Success hinges on overcoming communication gaps

In an industry that revolves around clear communication, a client's lack of accessibility can cause setbacks and stress for even the most experienced PR executives.

In an industry that revolves around clear communication, a client's lack of accessibility can cause setbacks and stress for even the most experienced PR executives.

And when clients are less-than-responsive, reactions within agencies range from mild frustration to downright paranoia.

"As PR pros, we always run into situations like that," says Brent O'Connor, VP at Dentsu Communications.

Each client is unique in the way it communicates its needs, adds O'Connor, and some can be positively challenging. But even if a client can't - or won't - communicate effectively, an agency partner must do everything possible to establish trust, and find ways to get what it needs to impact the client's bottom line.

"The important thing is that I need to be the initiator," he says. "That's how you get around communication [breakdowns]."

In initial agency-client meetings, talk is always about the importance of partnership, says Jill Sandin, president of JS2 Communications. During the honeymoon phase, some clients promise complete accessibility: they'll "call back within two hours, whatever you need," she says. "Then - for whatever reason - it totally goes away. Two hours turns into 48."

The problem for a PR agency, she explains, is that "we're [expected] to do a 360-degree job and we can only do a 180" when a client isn't clear and communicative. "It's really interesting because sometimes we think, 'Are they trying to sabotage us? Do they want us to fail?' If we don't have the missing piece, we [won't] be successful."

While sometimes clients may be looking for a scapegoat, often their recalcitrance is based more on inexperience working with PR firms, a lack of understanding about the discipline, or just poor time management. But because PR is a client-based service, "we can't really get angry," Sandin says.

What agencies can do, she says, is establish "very clearly delineated to-dos" for both client and firm. In addition, agency management should always keep documented accounts of cases in which communications fell apart. "You never want to be in a situation where you don't know when [something] was said," she explains.

To help everyone stay on the same page, agency execs should consider "sending [non-responsive clients] e-mail updates on things, scouting for news stories or blog entries that might relate to the particular account or issue that you're dealing with, sending thoughts - even if you don't get a response right away. That keeps a line open," says Jim Horton, principal at Robert Marston & Associates.

But that must be done constantly, he cautions. "There is a tendency for clients to forget what you've done for them lately... Generally, you have to be there for them all the time. You have to make extra time to be there until there's a breakthrough, until they understand you're a resource they should be using."

Still, Laurie Hurley, New York MD for Resolute Communications, notes that sometimes, agencies need to remember to ask what communication method the client finds most convenient.

"This is a relationship business," she explains. "What works is when you step back and understand [that] every client is going to have a different style... What works [for each one]? Is it phone versus e-mail? Sometimes we forget to ask what works best."

Key points:

Even when clients fail to communicate, they still expect results from their PR agencies

Define clear action items for both client and firm, and follow up on an ongoing basis

Clients may be non-responsive for many reasons, so don't assume they're looking for a scapegoat

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