This week, I had the great privilege of pairing up with some top minds to discuss ways to weed out the kernels of bad partnerships by staying attuned to early warning signs.
The International Association of Business Communicators’ World Conference is being held this week in Washington, D.C. — and I am in attendance, along with upwards of 1,200 other communicators spanning the world. This year’s theme is “Global Business: Lead Communication — Make Real Impact,” and I moderated an hour-long panel on partnerships gone wrong: if, when, and how to walk away.
I was joined by Robert Morlino, the head of public relations at Nokia Technologies, Christi Woodworth, VP of public relations at Sonic Drive-In, Marleen New, Senior Director of Global Partnerships and Alliances at Heifer International, and Jacquie Toppings, Director of Global Brand Public Relations at Hilton Worldwide.
Drawing on experiences from both sides of the agency-client partnership equation, we explored the good, the bad, the ugly, and, ultimately, the redeeming aspects of partnerships from our unique viewpoints. Our objective? Help scores of attendees get a better handle on the warning signs of a bad relationship, as well as offer knowledge on how to bring a partnership out of a nosedive.
When Partnerships Sour
Few agencies and clients strive to begin relationships on the wrong foot, but good intentions alone won’t ensure alignment. Case in point: A study conducted by USA Today and RPA revealed that although 90 percent of agencies felt they had their fingers on the pulse of their clients’ needs, only 65 percent of their clients agreed. This type of imbalance leads to problems quickly.
So what red flags should you look out for when working with a partner?
- Your partner isn’t authentic to your brand and lacks your values and ethics. Partners need to be in sync when it comes to authenticity. Be like Gap and The Global Fund. They hooked up to form the hugely successful (RED) campaign, with a focus on ending AIDS in Africa. Without synchronicity, it can be tough to forge ahead and reach your goals.
- You’ve outgrown your partner’s capabilities. Sometimes, one partner simply outgrows the other. In business, this shifts the delicate balance of a partnership. Imagine the scales of justice tilting gradually, but consistently, in favor of one partner. It’s an issue — and one that should be discussed immediately.
- You’re experiencing financial problems. Financial problems go both ways. Agencies may charge fees that are too high, and clients may find that their agencies don’t have the funds or human capital to do what they expect. Discussing money upfront can put a halt to this partnership killer.
- You’re not communicating. Poor communication is at the heart of most broken relationships, corporate ones included. In a world filled with emails, text messages, Skype, and cellphones, we have little reason to become incommunicado.
- You lack clarity on outcomes. This goes back to communication. If you aren’t heading in the same direction, you’ll never get to the right landing point. You’ll just end up wasting resources, and no one will feel good about the results.
- You’re forced to deal with public opposition. Remember when swimmer Ryan Lochte’s lie at the Rio 2016 Olympics caused a public outcry? His sponsors, including Ralph Lauren and Speedo, couldn’t stand by him. Although this wasn’t a predictable scandal — few are — it was a firm end to numerous relationships.
Before you assume that partnerships are doomed to fail, take heart. Can they be fraught with obstacles? Absolutely. But as any longtime friend or partner will tell you, the hindrances pale in comparison to the rewards. We can move toward positive partnerships by focusing on the ingredients that make fulfilling relationships.
For more information on how to build authentic partnerships that can weather any storm, download my top four takeaways from the IABC panel.