In Search of the Perfect Client…………

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.

PR is a Young Person’s Game – Discuss

Lovely weather we’ve been having.  So I’m standing in someone’s garden, partaking of a couple of scoops of splendidly crisp and refreshing white wine, sun going down, smell of sausages all over London, shooting the breeze with a director of an award-winning agency, swapping war stories, and he says ‘PR – it’s a young person’s game.’

Now – in fairness – it was a throwaway line, uttered on the back of a conversational riff in which we’d both been bemoaning the speed at which time flies, and its inevitable effect on one, personally – however, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. And, if I can generalise, (and I can, because it’s my blog), it’s not untrue – take a random cross-section of agencies and in-house departments across the country and PR is, indeed, a young person’s game. Or, at least, that’s the perception.

(Of course, this begs the question – where do all the old PR people go? I mean those who don’t end up as Director of Corporate Affairs for a FTSE 100/250 company, or an enormous multi-national, or Chairman and Chief Executive of a PR agency holding company, or sitting splendidly in the House of Lords, or running the country on behalf of an unelected Prime Minister. Where do they go? I’d love to know, because I guess I’ll be going there soon.)

I, of course, ever the contrarian, laughed and said of course it isn’t – my argument being that in communications (as in all things) there is simply no substitute for experience. No matter how energetic and fluffy a 24-year-old may be, they will never have the maturity, judgement and experience to enable them to make the strategic communications decisions (there are always exceptions, I know, but generally speaking). To imply that they do is to imply that the whole business of corporate communications is basic, simple and easily learnt. To imply that they do is to devalue everything that we, as communicators, stand for and everything that we do.

Unfortunately, the myth is being perpetuated all over the shop:

1) Sorry, but like it or not, from the outside, PR is seen as fluffy and excitable. So what do we as an industry do? We give our clients fluffy and excitable twenty-somethings, just to reinforce their prejudices. Great.

2) Agency pitches. Agency turns up – and don’t tell me they don’t, I lose count of the amount of times it has happened to me – with ‘the team’. Like Russian dolls. Senior bod, less senior bod, middle-ranking bod, junior bod. And you know, every time, that when it comes to who you’ll be dealing with, it’ll be junior bod – who’s twenty-something. Great.

3) Creativity. Every client likes creativity. Young people are creative. Unleash the twenty-somethings! Actually, they’re not any more creative than a forty-something – they just haven’t learnt the definition of ‘stupid’ and ‘unworkable’ yet. Great.

4) Social Media. It’s the new thing! Got to have some social media! Must have a presence on FaceTube and YouBook! Get a twenty-something, so we can be down with the kids. Actually (see point 3, above) the other thing about youth isn’t that they haven’t learnt anything about budgetary control or ROI either. Great.

My point is that ‘PR is a young person’s game’ and the industry’s unwitting collusion in the shibboleth is yet another barrier to communications taking its seat at the top table. If the profession is seen that way, then obviously it is not taken seriously, not accorded gravitas, because it hasn’t grown up.

A parallel is the attitude of every single one of the (handful of) CEOs that I have either run media programmes for, or know those who have. They have no respect for the newswires and the press when those media field the latest crop of twenty-something correspondents, no matter how bright and well-informed those corrs are (and sadly, in my experience, they aren’t). There’s no gravitas, no experience, no maturity and the big boys who run businesses simply cannot be bothered. They suffer it, but not gladly.

To say ‘PR is a young person’s game’ and to prove it by fielding young people (often on their own, with little guidance) is simply to erode any respect that communications may have built up and to confine it to the (at best) ‘necessary evil’ and at worst ‘fluffy bunny’ bins.

Don’t get me wrong, corporate communications needs its graduates and new starters – the industry needs to invest in its younger practitioners – training, on the job mentoring and tutoring, real-life opportunity. But we shouldn’t just be unleashing them on clients and expecting  the results to be favourable – either for the client or for the less-than-experienced consultant.

The industry needs a bit more grey hair at all levels. PR – it’s an old person’s game.

Like bowls.