THINKPIECE: Can the relationship between a PR agency and its client be a true 'partnership'?

According to the new-age gospel, surviving in today's economy requires partnerships. It's all about creating ecosystems with a zillion connections.

According to the new-age gospel, surviving in today's economy requires partnerships. It's all about creating ecosystems with a zillion connections.

According to the new-age gospel, surviving in today's economy requires partnerships. It's all about creating ecosystems with a zillion connections.

Check out the wire services on any given day. You'll be greeted with an avalanche of press releases touting the latest 'strategic partnership.' In short, the meaning of the word 'partnership' has become so watered down, it's practically a synonym for 'affiliate.'

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I have a simple perspective of what makes the relationship between a client and a PR agency a true partnership. It's an attitude in which each party cares about the success of the other party, not just about its own success.

In striving to establish partnerships with clients, we always communicate one specific expectation during the agency review process: the client needs to take partial responsibility for the account team's experience.

We make the point that we can do everything right as a company - provide training and career advancement, build a positive environment, offer competitive compensation packages, etc. - but there's no getting around the fact that a key part of the account team's experience comes from interacting with the client.

This doesn't mean we expect clients to roll over. Clients should demand great work. We're demanding it of ourselves. The point is to treat people as you would like to be treated, and when things do go awry to take constructive actions.

I'm disturbed to see the number of cases in which clients beef up their internal PR resources by poaching from their agencies. Not exactly an action that contributes to an agency's success. I know of one specific situation where the client hired away the bulk of its agency team, chastised the agency for lack of consistency and eventually ended the relationship.

I recognize there's a range of philosophies that governs client/agency relationships. Some clients are going to treat their PR agencies like any vendor. Some agencies find such a setting works fine.

As long as both parties agree to the parameters, they're following the right path. Just don't call it a partnership.

Lou Hoffman is president of The Hoffman Agency, a hi-tech focused PR company based in San Francisco





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