Personal Opinion And The Slippery Slope

I received an email this morning from a casual business contact that got me thinking about a lesson I learned many moons ago from a very senior public relations agency professional. It has stuck with me through the years.

The business contact’s email commented on a recent political development and how tremendous it is for democracy and the future of the country. Keep in mind, this is not a longtime, personal friend with whom I’ve ever seriously discussed politics or social perspectives.

He obviously assumed I shared his opinion–to me a dangerous thing to do in a business context.

Whether I do agree with him or not is immaterial. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But that brings me to the point my long-ago mentor made about business and engaging clients or prospects in out-of-the-office personal dialogue or chit-chat. “Don’t ever get into politics or religion,” he warned. “Ask about business, family, sports, entertainment, music, travel, the weather–whatever–just don’t get into subjects that can lead to argument, controversy or friction.”

Know what? It’s a cliche, but from my perspective, he was right. When you start getting into the slippery slope of personal conviction and opinion, you have NO idea of where the other person stands . . . you have no idea what his or her reaction might be. It’s one thing in a social setting to engage the client or prospect in non-controversial topical issues of the day. It’s quite another to get into areas which are much more personal–subjects linked to deep-rooted individual morals or beliefs.

Has the email I received this morning affected my opinion of this business contact?

Yes, it has. No, not because of his opinion–as noted at the outset, that didn’t really matter to me–but rather because of his judgment in sending me the email in the first place.

You’re entitled to your opinion; it’s what makes democracy great. Just, as it pertains to business, keep away from the proverbial “Slippery Slope.”

The Case For The Independent Agency

Smaller and independent ad and PR agencies like to tout their size and status as a competitive advantage. The problem with some of those claims is that they can boil down to cost, and the message too easily becomes, “Hire us and pay less for essentially the same creative service, or a better publicity result.”

Depending on the client and its needs, these can be valid claims. In the PR world, if your budget is less than half a million annually, you’ll probably be better off with a smaller, independent firm. But I’d like to think there are other reasons for bringing on an agency that’s not owned by an ad conglomerate, a holding company, or a marketing network.

Value. Yes, the typical structure of the independent firm is likely to maximize service for the investment. A large-firm structure is usually a triangle, with a few highly compensated and experienced practitioners at the top and a wide base of junior staffers at the bottom. Which means the typical account team blended billing rate is that of an Account Executive, usually someone with a year or two of experience. By contrast, an independent agency is more likely to have more experienced staffers running accounts, if only by virtue of having fewer layers.

Senior talent. The account team triangle isn’t necessarily a bad bet for clients. That depends on the allocation of senior-level time and attention. After all, it doesn’t make sense for someone with a 30-year track record to be doing media monitoring or compiling lists. But the problem with highly layered firms is that big overhead adds up to constant pressure to “feed the beast.” Most senior officers are consumed with chasing new business, not servicing clients.

Personalized service. This is where I’ve most often experienced the difference between a multinational firm with hundreds of clients and a small or midsize owner-operated agency.  Some say larger firms are more likely to offer off-the-shelf or template-based programs, simply because they have to. I’m not sure about that, but in my experience, it’s after the contract is signed that the personal touch disappears. The economics of a multi-faceted agency simply mitigate against deep senior-level involvement, and turnover among less experienced staff hinders continuity at other levels. Independent agencies have greater control over their operations, by definition.

Independent thinking. This is another way of saying “autonomy,” and it can be a subtle advantage. Yet in many ways it’s the most critical, since the most valuable creative offering of any agency is its talent and depth of thinking. After more than 20 years in PR, including a stint at the PR unit of a large ad agency, it’s my belief that ad and marketing teams don’t understand PR programming beyond the lowest-common-denominator of publicity results or the urgency of crisis response. There are exceptions to this, however. The lines continue to blur among digital marketing, social media, advertising, and PR companies. Yet the most successful PR campaigns depend on an innate understanding of  the practice.

A great idea can come from anywhere, of course. And the lines are blurring, to the benefit of everyone in the marketing picture. But the starkly different economics among the paid and earned media models usually mean the paid-media guys control the bigger budgets, and he who has the larger pocketbook usually prevails when it comes to pushing creative product on a client.

Of course, the challenge for independent firms in the PR industry lies in pressing our advantage. Too often, we rely on the value proposition to win clients, or we fail to leverage our more powerful tools and talents to benefit clients and our own teams. I’d like to think that for an independent PR agency, at least, the cost-value relationship is only the beginning of the case we make to clients, employees, and ourselves.

Reflections On Working With International Clients

In PR, and any business, really, adding a client or two outside of the U.S. underscores your reach as an agency, and, importantly, it can open the door to other potential new business leads.

But first, PR pros must understand that there are legitimate differences involved. Here are tips for working with a company outside of the U.S. to ensure that you manage the account effectively.

What Happens Overseas Doesn’t Stay Overseas

Though PR pros working with international clients are (generally) charged with securing media in the U.S.—this does not mean that your client’s local media won’t impact the work you’re doing in the states. If something is leaked abroad, for instance, in time, it will affect conversations with U.S. media. To get ahead of this, talk to your client early on, during the brand immersion process, to understand their relationship with local outlets (e.g., are they covered often, are they subject to rumors, etc.). This can ultimately affect strategy in the US, so it’s useful to know as much as possible up front.

Be Aware of Schedules & Time Zones

This can go beyond a briefing. For instance, I’ve worked with several tech companies based in Israel and the Israeli workweek begins on Sunday, not Monday, generally ending on either Thursday or Friday. That meant that some members of our team needed to be available on Sundays. Your client’s schedule is always very important and, with international clients, it’s an even bigger issue.

Skype Really is Awesome

With international clients, Skype is simply one of the most valuable communication tools at your disposal. For client calls, use Skype to avoid unnecessary charges to account billings (the clients will appreciate it each month—believe me). Also, for media briefings, Skype can eliminate sometimes messy dial-in issues with international numbers on conference calls and media phoners. Basically, Skype is an all-purpose communication tool to help you connect with your client in a simple, streamlined fashion.

These are just a few tips for those with clients based outside of the US. What else has worked for you?