Both Sides Now

Today's guest post is by Syd Steinhardt, Sr. Director of Public Relations, NYU-SCPS

Alice_looking_glassI've looked at life from both sides now,

From up and down and still somehow,
It's life's illusions I recall,
I really don't know life at all.
    – Joni Mitchell, 1969

One day long ago, when I was an account executive at a respected midsized PR agency, the senior vice president and I were discussing some management changes at our division’s biggest client. “What do they do in corporate communications?” I asked, rhetorically. “It seems that all they do is go to meetings, while we get to do the fun stuff.”

By “fun stuff,” I meant the brainstorming, the program creation, the pitch formulation and then, the pitching of the story to the media. If you’re an agency person reading this, you probably agree – and you probably wonder what the heck your client does all day.

Having been on the client side for five years after more than a decade as an agency guy, I can assure you that we are not all burned-out, lazy, incompetent, risk-averse, paper-pushing, clock-watching, 401(k)-obsessed, long lunch-taking bureaucrats. They exist, to be sure, but it helps to understand how clients became what they appear to be.

In my experience, client contacts fall into three broad categories. Most have not worked in an agency, so they may not understand or care that much. Others know something about PR, but they trust the agency to run the show, as long as they are kept informed. Then, there are those who have left agency life, but still retain their passion for the business and want to be fully engaged in the account as an active partner with the agency.

For all of those stereotypes, which are admittedly exaggerated, there are those that exist on the client side, too: Agency people can’t write. They’re a mile wide and an inch deep. They’re more concerned with upselling us for an increased fee and they don’t pay enough attention to our existing business. They lie to us because they don’t think we know anything.

These are all true, to some degree, so let’s address them. Start with the poor quality of writing that comes from PR agencies. Much has been written about this, yet nothing ever seems to change. There’s really no excuse for it. There are four essentials that should be on every PR person’s desk: a dictionary, a thesaurus, “The AP Stylebook,” and “The Elements of Style.” To stay ahead of the competition, add “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing,” William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to that list.

Poor writing is often a symptom of sloppy thinking, but it also may be created by unrealistic expectations. Clients want it fast and right the first time – but don’t have the time to explain the concept to the agency, then make it wait weeks for review and approval.

As for the agency being shallow, the burden is on the client to take the time to explain his business to his agency and to keep doing it until he’s satisfied. The account reps don’t have to know everything; just enough to interest third parties in talking to the client about his product or service in greater detail.

Consider the pressures that an agency is under. Of all of its clients, not every one of them has first call on it for every announcement, such as an assistant district manager’s pending induction into the Mid-Atlantic Widget Hall of Fame. Not everything is a story.

Remember that PR works as a marketing support function. It’s the client’s job to keep his agency on track. Clients spend 40 or more hours a week on their business, but the agency may be spending less than that on it per month. Value the agency’s time; it’s productive to do that.

Like it or not, clients, hiring a PR agency is not like hiring a housecleaner; it cannot execute without your active involvement. Unfortunately, some clients act as if the agency is a nuisance to be patted on the head and sent on its merry way. The next time that you want to complain about your unproductive agency, think about what you are doing to help it to help you.

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