When I sit down with prospects, the biggest pain point I hear day in and day out about past experiences with PR agency partners is a lack of proactivity. Agencies tend to come in hot and operate with a high sense of urgency to impress new clients right out of the gate. But more often than not, clients see that urgency rapidly die down, and they’re left with a team that waits to be told what to do and when to do it.
This is a pretty universal challenge that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much since Kristina and I managed agencies ourselves more than ten years ago, back when we were in-house at some of the same high-growth technology companies we support today.
Back when I sat on the client side of the table, a lack of proactivity not only created a lot of frustration, but it manifested as missed opportunities – things I felt our agency should have seen, prepared us for, or alerted us to. During calls with our PR partners, I felt as though they were waiting for specific marching orders from me rather than taking the lead and driving our program with confidence.
Even from a foundational point of view, a lack of proactivity in messaging work or preparation for individual interviews meant that we let others decide how to tell our story, or we landed B- coverage that could’ve been an A+ with better foresight on how to steer the conversation.
Of all the topics we cover during intro calls, proactivity is the thing that gets heads nodding the fastest. Too often clients have experience with agencies that only do the bare minimum in order to justify sending an invoice every month and keeping clients off their backs. Expectations have been set dangerously low, and many agencies are fine to continue operating at status quo.
Why does proactivity in PR matter?
Companies turn to agency partners because they need strategic guidance from experts and/or lack the internal resources to execute on the level of program needed to support their goals. They rely on their partners to know what’s happening in their market; what competitive conversations are taking place; what media is looking for; and the kinds of content and campaigns that will drive meaningful conversations forward. Not to mention the fact that clients are already busy people.
No matter the industry, state of the economy, or whether they’re going through some kind of organizational change, clients have a lot on their plates outside of managing a multifaceted PR program. This is especially true in tech – nobody has the luxury of hand holding their PR partners. Things move too quickly, and the time simply doesn’t exist.
Beyond being imperative for delivering the best possible client service, in program execution, proactivity and speed also go hand-in-hand. News cycles and customer demands change every day, as do investor and talent expectations. Proactively staying on top of relevant news and trends – as well as building proactive relationships with media to understand their needs and interests – is absolutely critical to being among the first to market with something interesting to say.
Tactically, with reactive commentary efforts, being among the first to connect with media (with an interesting POV), can be the deciding factor between being included in breaking coverage or not. But at a more strategic level, proactivity is ultimately about making sure our clients are leading conversations rather than trying to play catch up.
This is particularly true when it comes to category creation, where capturing the early mover advantage can help you dictate what success metrics you and others in the space should be measured against.
The Kickstand difference
When Kristina and I founded Kickstand, we were determined to play a part in closing the proactivity gap that caused us so much distress as clients. Today, our proactivity is grounded in a deep understanding of our clients’ businesses, which starts before contracts are even signed.
During the pitch process, we put effort into understanding a prospect’s business strategies; their buyers; competitive landscape; revenue model and differentiators; growth strategy; and so on. The ability to think and operate proactively is contingent on a deep level of understanding and the trust that’s built as a result.
Clients see and feel Kickstand’s proactivity in two major ways – both of which I consider equally important. On the functional side, we invest in tools like text analytics that enable us to understand the conversations relevant to our clients’ businesses, industries, and products that are taking place.
This allows us to identify trends and see how those conversations are evolving, which is key to making sure we’re finding the green spaces we can own in a more differentiated and protected way. It also ensures we’re able to execute on successful media and content programs that are not news-reliant, and keeps us focused instead on initiatives that build true thought leadership for our brands and their stakeholders.
Secondly, we make a concerted effort towards proactive client service. This was a non-negotiable for Kristina and me, having experienced firsthand the pain of poor culture fits on the client side. What does this mean in execution? To put it simply, our clients never have to wonder what we’re doing, what’s next, or why we’re making certain recommendations. We answer questions before they have to be asked, and we always come to the table with feedback, ideas, and suggestions for adjustments based on those insights.
It also manifests in highly responsive communication, be it through quick email responses or chatting in real-time with clients on Slack. This is driven through an organizational emphasis on empathy: we put a substantial amount of focus on understanding where our clients are coming from, what pressures they’re feeling, and what directives they’re being given. Then, we work to anticipate their needs and do the legwork to help them achieve their goals internally.
A lot of this comes from walking in the door with a “yes” mindset. We don’t nickel-and-dime our clients; we always try to find a way to say “yes” to any challenge they bring our way, even if it falls a bit left of center for our program.
In defense of data
In the PR world, it’s tough to get by without hearing the (somewhat insulting!) trope that PR professionals are “words and pictures people, not numbers people.” Refuting this stereotype is also at the core of what we do at Kickstand, because to be good at what we do and meet the standard of proactivity to which we hold ourselves accountable, you have to be both. PR without data has you operating solely off of instinct, and there’s too much lag time between testing and learning.
Smart application of data at the outset is what makes for better programs, faster results, and a better connection between PR and sales. As numbers people, we’re able to drive increased demand and lower future acquisition costs for our clients.
There’s nothing worse than an agency partner that doesn’t pull its weight. A lot of agencies may tout their ability to be proactive, but very few actually deliver on that promise. We’ve worked with our fair share of PR skeptics, many of whom have lost faith in agencies for this exact reason. But it’s our data-backed focus on proactivity that has converted many of these same folks into long-standing and repeat clients of Kickstand.
Interested in working with an agency that won’t make you do the work for them? Meet Kickstand!