Intake. Onboarding. Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me. So the song goes, and it’s pretty close to the experience of the first months of a new communications client engagement.
The first stages of any client relationship are a kind of awkward dance. You’re through the courtship and have won the business. Great. Now the real work starts, and the first step is the crucial phase of really learning about your new client. Not just the highlights from the brief, but figuring out what they need most, how they operate internally and, most importantly, how you can work together to achieve maximum mutual value. It’s also the only chance that you and your team have to make a first impression. Coming in prepared and being efficient with the client’s time is essential
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '18 Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine
There are some clients with whom I’ve worked for years who’ve become old friends. We share a history. We speak the same language and know each other’s quirks. We have a level of trust that has withstood squalls and storms. We’re on the same team, and we know our fates are intertwined; if we look good, they look good, and vice versa. In other words, it’s a relationship. But it takes a lot of work to get to that point, and it starts on day one.
The first questions
Like a lot of people in PR, I started my professional life as a journalist. For almost 20 years I made my living by asking people questions. Some of the answers were insightful, even profound. Most were not. But every interview told me something. In media consulting, the questions you ask shape the stories you tell for the client, and ultimately, the relationship itself.
The process of business development is one of expressing needs on one side and capabilities on the other. But once the contract is signed, the practical reality shifts to what’s possible and efficient within the budget, and that involves a different set of questions. Both parties want to make the most of the relationship, but getting to that point is seldom straightforward.
It takes time, intuition and candor for a communications professional to understand how they can provide the most value to a client. The objectives expressed in an RFP may not be the best use of the budget. That’s something you can only figure out once you’re on the inside, have talked to key stakeholders and begun to understand the culture of the client.
The first questions asked of spokespeople are not complicated, but they are meaningful and lay the groundwork for how you work with the individuals within a client firm. When conducting intake interviews, which preferably occur in person, the priority is assessing the individual. Are they comfortable in their own skin? Do they have a natural skill for conversation? Are they thinking as they talk, or reciting rote information? These observations affect how we will position them with the media.
The focus is on strengths. Some people are excellent writers, others are naturals on the phone with a reporter. A few have the attributes to do television well. Whatever the medium, the best sources are the people who are inherently curious, who ask as many questions as they answer and who invest the mental effort to think through the perspectives that are of most value during the course of an interview.
The rules of the game
Every client is different. Their needs, culture and objectives are wholly subjective, and the service one provides needs to match these distinctions. Anything that is commoditized is fungible, and does not bode well for a long-term relationship. On the other hand, PR initiatives that are based on ego rather than strategy will produce media placements, but seldom will achieve business development goals.
As an account team leader, the most important thing to do at the outset of an engagement is to try to understand the unique characteristics of the client, so that you can build and coach the account team accordingly. If it seems like every oar is pulling in a different direction, the relationship is not likely to last long. But at the best clients you tend to hear the same themes in different words from everyone you talk to, and you don’t hear internal backbiting. These are signs of a strong culture, and a positive indicator of achieving the strategic goals of a communications plan.
Some clients need constant contact. They want perspective: how to respond to a specific query; how their peers approach similar situations; how to deal with a troublesome reporter. Others look to expressly take work off their plate: they’re outsourcing work in a way that is flexible and cost-sensitive. Others have very specific media objectives, targeting specific media sectors or publications, and even individual journalists. They want to give us marching orders and only expect to hear back when we have results.
Understanding these distinctions is the core of building the right team for an account and for executing the desired media plan. Just as each client is unique in its attributes and needs, each professional within a communications firm has different skills, strengths and relationships. It’s very easy to pitch a team based on their credentials, but as a firm comes to deeply understand a client, that team must flex to incorporate the right blend of talent and subject matter expertise.
Delivering the plan
The final stage of the intake process is delivering a media plan in the format that the client wants and that will be readily understood. Again, in this respect, all clients are different. For some, a one-page dashboard with clear metrics and objectives is what the internal team needs to explain the process to the firm’s leaders. For others, an exhaustive and honest analysis of the firm’s spokespeople and their media potential is required.
Often, a client’s priorities don’t align with the level of interest in specific media sectors. It’s best to uncover and address these disconnects as early as possible to avoid setting unrealistic expectations and make the best use of the budget. It’s better to spend time on topics that will garner significant interest than to pitch stories that reporters are unlikely to ever tell. There are exceptions to this rule, but they should be openly discussed to ensure everyone agrees on the value of pursuing a long shot.
In the end, letting the client decide how to slice the pie is the best way to agree on what success looks like for all, and builds the foundation of a lasting relationship. In a sense, this process never ends. Circumstances are always changing for the client and the agency. But getting off to a smart and sensible start is the best path to mutual value.
Steven Andersen is Vice President for Content and Client Strategy at the international communications firm Infinite Global.