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Can A PR Agency Be Too Loyal?

Should PR people be loyal advocates for clients?

The obvious answer is yes. How can you be persuasive with others if you yourself aren’t convince of a brand’s worth?  But is there such a thing as too much client allegiance?

I don’t mean blind support in the face of malfeasance or unethical conduct. I’m talking about ordinary client indoctrination. Like most career PR agency people, I always drink the client Kool-Aid. I’m a true believer, internalizing brand messages and language — even in a personal setting, even after years. Last week at a casual dinner I hosted, a friend remarked on my use of formal china. I launched into a spiel about how we should all use the “good china” for every day rather than keeping it in a cabinet – an idea straight out of the Lenox brand message “cheat sheet” at a job two decades ago. When a friend complained that a certain large coffee company has forced mom-and-pops out of business, I hurried to set him straight about how (former client) Starbucks actually grew the specialty coffee category for everyone. I’d never use “xerox” as a verb after having represented a competitive brand of copiers.

Most agency PR people have similar stories. It’s good business for a PR agency team to be indoctrinated in the language, culture, and brand lore of a client. Yet one reason brands bring on agencies is that they’re relatively objective. And most PR teams have worked across many different brands and categories, so they can offer valuable advice based on a blend of familiarity, experience, and impartiality. I recall being enraged watching members of Congress take energy drink marketers to task for allegedly pushing their products on kids, then realizing that, contrary to what my client believed, it was really not being as responsible as everyone thought. Sometimes perception truly is reality.

Here are some things to keep in mind for an agency rep who needs to balance client loyalty with objectivity.

Hang on to your credibility.

Every media relations pro knows that an agency person who misleads a reporter has probably lost a contact forever. The same holds true with clients, partners, and internal bosses. In the agency  world, we serve many masters, so it’s more difficult than it appears to be straightforward with everyone involved. Yet it’s essential to serve as an honest broker, especially when things are unclear or difficult. People-pleasers don’t really serve their clients in the end.

Be a two-way channel.

Just as it’s important for communications pros to represent their clients’ value (and values!) to members of the press, we should also function in the other way — as a channel for senior management at client companies to get feedback from media and influencers like industry analysts. That’s how you build credibility with all audiences.

Do the research.

PR professionals don’t always take advantage of market data and proprietary research  in the way that marketers are trained to do. Some of us are still conditioned to serve the media’s needs rather than tailoring content and other materials to the end-user, and with good reason. But a grounding in the customer mindset is essential in today’s communications. The one-way “broadcast” approach in PR was killed by the rise of social media years ago.

Get out in the “field.”

It’s part of research, but sometimes we don’t get enough “real-world” information about important audiences (even if that world is social media.) For a business software company, that may mean interviewing enterprise customers at a conference or soliciting feedback on social platforms. For a product sold at retail, you can actually learn by talking to store managers or customers themselves.  I lurked in a SaaS customer chat room the other day and learned a lot about how business users look at branded content.

Speak up.

None of this matters if an agency person is reluctant to share difficult news with the client. Working closely with any organization will uncover fault lines, but it’s our responsibility to help identify and address them when they threaten brand reputation.

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