Winning The Expectations Game In PR: Advice For Companies And Agencies

How is a PR agency engagement like the Iowa caucus? A day after the first real contest, it’s clear that the election isn’t just about polls, punditry, or even the final count. When it comes to public perception, it’s all about expectations, and whether the reality measures up.

The same principle holds true in a relationship between a client and their PR agency or team. With all that’s said about the role of PR in everything from brand-building to politics, it’s hard to find an objective description of desirable PR outcomes or a standard metric for a strong return on investment for a public relations campaign.

PR is very customized. It’s nearly impossible to automate or standardize. This is part of its power, but that very singularity can lead to mismatched ideas about outcomes. A client should be wary of a Trump-like agency team who promises overnight media coverage or amazing “viral” content. By the same token, an agency is obligated to temper its legitimate enthusiasm and salesmanship with a Bernie Sanders-like communication style – unvarnished feedback about what is doable, and what it takes to get it done.

Here are some of the key areas where both parties should outline and share expectations before the agreement is signed.

Set expectations for deliverables.  As an industry, PR is moving from measuring outputs, or deliverables, to outcomes, or results. This is a good and desirable thing, but neither stands alone. So-called “outputs” –  like story pitches, bylined articles, speaker abstracts, and the like – are the tools of a good PR program, they take time and craft to do well, and they should be planned and measured like anything else.

But also for service levels.  It’s been said that clients talk about results but really value intangibles like responsiveness. I think they want it all, but it’s easy to take service for granted or to have a disconnect on that front. How often will the two teams speak or meet? How quickly are emails answered?  How involved are team members in coaching for media interviews? It’s helpful when agencies spell out exactly how much proactive contact clients can count on. And it’s even more important for the agency team to maintain a level of consistency for client contact and responsiveness.

Agree on desirable PR outcomes. This is the key question for most companies. How are the efforts of the PR team to be evaluated?  There’s no fixed formula. It may involve a combination of factors, like the reach of the earned media generated by the PR program; the message pull-through for key articles or segments; and customer actions like website visits, social engagement, or conversions, that result. These are all measurable. I’ve seen client and agency teams get hung up on the “perfect” formula and spend thousands on sentiment analysis or share of voice tools, but the important thing is to agree on a simple set of relatively objective metrics that can be evaluated with affordable tools. You can always refine your evaluation if things change.

Share expectations internally. Good internal communication inside a client organization should clue in senior management about what to expect, of course. This is common in larger companies but may not be as intuitive in a startup or business that is new to PR. And on the agency side, it’s important for senior management to stay connected to their clients and the client’s expectations through the staff who are working hard to deliver. If pressure points are felt only by an account team who is isolated from the agency’s financial management, it’s a recipe for frustrated staff and unhappy clients.

Revisit expectations frequently. Most organizations change, and we’ve all experienced “mission creep” where the agency takes on new responsibilities to keep service levels high. It’s a good idea to review expectations quarterly so that what’s not working can be tossed or corrected, and to ensure that the PR investment is working hard within a dynamic environment – and which environment isn’t?

Speak up. If something’s not on track, it’s best to address it quickly. Of course this means that clients should speak up if something’s lacking, but it also refers to the agency team that may need better information or greater access to get the job done. Passive partners rarely succeed on either side.

Maybe it’s ironic that professional communicators don’t always connect about expectations, but, then, it’s a common failure in personal relationships and even politics, as we saw in Iowa. I want my next client relationship to less “Trumpian” and more …well, let’s just say a winner due to well-articulated and managed expectations.

PR Predictions For This Year’s Super Bowl Matchup


This week’s “Golden Anniversary” of the Super Bowl is also predictable PR gold. The fans and the media have two great heroes to root for and the differences couldn’t be more stark. Cam Newton, the 26-year-old wunderkind for the Carolina Panthers in only its second Super Bowl outing will be up against beloved veteran Peyton Manning, who, at 39, leads the legendary Denver Broncos for what could be his last Super Bowl. Newton, only the sixth African-American QB in the league, faces Manning, part of an unmatched NFL player dynasty.
We aren’t predicting any PR winners here today. Instead, we’re counting the ways feature reporters on various beats will cover the rivalry.

The health angle. It may be vanilla, but the healthy aging story just writes itself. Peyton Manning is turning 40, which is remarkable for a quarterback. It’s also the age range featured in health and medical articles about ailments from arthritis to erectile dysfunction. February is Heart Month, so naturally writers can use Manning as a poster boy for stories targeted to the 40-plus set about healthy diet or prevention. Or not….apparently Newton’s “childish” eating habits (lots of sugary cereal) will make him the topic of health food “makeover” articles from Dr. Oz to Joy Bauer.

The fashion factor. The style showdown has already begun, and it may be hotter than the game itself. Cam recently appeared in jungle print courtesy of Versace, while Manning sported a conservative blue Zegna suit. The contrast alone is enough to send fashion bloggers into a frenzy of wondering who wore what better. Will the Newton zebra pants send the company into overdrive (a la Princess Kate and Michelle Obama), will it “break the internet” like Rhianna’s yellow Met Ball cape, or simply make HuffPo and GQ worst-dressed lists?

The business pitch.  A natural-born promoter, the $30-million-a-year Manning has sweet deals with huge sponsors like DirecTV, MasterCard, Gatorade, and Kraft. He’s also a savvy businessman who has invested in sports-related startups like Seat Geeks and Whistle Sports. While today it may look like Newton’s business investments run towards those $850 Versace pants, pundits will likely line up to advise him on where to park his millions. We bet on articles about sexy start-ups and sound stalwarts that fit the Newton “brand.”

A star is born.  Industry-watchers say Manning’s “second act” is acting due to his natural star quality. Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s game, there will be lots for marketing and entertainment press to ponder when it comes to his future, given the tradition of sports stars showing up on camera in other careers. Although it’s too soon to see whether Cam Newton has the star stuff, some would argue that his on-field antics predict a dramatic future.

We’ll be watching the game and counting the stories that result from this made-for-the-media matchup.