Passionate, hardworking account managers are the heart and soul of any high-performing public relations agency. PRWeek describes the public relations account manager role as the following: “An influencer of public opinion, [account managers] grow brands and help drive sales through a range of PR tools such as news items, press releases, case studies, product placement and social media activity.” With that said, advancements in technology and increased outsourcing are transforming the account manager role, especially for those at or near entry level.
Traditionally, public relations agency account managers would assist campaign goals and objectives in a support capacity in the beginning of their careers, taking notes during client calls, conducting media research, performing media monitoring, building reports, creating transcripts, drafting pitches, editing content and eventually conducting supervised media outreach. They were held in these support roles for up to a year, sometimes longer, before transitioning into a predominantly client-facing capacity.
Those traditional support functions are largely being replaced or streamlined with technology and outsourcing, and this shift is changing the roles and responsibilities of account managers at all levels, particularly entry-level, in that they are now expected to be client and media-facing out of the gates. A Wall Street Journal report titled A Wake-Up Call for Grads: Entry-Level Jobs Aren’t So Entry Level Any More found that “…employers are looking for fast learners who can quickly evolve and have exceptional soft skills—the ability to write, listen and communicate effectively.”
Therefore, those early in their public relations agency careers must possess confidence, professionalism, excellent writing skills, storytelling talent and a foundational understanding of the news media landscape in order to be successful and win over clients. And during this period of high unemployment, these career opportunities are as competitive as they’ve been since the Great Recession. Ad Age reported that advertising, public relations and related services lost 36,400 jobs in April alone, a drop of 7.5 percent.
With heightened expectations and competition, today’s account managers need to step up their game in a big way. The best account managers – the ones who are most likely to win over clients and advance their careers – will have to develop and display these six vital qualities.
In this business, the best account managers are those who would rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re the type to deliberately break rules, undermine direct orders or deceptively hide their actions. It means they have the confidence and judgement to make autonomous decisions rather than slowing things down, seeking approval or trying to delegate accountability for their decisions.
Furthermore, good account managers do not simply ask their clients what they want. They provide assertive advice, telling clients what they need to achieve positive outcomes – and being candid with clients when their requests are inadvisable or unrealistic. Those clients hire public relations agencies to serve as communications experts and strategic partners to their organization. They want the agency and all of its representatives, especially account managers, to be honest, decisive and in control.
Accommodation & Anticipation
The best public relations agency account managers exercise keen intuition and quality judgement in accommodating and anticipating their clients’ needs. For example, if a client often requests links to a reporter’s recent coverage when they prepare for interviews, a thoughtful account manager will anticipate the request and, rather than waiting for the client to ask for it, automatically provide that information each time they present interview opportunities to that client.
Furthermore, great account managers do not ask their clients to do their own public relations. They do not ask clients to do work or provide information they themselves are perfectly capable of gathering. For written interview requests, account managers should offer to draft the responses for the client or be resourceful enough to repurpose existing content to avoid redundant efforts. They do not delegate direct media communication and coordination back to the client; they step in and take control even in instances where the media goes directly to the client.
Agencies don’t share an office with their clients, therefore steady communication is required to demonstrate to the client that their account managers are hard at work, especially during slower periods in the campaign. The best public relations agency account managers develop an internal clock in their heads. They know the communication frequency each client expects, and they understand that long periods of noncommunication can have a negative impact on the client experience, regardless of how much work they are doing behind the scenes.
Rather than making the client check in on the status of projects and initiatives, account managers should proactively send updates to help the client feel engaged, involved and properly apprised. They don’t wait for clients to bring them breaking news and pitch ideas. Instead, good account managers show their clients they are on top of relevant news by proactively bringing stories, trends and ideas to the client as they emerge.
Comprehension & Curiosity
Account managers should immerse themselves in the industries they represent, eager to learn the lingo, nuances and key issues impacting businesses within that field. Those who lack initiative and intellectual curiosity will try to fake it – meaning they will attempt to learn just enough about a given industry to be able to adequately perform their job without investing the time and effort needed to gain a sophisticated understanding. The fakers are easy to spot because they often adhere to the advice commonly attributed to Mark Twain: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” In other words, they are often silent and disengaged during strategy calls and campaign brainstorming sessions.
Great account managers, on the other hand, will ask smart questions and conduct their own research in order to truly comprehend each client’s organization and the industries in which they operate. They do what it takes to gain a sophisticated understanding of their clients’ expertise so they are able to identify otherwise hidden media opportunities and articulate each clients’ story and key messages in a compelling way.
While most public relations agencies are wise in taking a systematic approach, a true account manager is not a robot. Management cannot simply program them to repeat tasks and execute commands. The best account managers are true creative professionals and storytellers able to navigate the nuances and intricacies of the news cycle.
They should excite their clients with clever headlines, story angles and stunts to meet and exceed campaign goals. They must also be able to think like journalists, connecting the dots between breaking news and the brands and experts they represent. The account manager’s energy, enthusiasm and ideas should excite and inspire the client’s participation in developing angles for the press, not the other way around. Great account managers are always the driving force for creativity and new ideas.
The most successful account managers thrive under pressure. When the stakes are high and their backs are against the wall, they find ways to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This clutch factor is among the most valuable traits for this position. It is difficult if not nearly impossible to teach – it has more to do with passion, persistence and perseverance than general know-how.
Sometimes one big opportunity can turn an otherwise lackluster campaign into an enormous success and produce game-changing results for the client. The best public relations account managers have a way of overcoming challenges and making it happen when it counts and is needed the most.
Like any profession, a public relations account manager role is not for everyone. And most who are cut out for the role can get by and have productive careers without adapting all six of these traits. For those determined to reach elite status, however, they should study these traits and strive to master each one of them. This will put them on the path to achieving new professional heights, lifting their agencies and the brands they represent up with them.