'Agencies should ask more questions' - PR bosses on how to improve the industry's communication problem

Agencies can improve the relationship with clients by asking more questions, according to comms bosses on a PRWeek Asia panel, who also cited the benefits of two-way reviews.

©GettyImages
©GettyImages

At a recent panel hosted by PRCA Southeast Asia in Singapore - reported in PRWeek Asia - three brand heads and one agency chief sat down to discuss in-house teams and agencies can avoid communication breakdowns.

'There's a disconnect between junior account handlers and senior clients' - comms chiefs

To optimise client-agency relationships, semantics are everything, according to Jeremy Seow, Singapore CEO of WE Communications.

"We all speak English but we don’t speak the same operating language. I think it’s really important when the words ‘marketing’ and ‘content’ means different things in an agency world and on the client side," he said.

The panel said it was common for young PR professionals – especially in Singapore – to use their agency experience as a springboard to an in-house role.

"Agencies are preparing them for this transition to client side. So we, as an agency, and as an industry, could do better in marrying some of the operating languages on both sides," said Seow.

A first step to improving language, said Seow, is understanding what the terms ‘in-housing’ can mean for agencies. "We say ‘in-housing’ a lot, and that sometimes makes us feel like the ‘out-house’. And the out-house can feel like the dog-house," he said.

Geraldine Kan, head of communications, Asia Pacific & Japan at HP, agreed with Seow and said agency consultants should be treated and spoken to like extended team members.

"We need to have a shared idea of what success means. Because an agency might feel like they’re able to do really cool creative work. Whereas, as a client, I need something that’s measurable and I’m able to bring upstairs," said Kan.

Rasyida Paddy, ASEAN PR Lead for Oracle agreed. "[Agencies] may be pitching certain things that appeal to a comms person, but you also need to understand that I’m proposing this to my client and I need to be able to socialise this idea internally," she said.

Paddy admitted that many in-house teams can be time-poor so agencies should ask more questions if they don’t get the info they need.

Kan said in-house teams need to educate about the hard networks, the soft networks, and where the decision-makers are. "And I wish, I wish, I wish, agencies would ask me more questions. I really do," she said.

WE’s Seow said feedback or review sessions are also helpful for agencies to understand where they might be falling short. But of course, these sessions should also commend the good work they put out.

"I’ve worked with a lot of clients who are very solutions- and business-focused: they don’t really proactively talk about the good stuff that goes right; they only talk about all the stuff that goes wrong," he said.

"And on agency side, we tend to think ‘I’ve screwed up, I’m going to be in bad shape’. In the past couple of years, I’ve been a lot more encouraged by these review sessions, because we also talk about the good stuff."

On the flipside, Derrick Koh, head of internal communications, East Asia & Japan at Schneider Electric, encourages agencies to review his in-house team.

"The best person to keep you honest is the agency, they’re working with you day in day out. So we created a checklist and gave it to all our servicing people and said ‘why don’t you rate us on a half-yearly basis on these key criteria?’"

Read the rest of what was said in PRWeek Asia's in-depth on how to fix the communication problem in communications.

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