Ask Renee: How can CCOs build trusting relationships with their agencies?

Wilson dishes on the "golden rules" of good client-agency partnerships.

Q: Renee, for the benefit of the entire C-Suite, how can CCOs and their teams build strong, trusting relationships with PR agencies and communication counselors?

A: The role and impact of chief communications officers continues to expand, as more and more CEOs value strategic communications for strengthening global competitiveness, harnessing technological change, and addressing stakeholder activism on environmental, social, and governance matters.  

As CCOs take on more responsibilities across the C-suite for managing company reputation, they are also continuing to rely heavily on public relations agencies for support. 

According to Korn Ferry’s most recent chief communications officer survey of Fortune 500 Companies, "97% of CCOs use external agencies for the execution of programming, strategic counsel, and/or a combination of needs." Agency help is vital for CCOs since the combined knowledge, experience, relationships, and geographic reach of agency teams often exceed in-house expertise and capabilities. 

So what can CCOs and their PR agencies do to make sure they enjoy strong relationships that are productive, long-lasting, and valuable to the C-suite? 

In speaking with CCOs and senior agency counselors—and from my own experiences as chief client officer for a major global PR firm—there are several consistent themes. I call them the "golden rules" of good client-agency partnerships. 

One united team
CCOs can start by engaging agency staff as essential members of the in-house family, especially by steadily sharing strategy and other vital information about the company’s business opportunities, issues and challenges. I've seen numerous situations where informed and immersed agency teams have been invaluable to the CCO and entire C-suite in solving major issues. The key is for CCOs to make sure agency teams are fully engaged in the company – brought in as close partners – and not kept at arm’s length. Remember, agencies can’t solve problems if they lack business-specific facts and insight. 

Demonstrate value
For agencies, nothing matters more than delivering results.  Successful agencies invest in learning their client’s business priorities and provide skilled teams that anticipate needs, bring new ideas and creativity, and provide flawless execution. The best agency team leaders are quickly available and always aware of the CCOs priorities and challenges, and they consistently offer supportive counsel and productive actions. 

Build close relationships
CCOs need confidence to foster relationships between their C-suite colleagues and senior agency principals and counselors. Building relationships between the CEO and agency principals can pay off handsomely especially when major crises strike and trusting relationships with outside public relations advisors have already been established. This is especially true when board-level crises arise.

Communication is key
It takes two to tango, and CCOs and their agency partners need frequent communication to remain in step with one another. Relationship issues are inevitable—related to business scope and priorities, budgets, timelines, staffing, and results—and they need to be discussed and resolved quickly, fairly, and with good faith on both sides.

CCOs and public relations agencies will continue to significantly rely on each other as the global need for strategic communications accelerates. Those who are most successful will build enduring relationships based on strong unified teams, close relationships, excellent results, and open communication.

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