Autopsy on a Client ...


Trust — flowing in both directions — underpins healthy client-agency relationships.

Imagine if we had to “fact check” every utterance from a client contact? It would paralyze the PR effort. We make the leap of faith that the client contact is telling us the truth.

And we expect clients to trust our judgment. This doesn’t mean that every recommendation gets signoff, but our clients believe that our counsel is grounded in their best interests and maps to their communication objectives.

When trust isn’t present in the client-agency relationship, we tend to believe that we will eventually win over the naysayer(s). Yet, history suggests that if the makings of trust aren’t there at the start of the relationship, the relationship will end badly.

With that as the backdrop, I wanted to share how a client relationship without trust unfolded.

Let’s start with the overarching problem. There was ongoing tension between the Board and the head of communications (our contact) on how PR should be run. Decisions made by the PR team (head of comms + our team) even at the nitty-gritty level were scrutinized by the board and often overruled. For example, we suggested something as fundamental as taking a customer deployment to one media target as an exclusive to ensure deep-dive coverage. The board said no, send it out as a news release.

We tried to explain again and again (and again) that today’s media has little appetite for covering news releases. They wouldn’t have it, believing an ongoing cadence of announcement missives constituted momentum.

The startup’s executive team including the CEO — came out of operations and sales with no experience in marketing, much less communications — couldn’t understand why journalists paid so much attention to Salesforce’s services for the public sector when they had a better offering. We explained that the media sees one Salesforce which benefits the company in all vertical sectors, a concept that they couldn’t seem to grasp.

Despite the “difficulties,” we continued to believe in the possibilities around this startup. In short, the raw assets were there to lift its public profile. Our team surmised that if they could come up with a signature campaign, they would win over the board, the CEO and the executive team.

When President Biden rolled out the American Jobs Plan Act, we had what we thought was the perfect opportunity. We constructed a thought leadership campaign that would insert the startup’s voice into media reporting on water municipalities and the legislation that would invest $111B in water management targeting both national and local media.

Article on Biden infrastructure plan and water upgrades

The board and CEO insisted that this was the wrong approach. “We need stories on our products; that’s how PR can helps the sales team.” The thought leadership campaign never moved into the execution phase.

Dave Kellogg, who knows a thing or two about enterprise software and the SaaS business wrote a post on the sad state of software marketing 15 years ago that touched on PR:

New CEOs often arrive with little or no understanding of marketing. This creates two problems …

The CEO ends up scapegoating marketing when he or she should be trying to understand it. No area is more mysterious and confusing to an operations-person than corporate communications (e.g., analyst relations, public relations, investor relations), so problems usually arise there, first.

Symptoms of a problem include:

One or more major PR gaffes at the start of their tenure

Commands from the CEO to PR saying, “your job is to set these people straight,” or “that’s not what I said, make them retract.” (Both statements, incidentally, demonstrate profound ignorance of PR.)

Over time, an increasing non-desire on the CEO’s part to participate in PR activities. Once bitten, twice shy.

In extreme cases, blacklisting of certain journalists, analysts, or entire analyst firms. (For years, CA effectively boycotted Gartner.)

Termination of the PR agency.

Usually, the new CEO is confusing “PR problem” with “reality problem” because he thinks marketing is tactical and PR’s job is to “make us look good” no matter how bad or silly our decisions are. Great marketers reject this hypothesis and instead focus on “making their own luck” by first creating a good reality, laced with smart decisions, that is easy to promote.

Nicely put.

If a client doesn’t buy into its agency’s core philosophy on communications and how to go about building a public profile, the fit obviously isn’t right.

Incidentally, we parted ways with that client after four months.


  • Dude Stro

    Two words: You care.

    Previous Ishmael Blog:
    “Lou, you know what your problem is?”
    “Your problem is you take business things personally.”

    In those eight words, she perfectly captured the disconnect. If you care, you do take things personally.

    I actually think this characteristic of taking things personally helps to differentiate the Agency.

    We care.

    And that care is one of the drivers behind our staff going above and beyond to support clients . . .

    We do take things personally.
    Ideas. Energy. insight. People.

    These combine to create effective communication and innovative, strong marketing.

    And sometimes, clients cannot, or do not want to, listen. They know it all even without you.

    So, you’re better off without them.

    It’s what Master Po told Grasshopper in Kung Fu:
    “The bird sings in the forest. Does it seek to be admired for its song?
    The purpose of discipline is to live more.
    Let joy come unasked. Unplanned.
    Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that gives it value. Be the space at the center. Be nothing, and you will have everything to give to others.”

    Caine: “But Master, do we not want all men to know our peace? Our joy?”

    Po: “Would you make the whole world a temple? Be like the sun, and what is within you will warm the earth.”

  • Daily PR Brief - Wed 12/01/21 - ITK Blog

    […] Autopsy on a Client Relationship That Went South (Ishmael’s Corner – The Hoffman Agency… […]


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