What Clients Really Want From A PR Agency

What do clients really want from their PR agency? A panel of communications officers from top brands tackled the question recently in a no-holds-barred session at the global meeting of PROI Worldwide. The meeting was hosted by PROI partner agency Jackson Spalding, who tapped clients from three notable companies: Scott Williamson, VP Public Affairs & Communications of Coca-Cola North America; Betsy Talton, Director of Corporate Communications, Delta Air Lines; and Amanda Hannah, Manager, External Communications, Chick-fil-A.

Here’s what these top communications execs said they want and expect from an agency relationship.

Unanticipated value. “I want my agency to offer things I didn’t know I needed.” This comment from Amanda Hannah might be my favorite insight, because it captures the essence of extraordinary client service. It’s not just about being responsive and delivering on agreed-upon outcomes. It’s also about anticipating what adds value to the individual client and her organization over the long term.

Deep knowledge of the brand. If the agency doesn’t “look like the brand and speak in the brand voice,” it won’t win the business, according to Williamson. He looks for agency deliverables that “could have been prepared in-house” as a reflection of the team’s deep familiarity with the many brands under his corporate roof.

Objectivity.  Yet, that brand familiarity must coexist with a degree of objectivity. Delta’s Talton put her finger on a critical advantage of bringing on an agency partner for most companies when she explained, “It’s the benefit of knowing the brand, but not being in the trenches.”  This insight nails the tricky line that many agency teams walk; we serve as an extension of the internal communications function, yet clients need unvarnished feedback.

A drive to win.  Coca-Cola’s Williamson places a premium on an agency’s scrappiness and drive, in both new business and day-to-day media relations. “I want an agency that hates to lose,” is how he puts it. In my book that’s a good reminder that a top agency team should put as much or more energy into helping a client win on the business battlefield as we do in trying to win the client in the first place.

Fresh contacts, skills and resources. Several panelists mentioned the desire for new services, specialized expertise, and leading-edge and resources, with Williamson citing “depth and freshness of media contacts” as a priority.

An elevated game. Even more striking was the clients’ appreciation of the less visible benefits of working with an agency team. A top PR partner can raise the game for everyone, it seems. As one put it, “A great agency team can help elevate my staff and our entire department.”

An entrepreneurial spirit. It’s interesting to me that the client from the largest brand – Coca-Cola – spoke about the importance of a “founders’ vision” at his agencies. That’s what independent agencies love to hear, but it also speaks to the independent and entrepreneurial streak that the most  successful brands learn to adopt, and their agencies should reflect, no matter what their size.

A painless collaboration. As Chick-fil-A’s Hannah summed it up, “Please don’t make more work for me.”


The Scariest PR Mistakes of 2012

Most PR pros have had nightmares about a serious public mistake. Or, we’ve felt that shiver of schadenfreude when someone else’s blunder goes viral. Some of us have even experienced them. So, in honor of Halloween, here’s my list of some of the scariest PR moves and mistakes to date.

The rogue tweet. In my book, the Kitchen-Aid tweet mentioning Obama’s grandmother takes the prize here. “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president,” was tweeted from @KitchenAidUSA to its 25,000 followers during the first presidential debate October 3. The tweet was obviously an accident and Kitchen-Aid was quick to delete it and issue a well-articulated apology. But the social media slicing-and-dicing it endured is yet another lesson for those who manage multiple social media accounts simultaneously.

The cover-up. The New York Times headline last April said it all. ” Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up By Walmart After A Top-Level Struggle,” detailed how, when confronted with evidence of a strategy of brazen bribery to build its business in Mexico, top Walmart officials shut down an internal investigation and focused instead on covering up the malfeasance. Because Walmart was aware of the allegations, there’s an argument to be made that it should have gotten ahead of the story. Its response seemed to try to dismiss the scandal as an isolated occurrence, but the depth of detail that emerged make that pretty hard to swallow. A much more proactive communications strategy was required.

The amateur spy. The repercussions here were nothing like Mexico. But as a lapse in both judgment and ethics, it deserves a place on the “scary” list. In July, a young PR agency executive representing Walmart tried to infiltrate a meeting run by a labor group by passing herself off as a student reporter. The agency employee was characterized as a rogue and promptly cast out into the cold, but it’s hard to believe she acted independently. Frighteningly stupid.

The controversial stand. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy may have bitten off more than he could chew after his pro-traditional-marriage comments sparked a social firestorm. Marriage equality advocates squared off against traditionalists, with well-known mayors getting into the act. Ultimately, Chick-fil-A wasn’t badly burned by the meltdown, and it buried the hatchet with antagonists. But it was a step onto a third-rail issue with high damage potential, and one that probably won’t be repeated. The company pledged to reevaluate its funding of anti-gay groups, and its spokesperson announced its intention to “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

The polarizing move. The same can’t be said for the self-inflicted damage to Susan G. Komen for the Cure earlier this year. When Komen attempted to drop Planned Parenthood from its grants program, Planned Parenthood fired back with a very public, and highly successful, move to mobilize support among women. Komen then reversed course, angering conservatives, along with just about everyone else. More importantly, founder Nancy Brinker didn’t own up to its position, and the controversy triggered closer scrutiny of many of its marketing and fundraising practices. Komen is still struggling to recover.

The social media “surprise.” Of all brands, McDonald’s takes top prize here. Despite its PR sophistication, McD’s seemed unprepared for the Twitter backlash served up in response to its promoted tweets campaign. Meant to highlight its organic potato farmer suppliers, the promotion used the hashtag #meetthefarmers. But when it invited consumers to share their own stories under a second hashtag #McDStories, it triggered a feeding frenzy of nasty comments. The campaign was pulled and branded a #McFail. The lesson here is that when you invite a response, you should be ready for anything.

The power play. Twitter itself stepped over the line when it suspended journalist Guy Adams’s account after he tweeted harsh criticisms of NBC programming during the Olympic Games. NBC was a major Twitter sponsor, and it turned out to be Twitter itself who notified NBC of the tweets (although officially Adams’s account was shut down for including the email of an NBC executive.) But it was a rich irony and important learning for Twitter. For a top social media community that advocates for open and free speech to clamp down so clumsily was a scary – albeit temporary – mistake.

The tasteless tweet. Little-known online store CelebBoutique outraged many when it hijacked the hashtag #Aurora after the tragic Colorado shooting to promote a fashion item. This wasn’t a rogue tweet. It was either a shameless attempt to exploit a tragedy, or thoughtless and sloppy social media practice. Either way, a repugnant move.

6 Myths of Crisis Management PR

In the past several weeks, brands from Burger King and Penn State to Chick-fil-A and CelebBoutique have grappled with serious reputational threats.  These days, it’s almost routine for communications pros to be managing some kind of potential crisis situation along with proactive PR programs.

Yet true “crisis management” is probably a misnomer.  Though there are principles that apply to many situations, much of the analysis and advice from people like me comes in hindsight.  Armchair reputation managers sometimes forget that the conventional wisdom isn’t always relevant in the heat of the moment.  Here, then, are my favorite crisis management myths and misperceptions.

Myth #1. The Tylenol case is still the industry standard.
With respect to Johnson & Johnson and Burson-Marsteller, this 1982 crisis management “classic” is badly outdated and likely exaggerated.  As a victim of a frightening attack, the company faced a sympathetic press and public. And while it deserves credit for the fast introduction of tamperproof packaging months later (under FDA mandate), and for an extraordinary reintroduction of the brand, the immediate response was a poor prescription for today’s damage-control experts. For example, it took the company eight days to respond to the first signs of crisis, an eternity in today’s compressed media environment.

Myth #2. A business crisis, by definition, is impossible to predict.
Not always. In fact, most crises grow out of foreseeable ills, and many have happened before. Or they may be simmering situations left untreated or concealed, like the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. A study by the Institute for Crisis Management showed that sixty-five percent of business crises from 1990 to 2009 were “smoldering” or slow-burn situations, as opposed to thirty-five percent that were sudden events. A random catastrophe like the Tylenol poisonings is truly rare, accounting for roughly seven to eight percent of crises, as opposed to product defects, lawsuits, mismanagement, and other theoretically foreseeable happenings.

Myth #3. Any crisis is manageable with advance planning and preparation.
There’s not really a handbook for handling a business calamity. We sometimes preach advance planning and preparation as if they can prevent or preempt the damage, but often these measures can only shorten the window of negative scrutiny or moderate the tone of the resulting media coverage and chatter, at best. As basic as it may sound, sometimes the most important measure is the communications protocol. Who will lead? How many are involved in decisions and statement review? Who speaks to the press? These are basic questions that can be decided in advance.

Myth #4You should never stonewall media inquiries.
Professional communicators warn against ignoring journalists in a crisis because they’ll write the story with or without you, and because it can harm media relations for the future. But we’ve all done it. When you don’t have the proper information or cannot legally share it, it’s better not to engage at all. You’ll take the heat, but staying silent can avoid worsening the situation when the facts aren’t yet clear.

Myth #5.  In a crisis, always get the top guy involved.
This is where some inexperienced handlers jump the gun. Many negative situations are better handled by a corporate officer with enough seniority to be authoritative but not enough to jeopardize the CEO office or distract from other critical business. And where relevant, local market managers with community roots are nearly always preferable to home-office execs. CEO involvement is usually best reserved for the most acute situations such as those involving loss of life.

Myth # 6.  Media and message training can save the day.
In my experience media training is helpful but often overrated, and, more importantly, it’s not often possible when a crisis is fresh. No PR professional or crisis manager will negate the importance of a blueprint for damage control and response. Yet, John Weber of Dezenhall Resources summed up the intangible and chaotic aspects of crisis PR when he said, “Given the choice between a good plan and a good leader, I’d take a good leader every time.”

This post was originally published on MENGBlend.

PR Blunders And Some Lessons Learned

With the year more than half over, we couldn’t help but cringe over some badly handled company communications. So please join us in reflecting on these “PR don’ts” and giving thanks that they weren’t committed by YOU or your clients!

Starbucks Ireland tweets about Britain
Five years ago no one would have thought a 140-character message could stir such outrage. In June the Seattle-based coffee purveyor asked its Irish clients via Twitter to “show us what makes you proud to be British.” The customer response? A refusal to visit Starbucks stores without an apology. Starbucks issued a statement asking forgiveness, but the brew-haha raises the question, what action is best? Delete the tweet? Offer freebies? Go wild with new Irish coffee drinks? You make the call!

Adidas Shackle Shoes
When I look at these shoes I cannot help but think, “who really thought this was a good idea?” Sometimes companies release products with damnable features in the hope of garnering valuable hype. In this case, however, there is nothing fashionable, feasible, or marketable about a sneaker with plastic chains. The Adidas Facebook page exploded with comments referencing “an attempt to make popular more than 200 years of human degradation.” The company decision was to remove the post from their page, which I think was the right move.

Chick-fil-A and marriage equality
Oh, the Chick-fil-A media disaster. It’s impossible not to mention. Of course, a CEO is entitled to his opinion and has the right to express it, however ill-advised it may be, but was it smart? Well, it seems the jury is still out on this one, since what looked like an unquestionable PR blunder may actually prove to be a sales wonder! With the conservative crowd urging folks to check out Chick-fil-A, the stores drew huge crowds and the ACLU sided with the CEO.

Aurora CelebBoutique Tweet
CelebBoutique, a UK-based online store, committed the blunder of the uninformed when the fashion company tweeted about “Aurora trending” following the horrific shooting in Colorado. The store deleted the tweet, of course, but what remains unknown is how quickly it was taken down. Call me crazy, but I do believe their “tweeter” did not know about the shooting when posting, and they did respond by apologizing and explaining that their PR is not U.S.-based. However, CelebBoutique’s main blunder was in not performing a wee bit more due diligence as to why “Aurora” was trending. Lesson learned.