Wednesday, March 6, 2013

‘Going Rogue’ Again? Keeping Client Communications In Check

With a title like the above, you might think we’ve returned to the days of Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life. 

But this time I’m not talking about a “mavericky” Alaskan -- who, along with a very talented PR machine, masterminded a brilliant and profitable 15 minutes of fame. I’m talking about the client-PR agency relationship and how, despite living in an age of instant communication, some maverick-prone clients fail to keep their PR agencies abreast of what they are planning to say, how they plan to say it, which media outlets they’re talking to and who’s writing what. It’s as if we’re being undervalued -- a topic I discussed in a recent blog, Proving PR’s Business Value Easier Said than Done, But Not Impossible.

A recent AdAge article also addresses this growing advertising agency concern, citing data from The Bedford Group that finds the average client-agency relationship length has fallen to under 3 years versus 7.2 years in 1984 -- a drop of almost 60% over three decades.

What has changed and why is this happening?

Even my agency has not been immune to so-called rogue clients. A press release gets drafted without our knowledge. A media interview is conducted without our review and the client is caught off guard. Each scenario is a potential PR minefield.

Notice in the preceding paragraph that I was very selective in my language, as all PR execs should be. At no point did I say “without our consent” or “without our green light” -- and I think that’s the problem right there. Turf wars between agency management/oversight and client control. Considering that client-agency relationship lengths are so short, we must do everything in our power not to step on clients’ toes, or we may be perceived as know-it-alls.

Trust me, we’re not. And in the power struggle that communications can become, clients have the final say.

That said, there is a reason why we call the client-agency arrangement a relationship and not a doctor-patient review. Clients come to us for creative ways to improve their brand, not reinvent it. They’re not sick. They’re not dying. Agencies are integral to this team effort. And that collaboration, as I addressed in another blog, begins with thinking about clients less as machine-like conglomerates, and more like individuals with communication needs that must be met, not serviced.

So what we have here are two partners failing to communicate -- one that is perceived to be micromanaging (the agency) and one that’s looking to preserve its own voice. As AdAge rightly points out, technology ironically hampers our communication efforts as excessive emails and meetings trump genuine correspondence and conversations, watering down the quality of our time together.

And since this article began with a political reference, I’ll begin my wrap-up like this: agencies and the clients they represent need to press the “reset button,” remembering to be transparent about what each side plans to do and when they plan to do it, within reason. It’s a building block of trust and mutual respect. PR agencies are there to help, not hurt. And we can only do that when clients are honest with us and we are aware of their intentions. Likewise, agencies must involve their clients actively in the communications and PR outreach process.

Of course, this advice won’t stop all instances of going rogue, nor will it consign the occurrence solely to our industry. Sometimes, for very deliberate reasons, clients employ elements of surprise to their communications advantage, keeping everyone but their innermost circle in the dark. The recent shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates that even inner, inner circles aren’t always privy to the thoughts of one individual.

In most cases, as seems to be the case with Alaska’s former governor, going rogue helps no one, not even the so-called “maverick.” Fittingly, like the drop in client-agency relationship length, Palin’s Amazon book price has fallen 60% too.

Does your agency have a going rogue problem? Inspired by the data gathered from The Bedford Group, I’d like to begin collating my own research on the client-agency “going rogue” phenomenon and report our findings in a follow-up article. Beyond the suggestions I have offered, how does your agency address the problem? Are there examples of a contentious client-agency relationship being healed by an attitude adjustment? Any particularly jarring “rogue moment” that caused your agency to put its foot down and change communications course? Lastly, like a heart attack, are there any warning signs that rogue has arrived? I would love to hear about your experiences with clients “going rogue.” 

This article originally appeared on Marketing Daily on 03/06/13. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tainted Horsemeat Turns PR’s “Gallop” to a Slow Trot

You have to wonder if the corporate executives dealing with Europe’s horsemeat food crisis haven’t just thrown their hands up in sardonic frustration and shouted “it was horsemeat, people, not horse s***!”

Be a dear and pass the Pepto-Bismol please!

Seriously, though, it’s cold comfort for the millions of Europeans who’ve been left with an unsettled stomach over the unfolding food scandal. And while there’s been a concerted effort on the part of Burger King, Tesco, NestlĂ© and others to address the meat recall across the continent – including the suspension of IKEA’s famous Swedish Meatballs – it hasn’t prevented social media from turning the crisis into one of misappropriated humor. There’s also been plenty of finger pointing at the failure of Big Business to protect the quality of the products they distribute, no matter where their third-party processing and distribution operations may be located.

And while that story was souring hearts and stomachs, another communications problem was gathering momentum stateside: the Newspaper Association of America, the New York Times and other newspapers joined The Associated Press in support of its lawsuit against Meltwater, a company that tracks and monitors media stories as related to client needs, but allegedly copies whole article leads and headlines without paying proper licensing fees to the AP.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Whether Meltwater wins or loses the eventual lawsuit probably doesn’t much matter in the court of public opinion. As a media agency they’ve only furthered the age-old belief that the PR industry is filled with nothing but “hacks and flacks.” 

Both stories reminded me of a more encouraging PR Daily article by Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications, named one of PR’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. Her article, How to Think Like a PR Person, articulated some of PR professionals’ most valuable skills. And by doing so, underscored that proper PR executive-think is very similar to the standards journalists hold high. In reality, this is a recipe that also works for corporate execs independent of their communications partners – something the horsemeat industry and Meltwater could learn from and use right now.

Crenshaw’s most relevant points included:

·         Think in sound bites: Talk about food for thought. This isn’t just a good idea for pitching media. It also helps condense one’s thoughts into step-by-step processes, more like an equation. When a company is in crisis mode, as IKEA and others are, this is particularly important.
·         Media training is essential: For similar reasons , media training is also about clarity of thought and preparation for difficult questions – ideal for Twitter and 140-character space restrictions – whether the questions are coming from news outlets or everyday consumers.
·         Voraciously consume media and content: Note, this does not say, “voraciously copy and paste media content.” For PRs pros this boils down to what I call “news aggregation with a point” – embrace the hyperlink, attribute constantly, and draw conclusions from the data used, helping prevent Meltwater-like accusations. (Exactly what this post does) From a corporate standpoint, knowing the news helps put immediate successes or crises in perspective.
·         Look for trends: Trends help connect the proverbial dots and can help draw conclusions from the above news consumption and content. For instance, if I were representing IKEA or another food brand right now, part of my voracious consumption of news would include data on the last time a food recall of this magnitude had occurred in Europe. I’d also be clamoring for positive data showing that incidence of these events has fallen to their lowest level in decades and the number of people taken ill has been negligible. Such trends help blunt the emergency of the immediate.

As I wrote earlier, whether it was horse meat or horse s*** doesn’t much matter to those affected by the tainted products. Hopefully this new week will see PR’s trot return to a gallop as communications and corporate executives consider this advice. Take that from the horse’s mouth and not from its rump!