The client-agency relationship is never a simple one. Each brings a different element of power to the table: the client pays the invoices and (hopefully) recommends the firm to other businesses, while the PR agency holds the fate of the brand image in their hands. Both parties are vulnerable in different ways, which is why in-house marketing leaders and PR firms both value good client/vendor relationships.
If you're a CEO or internal marketing leader who's managing a PR team, maybe you've never considered the possibility of being fired by them. That's your prerogative, right? You're the one who hired them, after all. You sign their checks.
But the reality is that your PR agency can fire you, it happens all the time, and it's a move that can leave you scrambling. Suddenly you're tasked with an exhausting evaluation process of new agencies. Your PR program will probably begin to lag and relationships with key influencers may get lost or damaged in the process. In a world where momentum matters, that kind of dip in visibility can put you back at square one or into a negative zone.
In other words, if you're working with an agency that holds the keys to your PR kingdom and all of your PR data, you'll want to take measures to ensure your PR program can survive when turnover happens.
That doesn't mean you need to grovel in their presence, of course. But you do need to treat them like a partner and not an order-taker. Not sure what that means? Review the below infractions that get clients fired.
#1. The PR goal is media hits.
Media hits mean nothing if they don't help you achieve business objectives. They are not the goal in and of themselves. Your brands' business objects are what should drive PR strategy, resource allocation, and how your/they measure PR success. If you can't provide a consistent roadmap that begins with where you are now and where you'd like to be, your team will have tough time understanding how they can help you and you'll have a tough time knowing if PR is a good investment.
#2. The story keeps changing, with no solid foundation.
This usually happens in smaller companies. Sometimes there's significant internal turnover with each executive changing their mind on the brand purpose; other times the leadership simply blows whichever way the wind does. Without a firm message anchored to a compelling value prop, the PR team will find it almost impossible to create momentum or impact.
#3. PR isn't a priority.
Every leader is busy, but constantly cancelling meetings and ignoring emails is going to leave your PR team incapable of producing results. PR runs on tight deadlines, imposed by the influencers they're trying to influence on your behalf. That means you have to review and approve content quickly and answer their calls. Look, you're busy. If you're too busy to give the PR program the attention it needs, delegate management to someone else on your team or put it on ice until you can make it a priority. Otherwise you're just wasting money.
#4. Bait and switch.
Brands hate it when their agency brings the senior executives in for the pitch then passes the client off to junior team members who weren't even part of the RFP process. The same is true when clients do this to agencies. The agency-client relationship is a partnership - one chosen partially because both sides like who they'll be working with. So it's frustrating for a PR agency to sign the deal with an educated, media-savvy leader who then hands them off to a staff member who doesn't understand PR from accounting. Make sure everyone who will be involved with the project is involved in the "getting to know you" phase. Don't be afraid to ask the same courtesy of your agency.
#5. Unrealistic expectations.
These clients will agree to a reasonable initial set of goals, then grow restless within a few months. They'll ask why they haven't been in the Wall Street Journal yet and blame the PR team for not making them an overnight success story. If you and your agency have agreed upon goals - honor them. If the goals need to change, communicate that to your agency and agree, again, to the new goals. Give your agency a chance to bow out if they feel a goal is unrealistic, but also listen to them. They're the experts and may know a think or two that you don't about why a certain initiative may or may not succeed.
#6. They just want a yes-man.
It's a contradiction that happens again and again: the client hires a PR firm for their expertise and instincts, but expects the firm to simply parrot the client's existing strategies. When the firm tries to bring their own ideas to the table, or point out strategic weaknesses that aren't serving the PR, the client will balk. The team is then forced to choose between executing on counterproductive strategies or terminating the relationship. When they're on the hook for the success of failure of the PR program, which do you think they'll choose?
#7. Invoices are continuously paid late.
This should be a no-brainer, but many clients think it's acceptable to pay teams months after their payments are due. Beyond being annoying, this can be a hardship on a smaller PR firm that needs to regularly pay its own contractors and staff.
Smart brand leaders will invest in their PR teams the way they invest in any valuable relationship - with thoughtfulness and respect. If your public relations firm is getting the results you want, protect the partnership with good behavior. If they're not, release them to find a client who's a better fit for them. Then find the PR pros who are right for you.