Making best use of a public relations consultancy

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One question I’m surprised I’m not asked more often is “How can we make best use of our public relations consultancy?”

There are ways to both improve the effectiveness of a program, as well as getting more productive activity out of the budget, that clients don’t always use.

Stick to the plan and strategy

Usually one of the first things developed in a public relations program is a strategy (or at least it should be).

Too often, however, this it is used as a starting point and never looked at again.  Yet it should be a road map for a program that is referred to often.  “How are we going – are we still on track?”  Not only will this keep the program focused, it will also avoid going off on tangents and wasting time and effort.

As an example, it’s easy for clients to get distracted from the strategy because an unplanned opportunity arises – such as going on talk-back radio.  If it’s not too much of a distraction, it might be marginally helpful, but does it reach the target audience?  If not, it might be good for the ego but doesn’t have the same value as something that reaches the people you want to influence.  The biggest danger is that it can also snowball if someone in the client organisation gets excited about it and decides that they should do more radio, so that the consultancy ends up spending time on an activity not helping the planned program achieve its aims.

Make best use of opportunities

In the example above, the problem is not opportunism, as it is always good to create and take advantage of opportunities.  It is ensuring it’s done in an appropriate way.  This includes sticking to the key messages and enhancing agreed positioning.  Clients should also be prepared for such opportunities – for instance by undertaking media training for appropriate executives.

Progress activities and decisions quickly

Consultancies often waste hours (that they end up charging for) chasing up decisions and information.  If a client doesn’t like an idea, they should say so as early as possible and not waste everyone’s time.

Another example is clearing media releases quickly, or saying what’s wrong with them, rather than sitting on them and causing the consultant to keep chasing it up.  If a release or article needs heavy editing, involve the consultant early by giving the reasons and what the preferred position is, so they can adjust their approach for next time.  Getting it out of the way quickly makes it easier for everyone concerned.  Another tip is to get the consultant involved in any re-writing needed. It saves time in the long run.

Committees clearing copy wastes time

Following on from the above, avoid the committee approach to media release or article clearance.  Certainly it has to go through various clearance and approval steps, but too often those asked to look at a media release seem to think they are a Hemingway and can improve it by adding their deathless prose.

Media releases have to be factual and benefit the client – but they have to appeal to journalists as well. There is a skill in this which good consultants have perfected.  Releases can’t simply be overblown jargon-ese, full of superlatives that sound important but are really only of interest to the client, or heavy on the sales pitch.  Hyperbole and self-promotion do not encourage use of a media release.

Involve the consultant early

It seems obvious that involving the consultant early to help develop any communication activity is essential, but it often doesn’t work that way.

If the consultancy is not regarded as part of the team, there is a serious flaw in the relationship that needs to be resolved.  In nearly every instance the consultancy will add more value to a communication program if they are involved from the outset.  After all, its people are much more likely to have experienced the same, or very similar, circumstances before and can help.

Excluding the consultant until the very end makes it difficult to adjust steps that have already been agreed internally. Timing and content problems often result so that the organisation doesn’t get either the full benefits from the opportunity, or the ability to minimise potentially adverse outcomes.

Take advice

If the consultancy is not fully involved, it follows it’s not always in the best position to give timely advice.  It also often happens that clients believe they have worked out the most suitable approach and, in effect, presents the consultancy a fait accompli.  This is a bit like keeping a dog and barking oneself.

For example, there can be inconsistencies between various stakeholder communications that needs objective advice or that no-one internally has picked up on, because they are too close to it.

Briefing the consultant before everything is locked in may also mean changes can be made more easily and without embarrassment to those involved.  As a result, a much better outcome is achieved and best use of the communications budget.

For instance, if a consultant says “five o’clock on a Friday is a terrible time to announce this” there is usually a good reason for it, based on experience.  Sure, sometimes things arise out of the blue and immediate action is required, but even then involving a consultant straight away will help create a better response.

If clients can’t accept this, they should question why they are paying a consultant for expert advice that they are not heeding.  I’ll look at how to choose the right consultancy in my next blog.