Should PR agencies play client politics?

PR agencies often get caught up in the politics of their clients.  It could be departments that are at war; marketing heads that refuse to let anyone but them talk to the CEO; PR plans that are designed to keep CEOs happy rather than do what the client’s business objectives need.  Agency staff often scratch their heads when such things happen but in the end they tend to go with the flow for fear of losing the business.  This isn’t consultancy though.  Instead this is being an a … well you know the word.

So how can agencies be real consultants in a world where so many clients behave irrationally?  It’s not easy and it isn’t simply a case of being principled.  If you fired every client because they refused to act as they should, you’d have no clients.  Indeed the politics that cause clients to behave strangely are more deep rooted than just the PR department, they are often company-wide issues.  In most cases if the CEO really knew what was going on he, or she, would scream the house down.  But of course in some cases the CEO is the cause of the politics.  CEOs that run their businesses by fear, often create dysfunctional but often quite successful businesses.  And this is where as a consultant we should step back and make the important calls.

My advice is very simple.  If a client is behaving irrationally look at whether that behavior is stopping the company from being successful.  A good example here would be Apple, which is notorious for being irrational.  But you can’t argue with the success of the company or the level of its PR for that matter.  If the client is succeeding despite the issues you can see, then you should find sensible ways to deal with the challenges the client is creating.  This may mean gently pushing a better agenda and approach.  In other words be a consultant BUT recognize the limitations of your assignment.  The exception is of course where the client’s behavior is damaging your business by destroying your staff’s morale etc. In that instant you need to step forward and protect your business.

Where a client is failing as a business AND is behaving irrationally then you need to step up and be a consultant.  If the client refuses to listen to your sage advice and threatens to fire you if you don’t step in line, then I suggest you politely resign the account.

In all cases agencies should not assume they know everything and that the client is stupid.  Agencies often have a great view of a business but it is not always a perfect view.  There is often a lot going on that we can’t see and we need to recognize that.  So in short playing politics should never stop us from being consultants but it may prevent us from being the consultants we’d like to be.

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