Agony Uncle: I fear I'm becoming the smallest client in my agency's life - should I move on?

PRWeek's Agony Uncle answers questions on promotion problems, deciphering buzzwords, client priorities, and the single best piece of PR advice.

Business first, friendship second, says PRWeek's Agony Uncle (©GettyImages)
Business first, friendship second, says PRWeek's Agony Uncle (©GettyImages)

Be the boss, not their friend

Q: I recently promoted a very able, likeable and hardworking colleague to be my deputy. The problem is they seem to be finding it difficult to think and behave like one of the bosses rather than just a slightly exalted member of the team. They manage to dodge any responsibility for saying the tough things that sometimes need to be said, but are always there for the good news.

A: The irony is your problem is the same as their problem. You get on well with this person, like them and like to be liked – all of which makes it hard for you to criticise them to their face. They no doubt also like to be liked and are used to being able to place the responsibility for difficult decisions on your shoulders. I suggest you have a chat with them about the principle of ‘cabinet collective responsibility’ which means they can disagree in private, but once a decision has been made they publicly support it. Boris Johnson is not a role model to whom they should aspire.

Dodge the jargon

Q: What do you think "engaging multiple perspectives and holistic thinking" means? I know a comms firm that claims to do this.

A: I wish I knew. The problem is that it is difficult to differentiate one PR firm from another in just a few words. Every firm has clients they "are proud of" and most claim to have "passionate people", a "creative approach" and to have "won innumerable awards". When this fails to make them sound distinct they start playing bullshit bingo and try to find the most pretentious ways of describing their "unique" approach. Sadly, it almost always sounds trite, if not meaningless, and compounds outsiders’ belief that PR and comms is, well... not very good at its own comms.

Are we still important?

Q: The agency I use has won a very big – and it seems to think prestigious – piece of business. I know I am not the only client in its life, but I fear I am becoming the smallest one. Should I move on?

A If I were a client I would not want to be the agency’s biggest client and certainly not worth more than a third of its turnover. Why not? Because the agency will be terrified of losing you. They will work hard, but will they ‘speak truth unto power’? Will they take a risk? You want to be important to an agency, but not an existential threat to its survival. On the other hand, if you really are now the smallest client you may well stop getting the care and attention you are used to. However, some agencies develop deep a attachments to clients that they have had for a long time. Rationally they should probably let the smaller clients go as they grow, but the agency world is seldom brutally rational and often strangely loyal. I’d give them a chance.

Sing to your audience

Q: What is the best piece of PR advice you have ever heard?

A: Dale Carnegie’s "Bait the hook to catch the fish." You wouldn’t put strawberries on the hook because it is your favourite food. In other words, whenever you are communicating, start from the point of view of the people you are trying to influence. Express yourself in terms of what the audience might want, not what you want.

Got a problem? Contact Trevor at agonyuncle@haymarket.com

Trevor Morris is the co-author of PR Today and Richmond University's professor of PR

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