Nobody enters into a PR agency partnership thinking it will fail, just like no one gets married thinking they may one day divorce.
But inevitably, some relationships do fail. They may simply run their course, or there may be external factors that dictate change. But when client-agency partnerships end prematurely, there are often avoidable factors involved. Here are some of the key reasons for the early demise of an agency-client relationship.
Fuzzy goals or vague expectations
This is probably the single biggest reason why PR agency relationships go wrong. Most clients articulate their goals when they bring on a PR agency, of course. Yet unless those objectives are spelled out clearly and they are measurable, they can mean different things to each party. If the goals are vague, hard to quantify, or if they differ among different stakeholders in the client company, that’s a red flag. “Increased visibility,” “generating coverage,” or building “brand buzz” simply aren’t clear enough for evaluation of outcomes. It’s far better to define desirable outcomes as clearly as possible and to tie them to applicable metrics like website visits, share of voice, or customer acquisition.
Always saying “yes” is a no-no
The ideal relationship between agency and client is a full collaboration in which the agency pushes back or calls for course corrections when necessary. As detailed in things your PR firm should tell you, the agency should ideally identify challenges and speak up about its needs before the agreement is signed. Sometimes the agency needs to be prepared to push back when the client feels strongly about questionable ideas. Avoiding confrontation may not ruin a relationship right away, but it will not serve the client’s best interests over the longer run. Honest conversations, on the other hand, lead to more trust – and a fruitful client-agency collaboration.
Nobody likes turnover, and the PR industry, like many creative services, is grappling with employee churn. U.S. PR agencies reported turnover rates of 22% in 2016, according to Gould+Partners. Worse, only 56% of clients believed that agencies have the right talent to meet client needs over the next two years (PRCA In-House Benchmarking Report). Today’s tech economy is flourishing, and the U.S. unemployment rate is low, so agencies must fight to garner and keep the best young talent. If a PR firm cannot maintain its quality and consistent service, then it’s headed for a #PRfail.
The agency model
A smart marketer once said that the problem with her industry is that ad agencies charge for time, not value. The same can be said for many PR agencies. Most are compensated for time and expertise, and there are good reasons for that. But staff time spent on a given agency account doesn’t guarantee success. Again, there must be a focus on progress against outcomes, on adding value for the client. An agency that seems overly concerned with its hours, that loads up meetings with billable staff, or that simply can’t seem to commit to reasonable goals may simply be a poor choice. And while there are many billing mechanisms that are fine for different clients and projects, it’s the agency’s attitude that dictates the long term success of the partnership.
PR relationships are about communications
That’s an obvious one, right? Yet it’s a sad irony that PR agency relationships sometimes founder because of poor communications. It may be due to time pressures, fragmented contact over email, Slack or through digital drive-bys, or a failure to standardize client communications throughout the account team. Most of all, it’s up to agencies not to take the relationship for granted. The late Al Golin said of his agency’s 60-year relationship with flagship client McDonald’s, “Somebody from (the client) once said to me that the reason we’ve been successful is because we’ve always treated them like we just got them, like they were a brand new client.” Good advice.