When most corporate communications professionals think of a status report, they visualize an encyclopedia-sized packet listing every phone call made and every mention of their company or product in the media, neatly printed on agency letterhead, landing on their desks monthly with a heavy thud.
"In general, I don't view them well, says Verisign VP of communications Tom Galvin, who argues that bulky status reports are a waste of time. "I know what our monthly performance was, so clippings aren't what interest me."
Such stereotypes have given status reports a bum rap, largely because they represent the largest dilemma faced by companies and their agencies: linking intangible PR efforts directly to increases in sales, public awareness, or brand building. In addition, status reports have become a means of justifying PR costs to the accounting department.
"Many clients are very bottom-line oriented, but they're three levels removed from the communications teams, says Paul Entin, president of EPR Marketing. "If Mr. Somebody Upstairs wants a report, you get them a report."
Both agencies and clients agree that status reports should open up opportunities for dialogue between the two sides, rather than serve as a primary means of communication. Instead of ignoring issues of cause and effect, "reports should explain intangibles and why they can't be measured, Entin says.
Barry Sulpor, PR director at Candle Corporation, says, "The smarter agencies use (status reports) to structure a conversation with the clients about what the results have been and what else needs to be done. It's a way to make sure we're on the same page."
Many clients work so closely with their agencies that status reports serve merely as a point of reference, while others use status reports as a call to future action. "We use it as a springboard to communicate," says Michael McNally of Lego Systems. "I guess the bottom line is that we don't look at the memo to be the complete explanation."
As a result of this shift in emphasis, clients and agencies are finding easier ways to make sure that all parties are updated with the latest and most accurate information to place a greater emphasis on analysis.
Many of these new techniques involve the internet. Virginia-based O'Keeffe & Company has a call-report and status-report generator on its web-based intranet, which ensures that all team members are aware of the status of the project.
San Francisco-based Atomic PR offers clients real-time status reports through portals on the internet. Clients can see the status of their project any time they like, and the status report has been replaced by the working meeting. Team members within the agency can just hit print, rather than spend extra time working on a report.
Atomic CEO Andy Getsey says that clients are not interested in the past.
"We've found that it's helpful to focus most status-report time on issues that need to move forward and things that need to be completed. We take completed things off the status report, and try to change the status in a working meeting, he says.
Status reports are tools that can be customized in every way, from size, form, and content, to the schedule on which you receive them. Though call logs and clippings books are still used frequently, they have given birth to a new breed of reports. As Entin points out, to ignore status reports would lose the account, so agencies will usually alter them to a client's specifications. Most reports are now only a few pages long, sent weekly or monthly, and many arrive as e-mail memos.
Negotiating the terms of a report is not difficult, but a company needs to know what it wants, and clearly express that to the agency. How often do you want to see status reports? Do you want clips as they are printed, or collectively? How should the reports be transmitted - through ground mail, e-mail, or online? What do you want the format to be?
Another important factor to consider is how the report should be laid out. "I'm more interested in results than the way they are presented, but the simpler the format, the better, Sulpor says. However, if the agency's format is not compatible with your company's priorities, feel free to suggest a way that emphasizes the strategies or results that are most important to you.
In addition to results, many clients want analysis. "The why, the good, and the bad are what matter, says Galvin.
And if you still need to satisfy the accounting department, it is not uncommon to request that a budget be attached to the status report. Sharon Gamsin, VP of Global Communications for MasterCard, says, "I'm a stickler for reviewing expenses, seeing how they're spending my money."
It is also important to discuss any status-report issues with your agency.
Gamsin says that problems pop up regularly, especially if a company uses several agencies for different projects. "It does happen, but generally it's a matter of reviewing where the report isn't meeting our needs and why it's not working. Are we asking for something that's difficult to pull together, or is it just a misunderstanding? she explains.
To avoid misunderstandings, be sure to communicate consistently between the delivery of reports, because a status report is hardly a place where clients should see something new, Galvin says. "I get a monthly summary of activities. If I don't know what's in that, fire me."
1 Do use status reports as a communication tool, not a complete explanation
2 Do clarify the content and format that will work best for you
3 Do make sure that the report is free of jargon that may confuse company members unfamiliar with PR
1 Don't let the status report serve as the only point of contact between you and your agency
2 Don't hesitate to tell your agency if you have a problem or would like to change your status report
3 Don't make it too long.