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Those running PR agencies, and senior PR practitioners more generally, should try to keep their hand in.  Write press releases, pitch journalists, assess speaking platform opportunities and give advice.

But an even more important role for senior agency people is that of “playing the client”.  By this I mean playing the client internally with the agency’s account team. Put yourself into the mindset of the client and constructively challenging the account team.  This should be a kind of regular team workout that complements directly communication.

Some of this is simply ensuring client service standards are high and consistent but client relationships are not just about delivering against KPIs.  It’s easy for PR teams to get caught up in delivery and process. Most of that delivery is incredibly important, and process is there for a reason.  But we can all sometimes conflate the urgent and the important.

A certain distance from day to day activity can be helpful in playing the client.  Agencies need someone who can look afresh and ask the right questions of the team. There’s a natural tendency in agencies to focus on what we ourselves deliver to clients; after all, agencies get hired to make things happen and help drive change.  But that can lead to a narrow perspective that doesn’t put enough store on broader advice and ideas.

The areas where such “challenge” can be useful vary greatly, and depend on the client’s size and complexity.  Some of those I often find come up include:

  • Do we understand enough how our work links to a client’s overall business goals? For example, is our team looking enough at the client’s financial reporting (whether public or private) to see what matters most?
  • What are the emerging reputational risks, and what’s the client appetite for taking risk in its communications?
  • Does the CEO have the profile they want?
  • What are relevant competitors, regulators, pressure groups doing?
  • What is the client desire for knowledge transfer to its own team? (and individuals at the client can have different views on this)
  • How important is Employer Brand?
  • Societal or political issues, either those affecting the company directly, or on which staff or other stakeholders might expect it to take a view

Playing the client may involve helping the PR with planning, but to me it’s more about timely ideas and questions, that help raise the quality and relevance of our work.

It’s vital is to keep an open mind about what might be relevant to a client.  Just because they once said they would never do something, or that a topic was without interest, doesn’t mean it stays that way for ever.  Big dislocations – see Brexit, Trump or Covid – prompt rethinks.

Sometimes this means trying to understand what’s not been said– polite clients can often be especially hard!  Sometimes, our direct contacts may not put great store on a given topic, but it is percolating through a corporate system and is going to be more relevant in short order.

You can 'play' in many different ways – from inputting to strategy documents to hearing the team explain what they’re doing and why. It needs to be balanced, to recognise the day to day pressures on PR team members, and mix encouragement and coaching for them with some “challenge”.

If such exercises come up with fresh thinking, or tough advice the client should receive, then you need to think whether it’s best to come from the core team, or from a more detached senior practioner.  Equipping team members with intel and information sources they can convey to clients to improve their work is often best. In other situations, advice or ideas that may be more left field might be best delivered by a senior person away from the day to day team.  This is especially the case with ideas that might be seen as useful, but possibly also “brave” or goofy.  Sometimes a more seasoned communicator can get away with things, and give the account team some deniability. 

Critical to understanding how to play each client is the client’s explicit, or unstated desire for new information or contrary views. Often agencies do not enough push back confidently enough. This is about balance.  Sometimes what the client explicitly states what’s important.  There is no other agenda, and second guessing or fishing to come up with too many left field ideas can be distracting or worse. Sometimes there is nothing to read between the lines.

Finally, everyone needs to recognise that long experience of PR in a given sector is both a plus and a minus.  Yes, it may equip you to “play the client”.  It may also lead to too much reliance on previous experience, using patterns of behaviour and convention that might not work now. That’s why everyone should be open to learning new tricks, and recognising that a mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm is sometimes essential.

Andrew Marshall is Cognito's vice chairman