What Good PR Clients Do
Since public relations isn't done "to" a company—it's done "with" the management team or owners—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 tech PR guru Regis McKenna goes, "PR is a process, not and event."
Without recognition of that, PR generally goes nowhere—and the agency won't be working with that client for long.
Two Business Cards, One Team
PR is most productive when the 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 as well as tactical communications values. The agency is free to ask all questions, including the hard or perhaps embarrassing ones, and offer help wherever and whenever needed while remembering its charter to client service.
Exactly when things can go really right or very wrong is typically at the outset. The client/agency relationship should based on a high degree of trust and openness. You see this plea or expectation on agencies' Web sites all the time: "We have strong relationships with our clients." PR services need to be delivered like any other professional service, as 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.
An arms-length relationship, when 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 have been let into what strategically bears on the business. Without such insider knowledge, PR plans will likely be off the mark, short-term and not deliver desired results that matter.
Getting What You Pay for
To gain a better understanding of this perspective, consider that hiring an agency to just 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. So, if you want real agency value, share 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, you're investing in expertise to help with business problems that you can't or don't want to solve by yourself. So find an agency that will lead you toward desired goals and an effective market position. Let them become a strategic asset.
Just hiring some extra hands to perform work that you decide is valuable and which you yourself direct isn't cost-effective. If that's going to be the 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 its 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 still, 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. Dealing with the 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, give-and-take of such work helps people in both environments understand each other's value and creates the best ways to expand client company or product awareness. It's a simple case of two (different kinds of) heads are better than one. More importantly, for the client, it's a case of getting all that you're paying for.
Case in Point
Even with something as basic as press-release development, for example, being placed in the position of merely reacting to client-generated copy leaves the agency without access to other information that might lead it to make suggestions that increase newsworthiness and marketing effectiveness. But if they don'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 news significance—is among the key things that agency pros are trained for. Without it, a big limitation is created. When agency personnel are removed from the origination of copywriting projects, clients lose. The agency team doesn't learn about what's not in the press release. And, often, what isn't stated in the final press release copy, and why, is as important for the agency to know as what is.
The dialog preceding writing assignments may be more valuable to marketing than the finished written product—particularly so in business-news publicity.
Client-developed releases are often dismally off the mark and fail to answer the most basic questions that business reporters need answered. That's often because of the inherent inside-out perspective common to those 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.
Moreover, if you've hired a good PR agency, in the process you will have hired 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 grows, so should the service quality level.