Before you first appoint a PR agency to help grow your company’s reputation and profile, you jump through a series of hoops to ensure you end up in a relationship with one you can trust and who you believe will deliver on their promises.
So you go through the trouble of an invitation to tender and ensure careful scrutiny and evaluation of your preferred shortlist of PR agencies. You inform them of every service you’ll need in order to support your company. You do everything you can before signing one up to ensure they meet all your essential criteria, that performance measurements are established and feedback and communication channels – and more, besides – are organised.
Unfortunately, post-signing, the coast isn’t clear. You can still end up after the honeymoon period, months or even mere weeks down the line, finding that the marriage/partnership is one made in hell because the agency you appointed is a nightmare to manage and a headache on several fronts.
To pre-empt a disastrous falling out it’s better for you to have an alert radar of the top five warning signs of a duff PR agency in practice. If you find your PR partner is showing red and ticks boxes for just five of these triggers, you must, must, must take action. (Did I say you really must?) Frankly, my recommendation would be to take action on experiencing just one warning. After all, why should you tolerate failure when you’re paying good money and their mistakes could potentially damage – not grow or even protect – your company’s reputation?
1. Bad copy.
They send for your review as a matter of course draft or final copy that has errors in grammar, punctuation and/or spelling. And/or, the copy is poor in style, the message unclear and/or it fails to deliver on the brief.
Your agency team should be brimming with professional wordsmiths. And the leader of that team should ensure that all copy sent to you meets all of the prerequisites for professional delivery: it should be reviewed and corrected for errors and style issues before sending it to you. There is no excuse for any of these warning signs to occur.
If they occur from the outset or happen only on an ad hoc basis, please don’t hesitate to let them know and get their assurances such mistakes won’t happen again. Draw a line (one that has consequences, even to billing, if you get your contracts to cover this – something seriously to consider).
After all, if such care isn’t taken, it has been known for highly embarrassing written mistakes to land in the hands of journalists and your audiences. At the very least, such errors can make you and your company a joke and, worse, bring disgrace or trigger hostile reactions from one or more of your stakeholders. And you’ll be the one with the bulls eye target on your forehead, not your agency.
2. They kiss your arse instead of telling you like it is about reputation management issues.
No honourable, ethical PR agency or counsel should be sycophantic to you when you have hired them to be honest, constructive and upfront with you. Whether or not you sound them out, if there are potential or real issues your company is facing in terms of reputation, business activities and PR, your agency must speak the truth and recommend actions to address the concerns and protect your company’s credibility. If you don’t take their advice, fair enough – that’s your loss and risk, but they should be playing Devil’s Advocate and letting you know in no uncertain terms of the reputational risk issues you face or may face and ways in which to avoid them or propose solutions to address them.
3. ”I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams, renowned sf author
All requests for action you make of your agency, whether by phone, face-to-face, Skype or Bob Dylan-hand-written-sheets on YouTube, should be confirmed by them in writing and – even if you don’t set a deadline – they should ensure they check and confirm with you a date and time for delivery. They should always confirm all actions in writing and maintain an ongoing action/to do list for you, which identifies who is responsible for what task, when it’s due, and it should summarise clearly the request as well as what is expected, if anything (certainly your own review before publication of anything), on your part as well to ensure the deadline is met.
4. In a crisis/emergency situation, response time is everything.
If your company was a person and was seriously injured, you’d rightly expect an ambulance to respond in a matter of minutes, not hours. We all know every minute counts in such a crisis situation. In many cases and for any number of reasons, companies face their own serious risks. Your agency must be ready to respond in a timely manner.
Given most agency teams will have a minimum of three staff supporting you, you should be able to get hold of at least one member of your agency team at all reasonable times for normal requests. However, you should ensure there is a crisis communications set of contacts shared between all members of their team and yours (if you have one), and that it covers out of hours and weekends.
In an emergency during office hours it is fair that – if you can’t immediately get hold of anyone in their team by phone then, by sending the agency team an email marked, Urgent: Crisis – Please Call Immediately, you should expect a call in a matter of minutes and no more than 15, and no later than 30 minutes for out of office hours and weekends.
Note: Once you have signed contracts, establish communications protocols and individual contacts (emails, mobiles, home telephone numbers, home addresses – in case you need to express post them/deliver them something in the evening or weekend) and a group email address for the agency team agreed. These should be shared among you on the first day of working together.
Don’t forget all of this should be part of your criteria of performance delivery for crisis communications. Even before signing contracts and commitment to all of your workload criteria, you should all agree such documentation is essential.
Does all of this seem too tough or excessive to demand of the agency? Well, don’t be squeamish. After all, your company’s – and your own – reputation is at stake and this should be bread and butter protocol for them. If it isn’t, and you don’t agree these things, you’re exposing your company to reputational risk that could have far-reaching and potentially disastrous consequences. Still feel it’s too demanding? Thought not.
5. Your agency fails to deliver on its reporting and measurements.
Auditing of work they do should be a standard procedure for them. Results you receive must be both quantitative and qualitative. Criteria for performance and success for all types of PR work assigned must be clear and agreed. Daily results should be tallied into weekly summaries; monthly infographic-based reports should be delivered, then quarterly ones, and so on. Your monthly reports must satisfy your own management/board/boss that you are succeeding in partnership with your PR agency, and that these results prove this claim.
If your agency fails to deliver on reporting and results, or doesn’t of their own initiative even before signing a contract with you, recommend specific ways in which they will measure outcomes, consider it a deadly warning of PR agency failure on their part. If they don’t deliver and they don’t demonstrate excellence in their methodology and reports, as well as their performance, consider them “goodbye, so long and thanks for all the fish” (or lack of them). Alternatively, start looking for a new job yourself.
While these five aren’t comprehensive, they are certainly critical warning signs that merit serious attention and necessitate action on your part. Other failings will be addressed in other posts. Perhaps if you get a moment, you could let me know the ones that have driven you nuts. In the meantime, I wish your PR agency and you a great relationship and even better results.