PR Agencies don’t suck. Unless you want them to.

I am sipping coffee with a CEO from a US multinational here in Paris, having a great conversation about building awareness. His company is stepping up its branding efforts; we are discussing approaches to achieve this. Of course, the discussion moves to PR agencies, and he asks:


How do you get the best out of PR agencies in different regions?


I’m not surprised by this question. Throughout almost two decades as a PR professional, it’s something I’ve been asked many times before, not to mention a question I ask myself! A PR agency’s job is about helping companies raise their profile and create brand awareness by working with critical media – in other words, journalists, and media outlets. They create opportunities for their clients to generate media coverage, help clients position their products and services, and provide support during a crisis period. PR agencies are the glue between the media and the client. Simple as that.

They employ very talented people. I have had (usually) the pleasure and (occasionally) the pain of working with agencies across Europe. Besides taking the noticeable cultural and linguistic differences into account, I believe the key to success when working with agencies is mostly in the clients’ hands. Many companies blame PR agencies for their lack of results. “We told them what we wanted, and they failed to deliver.” I recently had a chat with a PR professional telling me precisely those words. I listened with sympathy, but as he talked, it became clear the problem wasn’t the PR agency – it was him. Many PR professionals are quick to blame agencies. Instead, they should be asking one crucial question: “Why did that happen”?

Over the years, I’ve learned that the foundations of a successful relationship with your PR agency begin right at the start, with the pitch process. Too often, clients fail to invest in suitably briefing agency candidates on their goals and expectations. If you’re not able to articulate why you do, what you do and how you do it, the likelihood of selecting an agency that will be a good fit in helping you achieve your goals is at risk. I believe that few companies recognize the importance of instilling their brand’s vision into their PR agency.


Clients need to inspire their agencies.


If, as a client, you don’t bring your passion to your agency, they will never become excited about your brand, and they’ll never give you 100% of their energy. PR agencies have talented people just like any other company, and they have lots of different clients. Do you ever wonder how they prioritize their clients? Budget? Sure, that’s one reason. But I believe there’s more to it. Some customers are considered ‘cool’ or have great products; others are just boring. People who work in PR agencies are human too, and it’s human nature to focus on topics that inspire and excite you.

Imagine you are an agency executive. You handle five clients, and you only have a certain amount of time each day. Sure, you have to fill your timesheet, but how do you decide who gets the lion’s share of your attention and your best work? Of course, the client you find most engaging is your favorite. When you show excitement and interest in that client, your enthusiasm becomes infectious. When you pitch that client to a journalist, they will feel your energy and share it with their audience. Creative ideas start sparking; proactivity becomes second nature, and success is on the cards. Passion can speak louder than mere money—investing your time in making yourself your agency’s favorite client can be invaluable when there’s a gap between your budget and your PR aspirations.

So, before blaming your agency for your PR campaign’s failure, take a long hard look at yourself. Have you given clear direction and agreed on measurable goals? Is there alignment between the agency’s competencies and what you need? And, most importantly, have you made an effort to infect them with your passion? Show them your vision, tell them what you want to achieve, share your ideas on how to do that, and listen to their feedback. After all, you hired them for their PR expertise – there’s no point in ignoring their advice.


Treat your PR agency as a natural extension of your company.


Engage them as if they were your “own” employees, give them a motivating vision. I hope you do that with your employees, so why not do the same with your agency? PR agencies may have slow moments, but it’s up to you to drive the energy back up when it flags. My experience tells me that your efforts’ rewards are worth millions once you transmit your willingness to succeed to your account manager. Think of ROI.

Your PR agency is an investment, not a bet which you may or may not win.