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5 Ways PR Firms Can Set Client Expectations

Like personal relationships, PR agency-client unions can sputter or fail for any number of reasons. But it typically comes down to one key issue: the gap between expectations and reality. Often both parties rush ahead, eager to start reaping the benefits of the relationship, but without syncing their individual definitions of success. Here are some simple ways to set expectations and head off problems before the LOA is signed.

Ask. Then ask again. In our business, most clients will talk about goals like “visibility” or “thought leadership,” but those objectives are very general and open to interpretation. Push your client to be specific. “What does success look like?” “Where would you like to be a year from now as a result of your PR partnership?” “What have your ‘home run’ campaigns been, and why?” “What will have changed as a result of this investment?” These are all different ways of getting at the same answer and achieving a greater degree of specificity.

Make the agency needs clear upfront. It’s better not to wait until after the agreement is signed to spell out the agency’s needs and expectations. Many startup companies, for example, fail to understand the time and resources an agency relationship requires on their end. A candid discussion will help open their eyes and vet those who are unrealistic about the commitment.

Don’t oversell. Sure, it’s easier said than done, and no one wants to underpromise in a competitive situation, but credibility is also a selling tool, particularly with an experienced client. A couple of years ago I asked a client why we won a challenging reputation assignment against an eclectic field of large and well-resourced agencies. His answer? “You were the only one who told the truth.”

Separate service levels from goals. On a day-to-day level, clients may value responsiveness and efficiency above all else, and it’s natural for the agency team to be lulled by its ability to meet challenging tactical demands in the heat of battle. But even though service quality is critical, it doesn’t hold up in a senior management evaluation where outcomes are key.

Revisit expectations periodically. A formal review is terrific, but even a spontaneous check-in can suffice to determine if objectives are being met. Too often, business and communications goals change, or “mission creep” starts to dilute more important long-term goals. An early course correction will keep a relationship from veering off into dangerous territory.

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