Partially submerged fishing vessel in Loch LinniePublic relations and marketing agencies don’t grow by saying no. We are selling a service, and if a buyer wants to purchase that service, a transaction occurs. There are ethical and business standards, of course, and it is not quite the same as Amazon selling a basketball to a consumer. Amazon doesn’t know if the buyer just received a DUI, or harbors extremely prejudicial political views, and even if Amazon did have that information it has no legal right to deny the purchase based on that knowledge.

 

For the most part, if a prospective client shows itself to be on the up-and-up and passes the smell test, an agency will move forward with the relationship. This can create some hairy situations for an agency-client relationship if circumstances change. It becomes even thornier for agencies that specialize in providing services (crisis communications, reputation management, etc.) to ‘troubled’ clients, or agencies working with clients engaged in unproven medical and health products, for example.

 

This latter category, medical and health products, is front and center in a convoluted tale that has unfolded (perhaps a better word is unraveled) over the past few weeks on the popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The “GoBe activity tracker,” sarcastically described as a “miracle calorie counting wristband,” parlayed consumer enthusiasm for Fitbit and other wearable fitness devices into a crowdfunding raise of nearly one million dollars – in four weeks.

 

GoBe isn’t that notable for the amount of money raised, but it has drawn intense criticism over the absence of hard medical science to back up the product’s claims that it can measure calorie intake through a person’s skin. Tech news sites, most vocally PandoDaily, have hammered Healbe (the company behind GoBe) for its less than forthright evidence that the product works and far-flung operations in Russia and elsewhere. All of this has challenged MicroArts Creative Agency, the New Hampshire-based branding agency representing Healbe. MicroArts has not shied away from backing its client to the tilt, including comments posted by MicroArts’ president on the Indiegogo campaign page.

 

My intention is not call out MicroArts, as this story is far from fully written. But the chain of events raises questions about how long and to what extent an agency should stand by a client. While it is admirable to passionately defend a client, doing so at the expense of your own reputation and credibility may not be the best path.

 

MicroArts has stuck by Healbe’s side for now, but recent history suggests that this client loyalty may not last long. In January 2014, it was determined that a chemical leak in West Virginia that led to a multi-county water crisis involved the company Freedom Industries. Initially, Freedom’s public relations firm continued to represent Freedom and counseled it on responding to the crisis. But within days, the PR firm dropped Freedom, and provided no explanation for taking this action.

 

Though radically different in origin, these two situations highlight the challenges an agency might face when it comes to whether or not to stand by a client or sever ties. Every situation is different, and input factors vary, but here are five questions an agency should ask itself before making a decision:

  1. Are these your core services?
    MicroArts is a branding agency, not a crisis communications firm. Do they have the staffing expertise to navigate the client through the crisis even if they wanted to? If not, how time consuming and costly does it become to attempt to serve this role? Agencies must be honest about their capabilities, bandwidth, and opportunity cost of sliding down a rabbit hole with their client. In other words, the farther down you go, the harder it is to climb out.
  2. Are you willing to put the agency’s reputation on the line?
    Why do lawyers take seemingly unwinnable cases? Because if they lose, it is not a surprise. But if they win, they come off as rock stars. Everyone loves a challenge and succeeding when everyone expects failure, and agencies are no different. In fact, we thrive on them. But agencies that embed with a client and speak vocally on their behalf must acknowledge its reputation could suffer. At some point, agency decision makers must decidee how much of its own brand credibility it is willing to put on the line for a client.
  3. Are you asking the right questions?
    Ignorance is bliss…until it isn’t. Agencies must challenge clients with hard questions, and if the answers raise red flags, agencies cannot look the other way. Are client spokespeople unreachable or less than forthcoming while a crisis is unfolding? Was your firm blindsided by a client revelation that could have been unearthed if better questions were asked at the beginning of the relationship? Asking the right questions often means asking the hard questions, and agencies must not shy away from their due diligence processes.
  4. Is ‘riding it out’ a sound strategy?
    The 24/7 news cycle is no stranger to PR and communications firms, which is why some are tempted during a crisis situation to lay low and wait for the storm to pass. Determining if a crisis will endure for hours, days, weeks, or months summons the agency’s ability to analyze the situation and how the press, consumers, customers and citizens will respond to it.
  5. Is it unanimous?
    Rome wasn’t built in a day, but an agency can topple that quickly if a client crisis is allowed to tear an agency part and divide employees. If there is a significant difference in opinion for how to proceed with a client, the agency must be very sensitive to how the ultimate decision will be received from those who disagree with it. Unanimity in opinion at least maintains a strong, cohesive voice that can endure throughout a client crisis.

Originally published Apr 16, 2014 8:58:32 AM, updated July 28 2017

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Conflict Resolution Techniques