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Building Trust to Overcome Short-Term Turbulence and Achieve Long-Term Success

January 5, 2024
By: Tylor Tourville

As we come out of the end of year lull and hit the ground running in 2024, the topic of agency-client trust has been on my mind a lot. I acknowledge that this may partly be due to the rocky economic climate that businesses of all kinds have been challenged to adapt to. Most of the marketing teams that we work with are used to running lean and being constantly under the gun to perform. This has indeed become the norm. But as a trusted partner to our clients, we have felt this pressure tick up in a very palpable way this year.

In times of turbulence, you turn to the ones you trust to get you through. In the line of work we’re in, trust may be the biggest factor in developing a successful PR program.

The most obvious example is when we’re tasked to help a client navigate a crisis, or when a story isn’t resonating and producing the desired results. Clients trust that we have the answers, and that we have the instinctual ability to act swiftly to keep their brand reputations intact and bring new ideas to the table.

However, trust is just as important in good times. When things are going well and the stories we’re helping clients tell are getting traction, they trust us to take the next step, to go above and beyond to squeeze the most out of it. How can we amplify this great piece of earned coverage? How can we extend the life of a whitepaper? How can we build on the momentum? Clients trust us to always act in their best interests.

Taking a step back to reflect more broadly on all of the clients I’ve worked with over the years, I realize that the way in which clients and agencies build trust depends in large part on how mature their PR acumen is.

In my corner of B2B fintech PR, our clients generally hire us for two different reasons:

1) They don’t have any PR expertise in-house and need help building their strategy and execution from the ground up. They know they need to be out there telling their story and being a part of the conversations, but they admit they don’t know what they don’t know.

How the agency can build trust with the client: The agency must be an educator as well as an advisor. The agency should not assume that any named tactic (“newsjacking”) or industry term (“byline”) is well understood by the client. The agency may have great ideas and be great at executing, but the agency should be deliberate in walking alongside the client instead of running out in front of them and expecting them to catch up.

How the client can build trust with the agency: The client should not be afraid to ask questions about their agency’s strategy and tactics, but also be willing to learn and be led. There is always room for discussion and debate about certain tactics, but the key is respectfully discussing the goals, tactics and expectations among the PR and marketing teams, and ideally with the most important initiatives, having access to the company’s senior executives so they can also discuss and be educated on the various PR strategies to achieve their goals. Where I’ve noticed the trust breaks down is when a client that is inexperienced with PR might hear something from a colleague or an executive within their company, and push for a different approach than the agency’s recommendation, without the agency having a chance to make the case for its recommended strategy. It’s all about open and honest communications, built on a foundation of trust.

2) They have a good communications and marketing infrastructure in place, and need a partner mostly for execution (with some guidance counsel where needed).

How the agency can build trust with the client: Since the client has a solid foundation to work with, the agency in this scenario builds trust through producing results. Secondarily, the agency should look for other areas for the client to expand their tactics where appropriate, providing value-add counsel. I think of it as the agency becoming more of a “co-CMO” to spur idea generation and creativity.

How the client can build trust with the agency: Empower and encourage the agency to go out and produce. Conversations around strategies and tactics should be highly collaborative and focused on optimizing outcomes or how to pivot appropriately. As the youth of today say, “let them cook.” (note: I admit that by the time this published, I will already be behind on the lingo)

I acknowledge that this is a simplified framework and that some clients may represent a blend of both categories (perhaps a company hired a head of communications with a PR background, but from a different industry, etc.), but generally this is how I tend to think about it.

What might be a more important point, however, is the common thread that runs through these observations, which is that building agency-client trust comes from an approach of respect and humility from both sides, knowing that both sides are doing all that they can to achieve results that we can collectively celebrate.

A client is entrusting their brand and their reputation in our hands – and we consider that a very serious responsibility at BackBay Communications. Clients rightly want every assurance that their agency understands their business, internalizes their mission and vision, and can take those stories to the market in a way that resonates with their clients, prospects, peers, and partners.

At the same time, once a client has chosen to work with us, we as the agency have to trust that our counsel will be received in good faith recognizing that our recommendations are rooted in relevant experience. It’s in our collaboration, strategic planning, and execution together, as one team, built on trust, that the magic happens.

I want to thank all of our clients for putting their trust in us in 2023, and we look forward to continue building that trust in 2024 and hopefully many years ahead.

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