PR TECHNIQUE: Pooling resources requires a firm understanding

As partnering among agencies of all sizes becomes more common, some guidelines must be followed to ensure such unions work for all sides.

As partnering among agencies of all sizes becomes more common, some guidelines must be followed to ensure such unions work for all sides.

With large, multinational firms going after clients whose PR budgets might have seemed paltry in the past, executives at small and midsize shops say they more often form multi-firm teams to compete. Some midsize agencies sell themselves on cost savings, claiming groups of independents can be less expensive than PR conglomerates. And with M&A activity practically nil, large firms partner with smaller ones they might have once purchased to fill gaps in geography and expertise. These trends increase the importance of finding the right playmates and learning to share the sandbox nicely. Partnering is particularly important in government affairs, says Bob Sommer, EVP of the MWW Group's public affairs department. "As state legislatures become more professional, there tend to be many more multistate issues," he notes. Thanks to the web and growth of organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures, a hot-button issue in one state will likely pop up in others. Lobbying, in particular, cannot be handled remotely, Sommer notes. "You can't pretend to be a lobbyist in Tallahassee if you are based in Austin," he says. MWW formed its CapitolEdge network three years ago by recruiting affiliate lobbyists in all 50 states. Firms use varying approaches to finding like-minded partners. The major networks - like Worldcom, Pinnacle Worldwide, IPREX, and Public Relations Organization International - say they go after only the best independents in key markets, a proposition made more competitive by the growth of both established and upstart networks. They set membership criteria and often require members to attend meetings for crucial face time with counterparts. In other instances, agencies and clients cobble together their own groups when they need specialized expertise or extended geographic reach. Dix & Eaton, an IR/PR firm in Cleveland, has access to about 35 agencies through International Public Relations Network (IPRN) members and works with about an equal number via one-on-one relationships, says media relations and global communications MD Gary Wells. When Dix & Eaton first joined IPRN, the network didn't have members in all the locations where the agency needed help. The firm used the six degrees of separation to identify many partners. It asked Asian reporters about agencies in their regions, Wells says. Some prefer teaming with agencies that possess complementary but not identical skill sets, and the major networks often won't allow two firms with the same specialty to be members in the same city. "New York became sort of the model for a lot of our membership recruitment," says Jonathan Bloom, CEO of McGrath/Power Public Relations in Santa Clara, CA and a Worldcom board member. "It's a city [where Worldcom] has four agencies all with different specialties, and they coexist in one major market. We try to protect a firm's practice-area expertise in any given market." Adds Wells, "You can work for people at the same time you compete with them, but it gets a little awkward." Lisa MacKenzie, proprietor of the MacKenzie Marketing Group in Portland, OR, worked with a large tech agency for more than four years, but found the relationship challenging at times since she also specializes in tech PR. A lead agency may not be as open to suggestion within its specialty area, MacKenzie notes. "I'm focusing more on partnering with agencies where I can add my expertise," she says. Lew Carter, MD of worldwide affiliate relations for MS&L takes a different approach, however. Except in markets where specialization makes sense, such as using a multilingual firm in Miami, Carter seeks generalist agencies that can provide a broad range of local support. Affiliate partners agree the best way to avoid disagreements over billing, work methods, and creative vision is to clearly set the terms from the start. "Getting the ground rules stated up front is critical," says Bloom. Wells, however, notes that asking for a contract can be seen as a sign of distrust in some cultures, particularly in Asia. "We have never asked an agency to sign a contract," he says. "We talk about the relationship up front and make sure all of the ground rules are established." Among the most important details to iron out is how the agencies will communicate with each other and with the client. Most agree the best approach is to present an open and united front, preparing plans and pitches that reflect each affiliate's contribution. Clients usually figure out when a lead agency is relying on subcontractors, so firms that keep their affiliates in the shadows run the risk of inadvertently exposing "the man behind the curtain," says Meg McAllister, whose McAllister Communications has offices in Brooklyn, NY and Toronto. A definite faux pas for a subordinate affiliate is talking to the client without the lead agency's knowledge. Such behavior can foster suspicion even if intentions are good, notes Deirdre Breakenridge, COO and PR director of PRS Marketwyse in New Jersey. "You never want to be talking to a client and moving forward and keeping your partner out of the loop. It's a disservice to everyone involved," says Breakenridge, who recommends CC-ing client correspondence to all parties involved. Clients shouldn't be included on every discussion about a joint account, however, says Bloom. "It's very important to have at least a weekly call with all the agencies without the client involved so things can be put on the table and dealt with." Most experienced affiliate facilitators advocate information sharing between partners, but some acknowledge a correlation between the depth of a relationship and its degree of openness. "You have to set your partner up for success," says Michelle Herman, global programs VP for The Hoffman Agency, who advocates sharing as much information as possible. "Many mistakenly throw a project across the border and say, 'Get it done.'" Breakenridge acknowledges, however, that there are limits to what affiliates should be asked to share. "I don't think that PR firms are apt to let go of their contacts," she says. "It takes years to build up your database." When large firms work with networks of smaller affiliates, informing staffers about partnerships requires constant effort. MS&L maintains a web page to keep affiliates and staff members connected, Carter says. Another issue is making sure affiliates see the relationship as a two-way street and recognize the advantage of calling on MS&L's resources when they need help. "Managing expectations is the biggest challenge," Carter says. ----- Technique tips Do focus on developing mutual trust through personal interaction, responsiveness, and communication Do treat affiliates as partners, not vendors Do put assignment details and financial arrangements in writing Don't ask an affiliate to work below its customary compensation rates Don't ask an affiliate for immediate turnaround on an assignment, except during a true crisis Don't assign work to an affiliate that is beyond the scope of its capabilities

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