relations is done “with” the management team or owners, rather than being done “to” a company, there's an essentially different nature to how this kind of professional service is successfully delivered. It's much more akin to legal or medical services, with the “defendants” or “patients” (read management team members) having to be deeply and consistently involved in an ongoing process. As the now-famous slogan coined by Regis McKenna goes, “PR is a process, not an event.” Without that understanding, PR efforts generally go nowhere, and the agency won't be working with that client for long.

Two business cards, one team
It's most productive when the PR agency and client people work as a team. The ideal is a blurred distinction between the two organizations. The goals are nearly the same; only the paychecks and business cards are different. Efficient teamwork and friendships develop, with the clients relying on agencies for a full range of strategic and tactical communications values. The agency is free to ask all questions, including the hard or perhaps embarrassing ones. It can offer help wherever and whenever needed while remembering its charter to client service.

Where things can go really right or very wrong is typically from the outset. The client/agency relationship needs to be based on a high degree of trust and openness. You see this plea or expectation on agencies' websites all the time, often with words to the effect of “We have strong relationships with our clients.” PR services need to be delivered like any other professional service, such as those typically required by lawyers or accountants. Public relations can truly add value to a business or organization only if the agency people have an intimate understanding of what's going on, warts and all. Arm's-length relationships where the agency is seen as a “vendor” (like office supplies or a delivery service) isn't going to yield effective long-term results, because the agency won't be let into what strategically bears on the business. Without that, PR plans will likely be short-term and off the mark, and they won't deliver desired results that matter.

Getting what you pay for
Taking this perspective further, hiring an agency just to execute some tactics like a string of press releases would be like going to the doctor to have a Band-Aid applied. You can do it and pay for it, but it certainly isn't the best use of your money or the doctor's talents. You've got to tell the experts where it hurts and let them diagnose whether or how applying public relations practices may relieve the pain. If you want real agency value, show your business or marketing plans and explain your objectives. Mention what may or may not have worked in the PR area previously. Then let the pros prescribe ideas and strategies that address your business problems. Valuable agency people want to understand the core challenges and bring their experience, imagination, and creativity to finding a solution.

Remember that you're investing in expertise to help with business problems that you can't or don't want to solve by yourself. Find an agency that will lead you toward desired goals and an effective market position. Let it become a strategic asset. Just hiring some extra hands to perform work that you direct and decide is valuable isn't cost-effective. In that case, hire a junior employee.

Conversely, for the agency people reading this, if your client isn't taking your advice or, worse, is dictating strategies and tactics, plan on replacing the account as soon as possible. You're just an order taker. You'll be replaced very soon.

Invest the time
If a client hands a completed document to an agency and expects the agency to use it as is, little is gained in client-derived value from the agency. Agencies offer far more value than mere errand runner for company messages. The often-staggering aggregate communications expertise offered by PR agencies is totally wasted. Worse yet, the mutual learning created by working together cooperatively in the creation of new information is also lost.

Agencies need and want to learn ever more about their clients' business. You didn't learn everything you know about your market and your company instantly. A learning curve is worth the time. That's why agencies ask for strong relationships. Client and agency people get to know and work together most effectively in collaborative creation of communications strategies and tactics. The two-way explanation and give-and-take of such work helps people in both environments understand each other's value and creates the best ways to expand the client company or product awareness. It's a simple case of two (different kinds of) heads being better than one. More importantly, for the client, it's a case of getting your money's worth.

Case in point
Even with something often as basic as press release development, for example, if it is just reacting to client-generated copy, the agency is left without other information that might lead it to suggestions that increase newsworthiness and marketing effectiveness. But if the agency doesn't get to ask the basic marketing or business communications questions up front, that value can't be provided. The Q&A around “so what?” or the news significance is among the key things agency pros are trained to handle. Without it, there's a big limitation created.

When agency personnel are removed from the origination of copy writing projects, clients lose. The agency team doesn't learn about what's not in the press release. Often what isn't stated in final press release copy, and why, is as important for the agency to know as what is . The dialogue before writing assignments may be more valuable to marketing than the finished product. This is particularly so in business news publicity.

Client-developed releases are often dismally off the mark and fail to answer the most basic questions business reporters need answered. This often comes from the inherent inside-out perspective common to working within an organization. It takes an exceptional writer working inside a company to maintain the opposite “outside-in” perspective while pedaling the company's key messages in a news or feature story. Additionally, if you've hired a good PR agency, you should be hiring excellent writers. That's a core public relations competency. So give them the opportunity to practice their art, and let them write. The results will be better.

Clients should continuously get more from their agency as time passes. As the relationship and the agency team's client knowledge grow, so should the service quality.

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