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When PR newbies enter the workforce, we expect they have learned the basics of journalism, how to write a press release, work with the media and PR measurement strategies – among other things. The one area that is often left out of education and training is account management. If you talk to PR veterans, (myself included) they will tell you they learned by being ‘thrown into the fire,’ in other words, not trained but being forced to learn while on the job, under tight deadlines and hefty client and agency demands.
While this may be effective for some, for others it’s overwhelming and often leads to a high turnover across the PR industry – no matter the work environment. After 15 years in the PR business, account management remains the single most important element if you plan to or currently work in an agency setting. Why, you ask?
You may assume that good account management means being organized, detail oriented and meeting deadlines. While all that is true, there are many other elements equally as important, some not as simple such as:
The Value of Being Anticipatory
When you’ve worked with enough clients (across an array of industries), you can anticipate what they will ask and when because all their needs are pretty much the same (most of the time). Although this is learned from experience, it can also be taught early on and the best way to do that is to always put yourself in the clients’ shoes.
You are a start-up company with limited funds. You’ve paid the agency $XXXX already to obtain impactful media results for its public U.S. launch. On the next round of conference calls, as the client, you will want to know how the media outreach is going, their feedback and if you will get your money’s worth. So, what is your answer?
Always think and plan ahead before all calls with the client. Be prepared to discuss media outlets and reporters that have been contacted, summary of the efforts, concrete feedback from the journalists and your plan for the next phase of outreach. Be as specific – yet concise – as possible without boring them with PR talk. Answering them with a simple, ‘outreach is ongoing, we will let you know when there are updates,’ will only last so long because that ultimately leaves the client guessing. You never want that.
This same anticipatory skillset goes a long way with agency owners and managers as well. Your boss is feeling the pressure from clients every day so they will want to receive the same information as the client. And delivering those updates before being asked is always the better route to take.
The Importance of the Account Team Structure
In my experience, the top reasons that clients have left an agency are budget, lack of ROI or the account team. The way an account team conducts itself, how they communicate and manage the account, and their relationship with the client are critical to its success.
For example, you always want just 1-2 people communicating with the client at all times (in most cases). And usually there will be one designated account manager who is the first person to respond, leads calls, develops plans, spearheads strategy etc. It is important the client knows who is leading so they know who to contact when something arises or if they have questions. Then, the client can build a rapport with that person. Clients do not like too many cooks in the kitchen!
It is the role of the account manager to provide direction to all team members and ensure they are doing their job in a timely manner, so all deliverables are met without going over budget. They must not be afraid to push the team and make changes if and when necessary.
All other team members must have a role and fully understand their role on the account. There are always a lot of moving parts that all must be supervised.
In summary, clients like consistency so they always know what to expect.
Don’t Be a ‘Yes’ Person
The expectations from clients can be overwhelming and, in some cases, impossible to achieve. Most of that stems from a client’s lack of understanding of PR and marketing. It is our job as PR professionals to educate clients on what is doable and what is not. When a client approaches you with a pitch or campaign idea, or topic for a press release, you don’t want to automatically tell them it’s a great idea – unless you really think it is.
Don’t be afraid to tell them you need to do some research first or to ask more questions to dig deeper before moving forward. Or to simply say, ‘that is not a good idea’ and here are the reasons why. In this case, it’s best to offer up another idea or approach.
The worse thing to do if you don’t agree or have all the information, is to just agree because you are afraid to disagree. You are setting yourself and your team up to fail. Clarifying expectations from the beginning will alleviate the inevitable pressure that comes later. Always be transparent, use your expertise to explain your reasoning and educate your client on a better approach that will yield results. Remember, they hired PR experts so don’t be afraid to be one.
Finding the Right Communication Balance
As account manager, you are responsible for communicating with the client. Striking the right communication balance is key to finding a good rhythm with a client. Knowing the client’s professional life is a good indicator on what that balance will be. For example, maybe your contact is the only person running the marketing at the company. You see they are overworked, understaffed and always stressed when you talk to them. That tells you that emailing updates every day or whenever something happens will likely annoy them or worse, they go unnoticed because they are just too busy to read the email.
For someone like that, tell them they can expect an update every Friday with all items the team is working on. They will appreciate not being inundated. On the other hand, maybe another client is part of a sizable communications department at a public company. They have meetings with their supervisors every other day so they need updates as they come in so they can report back. Make sure whatever communications approach you decide is one that works for the client and your team.
Another important part of communication with the client is asking them how it’s going. You can get used to discussing press releases, media and general updates but stopping to touch base on how they feel the program is going overall is key. Ask them what is working and what may not be, or ways things can be improved. Clients appreciate you being direct and transparent.
In such a fast-moving and evolving industry like PR, if you can master account management early on, you will have a lengthy and successful PR career. For the PR newbies out there, be sure to read our Complete Guide to Pitching the Media to get your PR journey started off on the right foot.
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