Excelling as a Comms Pro depends on best practice agency management – what you give them and what you keep yourself
A good proverb is like a breath of fresh air. Often the best ones apply equally to your personal life as they do work. I’m not into Eastern Philosophy, but I do subscribe to the idea of nested relationships. These traverse the individual and the organisational planes. The idea of Yin and Yang is one cannot exist by itself; Yang can exist only when it is supported by Yin. Hence Yin is the foundation of Yang – Yin being female and Yang male. It is the harmony of balance. I think this plays out for comms pros as they ponder how to get the most out of their agency partnerships. Understanding what is core and what is context is perhaps the most important step on the way to successfully resolving this perplexing subject. It’s a matter of knowing where to exert your focus and energy. Figuring out how you can uniquely position yourself to make best use of your skills and the most of the market potential is critical. Once you realise this, ideally you’ll have the opportunity to leverage partners to drive economies of scale for the peripherals. In a comms context it means, what you should manage internally, and what you need an agency for. The challenge is, every business is different. Therefore it’s not a simple answer, but here’s some food for thought…
As a comms pro part of the fun is you never know what you are going to walk into from one day to the next. It could be a merger, down-sizing, power or IT outage, or even, heaven forbid, a product recall. Your potential impact is subsequently unbridled. Here’s a rudimentary example… you’ve been invited to a work conference. Do you go, or do you send someone from your agency? You are under the pump and don’t feel you can justify the time out of the office, besides your agency is paid to be an extension of you and they have a vested interest in fostering and filtering leads, right? On face value, it’s a basic and easily navigated scenario, but you need to peel it back, layer by layer.
I use the analogy of a work conference because it epitomises opportunity. Despite running your eyes across the agenda and briefing notes, you don’t really know who will be there or what will be discussed. You can’t know what or who might cross your path. So how do you best step forward confidently into the darkness of invariables? You can’t afford to own everything and be everywhere, but you do need to be able to quickly and effectively evaluate risk versus reward; core versus context; to own or outsource… That is the question.
Sleeps in the tent/or under the stars
Relationships: Which should you own? The first thing I would say is, it depends on whether you have a dedicated Comms Manager. If you do, it’s a shared responsibility between you and your agency (but not evenly shared). You need a barometer by which to judge the counsel your agency gives you, so pick off a few key guys (journos, analysts, or other) and keep them close. Hold your agency accountable for them and the rest. If you don’t have the headcount for an internal Comms Manager – make sure you have a good agency. Do some homework and find out whether your agency team is really as connected as they say they are! It’s important.
Strategy: Once again – if you have internal head count… use it! Remember the comms strategy is different to the business strategy, but they remain intrinsically linked. This means, the closer the comms pro sits to the executives, the better. You can gain much from your agency, but don’t rely on them solely to pull together a comms strategy if they’re not close enough to the business strategy. Assumptions are the peril of planning. If you need someone more senior internally to leverage this, you’re better off investing some more money in it (for the optimum outcome). On the flip side, if you don’t have an internal dedicated resource, make sure you get face time with your agency team. While it seems efficient to connect on the phone, it’s not quite like meeting in person. Encourage them to spend time in your office and with a range of your executives.
Logistics: This one is easy – your agency can and should provide you with strategic counsel. They should be your trusted advisors, but they also need to be your arms and legs. You can’t scale without your agency. You need to leverage them. The old saying two heads are better than one is so true. If you are the fisherman, they are your net. They have a breadth and depth of experience, as well as access to people and places that must be cherished. Remember though, experience breeds ideas – another agency highlight – so… empower them to think! Task them to present you with options as a part of the process of engagement. They should take away the pains of execution in order to free you up to evaluate and test their vision.
Specialisation: The best managers, whether they are internal comms managers, or executives leveraging an agency because they don’t have a dedicated internal resource, know how to build teams around them to complement their strengths and short-comings. You don’t need to be everything internally. Sometimes distance offers perspective. Use your agency for things like training and enablement as an example. Regardless of your experience, it helps to have a third-party come in. To again borrow a proverb – it’s no good when you can’t see the forest for the trees.
So, as with Yin and Yang, the organisation cannot be all it can be without a good agency, nor can an agency exist without being nested in a client. You just have to find the balance. Because you don’t know what tomorrow brings, you simply have to get it right today.