The Client and PR Agency Relationship: It Takes Two, Baby!

As with any relationship, there are good ones and bad ones. Good relationships usually include natural chemistry, excellent communication and mutual efforts from both parties. The bad relationships, well, don’t have any of those factors and usually end in tears, broken hearts and bitter feelings.

In the PR agency and client world, a good relationship between an account manager/executive at the agency and the director/manager of marketing at the client company can result in a wildly successful ongoing PR program. For more than 15 years, I’ve worked on the agency side of the equation and have had the privilege to work with so many talented and intelligent people along the way who have inspired me and taught me a thing or two about being a good PR and marketing professional. I’ve also had the distinct opportunity to work with some who, let’s just say, have been responsible for adding a few layers of toughness to my inherently sensitive soul.

Working in a PR agency teaches you to work and adapt to all different types of personalities and preferences, and it is ok for the agency to do what needs to be done to keep the client happy, within reason. But it is so critical for the in-house marketing or PR contact at a client company to keep in mind that their relationship with the agency is also a two-way street. It is, well, just like a relationship – and both parties need to do their part for the greater good of the company, not just for the individual.

I’ve come up with a list of four key best practices that in-house contacts should keep in mind when working with and successfully managing an outside PR or marketing agency:

Define Your Goals.  At the beginning of any agency relationship, it is important to have clearly defined goals for the marketing and/or PR program. This could mean setting up high-level goals such as increasing thought-leadership through content-based marketing or raising the company profile to help increase the sales pipeline.  Goals, or KPIs, can also be more detailed-oriented such as placing 2 bylined articles per quarter and securing 8 original articles per quarter. A set of clearly defined goals, whether macro or micro, is the basis of a good PR program and can set a positive tone for the agency/client relationship. Without goals, the agency has nothing to work towards; no direction, and they may be spending their time on activities that do not align with the overall marketing goals of a company, wasting everyone’s time and budget.

Make Them Feel Part of the Team. In my experience, the best run accounts are those that make the agency feel like a seamless extension of the company marketing team. Many in-house contacts tend to think of the agency as just the agency, or even worse, just another vendor. By making your agency feel like they are a part of YOUR team, they will likely be more inspired to put forward their best work for your company. For example, the in-house company contact could include the agency in regular marketing email updates or team meetings, when appropriate. This allows the agency to be privy to the most up-to-date information about new customers, partners or technologies – helping them to create more newsworthy press releases and press pitches. The in-house company contact could also include the agency in marketing team celebrations. After all, the agency was likely a part of that success, too. Hiring an agency is not a small decision for a company, it is an investment of precious marketing dollars and the marketing director’s time to get the agency team ramped up on the company’s messaging and technology offerings. Make the most out of your agency investment and think of them as part of the team.

Communicate. This should go without saying, because we are all in the business to communicate, but marketing directors and managers tend to get pulled into so many different directions that it is easy for the agency to be an afterthought when things get busy. Consistent and up-to-date communication with the agency is a key factor to a successful PR and marketing program – this could be in the form of weekly or bi-weekly PR calls. Keep the agency appraised of anything that might help them do their jobs better, and everyone succeeds. Don’t shut out the agency when important events are occurring in your company, either. A client that I worked with years ago failed to inform us that they were being acquired, and I found out via a reporter who called me to get a comment. I was completely blindsided and pretended that I knew about the acquisition and that I would get back to him with a comment. The client said they didn’t want to tell us beforehand because they were told to keep it quiet until the announcement was official. The better strategy would have been to notify us in advance, so we could have a prepared statement ready when the press came knocking, instead of being like a deer caught in the headlights.

Kindness and Honesty Goes a Long Way. This best practice has my “mothering” instincts written all over it, but I truly believe in the old adage that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Don’t forget that the agency account team members are people just like you, and deserve to be treated with respect and professionalism. Be kind to them. Recognize them if they are responsible for a media hit that results in a customer win for you. Do not ever take full credit for something that an agency was responsible for. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, that’s why. The best clients I’ve had are those that have treated me with respect, kindness and honesty. Throwing an agency under the bus can only come back to bite that person on the butt and burn bridges. My best advice, do the right thing, always. The best clients are those who inspire us to do great things. 

What are you tips for best managing a PR/marketing agency? We’d love to hear your opinions!