Clients and Agencies Need Couples Counseling & a Translator

Last December, Jennifer Leggio (@mediaphyter) was conducting a survey aimed at in-house professionals that managed an outside PR agency. The goal was to delve into client satisfaction and spotlight areas of disconnect that would expose areas PR agencies could improve or adjust their business to keep up with shifting demands.

I remember thinking, “How nice it must always be for clients and press to share their opinions about how much their agency/agency people suck. How come the PR agency side never gets to have its say? Aren’t there two sides to this discussion?” (The answers to those questions are: 1) Because no one cares if the PR person is disgruntled and 2) Sometimes but not often enough.)Jennifer and I decided to do the follow-up survey, (read it) in large part, to give agency people an opportunity to share their viewpoint. We know it’s not scientific or perfect or even worded the best way, but we did it to try and help. To help further uncover areas agencies can grow stronger and to expose the areas the client-side can improve so they are more satisfied with their ROI.

Photo from Uncle Horn Head.

Lost in Translation

The results confirmed what we already knew – clients and agencies are trapped in downward-spiraling communication patterns and need to spend some time on the counseling couch, with a language translator mediating, if they want to have a fruitful long-term relationship. Which, honestly, seems a long wayoff based on the clear disconnect between agencies and clients. It’s like a giant lost in translation.

The simplest way I can explain it in after reviewing all the results is like this:

Let’s say the clients are native Swedes and the agencies bill themselves as also being completely proficient in Swedish when beginning the relationship. But once things get going it turns out that two different languages are really being spoken: clients suddenly realize that their agency isn’t really proficient in their language, in fact, they really only took it in high school and used a few audio tapes to brush up so they’re missing half of what’s being said. And the clients, under internal pressure for measured results and traction from spent PR dollars, suddenly change how they decided to communicate (or what they want) and start speaking in a different Swedish dialect altogether, without giving their PR team time to catch-up.

A longer example than necessary but my point is this: Both sides think they are communicating in the same language but it’s obvious they aren’t. Clients think they know what they want from their agencies but the majority of them have no idea how to delegate and develop a program to have the team do more than media relations and social media monitoring.

Agencies are living under the illusion that they really “get it” when it comes to understanding their client’s business but truth is most really don’t. And when you don’t really “get it” and you’re trying to talk to a client, that’s when it’s obvious your not fluent in Swedish at all and never really were.

Houston, There’s a Disconnect

When looking at both surveys responses the discrepancy’s that start to emerge are many*. Here are just a few:
• Agencies feel largely satisfied with their work despite also feeling generally unsupported by clients who are measuring them against unrealistic expectations.
• Clients say they aren’t wholly satisfied with the ROI from the agencies they pay every month while a solid 40% of agency respondents feel their clients didn’t know how to use PR strategically.
• The majority of respondents to this past survey seemed to have a pretty rose-colored view of their expertise in social media, giving themselves high marks for involvement and understanding, which, in reality, didn’t go beyond Twitter and Facebook usage. This validated client sentiment that agencies, in general, weren’t adding business value through social media.
• Agencies, for the most part, think they’re adequately trained to have a broader understanding of how PR fuels business strategy but 79% of clients from the first survey felt differently, half-heartedly agreeing or disagreeing completely.
• Regarding internal mentorship, 83.4% of respondents feel their managers are setting a good example of how to use strategic PR, yet most clients feel they aren’t getting the strategy and counsel they need. If managers are adequately trained and so are their staff, surely clients would be more satisfied.

Knowing a lot of PR professionals of all levels at agencies, and harkening back to my own agency days, I am calling serious bullshit on that 83% number. The majority of PR agency professionals are most definitely not well versed in developing and executing smart strategic business-oriented PR strategies using a multi-platform approach. They are not exposed enough to business functions outside of marketing (engineering, biz dev, product dev, sales, etc.) to help gain the necessary understanding that helps them create programs that support broader business goals. (See “PR’s Branding Crisis” for additional context.)

Becoming Fluent
If agencies want to survive they are going to need work extra hard at their relationship with their client because the onus is on them to keep the business. That means constant communication on goals, expectations, programs, results, disappointments, frustrations, anything and everything. It also is going to mean re-examining pricing and service structure to include expanding responsibilities such as: online media monitoring and commentary, blogger relations, social network maintenance, influencer relations programs, sales support activities, etc.

Clients need to put a little more work into their monthly investment by spending focused quality time with their agencies and understand their strengths and additional areas they can support you – even if it’s an idea for a direct mail campaign. Learn how to use your PR agency better. If you are frustrated with your team’s lack of knowledge or understanding tell them and then help give them what they need!

PR agencies should be treated like you would an in-house team. Give them access to the corporate team so they can learn and grow beyond the pitch-machines you’re growing to despise. Take responsibility as being the main information source for your agency and go above and beyond including them. As internal documents get passed your way (say a road map, or interesting commentary from your CEO,) as yourself, “would this information help my agency understand the direction of my company, better? If so, hit that forward button.

We are all communications professionals and it’s embarrassing the slow meltdown that appears to be happening. It’s not going to be easy to fix either since no one really knows what PR consists of anymore. Agencies have one viewpoint of their importance and role within PR and clients have another. Until both sides are in agreement about what PR means for that client there will be frustrations.

So get yourself into counseling with your significant other. Have some come to Jesus talks. Make sure you both get to a point where you feel respected, supported and are truly speaking the same language. Only then can you succeed in growing “New PR” strategies together.

(*Disclaimer: All of these opinions are based on my viewpoint of the industry-at-large. My opinions stem from 11 years in the industry (agency, freelance and in-house) on top of having majored in PR & Communications in college. I also have a wide circle of PR, marketing, advertising and branding friends with which I confer often about the challenges we face. I’m aware there are good, smart PR people out there who “get it” and clients who do also but that is not the majority. And the majority is what I’m referring to. So save your breath on defending how great you are and awesome your communication with your clients is. If so, that’s fantastic. Write up some best practices to help others learn, which is the entire purpose of this exercise. What our industry needs is people who lead by example and can help not only vocalize contructive criticism but use that and apply it to enforce change. Are you one of those people?)

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