Undercover Boss: What’s really going on with your PR program?

“Undercover Boss” on CBS is quickly turning into one of my favorite TV programs. The premise, if you haven’t seen it, has an executive go to work in their organization under an assumed identity to see what everyday workers go through. And what they find is sometimes shocking. For example, the owner of a waste management company found a bottle underneath a truck that was his workers on-the-go bathroom because policy didn’t allow breaks. Or the Hooter’s franchise owner who made his employees eat beans without their hands for the change to go home early. But the bosses mostly find hard working people who despite many times not having the right tools or having to working under difficult conditions manage to thrive and help drive the organization’s success.

Having worked on both the client and agency side, it made me think of the value that an executive could get out of going undercover in his organization’s PR program. For the majority of them they would probably find smart people, working hard to build visibility and sales for his or her business. But others might be surprised by what they find. For example they may find that they have some challenges with the relationship between their internal team and their agency:

  • Teams who drag themselves into meetings with the client because all they hear “what have you done for me lately” rather than feedback on the successes. Or an occasional thanks.
  • Teams constantly playing catch up because the client’s strategy is continuously in flux and the client contact isn’t being given the insight and information to assist the PR agency in focusing on the things that will benefit the current goals of the organization.
  • Opportunities missed or put on the shelf because the assets aren’t there or ready in time. Executives not available for meetings, news that isn’t properly planned or packaged but just pushed out and no customers available for any activities.
  • Little involvement of senior management into PR except for high-level press oppportunities. Or when a crisis hits.

Very rarely is this the internal contact’s fault. I’ve been on the client side so I know all about the challenges that internal contacts face. I’ve had teams that were once the agency’s best and the brightest suddenly turning into a revolving door of junior people. Teams whose lack of knowlege on your products leads to cringe-worthy pitches. The missed opportunities. The sense that the team doesn’t think about you until you pick up the phone or ping them by IM.

When there is a problem with the PR program I’ve found it is usually a disconnect in the client organization. PR is seen as valuable, but the investment required to get that value isn’t. If you’ve been in an agency or in the uncomfortable position of being an internal contact in this situation you know what I am talking about. The challenges that come from being an internal PR team who doesn’t have a seat at the table for the corporate vision and strategy is frustrating and limiting. But just like on “Undercover Boss” there is the other side of the coin when executives value and engage in the PR program:

  • A tightly couple agency/internal team where barriers are almost non-existent and information flows freely down the and across the organization.
  • The VP of Marketing who creates a bond with the senior member of the account team or even the agency’s principal to keep dialogue open at every level.
  • Clients who make an effort to send the team thank you notes for a big hit or a great campaign. Maybe even the occasional t-shirt or mug.

These are the companies that are usually leaders and stars in their market.

Thankfully, I’ve been lucky to work at an agency where the senior people don’t have to be Undercover Bosses, they are regularly in the trenches and know what the day-to-day challenges are and are quick to react to problems.  But I’ve also been on the client side where the agency has been kept in the dark or given multiple directives on “goals” and the management doesn’t give PR the mind share it needs.

What do you think? If you became an Undercover Boss what would you find out about your PR program?


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