Getting the most out of public relations advice

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Organisations often don’t get the most out of their public relations advisers, which is a fault of both the client and the consultant.

Any consulting arrangement requires a commitment from both parties involved, but unless commitment is given and obligations are fulfilled, trust will be eroded and full value will not be achieved.

Tips for organisations to get the most out of their consultant include:

Bring them into the business

Consultants who are treated as part of the business rather than as external suppliers will always be more effective.  Good consultants will immerse themselves in the organisation, building a complete understanding of what it does and how, and what else the business would like to achieve.  They must be on the team.  Keeping them at arm’s length or treating them as outsiders will only limit what they can achieve.

Don’t confine the contact

Effective advisers have a range of contacts in a client organisation.  If they are going to be contacting the media on an organisation’s behalf, the more they know about the operations and its spokespeople the better.  Clients shouldn’t see the need to keep public relations consultants away from key executives.

Have a main point of contact

At the same time, there needs to be someone internally responsible for the PR activity who is the main point of contact for the consultancy to coordinate activities, keep the program on track, and reduce wasted time for executives and the consultant alike.  They need to be fairly senior (not someone on the lowest rung of the marketing department), able to bring consultants up to date on what is happening in the business, and have the time available to be involved, including regular planning  meetings.  In most circumstances consultants should also have direct access to the CEO.

Have a plan

For communications activities to be effective, people in the organisation need to know what they are trying to achieve and include it in the aims of the program.  For consultants, the starting point for an effective program is the business plan.  Understanding the objectives and aims of the business means that a mutually agreed program can be tailored to help support these goals and communicate the right messages about the business.

Involve consultants early

A big frustration for consultants is when they are only told about a new initiative or launch at the last minute.  Instead of being brought in just before a launch or new initiative, they should be involved in the development of the communication plan, be able to think about it over time and help make the most of the opportunity.  Any other way is likely to mean that opportunities will be missed – usually unnecessarily.  Too often organisations scoop themselves and don’t get the messages across effectively to all stakeholders, or miss opportunities by because they did not involve their consultants in developing activities including an announcement timetable.

Listen to advice

While it doesn’t make any sense, too often we hear consultants complain that their advice is ignored.  When this happens we have to ask, “Why does the client retain them?”  There’s no point paying someone if you’re not going to use their expertise.  If an adviser says that it’s a bad time to send out a media release, or that an announcement is too “sales-y”, self-promoting or lacks news value, they should know what they are talking about.  As the saying goes, why keep a dog and bark yourself.

Write to communicate

Many executives seem to think that they can write better than their consultants.  Usually they can’t.  They can write management-speak and other jargon-based languages that make them sound important, but that’s not the way to get messages across – especially to consumers.  It’s not just what you say – it’s the way that you say it.

Consultant responsibilities

Saying that clients have a responsibility to do the right thing by their consultant is only half the story.  Public relations advisers have responsibilities to their client.  Some of these include:

Being frank

Giving good advice is not telling clients what they want to hear.  Consultants have a responsibility to be fearless in their advice and not just go through the motions for an easy ride.

Being financially honest

Consultants have a responsibility to be scrupulously honest in all their dealings with clients and when acting on their behalf.  This includes full disclosure of any commissions received, not padding bills, and working the full hours covered in any retainer.  One of the reasons we work on a minimum fee, charging only for the hours worked, is that it keeps us honest and is more effective for our clients by taking advantage of swings and roundabouts in activity levels.

Actively seeking opportunities

Another benefit of the “charging for hours worked” approach is that it encourages us to seek opportunities.  Our income depends on it.  Consultants should always be acting on clients’ behalf, and in their best interests. It is too easy to get lazy with client service, or become distracted with other demands.  Consultants should always be thinking “What can I do for them next” and “How can these circumstances help my client”.

Doing the homework

While consultants have to learn about their clients on the job, is it right for clients to be paying consultants at their hourly rate to learn about the industry they are in? This is the sort of area where some give and take is needed.