PR TECHNIQUE: CLIENT-AGENCY RELATIONSHIPS - Starting work with anew agency

The relationship may be new, but the task at hand often isn't. So for a smooth transition to a new agency, face time must be top priority.

The relationship may be new, but the task at hand often isn't. So for a smooth transition to a new agency, face time must be top priority.

As nice as it would be to start all relationships with a blush, a shyly outstretched hand, and all the time in the world to find out each other's charming peccadilloes, the nonstop nature of PR means that it's far more likely the outstretched hand will yield a cursory handshake and two dozen overstuffed file boxes spewing media clippings onto the floor.

While the relationship itself may be new, the client's expectations are usually the same. Even when an agency is picked for a specific purpose - say, a crisis project or new brand positioning - it's very unusual for all previous PR endeavors to stop dead, and start anew with the new firm.

What at first appears to be a new beginning is often a transition at the same time - which can get messy if another agency is involved.

A media relations manager for an internet service provider confesses, "I was naively hoping that the old agency would ease the new one in, and I factored in a transition of six weeks. Of course, there was zero incentive for them to make things easy for the incoming guys, and there was enough animosity for a really good episode of Celebrity Death Match. No work was done for six weeks, we lost the respect of a really good editor who was messed around, and the new agency nearly resigned because the incumbent guys were practically stuffing bananas up their tailpipes.

In hindsight, she realized, "I shouldn't have tried to make them friends. I should have taken the incumbent off external work, and asked for very specific work from them, such as status reports and media research."

Paul Morrison, director of marketing communications, North America, for Philips Semiconductors, realized that the ongoing nature of his PR efforts needed to be clearly explained when he hired The Hoffman Agency in September. "We are a multibillion-dollar organization, and with that comes momentum, or inertia,

he says.

"It's not just starting from scratch; we already have a program and structure in place."

For this transition to work, meetings should be arranged even as the ink dries on the contract. Morrison describes some of the elements he discusses: "The sessions range from education to describing strategic thrusts and looking at what work in progress we have. We then assigned 60 day plans, brainstorming on how to come up to speed quickly, and also develop a partnership that's long-term. You have to pick up work in progress as well as work on new opportunities."

Hallie Fisher, a senior account executive at Lord, Sullivan & Yoder in Columbus, OH, says that paring back on the time allowed for the new agency's education phase could be fatal. "Prohibiting this phase will almost always lead to mistakes, inefficiencies, or ineffective PR planning,

she says.

"Companies should share any research or information that will get the agency up to speed. The agency should also be included in strategic planning and other meetings, to enable PR to truly serve as a management function."

The relationship is not just between the agency and the company's PR head, after all. Rachel McKosky, marketing communications manager at streaming media company Generic Media, hired Switzer Communications, its second PR firm, in February. "After the new relationship was set, I had the Switzer team come in for an 'immersion meeting' with the CEO, and a range of VPs and directors,

she says. "As things push forward, they'll have access to me as their daily contact, so I wanted to be sure that they got to know others."

Crucially, adds Jessica Coleman of California agency The Blaze Company, "The person who approved hiring the agency must remain involved for the first 90 days. If this decision maker walks away, the staff may not be clear on the expectation for the agency on which the choice was made, and it will have lost a crucial internal advocate."

The number-crunchers who are going to be dealing with billing at either end also should be introduced to discuss systems and expectations. As well as ensuring you know what the agency expects in terms of compensation for out-of-pocket charges, says Beth LaBreche of Minneapolis firm LaBreche Murray, you should "make sure your agency knows exactly how you want invoices and activity reports broken down, and that you have a contact in procurement so they understand volume discounting and preferred suppliers."

McKosky adds that it's vital for in-house PR people to communicate with the rest of their company throughout the process. "I made sure everyone knew my attention would be shifted to PR more than usual for a few weeks, and that there would be some ramp-up time before we saw measurable results from the new agency."

Morrison also believes that when the results start showing, a valuable part of the introduction process is to "make sure we were marketing them internally in such a manner that people could recognize there was a lot of very positive work happening on behalf of the organization."

Measuring an agency's early success can happen in a number of ways. Media tracking is a popular method - although not so relevant if you have hired a firm for a long-term strategic program. Peter Giusti, president and CEO of The Scleroderma Foundation, which recently hired Makovsky PR, explains, "we're focused on leveraging Makovsky's media relations capabilities to drive visibility and awareness. Therefore, the agency reports weekly on the status of its media outreach activities."

Morrison says, "From a relationship perspective, the evaluation is daily. That's what it's about - to act as one team. And from a measurement perspective, we realized that we needed to walk before we could run. Measuring tangible results is a gradual process. We expected to see a gradual ramp-up, and we did. In a two-month timeframe, we saw very good results. And after three months, we thought now that we've got these results, we need to rethink the program."

Many agencies plead with clients to use this opportunity to loosen their ties and open their minds. "A new agency brings a unique perspective to your marketing knowledge,

says Crystal Birch, PR coordinator at Maryland-based integrated agency RMR & Associates. "Don't force the agency to give you what you think you want. Let them give you what they think you need.

Move away from conservatism and 'I've never done it this way,' or, 'My boss will never agree to that.' While your strategy may be unconventional, it shows initiative to help the company succeed."

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