Here’s a thorny one. I stumbled across an iteration of this debate recently and made a mental note – after all, isn’t it something that all of us who ply our trade in this vale of tears that we call Corporate Communications have discussed at one time or another – and thought that sooner or later I’d do a desultory post on the topic, see if anyone cared to contribute, see if it threw up anything new.
In conversation with a colleague this week, however, we chewed over this topic and – lo and behold – there was something new (new for me, anyway) that really started me thinking and made this post that much more urgent. Again – as with most of my posts – I’m not offering solutions, just issues, so if you’re looking for some sort of deus ex machina here, then I’d find something better to do right now.
Let’s start with the Perfect Client debate. To make it crystal clear, let’s define ‘client’ as someone (or something) that uses your communications skills and rewards you for them – could be internal, or external. I think (and I’m generalising here, I know, yadayadayada) that most of us have our opinions on what would make the perfect client, and I’d wager a small amount on those opinions being fairly much of a muchness.
Thanks to the wonders of t’interweb, it is – of course – the job of a matter of moments to find out what – exactly – people think the characteristics of the perfect client are and, in a totally unscientific and probably criminally devil-may-care manner, I can exclusively reveal that the two defining characteristics of the perfect client are:
(Wait for it.)
Understanding and Money (budget and bills).
Yes, that’s understanding of what corporate communications/public relations is, the funding for proper communications programmes and the willingness/ability to pay invoices on time (this last for the agency audience). I would imagine that this differs not a jot from the opinions/expectations that you already had, but, lest you think I’m making it up, here, in a cut’n’paste stylee, are some of the comments I canvassed:
- I feel that a good PR client is one that is open to new ideas.
- A good client has to be willing to listen to the counsel they’re paying for.
- A good PR client is someone who pays their bills and allows you to handle ALL their communication (advertising, social networks, etc.).
- A good PR client comes with no pre-conceived notions of what PR is like and how you should do it, and comes with a budget significant enough to let you do things at the right scale.
- A good PR client is the one who knows that they need you.
- A good PR client is one with a clear set of goals, and a willingness to listen to and consider the PR professional.
- A good client sees you as part of the team, is truthful with you, listens to your counsel closely, pays promptly, allows you to understand internal dynamics and recognizes your contributions.
- A good PR client has a broad definition of what PR is, and is becoming.
- A good PR client knows what needs to be accomplished and has an open mind on how to get there, is receptive to advice, knows good advice from bad advice and isn’t afraid to be decisive and direct. Great PR clients add their own value to the process with a great strategic mind in his or her own right.
- A good PR client acknowledges that they need help and expertise that is outside their skill set, respects the benefits of PR, is aware that PR is an integral part of managing their reputation/brand and is open to new ideas and flexibility in achieving results.
- A good client is one who a) knows what PR is and b) understands the value it delivers. From these two things stem willingness to listen, willingness to act on advice, willingness to share information and to trust and willingness to pay the invoices in a timely manner.
- Don’t presume that simply because a client has the title ‘Director of Corporate Affairs’ or ‘Head of Public Relations’ that they fulfil the two criteria.
OK. So far, so groovy. So what’s new here? What’s the thing that we should be thinking about?
The bottom line is that this debate questions the whole model of communications as an industry and the whole raison d’etre of what we do. Forget budget and forget the ability/proclivity to pay bills on time. What happens if you have a client, internal or external, who doesn’t understand?
Do you attempt some sort of education process – in the knowledge that you might not succeed and, therefore, your lifespan and earning potential is limited by how long you can keep things going before it blows up in your face (which it will, guaranteed, if the understanding is not there). Or do you duck the issue and – if you’re senior and well-connected enough – blind your cr*p client with science and tales of what high-profile people are doing or saying? Or do you cut your losses and run – far, far away?
In my travels, discussions and personal experience, I’ve come across many and varied cases where our profession and its practitioners have been burnt by clients who simply didn’t understand and, all too often, didn’t want to. (This – in part – goes back to the general perception of our industry – see previous posts.) In many of those cases, the practitioner (agency or in-house) stuck with it, simply because the business was there and was paying for the advice that was, on the whole, being ignored. Arguably, in all of the cases, the practitioner should have walked away.
This is the issue. As an industry, we’re reliant on our clients – internal and external – and we’re seen as lapdogs. Or ‘tame’ advisors. Many comms practitioners perpetuate this myth, flattering and cajoling and – in reality – delivering nothing, at great expense. The question is whether our industry would be better served if we evaluated clients in the way they evaluate us and those who cannot, or won’t, understand the basic principles of corporate reputation should be cut loose – blacklisted perhaps.
Perhaps, if we made good and professional communications only available to those who passed an industry standard ‘client test’ , then our services would be valued more highly. And then we’d not have to worry about being paid.