PR Agencies Need to Focus on Business, not Awareness

Today I received a call from a friend that I’ll call, “ValleyCEO,” that started something like this, “I’d like your advice. I’m not sure what I should have the PR agency doing for (insert company name.)”

I knew where this was going.

“Well,” I asked him, “what are your business goals? What is it that you want this agency to accomplish for you through PR? And, what are they currently doing?”

What followed was a conversation that I have been hearing increasingly the past year.
ValleyCEO’s company is a start-up. Like a lot of start-ups they have some money, a decent leadership team (albeit a bit young,) a compelling product that’s timely with its target market and an impressive list of brand name customers. There is definitely meat on the bones. The agency is getting them results. There is a steady stream of briefings, speaking opps are being pitched, articles are being written and the CEO is presenting at an upcoming conference (no idea if it’s a pay for play kind of thing.) Yet he’s feeling unsatisfied.

I thought I knew what I wanted

“You wanted ‘awareness,’” I said to ValleyCEO. “That’s what you’re getting. The press hits and speaking opps are raising awareness but, it’s not getting traction and that’s what your PR team should be delivering you.”

He then tells me he asked for “Thought Leadership.” I told him thought leadership isn’t created from being quoted in articles and speaking on panels.

I asked him if his agency had talked about doing a white paper around his start-up’s industry. Something that dove deep into the market challenges, potentials, etc. I asked if they’d recommended a local panel or event around said topic? Or a Webinar? Or an Op-ed? A video? Why only deliver the message through the media filter where it ends up in the journos words and not theirs? Was the agency sending the CEO relevant industry articles to comment and join the discussion? Were they doing joint briefings with customers or case studies? What about a road show?

The answer to everything was no and it only re-enforced his feelings that the agency likely isn’t equipped to be the kind of partner they really need- one who is going to approach the communications strategy with an end goal of building business, not awareness.

The PR goals don’t match the business goals

“What is it your business needs help with right now, especially on the sales side?”
“Shortening the sales cycle.”
“Have you told the agency this?”
“No.”
“Why not? How else do you expect them to develop a program that actually helps you the way you need in your business? Public Relations is just as much about customer acquisition and retention as it is the corporate reputation and traditional “PR” aspects.”
“You’re right,” he said.

“Doesn’t really matter though,” I replied. “If you told them the goal was to shorten the sales cycle they’d probably have no idea how to use their current tool set to provide the traction that you need. Have they ever asked to sit down with your sales team?” Again, no.

I then recommended he share this goal with his agency and then let them have some sessions with the sales and BD folks to learn more about where the common break down points are in the cycle. Once you identify the hurdles you figure out the ways that PR (i.e. Communications) can assist. Maybe a number of customers are getting hung up on the same issue that turns out to be a non-issue but it takes the sales team awhile to convince the prospect of it. What can the PR team do here to help get the message out – either directly through the sales team, corporate channels or the broader public – to proactively address?

This, to me, is the Achilles heel of the entire PR agency industry. The workers are not trained to think about PR from a business perspective – only one around generating awareness (this made all to clear in that horrific NY Times article the other week. Disgraceful.)

I want someone who is going to push back

The client-vendor relationship is a odd one at times. ValleyCEO also told me that he doesn’t like how his agency always says yes to everything, a complaint I’ve heard echoed in the past weeks by some friend’s working at PR agencies. As one said to me, “We like to say we’re not Yes Men but that’s all we say.”

I shared with him that it’s a delicate balance when you’re an agency struggling to keep dollars coming in. You may want to push back on the client but the fear of them actually not liking the push back and taking their business elsewhere is too strong. So yes, it is. To everything.

But, ValleyCEO wants his agency to do their job and be his counsel but, they aren’t, and in not doing so they’re losing the respect (and likely the account) of my friend.

In summary…

PR Agencies, if they are going to survive and thrive, need to quickly learn to start asking different questions when working with a client, especially a new one. When determining goals the questions shouldn’t be centered around how many press hits they’re going for, or number of interviews (although that’s all fine too,) instead they should be focused on what the business needs are.

What are the quarterly goals and metrics?
What support is needed for the sales and business development teams?
What support does the customer service team need?
What is the desired overall brand image of the company? (Note: this is not about spin. This is about creating the company you want to grow up to be from the inside-out.)
What does the product road-map look like?

And on and on and on… and lastly: What can we do to support all these needs through the art of communications?

These types of questions will help any agency better understand what kinds of programs they should really be creating. And it will impress the companies who will be thrilled that the PR team is interested in their BUSINESS.

Come on people, it’s time to get smarter. Do it or start losing business. It’s really pretty much that simple.

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