Preventing “Death by A Thousand Cuts” in the Agency-Client Relationship

There’s a reason many corporations prefer hiring communications professionals who The Business Lab ending toxic Client Relationships on a positive note - representative and consultant Katherine Hennessy-resized-600have experience working on both sides of the table: as a client and for an agency.

Perspective.

If you have ever been the client, you know what great and lousy client service looks and feels like.  And if you later made the switch to the other side of the table, to a public relations or other type of agency, you then had the opportunity to serve clients with the same level of customer service excellence you expected (and perhaps actually received) from your agency when you were the customer.

Also, it pays to be familiar with the pressures and challenges of working on the inside and you can only get that from working on the inside.  Too many agency employees have an inaccurate picture of what their clients are up against because they have never walked in their shoes.  Perhaps the subject of a future post.

As for me (thanks for asking!), I’ve split my career down the middle with half of my experience as a client and the more recent half serving clients from big, medium and small agencies.  During the client years, I saw agency-client relationships disintegrate in slow increments.  Typically, it was death by a thousand cuts vs. the result of a single infraction. And sad to say, I witnessed the same phenomenon while on the agency side.

In almost every case, it was the little things that built up over time that led to divorce.

If you are currently working at an agency and have never worked on the client side, here are a few timeless tips — in addition to outstanding results, of course — that will help keep the relationship with your customers on the right path:

  • Acknowledge that you received your client’s email or text with a simple “got it” or “will touch base with you on this” or anything that sends the message you are available. A client’s imagination can run wild when their attempts to communicate with you aren’t reciprocated in a timely manner.
  • On the other hand, don’t get upset if your client doesn’t get back to your emails or calls in a timely fashion. The agency-client relationship isn’t always a two-way street and that has to be OK with you or you will make yourself crazy.  Clients spend lots of time away from their desks, confined in conference rooms for meetings that go on and on and on.  And they have their own internal clients to serve and politics to play. Cut them some slack.
  • Call your client.  Email and team conference calls are great and have their purpose. But some of the best engagements and ideas come about when the account team lead and client chat live. Clients enjoy hearing from their agency, even if it’s just a call to check in.  So pick up the phone.
  • Remember that the client hired the agency, not you.  Show leadership by encouraging all members of your account team to be heard on the weekly group client call. Clients want to hear how every member of the team is contributing.  For a client, there’s nothing more uplifting than when on one of these calls a junior person begins to “get it” and shares a brilliant idea.
  • Get the agency’s most experienced people involved with your client’s account.  Invite them to an occasional brainstorm, especially around the bigger initiatives, and then tell your client about it. Most clients recognize that agency management isn’t involved with their account on a daily basis, but many have the fair expectation that senior agency leaders are making a contribution beyond invoicing.
  • Share bad news with your client sooner rather than later.  Whether it’s a missed media opportunity, the resignation of a key team member, etc., clients have the right to hear about it as soon as possible because it impacts their business.  Too many agencies procrastinate when it comes to sharing negative developments with a client.  Most clients, however, realize that despite best efforts, not everything is always going to go as planned. Work together on solutions.
  • Encourage your client to occasionally recognize the account team’s good work. They need and most often will appreciate the heads up. And your team will do their best work for the clients who appreciate them.

PR As a Top 10 Most Stressful Job…Oh Pahlease

stress-pencil-croppedThe annual list of most stressful jobs is making the rounds and some of my public relations colleagues are carrying the fact that “public relations executive” was ranked by CareerCast as the 6th most stressful job as a of badge of honor.

Here’s the full list, beginning with most stressful job:

Enlisted military, military general,  firefighter, airline pilot,  event coordinator, public relations executive, senior corporate executive, newspaper reporter, police officer, taxi driver.

Outside of the entertainment factor, the annual listing isn’t very meaningful, really.  You can read more about the methodology CareerCast uses for its ranking here. To me, the comparisons are apples and oranges.  For example, an airline pilot charged with transporting 300 souls in a metal vessel travelling at 600 MPH and at 38,000 feet, or an urban firefighter sprinting into a burning apartment building while everyone else is running in the opposite direction, have stress level factors PR people can only imagine.

And it’s ridiculous to think that a big city police officer, who’s pre-work routine includes donning a bullet proof vest and a loaded pistol, has a job that’s less stressful than the PR guy who’s pre-work routine includes reviewing email, checking the charge on his smartphone or taking one last look in the mirror before dashing off to a meeting at Starbucks.

Not to downplay the PR profession by any means.  It’s a fantastic occupation, one that has been my bread and butter for more than 25 years and like any job where demanding, paying customers and deadlines and rejection are involved, it has its fair share of stresses. But it doesn’t belong on the same list as enlisted military, firefighters or police officers.  While we’re at it, add nurses and school teachers to the list but remove event coordinator, corporate executive and newspaper reporter (I was one early in my career and while I was almost punched out by an intoxicated town councilor, I was never put in a position to save lives like our heroic first responders are).

Let’s leave taxi driver on the top 10, though.  Cabbies put themselves in harm’s way every time a new client steps into their ride, especially when it’s an overly caffeinated PR person who just got word that his story idea was just rejected by the WSJ and his smartphone is about to die.

“I Am Press Release” – 107 Years Young

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Today’s guest post was written by Press Release, who recently turned 107 years of age.

It’s not easy being me.  After all, how would you like to wake up nearly every day to wave after wave of news articles and blogs and opinion pieces urging me to “die die die” or to articles claiming that I have actually been dead for several years already.

It hurts.  But it’s hogwash.  Thankfully, I have resolve, staying power and a thick skin.  I keep reminding myself that at 107 years old, I am battle tested and a true survivor.

How do you think Business Wire grew over the last 50-plus years to become a company that employs over 500 people in 32 bureaus around the world?  Well, it happened on my back.  And don’t forget that the Oracle of Omaha acquired Business Wire more than seven years ago and is now enjoying more growth as a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. So if Warren Buffet sees business value in me and recognizes that I’m able to adapt and morph and even thrive in the constantly changing world of news distribution and communications, well then dismissing me seems like a bad idea.

What about PR Newswire, the other big distributor of press releases? PR Newswire, which is also more than 50 years old, provides service to tens of thousands of corporate clients around the world.  PR Newswire, Business Wire and the entire community of news distribution companies that includes MarketwiredPRWeb and dozens of free services all have one thing in common:  they built their reputation and their business on my back.

There are those in the news community who say no one reads press releases.  Take freelance journalist/author Amy Westervelt for example, who recently wrote in her blog that the press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it. …  No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you. For some reason, companies still ask for them, publicists still write them, the wires still publish them—this whole completely unnecessary and ineffective ecosystem still exists. Stop it. Please. The only time I ever, ever hear a media person mention a press release is to mock it.

Hmm, I beg to differ, Amy.  To no one’s surprise, so does Sarah Skerik, vice president of content marketing for PR Newswire.

“No one reads press releases?” she says. “I’m sorry, I have data otherwise. People read them by the millions.”

Hey look, I’m not saying that I’m the be all and end all.  But if you use me in a thoughtful and strategic way like you do with your blogs and emails and tweets and whitepapers and eBooks — you know, as part of your targeted content plan and not indiscriminately like I see so many companies still doing while giving me a bad name in the process (aka spam), then I am going to deliver results for you.

I promise.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

IPO Communications Guidelines That Make Good Sense

GM-NYSE-listed-720x340It’s the dream of many public relations professionals:  land a position with a promising pre-IPO company. Take less base compensation and sacrifice weekends and holidays for the promise of mainlining a gold vein of stock options and sailing off to the Caribbean following a robust IPO and the requisite vesting period.

Ah.  If only it was that easy.

The reality is that the PR pro in a pre-IPO company has enormous pressure and responsibility to ensure that his/her organization is playing by the IPO communications rules of the road. The job can be like herding cats.  A single communications misstep can be extremely costly to the organization, and of course to communications leadership.

2013 is actually turning out to be a banner year for IPOs in the U.S.  According to the czars of IPO research at Renaissance Capital, 165 IPOs have priced so far this year — that’s a near 50 per cent increase over 2012. In addition, a whopping 208 IPOs have been filed with the SEC year-to-date, more than 75 per cent than a year ago.  And the average IPO has returned almost 30 per cent from the offer price.

Twitter, as the galaxy is aware, is expected to complete its IPO process before the end of the year, possibly by Thanksgiving. Its recent decision to fuel the IPO frenzy is having a significant and positive impact on other recent IPOs as well, like Rocket Fuel Inc. and FireEye Inc.  Their stock price has doubled since their IPOs less than one month ago.

Going public has many pluses.  Among the benefits is the opportunity to earn significantly more interest and coverage from business and financial information channels, major newspapers, business magazines, television, radio, financial and business websites, among other media outlets.

However, the benefits of enhanced publicity come with the increased responsibility of communicating appropriately, leveraging new-found media attention to support strategic business goals while playing by fair market rules and maintaining corporate transparency.

Much of this enormous responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the organization’s communications leadership. Remember the companies in the dot.com boom that screwed up their IPOs by inadvertently leaking confidential information that found its way to the media and then the SEC?  That’s a sure-fire for the dream to become a nightmare of epic proportions.

Here are a few guidelines for PR  pros and their pre-IPO companies that will help dreams come true:

1. Prevent official and unofficial spokespeople from telling external sources your company intends to go public. Regardless of when it’s said, it can be published during the IPO quiet period and will look like SEC rules have been violated. Instead, focus on the company’s growth story.  Talk about financing as an adjunct that facilitates growth.

2. Develop a story that describes your company’s competitive advantages and barriers to entry without industry jargon. Keep it simple and do it well in advance of the IPO as it will serve as the basis for your corporate description in the prospectus.

3. Strengthen your website. During the quiet period, your company website will speak for you to industry influencers and potential investors.

4. Stay visible.  Typically, visible IPOs price higher in the range and trade higher afterwards. Don’t focus only on the Wall Street Journal and other national publications. Industry trade publications, bloggers, industry and Wall Street analysts are also excellent visibility creators.

5. Be visible now or company attorneys may say “no” after you have filed. If you haven’t been active before the filing, it will be difficult to be active once you have filed.  Even if you have been active with the media before the filing, many attorneys will take an ultra-conservative position and still try to prevent the company from being visible.  Challenge their position by sharing the many examples of companies who got their cake and ate it.

6. Once your company has gone public, employees have no right to material information before other shareholders. Make sure your company employees understand the rules. Be prepared to circulate policies that explain how to handle material information and how to avoid insider training.

7. IPO day is the beginning, not the end, of communications. Use the remainder of your quiet period to plan your debut as a public company. Decide what your publicity stance will be on the first day of trading.

8. The first nine months of being public will prove whether you can properly forecast your future for Wall Street. It’s easier to keep your good reputation than try to rebuild it.

9. Look to bellwether companies outside your industry for best communications practices, and not only to your competitors.

10. Work with your company’s attorneys and advisers to fit your desired business strategy within regulatory rules.

11. Get your corporate legal and investor relations teams involved in social media to protect the company from violating disclosure requirements. The risks simply don’t outweigh the benefits.

Oh, and good luck.

The Best Way to a Journalist’s Heart is Through Research

tumblr_inline_mrttviCm101qz4rgpThe more things change in tech public relations, or in PR in general for that matter, the more they are the same.

Despite the demise of paper tech trade publications, like InformationWeek which last published in print on June 24, and the tsunami of all-digital channels, what journalists want from PR people hasn’t changed all that much – and likely never will.

  • Reporters still want relevant pitches from PR pros and abhor the thoughtless shotgun approach that for reasons I will never understand (other than pure laziness), so many PR agencies (sadly) still do.
  • Journalists will ignore PR pros who won’t take the time to understand their interests before they pick up the phone and pitch a story (what they might do instead is put together another one of those “why I despise PR people” articles).
  • A reporter is more likely to cover a trends piece vs. as a standalone company story.  As in the past, it behooves a PR pro to share the bigger picture in a pitch and insert the relevant client story as a case in point.
  • Oh…and PLEASE don’t forget to research the media channel and read the journalist’s most recent articles before you pitch. Sounds basic, I know, but not everyone does it.

These recommendations could have been written 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.  They were as relevant then as they are today.  But, in fact, they come out of The 2013 Top Tech Communicators Awards recently published by PRSourceCode which provides tech editorial, speaking, and award opportunity services for tech PR pros.  It’s a useful report  — which surveyed 68 journalists and 114 PR people — even though it reads much like the 2010 version of the same report which I wrote about here.

“Even in this Internet world, where the last story a journalist wrote is just a click away, journalists rail that PR folks fail to do their homework.  Journalists say 93 percent of pitches are not on target,” reads the PRSourceCode press release announcing the survey results.   “This points to a massive missed opportunity, as three out of four journalists say they use proactive pitches from PR folks to generate story ideas and sources.”

Imagine pitching a reporter before researching what that reporter likes to write about? Yup, happens all the time.  Senior PR people will do the profession a great service by mentoring the junior people to NEVER pitch a reporter or blogger before doing their homework.

Journalists, by a wide margin, also still prefer email pitches (99 percent which is actually higher than in 2010) while 70 percent of PR people use the phone for pitching (this stat actually surprises me since so many junior people especially are reticent to pick up the phone these days).   “PR pros need to hold the phone,” reads the report.  In addition to using the phone to pitch story ideas, PR pros who participated in the survey of course also use email (100% of them).  But apparently a high percentage, to the chagrin of journalists, are using the phone to follow-up on their email pitch.

The report also shares winners of the annual top tech communications awards including top tech business and trade publications (print and online), top tech blogs (no real surprises here), top tech journalists as well as top tech PR agencies  and top in-house departments. You can read the entire report right here.

(And a shout out to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr for inspiring my lede).