THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Firms discover that pro bono work can do them a lot of good

Some laud its long-term benefits. Others temper expectations. However, all agree that pro bono work will benefit firms, at least somewhat, with their present and potential relationships.

Some laud its long-term benefits. Others temper expectations. However, all agree that pro bono work will benefit firms, at least somewhat, with their present and potential relationships.

When Peter Duckler arrived at 5am at the Inspiration Café, a not-for-profit organization that provides restaurant-style meals, housing, job training, and other services to some of Chicago's homeless, he had a local TV crew in tow. Duckler, who is a senior consultant at Chicago-based HLB Communications, was there to help one of his client's earn publicity for his favorite cause. While his client was serving meals with the other volunteers, the camera crew Duckler brought with him prepared to beam images of the Inspiration Café's important work throughout the metropolitan area. Yet, while Duckler realized that he was doing an important service to the North Side community the organization serves, he was also keenly aware that he was doing something else important. He was strengthening the bond he had with one of his clients. "My client is there at 5am and I'm there with them," says Duckler. "One of the challenges we face as PR agency people is trying to get more face time with our clients. And this was a great time for that because here we are chatting away with each other and such interaction in that atmosphere helps to really establish us as a strong partner. And in the end, we want our clients to view us as partners." HLB, which says it does its fair share of pro bono work, says clients are often a key source of pro bono ideas. "We might have a client that's on the board of directors of a foundation and will approach us with a request to donate some time. That's certainly happened to us and we're always happy to take a look at such opportunities," said Peter Lynch, principal at HLB. For instance, HLB also currently works on a local marketing campaign for an organization called Naperville Cares, a grassroots organization of community groups and individuals dedicated to preventing homelessness. This opportunity came about via a partnership with GE Real Estate, a unit of the General Electric Company and one of the firm's blue-chip clients. Yet, does such good karma go far in the PR industry? Some say it's very important for smaller firms to be careful when clients approach them with pro bono work. They say agencies should not to be intimidated into doing something pro bono if they really can't afford the time. "I'm a bit tired of clients coming to me and saying, 'Well, you know that so-and-so giant PR firm will do this pro bono,'" says Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations and author of Full Frontal PR. "It's something we must weigh because we can't do this every time a client says something like that to us." Yet HLB says that its pro bono work has not only helped it strengthen its bonds with current clients, but it has also helped it win new business and network with community leaders and other influentials. HLB's Lynch points to his firm's work for a nonprofit organization that is focused on brining new ideas to those charged with designing Chicago's cityscape. He says that the agency's pro bono work for that organization has paid dividends. "Because of our work on that, we were able to rub shoulders with some of the top opinion leaders in Chicago," says Lynch. "We also had multiple opportunities to develop relationships with some leading commercial real-estate developers. That area was a very strong part of our business practice." Indeed, such exposure would seem to work hand-in-hand in with marketing efforts. "That really gets our name out there on all the materials, thank-you notes, and items of the like that go out," says Duckler. "And many times, this is how our firm has gotten a referral. These people see that we do good work and they think of us first when they need an agency." Still, Laermer remains uncertain that pro bono work will lead firms to many new business opportunities. "It sounds like a misnomer," says Laermer. "If we were to represent one of these giant nonprofits, which admittedly do a lot of good work, and we agreed to do work for them on a pro bono basis, I'm not sure we could ever count on that becoming anything more than that - which would be fine. However, I don't think it's ever going to amount to anything more than some good work." ----- Pro bono done strategically
  • Some agencies align their pro bono work with their business objectives
  • This can mean doing pro bono work that coincides with a client's philanthropic efforts
  • It can also mean working with organizations that are linked with key influencers
  • Others feel like pro bono work is unlikely to lead to much new-business opportunity

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