The Client Brief – When PR Agencies Fail

July 25, 2016

Many businesses fail every day for reasons outside of the current economic climate. According to the United States’ Small Business Administration (SBA), around 90% of small businesses fail within the first two years of operation primarily because many entrepreneurs lack the basic knowledge and experience to handle early-stage commercial challenges.

Poor marketing strategy, where companies are unable to use their PR and marketing tools effectively to promote and sell to their public, is cited as one critical internal threat to success.

Just this month, ‘The Industry Watch’ report by accountants and business advisors, Stoy Hayward, predicted that rising unemployment and falling consumer spending would cause a record 36,200 businesses in Britain to fail this year – almost one hundred per day – with no let-up until at least 2011. Wide-scale threatened job losses across Europe at electronics giant, Phillips, bear out the gloom but raise nagging doubts as to whether a more progressive consumer outreach strategy could have helped mitigate any potential loss.

As a former corporate director of communications, I’ve always taken extremely seriously my responsibility to lead my in-house team and out-sourced PR agencies under the common mantra that a marketing/PR campaign (or agency itself) is only as good as the initial client brief. Indeed, I would still to this day vehemently argue that a thorough brief remains the essential pre-condition to any campaign success.

The notion that you only get out what you put in holds particularly true in the client-PR agency relationship. As a former client and team leader, I would have no qualms stalling all activity until a thorough brief was documented, agreed upon internally and contractually bound along with corresponding agency performance metrics (subject to quarterly review). A good brief always makes the difference between focused and strategically beneficial activity versus knee-jerk, unaccountable action that offers little sustainable worth to a company.

What concerns me, despite having made the transition to consultancy, is that placing the entire onus of campaign success on the client’s ability to brief is a distortion of a relationship that, by its very nature, should be collaborative and based on shared responsibility.

All too often I have encountered PR agencies using the mantra of poor client briefing to explain away the failure of a PR campaign to get off the ground – usually at budget renewal time and having conveniently invoiced a year’s worth of activity without raising campaign issues along the way. On the flip side, this is usually when I have been called in by companies to trouble-shoot the PR agency relationship on the basis of failed expectation and zero accountability against spend. These can be highly charged, emotional gatherings where no-one – not least the organisation being served – emerges as the winner.

The notion that a PR campaign/agency is only as good as the client brief is flawed on several fronts:

Firstly, it assumes that the commissioning client fully understands the nuanced discipline of PR or audience dialogue.
I am astounded that, in this day and age, some large corporations still segregate the in-house marketing function from PR (in the same way that some micro-segregate online reputation management from social media marketing).

I have been often struck by the absence of basic experience and knowledge some senior marketers – and other commissioning functions – display in such a grass-roots area of public engagement so pivotal to a company’s public fortune. Whilst it’s a fabulous opportunity to help educate and raise internal organisational standards in public engagement (as I’ve often done), it’s also an open invitation to poor campaign management, wasted funds and corporate exploitation by unscrupulous PR agencies (as I have witnessed and also had to correct all too often).

Secondly, it assumes the client PR principal is an expert in PR campaign and resources management.
Whilst institutions such as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations is seeking to address professional standards in the qualification and practicing license of PR executives, there is still an overhang from an era that saw executives from all walks of functional life drift into the communications role as a ‘pre-retirement’ holding place or where organisations misguidedly perceived communications to be a safe, soft haven to place people – for a variety of reasons. A controversial statement, I know. But I’ve seen plenty of examples of the effects of poor talent placement in senior PR/communication roles.

Thirdly, it assumes that the client is fully candid about their business!

It is perhaps one of the hardest tasks of any communications professional to deal with a company that refuses to acknowledge it has issues to address or opportunities for change. Yet the ‘Pollyanna Principle’ is rife in organisations where a fear of failure prevails. This can be borne out of a punitive corporate culture, (I know one where executives were fired if a negative press article appeared) the complacency of market leadership, the refusal to acknowledge a need for change – or out of the primitive and ill-judged belief that the purpose of PR is purely to spin good news stories as an extended form of corporate advertising.

Yes, these companies still exist. In a June article in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Why Business Plans Don’t Deliver’, its author states a number of reasons why business plans commonly fail, citing, among other things, an ‘Everything is Wonderful’ belief on the part of leaders who fail to recognize potential pitfalls to their organisation’s success. Failure, for instance, to acknowledge the impacts of competition, pending legislation, changing public mood, the evolution of technology and new media channels will fundamentally distort any campaign brief and set PR teams immediately up for failure. Worse still, any attempt to distort reality among the public and its serving media will carry long-term reputational damage from which it is always extremely difficult – and often impossible – to recover without fundamental leadership or corporate change.

Finally, it allows too much abdication of responsibility and passivity on the part of outside agencies.

As a client, my respect for the caliber and value of an outside consultant always rose proportionately with the lengths to which they would go to risk an incisive, thought-provoking and sometimes unpalatable question to draw you out of your comfort zone. Being provoked to a mild degree of defensiveness is a good sign of an agency capable of analysing your business, of seeing disconnects with public expectation and future trends, of delivering stark truths and guiding your company towards meaningful and positive change.

Of course, some companies and individuals will always prefer the nodding acquiescence and unquestioning compliance of an agency that has retention of that year’s contract at the forefront of their mind beyond the construction of a long-term client relationship built on commercial insight and candid exchange. Equally, those companies and corporate individuals may not yet be ready to face change – and may be culturally incapable of doing so. There are plenty of well-paid, big-name PR firms already trading in that space. It is not where my company operates.

Thankfully, there are also plenty of pioneering PR enterprises staffed by passionate individuals motivated to see their clients prosper at the risk of pushing sensitivities. Equally, there are companies keen to maintain their agility and profile edge when the upturn comes and who encourage active agency intervention and strategic input.

It is always incumbent upon any outside advisor or agency to interrogate a company’s brief; to cross-check the robustness of a company’s position and assumptions in a changing marketplace; to unearth the gems that may not be immediately apparent to those operating perhaps too closely within an organisation; to challenge existing methods of audience outreach and to inform new dialogue channels; to help companies achieve and exceed their existing and future marketplace potential. None of which can occur without healthy exchange and proactive input by the agency into that initial corporate brief that symbolises the manifesto on which the company will secure its future public license to operate.

In my next article I will take a look at the questions agencies and companies themselves should be asking as they move out of recession into an economic upturn. If you’d like me to share my thoughts with you before then, do let me know!