HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CLIENT’S REPUTATION… When you don’t have the full picture

Originally written for my mate and ex colleague’s rather good PR blog

There’s a silly picture of me at the end of the article that I’m not putting on this blog

Q: “I’ve started working at a new agency and my core client is a big name in an industrial sector. It’s a change to anything I’ve worked on before and one of the things I’m struggling with is the lack of information the client gives us. Twice now the client has been featured in a big news story but we’ve been provided with little or no information as to what is happening. I feel like I trying to protect my client’s reputation in the dark and I’m also putting the new relationships I’m making with journalists under strain. Worst of all, it makes me look stupid! The rest of the team seem to accept the situation without question but I’m at a loss how to work this way (and keep my contacts onside). Thoughts?”

A: It’s a great question – and one that I’ve asked my old colleague Paddy Blewer from Ketchum to answer. With more than 13 years advising the energy industry (amongst others), spending time in the former soviet union, the middle east and sub Saharan Africa. Paddy’s deep sector knowledge makes him well-placed to offer advice. This is his response:

“This is an issue that everyone in communications faces at some point, because it is challenging to know every detail of a deal, a new product or a senior hire unless you are 100% immersed in the team running that project. My basic advice is as follows:

Hoover up every fact and opinion you can, and if possible, talk to the client honestly about why you need further information. Then its time to use your objectivity to put their narrative into a wider context.

In practice this means understanding where our clients fit in, whether that’s their vertical industry, policy area, investment cycle or across differing geographical regions.

Let’s take your client. My advice would be to read everything you can about them and their industry. You should always start with the company’s annual report to understand what their purpose is; and how their structure and operations are designed to help them meet their mission statement. Next talk to your colleagues and learn from their different perspectives. Try out different ideas and scenarios. Immerse yourself in the client’s world.

Then there is their key media. Search out key profiles written over the past few years to develop an understanding of how they are viewed both in terms of themselves and in terms of comparative analysis within their peer group. What’s worked and what hasn’t?

There may well be relevant analyst reports on this client. Either analysis of their products, or on a different level investment banking reports analysing the equity and debt investment propositions.

Finally you’ve got to get out there and meet people. It’s incredible how many serious and important people will give you the time of day over a drink in the hope of getting a nugget of valuable information from you. Meet your client’s other advisers, be that legal, comms or financial. Meet their rivals’ advisors. Network furiously to get a more personal feel of how the client is viewed and how their industry works – you could even try potential messaging ideas and platforms out on a strictly background or off the record basis.

You won’t become an expert overnight, but in an ideal world you should be able to develop a deep understanding of the client’s core communications profile, alongside the business itself quite quickly.

Once you get the above sorted, you won’t be losing credibility with journalists. You’ll be providing them with useful perspective.

This is why some agencies have vertical industry teams, or individuals develop as broad and deep understanding of a number of vertical industries. After multiple years advising energy / real estate / banking, you’ll know as much, if not more than many journalists covering the sector.”