beyond the press release


'Going Rogue' Again? Keeping Client Communications In Check

With a title like the above, you might think we’ve returned to the days of Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life. 

But this time I’m not talking about a “mavericky” Alaskan -- who, along with a very talented PR machine, masterminded a brilliant and profitable 15 minutes of fame. I’m talking about the client-PR agency relationship and how, despite living in an age of instant communication, some maverick-prone clients fail to keep their PR agencies abreast of what they are planning to say, how they plan to say it, which media outlets they’re talking to and who’s writing what. It’s as if we’re being undervalued -- a topic I discussed in a recent blog, Proving PR’s Business Value Easier Said than Done, But Not Impossible.

A recent AdAge article also addresses this growing advertising agency concern, citing data from The Bedford Group that finds the average client-agency relationship length has fallen to under 3 years versus 7.2 years in 1984 -- a drop of almost 60% over three decades.



What has changed and why is this happening?

Even my agency has not been immune to so-called rogue clients. A press release gets drafted without our knowledge. A media interview is conducted without our review and the client is caught off guard. Each scenario is a potential PR minefield.

Notice in the preceding paragraph that I was very selective in my language, as all PR execs should be. At no point did I say “without our consent” or “without our green light” -- and I think that’s the problem right there. Turf wars between agency management/oversight and client control. Considering that client-agency relationship lengths are so short, we must do everything in our power not to step on clients’ toes, or we may be perceived as know-it-alls.

Trust me, we’re not. And in the power struggle that communications can become, clients have the final say.

That said, there is a reason why we call the client-agency arrangement a relationship and not a doctor-patient review. Clients come to us for creative ways to improve their brand, not reinvent it. They’re not sick. They’re not dying. Agencies are integral to this team effort. And that collaboration, as I addressed in another blog, begins with thinking about clients less as machine-like conglomerates, and more like individuals with communication needs that must be met, not serviced.

So what we have here are two partners failing to communicate -- one that is perceived to be micromanaging (the agency) and one that’s looking to preserve its own voice. As AdAge rightly points out, technology ironically hampers our communication efforts as excessive emails and meetings trump genuine correspondence and conversations, watering down the quality of our time together.

And since this article began with a political reference, I’ll begin my wrap-up like this: agencies and the clients they represent need to press the “reset button,” remembering to be transparent about what each side plans to do and when they plan to do it, within reason. It’s a building block of trust and mutual respect. PR agencies are there to help, not hurt. And we can only do that when clients are honest with us and we are aware of their intentions. Likewise, agencies must involve their clients actively in the communications and PR outreach process.

Of course, this advice won’t stop all instances of going rogue, nor will it consign the occurrence solely to our industry. Sometimes, for very deliberate reasons, clients employ elements of surprise to their communications advantage, keeping everyone but their innermost circle in the dark. The recent shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates that even inner, inner circles aren’t always privy to the thoughts of one individual.

In most cases, as seems to be the case with Alaska’s former governor, going rogue helps no one, not even the so-called “maverick.” Fittingly, like the drop in client-agency relationship length, Palin’s Amazon book price has fallen 60% too.

Does your agency have a going rogue problem? Inspired by the data gathered from The Bedford Group, I’d like to begin collating my own research on the client-agency “going rogue” phenomenon and report our findings in a follow-up article. Beyond the suggestions I have offered, how does your agency address the problem? Are there examples of a contentious client-agency relationship being healed by an attitude adjustment? Any particularly jarring “rogue moment” that caused your agency to put its foot down and change communications course? Lastly, like a heart attack, are there any warning signs that rogue has arrived? I would love to hear about your experiences with clients “going rogue.” 

4 comments about "'Going Rogue' Again? Keeping Client Communications In Check".
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  1. Janet Chiu from CyberTurf Strategic Media, March 6, 2013 at 8:41 a.m.

    I’m willing to bet this problem is pervasive. In the age of social media, everybody from the C-suite to the mail room is being encouraged to get in the conversation. Limits are hard to explain and understand, but so necessary. There’s a need to discuss limits, that ideas should be run by the agency, and to reinforce that the agency contact is available 24/7 for consultation. Avoiding a crisis is not micro-managing.

  2. Alex Lekas from PTI Security, March 6, 2013 at 9:01 a.m.

    Communication is the one discipline everyone thinks he/she is qualified to do. No one would dream of doing that with engineering or being a pilot, but this is just talking, right? How hard can it be? Unfortunately, the answer to the latter question is usually discovered after having stepped in it.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 6, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.

    Amen, Vanessa. "Everyone's a critic." There's no cure for stupid.

  4. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., March 6, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

    Too many on the client side confuse "having the right" with "being right." Their paranoia leads them to believe their agency will leak something when the biggest leaks are among their own staff. And too often, the agency comes off as whiny and obstructive to what client big shots want. About the only antidote is a strong relationship between the agency and client, and strong relationships within the client between the client's agency liaison officer and the C-suite.

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