Dorothy Crenshaw March 13, 2024 | 01:58:06

What Your PR Agency Won’t Tell You (But Maybe Should)

In PR, as in most businesses, transparency is a good thing. We preach it to our clients and put it in our company handbooks. So, when PR agencies in particular are called out for lying or covering up, it makes us all look bad.

Last month I saw a report that the world’s largest PR firm Edelman Worldwide, after being criticized for representing fossil fuel interests, misrepresented their work for the Koch Foundation. The agency was busted when the foundation filed its tax forms.

Closer to home, Muck Rack’s PR Report on AI found what my colleague Anna Roolf tactfully calls a “misalignment” between PR agencies and their clients when it comes to the use of AI in their work.

Yet there are times in any industry when clients or customers don’t need to know how the sausage is made. In some cases, it’s not due to dishonesty but more out of business pragmatism or even discretion. Here are some examples.

The nitty gritty of journalist negotiations

PR teams often invoke their media relationships, with good reason. Relationships don’t mean guaranteed coverage, but they often assure access. That means a fair hearing. But few media relations specialists will share their verbatim pitch verbatim to a journalist with a client. And we’ll always spare clients the back-and-forth when negotiating for an interview or story. Part of this is for practical reasons, but it’s also risky to invite a commentary on how the sausage is made.

The time spent on other clients

At a large agency where I once worked, a media relations person updated me on a pending pitch for a specific client in a meeting with a different, unrelated one. I was astonished, because that’s almost never done. All clients know we work for others, of course. The very point of bringing on an agency is to benefit from the multiplier effect of the contacts and expertise gained by working for different clients. Yet you wouldn’t mention your work for one client to another unless it has relevance to their business. There’s an unwritten agency code to treat every client in the moment like your only client — or at least there should be.

The limits of PR’s influence

While PR agency teams work to help shape and manage a client’s reputation, they’re not always open about the limits of our work. We can influence, not control. Today news spreads instantly, and public perception can be driven by many factors beyond the control of the agency or client. Negative press or social media backlash can arise unexpectedly, requiring a nimble response and strategic damage control.

The snarky agency rivalries

We try to play nicely, but competitive issues do arise among agencies who rep the same client. When we tell clients that we have no problem working with other agencies, it may be a white lie. When you’re essentially vying for the same overall budget, rivalries are inevitable. Yet a degree of “managed jealousy” can be harmless, or even constructive, if it keeps everyone on their toes.

The need for patience and persistence

Nobody ever closed a deal by warning about the need for patience. It’s not sexy. But earned media success doesn’t happen overnight, and building brand reputation requires ongoing effort, strategic planning, and consistent engagement. Clients should be prepared for the long haul and understand that it’s closer to a marathon than a sprint. This one should be emphasized more at the beginning of every client-agency relationship.

The importance of collaboration

Ditto the above. We don’t always stress the importance of collaboration enough. Successful PR campaigns are built on active participation by clients in the PR process — driving the insights, feedback, and resources to ensure alignment with communications and business objectives. This is another one that should be in every pitch deck.

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