You know the drill. When a PR firm wins a new client, it’s all hugs and kisses: Please enjoy the honeymoon…of two or three months. Then things settle into a continuum of performance that, after perhaps two or three years, begins to degrade. Soon, contracts aren’t renewed or the account is again put out for bid.

What are the roots of these all-too-often tectonic plate shifts in public relations client-agency relationships? What can CCOs and PR agency chiefs do to break this cycle of “glee to flee?”

35 years of PR agency experience, including 20 years as CEO of my own firm, attests to me that what works in relationships between couples also applies in client-agency relationships.

Leaders should consider these guidelines for engineering strong, enduring bonds between clients and PR firms:

In the beginning (when the client has just awarded the business to the agency)…

1. Form and communicate a mutual trust and strive to never break the compact. This rule is paramount. The biggest breakdowns derive from one party or each taking the other for granted: Slacking on the pledge to give 100% and putting relationships on auto-pilot; agency people forgetting to worry about clients’ needs and not thinking of solutions until too late when the client is yelling. Client leadership should introduce an overarching principle of trust at the RFP stage and put appropriate binding language in your contracts. Agency principals, make and honor a commitment to give 100%. Defend it, particularly if holding company ownership attempts to make you cut corners.

2. Establish and clarify who’s in charge on the client and agency sides. Leadership bears a responsibility to visibly set and adhere to high standards of behavior and accountability. Ensure that your teams set the ground rules for process, engagement and measurable results.

Every day thereafter…

3. Encourage your teams to be honest brokers. Is it really always the agency’s (or client’s) fault? When problems arise, and they always do, run to them like a fire fighter smelling smoke. Take a custodial approach to nurturing the relationship.

4. Police and correct individuals at any level who, for whatever reasons, bring unhealthy levels of their own pet peeves, envy and passive-aggressive quirks into a business relationship.

5. Don’t air in-house complaints about other partners or executive colleagues within earshot of your partner organization. Leadership should maintain dignity and avoid costly distractions.

6. Leadership at agencies and clients should ensure that respective billing and administration functions are aligned. Agencies, produce clear, fair and timely billing. Clients, pay the bills on time. Immediately ask questions, but don’t hold up an entire bill unless there are fundamental disconnects.

7. Whenever emotions arise…Pick. Up. The. Phone! Even if you only can leave a voice mail. Know when to call instead of emailing or texting. Written communications work in the interest of clarity and sharing, but nothing substitutes what people gain in a live exchange.

8. Ensure your teams spend more time on the really important things. Avoid time-consuming, regimented bean-counting. Client CCOs, do you really want your PR firm strategists spending their hours on spreadsheets, or instead thinking about your needs and doing their best work?
9. Stop chronic scope creep. Smart public relations agencies will bend over backwards for an occasional favor. But incessant “never enough” is fatiguing and deflating to PR agency partners. And PR firms should remember rule #1 above and give 100%, all the time.
10. Leadership should demonstrate mutual respect. Your people should arrive on time or early for appointments, and be organized and courteous. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t leave meetings early. Also, talk less and listen more. The goal is for the team and program or project to succeed, not prove who is smartest. Reduce or eliminate distraction during meetings. For instance, taking notes on a laptop can look like you’re multi-tasking instead of paying attention. You as a leader unwittingly grant tacit permission for others on your team to daydream. Instead, take notes on a legal pad, or ask an assistant to record.

11. Show genuine appreciation for superior performance and results. Position the achievement of goals as a team win, but credit the PR firm as appropriate. If possible, get your CEO to weigh in with his or her appreciation. That goes a long way! And if you’re happy with the performance of your PR firm, share it. I’m completely biased here, but a really cool and no-cost way to reward your PR firm for its outstanding work and relationship with you is to refer the firm to your colleagues elsewhere, and serve as a reference.

And, finally…

12. Public relations firms should be, more than anything else, counselors to their clients. Recognizing the higher order of the profession as primary caretakers of an organization’s relationship with the public should be integral among internal client decision-makers, especially in the C-suite. Enlightened corporate procurement operations understand the deep value of the public relations profession and the genuine cost-effectiveness that correlates to long-standing, mutually trusting and productive relationships between the client and public relations agency partners.

Sustained, healthy relationships maximize results for clients and minimize disruption and chaos on the business front. For their PR firm partners, relationships built on unflagging trust in one another carry with them unrivaled stability and the prosperity that goes in hand, for both parties.

(The above blog is condensed from a full length article published at Prosper Group.)

John Seng is founder and chair of Spectrum Science Communications; as well as senior advisor at Prosper Group