Sometimes, it can be embarrassing to work in the PR agency business. One of those times is when shortsighted, cash-hungry firms only see a short-term billing prospect rather than one of the most intriguing opportunities we are privileged to experience – a chance to help a potential client start a communications program from scratch and build a long-term relationship.
As we have written before, the old agency business development playbook of “sell them on your capabilities, promise the world, sign them up and worry about it later,” which for decades led to dysfunctional agency-client relationships, still rears its head. We saw it first hand last week.
Often, clients come to us looking for very specific work. The communications needs are obvious to them and/or us and they will hire us for short-term or medium-term projects, with necessarily narrow scopes of work. On occasion, clients know they need a full scope of services, based on past successes and/or failures and there’s a match from the beginning, so we begin a long-term relationship. But, frequently, and more often than ever post-recession, potential clients are now thinking about inventing a new communications program to support their business strategy.
In those situations, as we saw last week, we know that some firms are presenting essentially capabilities proposals and asking for the largest ongoing fee arrangement they think they can get away with, following only a one-hour introductory meeting. Sometimes, they can really sell and “wow,” even hypothetically, and the client bites. Often, the first phase of a proposal is not a due diligence phase. It took nearly a half-hour to explain to the potential client, a well-established professional services firm competing in a new industry environment, why a full proposal, at that point would make no sense for either one of us.
Instead, firms should be looking at the specific needs of the client and, if it’s a first-time professional communications program (like the one explained to us last week) or the revival of a long-dormant program, the first step, in the best interest of the client, should be the development of a communications plan. Just like a professional financial plan or legal strategy, firms should be compensated for the plan, which, when complete, becomes the property of the client. Only in a planning process can the firm really get to know the client’s business plan, culture and resources. In these situations, only through a planning process can the agency match its capabilities with the clients’ needs and audiences. Through this process, a plan becomes a work of non-fiction, rather than a sales pitch. It doesn’t have to take dozens of hours and multiple months. Sometimes, in-depth, focused conversation based on realities, not assumptions, can make all of the difference.
If you work hard to craft a business plan, why would you trust a PR proposal that is either simply a sales pitch or boiled-down notes from a brainstorming session? The ripoffs in this business may never end, so instead, invest a small amount of money and time in a strategic communications planning process, designed especially for your business.