How to keep clients in a recession

If Abraham Lincoln was alive today and advising PR executives how to stave off recessionary budget cuts, he'd probably suggest taking a big picture perspective. And, I'd like to think he'd call it, "of the client, by the client, and for the client."

If Abraham Lincoln was alive today and advising PR executives how to stave off recessionary budget cuts, he'd probably suggest taking a big picture perspective. And, I'd like to think he'd call it, "of the client, by the client, and for the client."

Having been through previous downturns, we know PR is often among one of the first cuts by nervous clients. In these times, most clients focus on two things: sales and costs. Because most of the industry has failed to define the exact business outcomes of a PR program, we fall victim to a bottom-line focused client. Under-standing the client mindset is one thing, adapting to it is another. I see far too many agencies practicing a business-as-usual approach. To borrow a phrase from another historical period, PR is fiddling while Rome burns.

Instead, we should be doing everything possible to avoid being commoditized. We should focus less on quantity and more on quality. But, the focus on quality should extend far beyond mere media relations. It should concentrate on the client's business model. The more we understand what's keeping our clients up at night, and critically, what's keeping our client's clients up at night, the more valuable we become, and the more we can contribute to an organization's sales results.

Taking the time to understand a client's pain is the best way to provide added value, deepen an existing relationship, and forestall cuts. Agencies routinely describe themselves as partners to their clients. But, are they true business partners? Or, do they merely implement a media relations program based upon secondary knowledge of the client's business and customer needs? To provide true, recessionary-proof value, agencies need to integrate themselves in a client's business and become a "must-have" partner, rather than a "nice-to-have" vendor. It may seem like a tall order, but there are a number of ways in which PR professionals can rise to the challenge:

Insist at the start of a client relationship that the agency have periodic access to the sales force. Ideally, agencies should be empowered to explain PR's vital role in creating awareness and closing sales. Too many sales and marketing organizations operate independent of one another. An external agency can help close that gap and deliver real value.

Play a "fly-on-the-wall" role at a client sales force's customer meetings. Listening to this will not only uncover key customer pain points and issues, but help the agency fine-tune the focus of the PR plan.

Ask client salespeople to qualify their leads. Have them determine if, and how, PR played a role in securing any critical first meetings. Agencies that establish a direct connection will have concrete proof of PR's impact on sales and be in a much stronger position when the corporation starts to slash and burn.

How might Lincoln have summed it up? Those firms able to prove a direct correlation between their efforts and sales shall have a new birth of freedom. One of the client, by the client, and for the client that shall not perish despite a recession.

Steven Cody is managing partner of Peppercom, a strategic communications firm based in New York.

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