balancing the agency-client relationshipYesterday a friend of mine emailed me.

He said, “I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. I am teaching a ____ class at ____ starting this fall. I’ve never taught before. I know you have. Any guidance or tips?”

I replied with one of my shortest emails ever:

“Work closely with your program chair, follow instructions, record everything, and don’t let students give you crap.”

I think he laughed when he read it. But the more I thought about it, applying these principles in my teaching has, in turn, taught me to more effectively ply my craft as a public relations practitioner.

1. Work closely with those you need to

In the PR context, it’s essential we work really closely with those we need to. Clients are a no-brainer, but even within that amorphous “client” structure, there will be those who are more or less familiar with various things we need to understand; internal processes, messaging, various programs, relationships (and power equations), etc.

And that’s not even counting the external resources who could help us structure and deliver more effective client work; other agencies they may have retained for different scopes of work, perhaps particular partners, or vendors.

Talking to, and working with, all these different entities helps us get a better grasp on the overall situation and provide a better solution for our clients.

2. Follow instructions

In the PR context, this means paying attention two things:

First, how our clients like things done. They may be used to a certain reporting style, way of communicating, etc. I try to understand at the outset what this is, and then communicate/behave accordingly. Sure, as we get more comfortable with each other, this might change, but even then, I think the onus is on us (ha! funny alert!) to follow their lead.

Second, what specifically our clients are looking for. It doesn’t matter if we came up with a killer proposal; it doesn’t matter if we have great ideas as we go along (and hopefully, we all do).

What does matter is the end result that the client is looking for, and it’s our job to help them articulate, and then work towards, that goal.

3. Record everything

I was taught early on in my PR career to document everything. And of course, this is common sense not just in PR, but in a lot of industries or even in life.

So I write recap notes, confirm changes in direction via quick emails, and so on. I also try to be very clear about upcoming deadlines, and whose responsibility it is to meet that deadline (whether it’s work I have to deliver, or information the client has to deliver, for example).

I’ve found this to be a good rule of thumb; not just because it reminds everyone of what needs to be done, and when, but it’s a good way to CYA, if you ever need to.

4. Don’t let them give you crap

There’s a difference in paying attention to client comfort levels, being respectful and attentive, and letting them walk all over you. Of course there is an inherent power structure in the agency-client relationship, though ideally that will become a fairly balanced relationship.

The best client relationships I’ve had/still have shift, over time, towards this 50-50 level… when we are truly partners.

But if you let someone give you crap once, it becomes easier and easier to do. And before you know it, you’re unhappy, and probably stop giving your best. And then where does that leave you?

(And, of course, you shouldn’t give them crap either.)

What do you think? Are you also a part-time academic whose teaching has made your “real” work better? Do share.

Image: ingridtaylar via Flickr, CC 2.0

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke