I’m admittedly amazed at times on how emotionally needy PR agency professionals are – myself included. We aren’t looking for smiley-face, pat-on-the-back emails from clients every day, but when we arrange a glowing profile in WIRED Magazine for a client and the only response is “they got my middle initial wrong” it cuts, and it cuts deep.
We’re human after all, and feed off of praise as most do. But the more I think about this insatiable appetite for positive reinforcement from clients the more I realize how ridiculous it is. When you go to the dentist and he finishes a cleaning do you ever say “Great job?” Do you praise the cashier at Target for providing you with correct change? I’m guessing the answer to both questions is no, and if it isn’t you are probably freaking a lot of these people out. The point is that so what you booked a great profile article or created an infographic that went viral? That’s your job. Why should they say great job for basically doing what you are paid to do?
This lack of feedback from clients can make it difficult to keep a finger on the pulse of a client’s level of satisfaction with your agency. And it is the reason that every PR agency executive and account manager, at some point in his or her career, has been blindsided by a client defection. In most cases it isn’t a case of a client lavishing the PR agency with deceptive praise before severing the ties with little warning. More likely, the client offers vague, sugar-coated reasons for moving on – be it the standby ‘shifting budget priorities’ or ‘reassessing next year’s objectives,’ these relationships often end with a whimper rather than in a blaze of glory.
Bottom line: When it comes to PR Agency-Client communications, silence is deadly. Silence represents a void in data the Agency needs to best service the account. It is the way Agencies justify continuing with the status quo without really examining whether it is moving the needle. There are a few key approaches to keep in mind in order to prevent a client blindside:
- Sometimes you just have to say, “what the f*#k” – Silence is a product of fear. Agencies fear that if they are overly aggressive in soliciting feedback, it will give clients an excuse to bring up things that might otherwise not arise. An apt example is a debate colleagues at a former Agency always use to have around conducting media sweeps for clients. Media sweeps involve sending clients a daily/weekly roundup of news articles that include the client, competitors or the broader industry. The internal debate was that while sweeps ensure the Agency and client stay on top of relevant news, they also show the client all the articles that competitors are included in, thus inviting scrutiny on why the client was left out. Insulating clients from negative news might be an attractive short-term fix, but in the long run it does both the Agency and client a disservice.
- Address the dirty “M” word – PR Agencies approach the Big M (metrics) the same way elderly individuals approach the Big C – panicked whispering by the water cooler or during power walks at the Mall. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to metrics other than the fact that every client will want to see more customers/users and revenues. PR professionals tend to shy away from tightly linking PR results to sales, because there are a number of other relevant variables that can undo PR efforts. But we should not shy away from having a metrics discussion on the front-end of the engagement, if only to find out what matters most to clients, and reaffirm these goals frequently.
- Track competitor activity religiously – By all means I’m not perfect when it comes to executing every single PR best practice. But one area I am obsessive about is tracking strategies, activities and media coverage of competitors. I want to know at all times what competitors are doing, and how these activities will impact my client. At the same time I find it a valuable learning exercise, as there will from time to time be creative strategies and ideas that can be applied to my client. This is not to say I mimic competitor moves, but they often spark ideas by making me think about something in a different way. By tracking competitor PR activities it provides a useful baseline against my own performance, which can help in being blindsided by a client that might seek to execute a similar comparison.