“You can’t go shadow our client for the morning, they’re not paying us for that,” the firm’s principal said.
“Umm… I thought we were on a retainer…” I started to say.
“It doesn’t matter, it will take billable time away from other clients.”
And that was pretty much the end of the shadowing discussion at that agency. When I finally started my own company, I remembered this conversation and decided to integrate shadowing into the discovery phase of all of my accounts.
I have always been a big advocate of the four-step public relations process I learned in college: research, planning, implementation and evaluation. This process is a core part of the examination for accreditation in public relations. While each step is vital to a successful program, I’ve found research is often overlooked and the box is checked with a simple Google search.
Shadowing is a vital part of research. There are so many things that can only be seen from the inside of an organization — things your client would never know to tell you, because they wouldn’t know what to look for.
For example, when planning an internal communication campaign, it might be helpful to do a survey, but observing the attitudes of employees in the work setting would be more insightful. You can also see how employees engage with customers, and in turn, how customers react.
As important as shadowing is to research, there are also other benefits to immersing yourself in your client’s company culture. Here are some other reasons for shadowing:
You learn more about your client’s business. Let’s face it, even if we’re specialists within a certain industry, there is always more to learn. Marketing programs should affect profitability, and shadowing gives you the opportunity to really understand how your clients make money. This puts things into perspective when you’re trying to improve their — and your — bottom line.
It’s a great opportunity to build a relationship. Too many clients think their PR counsel just sits in an office, does nothing (we know this isn’t true) and cashes a check every month. Rarely do we take the time to get out of the office and go see them. Shadowing gives you an opportunity to have face time with your client and get to know them on a deeper level. It also shows that you care.
Identify problems before they start. When you’re on-site, you can think like a reporter. Those documents in the trash, should they really be shredded? Are labor relations issues simmering? Are people complaining? Is something a fire hazard? Is some policy in the works that’s going to really tick off the public? You get the idea. When you’re actually there, at your client’s place of business, you can see these issues and either nip them in the bud, or come up with a strategy to react if necessary.
Yes, we are in business to make money, and yes, shadowing is time-consuming. We put so much effort into our relationships with media, investors, stakeholders and elected officials, but we have to remember that our clients don’t just deserve our work, but our service as well.
If you really want to make a difference to your client, and to your work, spend a few hours with them learning about what they do.
They won’t forget it.