Breaking the Cycle Of Glee to Flee
By John J. Seng
2017 marks my 38th year as a public relations practitioner, with 35 years on the PR agency side of the fence and three years in the mid-1980s managing external and internal programs for a leading pharmaceutical company.
I’ve been the boss in the latter half of my career, launching the health-care only PR firm Spectrum in 1996. Compared to Google, founded two years later, I’m a failure!
Well, not really. I consider our leading health and life science public relations firm a success in many important regards, all owed to getting right one of the two words that describe our profession: Relations.
At age 38 in 1996, married with two young children, I decided that my current salary growth wasn’t the sole important criteria for me to secure my family’s future. Instead, I reasoned that stable employment with fair pay at a quality employer was far more crucial. Through the years, I’d worked at other independent shops and a few what I call mega-agencies between New York and Washington, but never more than four years or so anywhere. I was still learning, making lots of mistakes and growing, while my employers were expanding or downsizing or selling to third parties. I recognized that my career track lacked design and planning. Instead, I was reacting to unpredictable change.
Whether a student or creature of PR agencies, I thought a lot about my experiences and the roots of all-too-often tectonic plate shifts of firms and realized that the unsteadiness in the businesses derived mainly from unbroken patterns of poor relationships between the PR firms and their clients.
You know the drill. When the PR firm wins the business of a big client, it’s all hugs and kisses. Please enjoy the honeymoon of two or three months, and then settle into a continuum of steady performance that, after a time, perhaps two or three years, begins to degrade. Patience runs a little thin. Boredom and malcontent. Fingers start pointing. People have come and gone on both sides, so almost certainly some of the original parties may have changed jobs within or to positions at other organizations. Before too much longer, contracts aren’t renewed or the account is put out for bid. The incumbent PR firm management decides not to rebid or is not given the opportunity, and heads oftentimes roll.
Did I leave anything out?
At a crossroads in the midpoint of my career, I wondered why it had to be the way as above described. What does it take to break a cycle of “from glee to flee?”
I’d like to think that the past 20 years of running things a different way at my own firm resulted in far more stable client-agency relationships. Despite some stumbling along the way, we’ve enjoyed mostly steady growth in revenues and employee headcount.
What are the roots of healthy client-agency relationships? My non-scientific but firsthand anecdotal observations led me to conclude that the values that enhance the relationships between couples in our human population can also apply to the people who staff client-agency relationships.
Also bear in mind that just as with people, it takes two to create a bond, but only one to break it.
For clients and their agency partners both looking for stable relationships, consider my 16 rules for engineering a lasting, healthy bond. (I’m addressing both parties in the following list.)
In the beginning, when the client has just awarded the business to a new firm
- Form and communicate a mutual trust and strive to never break the compact. This rule is paramount. In my experience among all my employers, the biggest breakdowns result from one or both party’s taking the other for granted: Slacking on the pledge to give 100% and putting relationships on auto-pilot; not really caring as much as your trusting partner deserves; agency people forgetting to worry about your clients’ concerns and needs and thinking of solutions until too late when the client is yelling. To clients, introduce the principle of trust at the RFP stage and put appropriate language in your contracts: Your “marriage vows,” but in writing. Agencies, make the commitment, and honor and defend it, particularly if and when your management attempts to make you cut corners.
- Establish who’s in charge on the client side; and who’s in charge at the agency. Each party must set outstanding examples in leadership for its respective team. Each side’s leadership bears a responsibility to visibly set and adhere to high standards of behavior.
- Set the ground rules for process and engagement; and expectations for results. The more concrete the goals, the less ambiguity and potential for disappointment down the road. If possible, cut the red tape and simplify your approvals (without weakening them) mechanism to pave a cleaner pathway to success. A streamlined chain of command facilitates a speedy response time, especially important given 24/7 news cycles and the volatility of social media.
Every day thereafter…
- There’s no substitute for honesty. Be honest brokers on both sides. Give and expect respect at all levels and sectors of engagements. Be open and honest with credit and criticism. Is it really always the agency’s (or client’s) fault? Instead, when problems arise, run to them like a fire fighter smelling smoke. It’s incumbent upon each side to take a custodial approach to nurturing the relationship. Ask for critique and feedback. Too often, agency leaders avoid asking about what they’d rather not hear. But ignoring opportunities to learn whether a hurricane is forecast doesn’t guard you from that certain threat.
- Despite the best of each parties’ collective intentions, there will always be characters and personalities who, for whatever reasons, bring unhealthy levels of their own pet peeves, envy and passive-aggressive quirks into a business relationship. Leadership as well as rank-and-file should recognize and correct bad behavior, or the personal agendas of individuals will upset the balance in the relationship and hamper productivity for the entire relationship franchise, and likely increase costs with diminished results.
- Maintain fairness and dignity. Don’t air dirty laundry about other partners or executive colleagues in front of one another, and especially not within earshot of your partner organization. Succumbing to a temptation to badmouth others can foment a lack of trust (“Is he saying the same thing about me?”) and only makes the perpetrator look small. It amounts to unnecessary and distracting turmoil.
- The devil’s in the details. Leadership for clients and agencies should ensure that their respective billing and administration functions are aligned in every way. Agencies, send out clear, fair and timely billing. Clients, pay the bills on time. With questions, immediately ask them but don’t hold up an entire bill unless there are fundamental, outstanding disconnects. Remember the trust thing?
- Strike a better balance between use of email and the phone. Whenever emotions might be arising…Pick. Up. The. Phone! Even if you can only leave a voice mail. Know when to call instead of emailing or texting. Written communications are a must in the interest of clarity and sharing, but nothing substitutes live exchange, whether in person or by video chat or telephone call.
- Avoid aimless, regimented bean-counting. Judgment day needs to come, but it should be scheduled at meaningful intervals. Clients, do you really want your PR firm managers spending their hours looking at spreadsheets, or instead leading their teams to think about your needs and do their best work for you? For instance, spending a mere 30 seconds on a conference call acknowledging a major program success, and then grinding away on invoices or process minutiae for six minutes abuses everyone’s time and sucks inspiration and energy out of your communications partners. If you want your firm to think big, then give “big” far more of the limelight.
- A healthy agency-client relationship should be an even business exchange. Stop with the scope creep. Smart public relations agencies will bend over backwards to do a favor for a client, now and then. But incessant “never enough” is fatiguing and deflating to PR agency partners. By the same token, PR firms should remember rule #1 above and never take their clients for granted. If it feels like a shortcut, it is. If it feels half-hearted, guess what? It is.
- Show mutual respect for your people and the work challenges at hand. For starters, be on time, if not early, for appointments, or those teleconference calls. Prepare for meetings. Be organized and courteous. Unless it’s a true emergency, don’t leave meetings early or make sure to inform your teams in advance. Next, maintain your mindfulness and presence. Your goal is for the team to win, not prove you can speak louder and longer than others. Listen more and talk less. You will be heard, and more important, respected and persuasive.
- Figure out a way to not constantly check mobile devices during a presentation or discussion. For people who like to take notes on their laptops, unfortunately doing so looks like you’re multi-tasking instead of paying attention to what’s going on right in front of you. Doing so gives tacit permission for others on your team to give in to distraction. You lose too much eye contact in a personal meeting, which interferes with trust and engagement. Does this behavior encourage the cohesion your team needs as you prepare for that new product or service launch? Unless you’re the meeting transcriptionist, take notes on a legal pad. The message you send to colleagues on attentiveness is more important than your need to record every word. If you really, really need to capture detailed conversation, then do so by announcing to the group in advance that you would like to audio record the proceedings. That way, you can pay attention, and pay somebody else later to transcribe the proceedings.
- Show genuine appreciation for performance and results. Don’t over-celebrate mediocre results; yet don’t overlook or minimize outstanding outcomes. Don’t take all the credit for your agency partner’s successes (as surely you won’t take the blame for problems). Instead, position the achievement of goals as a team win, but credit the firm as appropriate. Ensure that your senior management weighs in now and then with calls or messages of appreciation. Many clients have no idea how far a kind word from the top can go with the agency.
- If you’re happy with the performance of your PR firm, don’t keep it a secret internally or externally. I’m completely biased here, but a really cool and cost-effective way to reward your PR firm for its outstanding work and relationship with you is to refer the firm to your colleagues elsewhere in your organization, and agree to serve as a reference for the firm as it seeks to earn the privilege of working for other clients. If lending your endorsement will help your partner agency win additional business, what’s so wrong with your PR agency becoming even stronger, and perhaps benefiting you and your employer?
- Avoid offering or encouraging excessive gratuities and gifts, starting with the client pitch. Freebies, unless they relate to the moment in a creative way, tend to cheapen our profession and detract from forming a healthy relationship. In government and in many companies, gifts of any amount are strict no-nos.
- Public relations firms should be, more than anything else, counselors to their clients. Recognizing the higher order of the profession as primary caretakers of an organization’s relationship with the public should be integral among internal client decision-makers all the way to the C-suite. Corporate or institutional procurement departments that insist upon rote, biannual or semi-annual outbidding relegate public relations counselors to commoditized, customer/vendor relationships that don’t incentivize agencies to do their best, even despite the best of intentions. The role of corporate procurement is here to stay. However, enlightened procurement operations seek to understand the deep value of the public relations profession understand the genuine cost-effectiveness that correlates to long-standing, mutually trusting and productive relationships between the client and public relations agency partners.
I’ve found nothing, I repeat, nothing more valuable in my experience than a decade or longer client-agency relationship that sails under its own steam of high quality results and performance for compensation.
Sustained, healthy relationships maximize results for clients and minimize disruption and chaos on the business front. For their PR firm partners, relationships built on unflagging trust in one another carry with them unrivaled stability and the prosperity that goes in hand, for both parties.
- John Seng is founder and chair of Spectrum Science Communications; as well as senior advisor to Prosper Group. John@ProsperGroup.net; @JohnJSeng