Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Ditching the ‘C-Word’ Can Improve Business Relationships and Company Culture

Say the word “client” (the other C-word) or use it in a sentence and what comes to mind? Forgetting its application to public relations, odds are that your mental list includes embellished dialogue from countless courtroom scenes either in film or novels. Jack Nicholson’s famous “you can’t handle the truth” monologue from A Few Good Men comes to mind as does Susan Sarandon’s impassioned defense and motherly protection of young Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his family in The Client.

In both instances, “the client” or “clients” are first seen as nothing more than machine-like elements of the impersonal legal apparatus: Sway is a child who witnessed a murder and the state requires the body’s location while Private First Class Louden Downey and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson are accused of murder.

Central to both plots, however, is the re-humanizing of these characters: Downey and Dawson were following orders; Sway’s reluctance to cooperate with the law protects his family. As the end credits roll the main characters are seen as people, not clients.

It’s fitting then that public relations – a profession that is fighting hard to prove its worth, thus my earlier blogs on the subject – has, over time, also adopted this clunky word.

As with the legal profession, PR client references have all the trappings of dispassion – or displeasure. The client is something to be serviced, like a faulty carburetor or misfiring engine piston. Signed, sealed, delivered and off to the next troublesome client meddling in the affairs of proper creative talent – i.e., us! Amid insane copy deadlines, we ask ourselves: what can the “carburetor” or “piston” tell us that is useful? 

Actually, clients can tell us a lot. You know, something extremely vital like where they see their company in the next five years and how their own internal team envisions a campaign. Oh, and what they expect of us.

A brilliant article by 72andSunny CEO John Boiler in AdAge recently called us all out on this troubling trend and suggested a much-needed change, one that ThinkInk is about to enact. Dropping the word “client” and its often-negative connotation can greatly improve the working environment, Boiler rightly argues. It’s common knowledge as old as the sales pitch itself but bears repeating. Identify with a person and the sale goes smoothly. Identify with the product or service offering, using words like client or customer and the phrase “used car salesperson” comes to mind. See the difference?

PR professionals don’t want to be perceived as used car salesmen and saleswomen (I doubt actual used car salespeople like the phrase either) and clients don’t want to be considered cogs in communicative wheels. So for the next two months ThinkInk is going to ban all uses of the word client – especially when its intent is to de-humanize and attack the organization we’re trying faithfully to represent.   

Studies show that creating a positive work environment for both your client….errr…the corporate team you represent and for your employees results in greater productivity and increased profits. A recent Gallup study found that unhappy employees (feeding, for instance, off the negative vibes created by client-bashing) cost businesses up to $300 billion a year in the US.

Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t about money. But it is about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Treating people with greater respect starts with the little things. And cutting the word “client” from in-office conversations and copy will go a long way in improving our mutual relationships.

Now that’s a truth I think we all can handle.

We’ll let you know how our “c-word” experiment progresses and see if we communication pros can better calibrate our message and improve our relationships with you know who!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tuesday’s PR Lesson: Flood Your Clients with Facts and Figures

I love it when a progression of news stories works out like this... Yesterday, I posted a blog about how PR companies can learn to speak the economic and business language of their clients, adding to their marketing skill sets. My advice boiled down to this: become your enemy. Or, in Star Wars geek-speak, PR execs must learn to use “the force” to understand the mindset of their number-crunching counterparts, essentially getting inside their heads.

I also suggested the recruitment of business-background employees, expanded roles for in-house accounting departments and the taking of free online economic courses which have gained not only popularity of late but also legitimacy as quality teaching vehicles.

But there are other ways to demonstrate PR’s worth. It’s time for a little bragging so get out your batons.

Today, while traditional newsrooms have atrophied, PR has helped blur the lines between paid media, earned media and owned media. According to the latest estimates, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists has increased from 1.2:1 (in the 1980s) to upward of 4:1 in 2010. Meanwhile, The Holmes Report, which ranks PR firms, estimates global PR revenues at $10 billion per year and Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a media investment group, predicted US PR spending would rise 8.3% in 2012 to $4.2 billion. Between 1997 and 2007 average agency salaries went from $38,735 to $50,499. Clearly we’re doing something right.

Then there’s recent acquisitions news with AdAge reporting that PR buys are “red hot” this year.  While AdAge was quick to point out that some of the recent buying frenzy was spurred by expected tax code changes, it reaffirmed that much of the interest lay in advertisers and marketers realizing the value of what PR companies bring to the table.

Phil Palazzo, founder and president of mergers-and-acquisitions consulting firm Palazzo Investment Bankers sized contemporary PR up like this: “PR agencies have become very adept at delivering strategic and targeted solutions over multiple channels – varying from experiential to crisis to social media to events – and for that reason they've been capturing a growing share of marketing dollars." 

Go us!

Of course, industry snapshots, in isolation, do little to convince a potential client of your agency’s worth. But whether it’s drafting that initial proposal, the weekly phone call, or the periodic visit to client headquarters, infusing your written and spoken narrative with these industry facts, can’t be a bad thing. There is a reason why pack mentality works. If everyone is choosing PR firms, why aren’t you, goes the implied subtext. The next step is placing what your individual firm does in the context of this macro-industry data.

It may astound some clients, but PR communications have been around since the days of classical antiquity. And if you go back further, information management and agenda-focused storytelling have been central to businesses for as long as business has existed.

So, the next time you find yourself on that unpleasant client call (admit it, they do happen) take some inspiration from this blog and flood ‘em with facts and figures, remind your clients that PR’s worth is often a lot more than what industry metrics state and prove to them why their business cannot live without yours.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Proving PR’s Business Value Easier Said than Done, But Not Impossible

Here we go kicking off another week full of media pitching, content marketing, social business and thought leadership strategies, pitching for new business and, most importantly, keeping ThinkInk clients very happy. How do we do that?  It’s not easy but we start by demonstrating and creating value in everything we do.  Why do it otherwise?

So this week’s theme is all about value – what we create for our clients and ourselves.  We’d love to get your views on demonstrating value to your clients, whether or not you’re in PR.  What are the biggest hurdles you face? And your advice to others?

Please share your comments below.

“To know your enemy you must become your enemy” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War, ancient Chinese military treatise

The above quote might sound a little harsh, especially as it relates to public relations and determining its business value, but this is essentially what Kristin Jones, CEO of Wallop! OnDemand, suggests in a recent post on Bulldog Reporter article without directly saying it.

Jones argues that in order for PR execs and their companies to maximize their value to clients, they must begin thinking like them. In fact, not just think like them, but propose solutions and pitches that demonstrate an ability to act like them too. While clients certainly aren’t the enemy of PR companies, sometimes the economics-based and direct dollar value language they speak is so foreign to communications industry pros (who know more about marketing campaigns, crisis management and the sometimes-fuzzy ad value math) that those aspects of a client’s business can feel adversarial. The result is a PR team reduced to second- or third-place status rather than being an integral component to boardroom “elites” or partners.

Jones recommends the following steps to counter this problem:
·         Educate yourself on the economics behind value
·         Make value creation your mission
·         Step out of the shadows

But after reading her article again I was left with this nagging question…. how do PR execs actually educate themselves on the economics behind value?

The answer: they must become their enemy.

Mind you, this is not an easy task. Many in the PR industry claim to have gone the communications route partly because their brains “aren’t wired for finance or business.” Let someone else crunch the numbers I’ve heard many a time. Earning an MBA might seem impractical for more senior executives, but perhaps PR agencies should begin recruiting those with business backgrounds – much in the way they’ve hired ex-journalists to help tell more compelling client stories. Another approach might be an expanded role for a PR company’s in-house accountant, an individual most likely to appreciate and understand your client’s by-the-numbers needs.

There’s also continuing education on the cheap. Coursera, founded last April, is a for-profit online educational outlet that provides free web video courses and has gained significant notoriety in the past several months, attracting some $22 million in venture capital. Courses, which include topics on economics and business strategy, (among many others) are broken up into multiple pre-recorded sessions along with quizzes and the occasional written assignment. How much or how little the student does is entirely up to them.

So perhaps PR agencies should carve out additional time for staff to make use of resources like this. It won’t raise your company’s business IQ overnight. But it could make a lasting, positive impression whose “compounded interest” – an economic term we all should know – really adds up.

And isn’t that what PR is about after all?