When crisis hits, most agencies will tell their clients to be proactive in their communications. Those same agencies sometimes have the opportunity to implement those strategies themselves when bad news threatens an existing relationship with a client.
David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, says that clients, especially the smaller and medium-sized businesses, are likely to dodge a relationship that isn't working, leaving it up to the agency to address the issue.
"They're afraid to confront it, worried [any severing of a relationship] will shut them off from other agencies or the industry," Johnson says. "They'll avoid it; their way of dealing with it is not dealing with it."
Johnson actually had to send one client a termination letter, prompting the taciturn executive to finally reach out and claim that he was going to put the account on hiatus.
But Johnson says the best way to handle things is diplomatically.
"If it's not working out, the best way to do it is to say, 'This is not a good fit,' and explain why," he says.
Johnson adds that firms should strategically position their communications as "looking out for the client's interests." His advice is an adaptation of the old dating chestnut, "It's not you; it's me."
It may be just one person that is causing the relationship to go awry. In those matters, Johnson says the best strategy is to have a private meeting with the individual.
"Show how it's not working and have documented proof of why it's not working," he says. "You have to show where it's hindered the client."
But bad news can occur in even good relationships.
Steven Blinn, BlinnPR CEO, says he had to tell one client on the eve of a big meeting that, despite the agency's stellar domestic campaign, the EMEA PR was failing because his affiliates were failing.
Blinn decided to be forthright with the client, despite the uncertainty of whether the client would broach PR in the meeting.
"In hindsight, after finding out how the meeting went, I didn't have to bring it up. But, I brought it up because EMEA wasn't meeting our expectations," he says.
BlinnPR quickly took steps to replace its partners in Israel and the UK.
"Instead of letting the client pick out the bad news - whether they would or not - we brought it to their attention," Blinn explains.
Blinn notes that he didn't worry such an admission would prompt dismissal because his domestic stats and the client-agency relationship were so strong.
Samantha Slavin, CEO of Samantha Slavin Publicity, had to break the news to a client she genuinely liked that a larger competing client wanted her representation.
"It was three times the money each month; it was something I couldn't say no to," Slavin says. "She understood that it was undeniably a tremendous opportunity."
Slavin took great pains to ensure the client did not miss a PR step, reaching out to two other agencies before she told the client about the conflict, asking if they wanted the business. Slavin's former client actually ended up with one of those agencies.
"I felt like I was doing a good thing by helping her find a new agency," Slavin notes. "She wasn't necessarily plugged into the PR environment. I thought I was doing the right thing."
Make sure your agency is the first to broach uncomfortable subjects; it's better that you're proactive
Keep the discussion civil. You may be working with the company or staffer down the road
Honesty is key - clients will understand your point of view if they feel you've told them everything