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What I’ve Learned About Getting Clients 11 Years into Running a PR and Social Media Agency

It's not easy to build an agency, much less maintain one for over ten years, but that's what Chris Norton has done with Prohibition PR. In this article, he shares the lessons he has learned from eleven years of running a PR and social media agency.

Jul 18, 2022 10 min readFlow
Photo of Chris Norton
Chris Norton

Founder of Prohibition PR

In early 2011, I decided to take a massive leap of faith and do something I had been putting off for quite some time—quit a stable job and start my public relations agency. I knew this would be challenging. But, I wasn’t ready to live with the regret of not trying. So, on I went and launched Prohibition PR. What a ride this has been.

I started with a small personal blog discussing new social media trends and issues. Lucky for me, blogging wasn’t as competitive as it is today. Back then, you just needed to write a good blog and have it optimized correctly. That brought in decent traffic. It’s also through the blog that I got my first few clients. Now we’ve grown into a medium-sized PR and social media agency.

After over a decade of running the agency, I would love to say that I’ve mastered the “agency life.” But that would be far from the truth. I still get surprises now and then. Clearly, I don’t know everything, and there’s still a lot to learn. However, I’ve picked critical lessons along the way that I would like to share with you in this post.

Let’s jump right in.

1. Network with creative people

Networking is one of the most interesting lessons I learned in the first few years of running a PR and social media agency. And not for the obvious reasons everyone knows about. Sure, networking is a great way to establish business connections and acquire clients. However, when you network with the right people, the benefits go well beyond that.

For starters, you get exposure to how other people run their businesses. Over the years,  I’ve interacted with public relations experts, marketers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and other professionals. While most share many similarities, they also run their businesses differently. So why is all that important?

The exposure has helped me learn so much about how different industries operate. Not only that, but I’ve also gained insights into how other entrepreneurs operate their businesses. These insights have been instrumental in creating bold social media PR campaigns for our clients. In addition to that, they shaped my leadership approach in our PR and social media agency.

What does all this mean, though? Drop the tunnel vision, and look at networking through a wider lens. Most professionals think of networking as an opportunity to get connections for potential partnerships. Or receive “hacks” that’ll help them land more clients. I have no problem with any of that. But, there is much more to gain from good networking.

Good networks give you fresh ideas and open your mind to greater things. Naturally, this will benefit your company and the clients you want to help. But that’s not all.

I must also point out that not every event you attend will lead to real business or connections. I’ve attended and spoken at lots of real-life networking events over the years. But, honestly, most of them were just terrible.

That was especially the case back in the early 2010s when social media marketing was not as mainstream as it is today. So I would get to the stage and describe how social media is vital to stand out and much cheaper than traditional marketing, but most people were still not ready to pay attention to the channel.

To cut the long story short, networking is vital, and attending events is key. However, I’ve learned first-hand not to rely on these events completely. They won’t be the magic bullet you need to take your agency to the next level. At least not all of them. That’s why it’s also wise to rethink your networking strategy.

Adopting a multifaceted networking strategy can prove very helpful, for example. That means going beyond the common industry-specific seminars and tradeshows. You’ll need to explore other networking events like career fairs, community service groups, and alumni meetups.

2. Always be accessible to your clients and team

It’s fair to say that every agency strives to grow and to have a stable supply of satisfied clients. But unfortunately, as agencies grow and acquire more clients, it becomes easier to lose sight of the importance of maintaining a personal touch with every client. And honestly, it truly gets harder to stay in touch with every client when what started as a solo adventure grows into a massive agency with dozens of clients – I’ve seen this first hand.

When I started Prohibition PR in 2011, it was pretty easy to maintain that spark with my handful of clients. But as time passed and more clients came on board, the whole thing became more challenging. Having worked with international consultancies, I can also tell you that even larger companies with more resources struggle to stay accessible to their clients. And that’s a huge problem.

Like B2C customers, your agency’s clients need that personal touch. They need to feel valued. Having access to you through email, SMS, or a cloud-based telephone are some of the effective ways of reassuring them. Fail to deliver that, and another agency will come along and take your clients without breaking a sweat.

That’s why it’s so important to be good at time management. You have to create time for your clients. And when your baby agency grows into an adult, you’ll want to invest in qualified client account managers immediately. Train them to ensure they live and breathe your brand values. But more importantly, keep your doors open. Make yourself accessible to your employees because they are a vital connection to your clients.

Speaking of employees, I’ve always believed that agencies should strive to win awards to attract the best talents. When I started the agency, I wanted to win an award as soon as possible. I wanted to have an easier time attracting the best talents, and I knew candidates would want to join a growing and winning agency. So I worked hard and went the extra mile for our clients. As a result, the agency started earning recognitions, and now we are PRCA’s Best Medium-Sized PR consultancy of 2022.

3. Accept criticism

Embracing criticism is one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned over the years. Of course, that’s to be expected, especially in the PR world. But I didn’t expect that I’ll explain to clients that they need to grow a thick skin and learn to embrace criticism.

A good PR and social media agency can manage a crisis and build your brand image. Make no mistake about that. But what they cannot do is make your brand immune to criticism. No one can do that. So even if you deliver the best in class services, there will always be a customer with some criticism. And it could be legitimate or not.

But here is the thing. You don’t have to fight criticism because your agency can benefit from it. I’m talking about meaningful and constructive criticism – when a client complains about a product that failed to do this or that. Or your customer support is taking too long to pick up calls. This criticism can help you improve your product and refine the client experience.

Therefore, learn to accept criticism. Have the confidence to own up to complaints raised by clients—even more so when it's done publicly. Then, be swift at responding to the criticism and showing what you’re doing to resolve the problem permanently.

Check this out:

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Major brands like Apple have done this before when they faced criticism. For example, in 2015, Taylor Swift criticized Apple for not paying artists whose music was streamed during a user’s free trial. Apple owned up and issued a public apology through senior vice president Eddy Cue. In addition to the apology, they fixed the issue.

But there’s another perspective to all this. Sometimes agencies find themselves in trouble because they promise something they cannot deliver. This is particularly a problem with newer agencies that are too desperate to impress and acquire clients. You promise to grow a client’s revenue by X percent within a few weeks. The client gets impressed and comes on board. Then, you fail to deliver on your promise, and the client feels cheated.

Impressing potential clients with wild targets can help you acquire a few customers, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. Too often, the client gets disappointed and starts talking to other people about their experience. That’s why I always advise agency owners to be honest. Don’t promise the world to the client just to secure that paycheck. Experienced clients will see right through your lies. And those who don’t will be disappointed when you ultimately fail to deliver. Either way, you’re not doing your agency or brand any favors.

4. Pulse check your business with client surveys

Do you know what’s worse than losing a client? Losing a client out of the blue. It’s one thing for a client to end a contract after a few rough months with them. It’s something else when a client suddenly ends a contract.

Your business is taking a hit in both cases. However, the latter scenario may signal a bigger problem. You’re not doing enough to track the satisfaction of your clients and the overall performance of your business.

Failing to evaluate your business and clients allows performance issues to creep in. Worse still, these issues will fall through the cracks. And that’s when you start seeing clients raising a long list of issues spanning several months. Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to retain such clients at that point.

To ensure your agency is on the right track, you must continuously evaluate your performance and client happiness. Better yet, allow your clients to evaluate your business. And you don’t even need a long client survey for this. In fact, in my experience, I’ve found shorter client surveys to be more effective. I’m talking 2-3 questions max.

First and most important, you want to know how happy the client is. You could pose this as a question or use other variations. For example, how likely are you to recommend our services? Let the client pick an answer on a scale of 0 to 10.

A happy client will always pick a high number. For unhappy clients, you’ll want to handle the root cause of their unhappiness swiftly. For example, I would consider clients unhappy if they pick any number from six going down.

The follow-up question should give you qualitative data. What can we do better? This open-ended question will provide you with tons of data to work with. Use the answers to improve the customer experience and satisfaction.

How frequently should you conduct client surveys? The frequency may vary depending on your project and contract with the client. Make sure you’re not surveying the clients too frequently or less frequently. Do it too often, and you’ll come off as insecure. Meanwhile, if you don’t do it frequently enough, you’ll likely lose touch with your clients.

At Prohibition PR, we usually do quarterly surveys with our clients on long-term contracts. As for the project-based clients, we usually adjust the frequency depending on the timeline and scope of the project.

5. Tap into the power of social media

Unhappy customers are more likely to share their experiences than happy customers. Most marketers already know that. It’s also well known that most negative experiences are shared on social media. And it can take a single tweet or thread to burn a brand’s reputation.

Fortunately, social media is just as powerful for building brands and delivering results to your clients. That’s why we incorporate the channel when formulating our public relations strategies. We’ve used social platforms countless times to provide excellent results for our clients.

Take the 2017 social media campaign we did for Watches of Switzerland (WoS) as an example. WoS wanted to boost its profile at Baselworld 2017, a renowned global watch tradeshow. So we created engaging content for the campaign, including teaser videos, animated Gifs, etc. We also brought a production company on board to assist with creating a Facebook Live debate.

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The social media campaign helped WoS dominate the Baselword 2017 conversation. They had 363% more content than the competition. As a result, their social media audience and engagements also went through the roof.

For our agency, social media has also become instrumental in acquiring leads. We get more inquiries about our services through social media, LinkedIn specifically, than from search. I would get the “Hi Chris, would you be interested in helping with this?” DMs from people who’ve interacted with our brand in different capacities. Some are referrals, others from an event they saw me.

It is quite interesting that most of them opt to reach out via LinkedIn instead of the official website. Perhaps people prefer knowing they’re talking to the guy in charge instead of a random employee handling inquiries?

To cut a long story short, you need social media to grow your agency and deliver results to your clients. And this applies to virtually all industries. So, supplement your in-house content hub and the clients’ strategies with appropriate social media content.

6. Be confident

If most successful people share one recurring theme, it is self-confidence. Most businesses start with a calculated risk. An entrepreneur quits their full-time job with all sorts of benefits to start their own business. Some would even venture into a completely different industry. We’ve heard these stories before.

And while not all such stories have a good ending, they’re all critical in one way or another. If the venture works, brilliant. If it doesn’t, at least now you know the “million-dollar idea” you had doesn’t work. So you won’t live with the “what if” regret.

The bottom line is you need the self-confidence to achieve your full potential. You must believe in your skills and abilities enough to pursue them. Even if starting a new venture or going after a massive client that seems out of reach, you must try.

Also, it doesn't have to be during those big decisions. You’ll need your confidence even in seemingly minor situations like voicing your opinions during client briefings, suggesting different approaches, etc.

Sometimes, you’ll need the confidence to walk away from contracts or clients that aren’t a good fit. Is that a difficult decision to make? Absolutely. But think about this: is it worth bringing a client on board when you know your services can’t resolve their problems?

In Closing

Building a PR and social media agency has taught me invaluable business and life lessons. In this review, I shared some of the top lessons. First, you need to network with creative people. And don’t just look at networking as a means to land more business partners and clients. Think beyond that.

Second, stay accessible to your clients. Growth is good and all, but it won’t be sustainable if you grow distant from the very clients you’re working for. Next, pulse-check your business. Keep your clients satisfied and happy. Then, use social media, accept criticism, and be confident.

Hopefully, you’ve learned a thing or two from these lessons. They may not provide a foolproof hack into successful entrepreneurship, but they should help you make more informed decisions.

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