It’s not a new Olympic sport, but an approach to maintaining professional relationships in challenging times.

We’re having another New England snowstorm, and I’m safe and warm in my house while my car sits at the base of my driveway, sticking out into the road. About an hour ago I ventured out to pick up my eldest son from school (he attends a private school that rarely cancels classes) and bring him home. We made it to our driveway, where my car couldn’t get enough traction to make it over the slight incline at the base of the driveway. It’s the latest episode in a long and enduring partnership I’ve had with my car. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship; the car has transported me and my family to where we’ve needed to be, and I’ve tried to be conscientious about keeping the car in good shape. So as I sit down with a hot mug of tea and stare out the window, waiting for AAA to arrive, I’m thinking about all the challenging times I’ve been through with my car.

I’ve been thinking a lot about partnerships lately, particularly those between communications professionals and their clients. Back in my early days in the field, when I worked for several PR agencies, I was involved in numerous new business pitches to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. In those days the agency hiring decisions were usually made by senior executives in the companies’ marketing or communications departments, who presumably understood the principles — and nuances — of effective healthcare communications. However, about 12-15 years ago I started to notice a new trend: when I and my agency colleagues walked into the room to present our capabilities and recommendations, there was a new person in the room, in addition to the pharma/biotech marketing and communications personnel. When we were introduced to this new person, we were told she was from Procurement, and that Procurement was now to have a say in all agency hiring decisions. In other words, the same department or function that decided how many pencils and erasers to order was now to be involved in selecting a PR agency.

At the time, many industry commentators bemoaned the advent of the Procurement specialist as evidence of the commoditization of healthcare communications, by which cost had become the primary consideration in selecting an agency. Although budgetary considerations had always been important, when decisions were made by professionals who understood the value of communications, we at least felt they had some appreciation for our ideas and experience (and to be fair, many agency/industry relationships are still conducted as partnerships, with each partner valuing the other’s knowledge and expertise). Now, however, it seemed that the bean-counters were calling the shots. What’s more, the agency/client relationship seemed to be devolving from one of partnership to vendorship. To the extent that our clients communicated with us, it seemed that they only did so because they needed something from us.

Granted, many agency/client interactions have always been driven by the fact that the latter needs someting from the former; there’s not much point to just shooting the breeze. However, it seems that a certain level of respect and conviviality has become lost. A few months ago, I was working on a project in a rather complicated therapeutic area, one that was new to me. Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable and capable of understanding complex medical topics, in this case I was having trouble grasping certain concepts. I therefore tried to schedule a phone call with the biotech client, but the client was always too busy to talk. I even suggested that we set up a call with someone in the client’s Medical Affairs department, who could then explain the difficult concepts to me; this is an approach I have successfully used with other clients, whom I have regarded as partners in advancing knowledge of their products’ benefits. However, in this case my client balked at setting up such a call, saying he would have expected that I (and the agency I was working through) would have understood the subject matter and not needed “outside” help.

Clearly, this client did not regard me and my agency colleagues as his partners; we were merely vendors, a group he had hired to meet his needs. Apparently, he lacked both the time and the inclination to examine and analyze the problem with us, or to help us obtain the tools we needed to solve the problem. While this was a case of “vendorship” between a life science company and a communications agency, I have seen evidence of vendorship between agencies and freelances as well. As a freelance, I have very rewarding partnerships with a number of my agency clients, who go out of their way to make me feel part of the team; they invite me to planning meetings, pitches, and even social gatherings, and regularly keep me in the loop with regard to projects I’m working on. On the other hand, some agency clients seem to regard me as a vendor; I only hear from them when they need something from me, and they often neglect to copy me on client-related communications or to share final versions of documents I’ve written for them. I can’t help but think we’d do better work if I was made to feel more a part of the team. Indeed, when I examine the work I have done on behalf of agencies I’ve truly partnered with, it’s that body of work I’m most proud of.

Epilogue: The AAA tow truck finally arrived, and the operator hoisted my car onto its front wheels and tried to move it up the incline onto level ground, but alas, he gave up after two attempts, telling me his truck couldn’t handle it, and besides, AAA didn’t cover this kind of situation. While he managed to move my car out of the road, it was still at the base of the driveway. The AAA guy suggested I shovel out the snow around the car and sprinkle dirt and sand where I needed traction. I then spent the next hour shoveling and sprinkling, and made two attempts to move the car from a stationary position, to no avail. I then decided to back the car out of the driveway and down the street, where I could get more of a running start and, I hoped, generate some momentum for getting over the incline. After two such attempts, I realized that I probably needed to get the car into a higher gear, rather than keep it in first. Finally, as I roared up the street in third gear, I was able to coax the groaning and straining car over the incline onto level ground, from where I was able to maneuver it into the garage. Problem solved! And it was all due to finally giving the car the tools it needed to succeed. Chalk up another one for the partnership!