What PR Pros Can Learn From The Hospitality Industry

I am fresh off a vacation and couldn’t help but notice some things the hospitality industry does well – things that PR agencies and other professional services firms can adapt for providing superior client service (clients, listen up too!)

Give a client something for nothing. Well, not nothing, of course. But the way the travel industry showers you with free cocktails and gourmet sampling opportunities is a good model for providing clients with an unanticipated extra once in a while. It’s a way to let them know that you value the relationship enough to go above and beyond.

Provide proactive customer service. Take a page from the hospitality industry and the late NYC Mayor Koch and solicit feedback on the job you’re doing as you’re doing it. Before it ever reaches the equivalent  of a bad Yelp or TripAdvisor posting, you can root out any negatives proactively and work to solve ASAP.

Teach your clients something they don’t know. OK, not everyone wants to learn to line dance or fold a cutesy towel animal, but it’s offered, and it’s thoughtful. Perhaps you can take your client through some social media lessons or provide a primer on the new media landscape. Don’t give away all your trade secrets, but share in a way that benefits the relationship.

Make it easy to work together.  You know how much a traveler appreciates the words, “no problem”? You want to be that PR agency! Within reason, of course, handle all requests with a positive attitude and make problems go away, or, to the greatest of your ability, not happen at all.

Always be thinking about the future. Savvy travel marketers are selling you your next trip before you’ve finished your current one. Smart PR pros should do the same by thinking of ways to extend the existing relationship and build on current accomplishments.

The Elusive PR Prospect: When They’re Just Not That Into You

PR firms are often asked to develop proposals on spec in order to secure business from a potential client. Sometimes it’s as simple as a word document laying out a strategy to solve a communications challenge, or it can be an excruciatingly detailed RFP (sometimes known as Request for Pain!)

It also happens that many of the proposals a PR firm submits go into the infamous “black hole.” The prospect seems to fade away and is never heard from again. Frustrating? Maddening? Yes, but there are some red flags to pay attention to that may help you make sound choices when apportioning precious PR agency resources in the pursuit of new business.

The turnaround time is incredibly tight. In our experience this sometimes means a marketing team has been tasked with the impossible and is looking to PR as a life raft even though they haven’t been funded to retain external counsel. Ask a lot of questions when you see a crazy deadline to help you separate reality from fiction.

Request has been sent to a cast of thousands. Always ask how many agencies are involved in the search and ask about size of firms, location etc.  Although there are exceptions, as in the case of government contracts, a good rule of thumb is that a client looking at more than 3-5 firms is probably “idea-shopping” rather than truly looking for PR agency partner. Run, don’t walk.

The client contact is tentative and inexperienced. This may signal a disconnect between the manager or director looking for a PR firm and the more junior person they have tasked to act as a clearinghouse. There is potential for a real mismatch and you may never learn why your proposal failed to make it up the chain. Try to get a conversation with the most senior person on the team as early in the process as you can.

The budget is ridiculously low or ridiculously high. Unrealistic expectations usually drive this conundrum. If your PR agency is in love with the project – it’s a premiere brand, it fills a category niche you have coveted – and you can find a comfortable approach to working on it, go for it. Important side note: if there is no budget, that is an enormous red flag. Perhaps these are people who haven’t thought out what PR will cost them and need to be educated before seeking proposals.

The prospect has been through a series of agencies. There’s an opportunity for your agency to be the one with the magic formula for success with this client. Just know that your days are numbered, as this leopard rarely changes its spots. If you’re privy to any of the agencies who were employed before you, check out the prospect with them for some inside scoop.

PR Agency Relationship-Builders for the New Year

The New Year is an ideal time for PR agencies to re-evaluate and perhaps improve relationships with clients and contacts. Relationship-building is also a great habit to form for the New Year. Here are some pointers all successful PR firms can employ.

Make introductions. Chances are, you know a mid-career executive who’s out of work, or a recent grad who’s trying to break into communications. Get into the habit of introducing people who need a boost to others in the biz. It doesn’t need to be about an available spot, since those are likely to be few and far between. But a simple introduction to someone with helpful contacts or knowledge can go a long way.

Get face-to-face. Is your client speaking on a panel? Go hear her. Does the CEO need briefing prior to a media interview? Get there. Any excuse to get face-to-face to your clients and the entire marketing team is a great way to be indispensable and demonstrate your commitment to the business.

Revive dormant contacts. Lost touch over the years? The end of the year/beginning of a new one is an ideal time to recharge old contacts. Link In, follow, or make a date to get together to catch up.

Set a goal for new relationships. Maybe you want to create three new contacts a month through social media. Whatever the goal, make it manageable, and start slowly, by Linking In or RT-ing a Twitter update. Social media can give you some insight into job history, friends in common, interests and even where they grew up, information that can be helpful in building a relationship. Just take care not to appear to be stalking.

“How about those [insert sports team name]”. Communicate about non-work interests from sports to vacations and family. Creating a well-rounded relationship makes all communication easier and more comfortable. It also engenders deeper trust in your client when confiding useful information that will benefit your relationship and your work.

Do something sociable, not just social. We are all busy and it’s hard to make time to do one more “work” thing. But taking a client to lunch or having the team go out for drinks reaps untold benefits as your relationship grows. In addition to the aforementioned increase in trust and comfort, these outings offer a relaxed atmosphere where you may discover how much you genuinely like the people you do business with. A side benefit indeed!

Insider Tips on Hiring the Right PR Firm

In a previous post, we offered ideas for eliminating roadblocks to successfully partnering with the right PR agency, be it B2B, consumer, tech or professional services.

Once that decision is made, the rest is easy, right? Not so fast. The search for the “ideal” PR firm can be time-consuming and even overwhelming. How do you cut through the hype and achieve something like an apples-to-apples comparison? Here are some tips on how to narrow the field and determine the right PR agency partner.

Get recommendations and referrals. Often this is the easiest way to start. There are many PR firms with different areas of concentration, various sizes, and different work styles. Hearing from a trusted colleague or business associate in a related field who has achieved PR success with an outside firm can help narrow things down.

Consult the industry experts. Over 100 leading PR firms belong to The Council of PR Firms (CFPR), the industry trade association and a terrific source for researching your “short list.” There’s also O’Dwyer’s, which organizes listings of PR firms by geography and specialty. There’s also the Holmes Report which publishes many reports on PR agencies.

Visit agency websites and blogs often. Sure, your team gave it a once-over when you were creating a short list, but make sure to revisit. A stagnant website with an outdated blog and nothing new or fresh may not reflect the vibrant, hard-working agency you want on your business.

Ask for more than client references. Since media relations will likely be a key factor in determining your decision, ask your agency suitors to provide some references at relevant outlets and follow up with them to see if their relationships are legit.

Or, ask for references from clients who fired the agency. Even the best agencies have clients, who, due to reasons of chemistry, politics, or budget, have had to end the relationship. It can be enlightening to speak to those ex-clients, or just to learn how prospective agencies respond to your request.

Research enviable PR coverage. If you see a thoughtful piece on a company president, broadcast coverage of a creative special event or a business story touting a new product, find out who represents the lucky company and track them down! You can sometimes find this information by googling for newswire pickup of agency announcements, or sometimes by simply contacting the company directly.

Get to know the contenders. Even the most detailed response to an RFP or the slickest agency presentation isn’t enough to know if your teams will get along in “the real [workday] world.” Go out for a meal or drinks and ask personal questions about their lives outside the office – often the answers to those questions are more revealing than anything in an RFP!

Want to know more? Download our tipsheet.

Five Things I Learned On The Client Side

Guest post by Patricia Gibney

After many years in the agency world – from boutiques to multinationals – I found myself in that magical place called in-house. As a client, I looked forward to developing a company-wide communications strategy. I envisioned following an orderly protocol for media relations, being the internal expert and adviser to senior management, and having smart agency partners.

The reality was very different. Senior executives called journalists directly without consulting my department. PR firms were considered vendors, to be held at arm’s length. Communications strategy was frequently a work in progress.

The bottom line: being on the client side comes with a whole set of issues and challenges few agency people understand or take into account. Here are a few learnings from the other side of the table, based on my experience as a client at two different companies, working with several major PR firms.

Agency teams are myopic. Working with the agency is just one small part of a typical client’s job. Want to really understand why a client doesn’t get back to you with those edits or feedback on a proposal?  Spend time with them. Ask them about their job, what they’re responsible for, how they like to work with an agency/team members, and what their bosses expect. Not only will you come away with a greater respect for the client’s depth and breadth of responsibilities, you may discover ways to make a real difference in their work and grow your business in the process.

Service trumps all. Creativity and strategic skills are the price of entry, but what sometimes set agency teams apart was how quickly they returned my calls. Would you believe that I regularly had trouble getting monthly reports from one mega-firm whose fee was over $50,000 per month? Poor service can drag down the entire relationship.

The best teams take responsibility. Even when they’re not responsible.  While ideally a single e-mail or call from an account person should put an issue back in the client’s court for resolution, it often doesn’t work that way. Myopia aside, helping to keep me on top of my job helped avoid the black-hole syndrome for the best teams I partnered with, and it helped our relationship even more. Don’t confuse a lack of response with a lack of interest.

Budgets are sacred.  Few things upset a client more than a mishandled budget, and agency people can be cavalier, or even sloppy, about overages. Don’t let it happen…but if it does, launch an early warning system and be prepared with potential solutions.

Perfection is hard to come by. Not all executives are great with media, and not all corporate stories are compelling. It’s just a fact of life that an agency must sometimes work with raw material that’s less than ideal. While concerns need to be expressed and realistic expectations set, the agency’s job is to help me make the best of the situation by working hard, not complaining about what is lacking. A team who does that will earn my respect, and my business.

Patricia Gibney has held senior communications positions both in-house and at major public relations firms. She was most recently Director of Communications at Avaya.

When Not To Hire A PR Firm

Like Tolstoy’s observation about unhappy families, relationships between clients and their PR agencies go bad for different reasons. That’s why I can’t respond directly to a piece in today’s Huffington Post that questions the relevance of PR firms today.

Grant Cardone’s “Do PR Firms Make Sense Anymore?” recounts his failed and apparently fruitless relationships with three different public relations firms. To make matters worse, in Cardone’s view, a friend with a vertical website was able to generate more attention for his online video than his PR team.

So, what went wrong? I don’t know, and I don’t blame Cardone for throwing in the towel. But I doubt that the real lesson here is that PR firms are no longer relevant. It’s more likely that he didn’t choose the right partners, or that the relationships lost momentum and direction after the honeymoon. Like the single serial dater who can’t seem to meet the right partner, he might need a little “relationship intervention.”

Here then, is my own list of “red flags” that could signal a bad match between a PR team and a client.

The chemistry’s great. Not that you shouldn’t get along with your agency team, but beware the too-dazzling first impression. I have a friend at an agency search firm who warns clients against the “chemistry test.”  What she really means is, don’t be seduced by charm. Look for compatibility instead.

You’re from different worlds. Let’s say the agency team is ultra-hip, and your brand isn’t. Don’t count on becoming cool by association. It’s more likely that the union will end prematurely. This is where cultural compatibility (which is not to be confused with chemistry) comes in. A fast-moving, high-energy entrepreneur won’t be happy with a large, bureaucratic firm, and chances are, the reverse is true. Look for a cultural fit.

They don’t listen. As with a self-involved first date, it’s a bad sign if the team leaders spend the entire time talking about themselves. There’s a fine line between salesmanship and self-centeredness. Look for a team where each person asks thoughtful questions and actually listens to the answers.

You can’t commit. As in real life, don’t start something if you don’t have the financial and human resources to make it work. And, if your emotional investment comes with an expiration date, be honest and say so.

You don’t communicate. Instead of a dog-and-pony show, try to structure your first meetings as a discussion. The firm will respect you, and you’ll find out more about them than you might in a canned presentation.

You have baggage. Examine your own agency history, and your reputation, with a cold eye, and do the same with the firm you’re considering. Short relationships and high churn are almost always a red flag. If the problems are on your side, consider getting help from a recruitment professional. Like a good therapist, they may see what you can’t. If you want a reputable agency, your own reputation should be impeccable.

They have issues…but haven’t learned from mistakes. Don’t just get references from current, happy clients; ask for permission to speak with a client who fired them. You may learn something by how they respond.

You expect perfection. Expectations are the key to most relationships. If you don’t start with clear-cut goals, or if they’re wildly unrealistic, you need to let your agency adjust them. Make sure your team offers input and signs off on the goals, and listen to their counsel.

You’re a user. Some clients churn through agencies in a continual search for fresh ideas; others are serial daters because they think they’ll keep their team on their toes. If you only want a short-term relationship, say so, and come up with a compensation structure that works for both parties.

They’re virgins. Experience really, really counts in PR. Choose a firm with applicable expertise, where the experience resides with the team members, not in a distant office. Most importantly, make sure that one or more senior-level team members will be engaged in your program for the long term.

There. You’ve done all you can to ensure a mutually beneficial and lasting relationship. May your marriage be a long and happy one.