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.
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.
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.