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“Great Expectations: What to do When PR Clients Ask for the Impossible.”

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Every business will come across clients that make the working relationship difficult. They challenge you to employ every customer service skill you possess. In public relations, it's your job to assess clients' needs, and also their business interests, so that they can enjoy more success. Sometimes, though what they ask for and what you can realistically provide are two very different things. We asked people experienced in public relations in everything from healthcare to fashion and media how they handled their most difficult clients, and here's what they had to say:

I think the most difficult client to have in a firm's portfolio is the client who has unrealistic expectations. Not only are these expectations unrealistic and unattainable but they hurt the morale of the firm. No matter how big a win might be-the expectation is that this will happen every month and sometimes multiple times a month.

As the owner of our firm, it is my responsibility to set what the client should expect from TrizCom in the interview phase and to listen to what the client is expecting from us. If I see that we will never be able to live up to the client's expectations we decline the offer to work together.

We have had them all-everything from wanting to be in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal every week, to a restaurant with one location wanting to be featured on Good Morning America. No matter how many other stories you get, if you don't fulfill their expectations then you will fail.

Another example is a client wanting to go after a publication or a reporter who does not cover their focus. They don't care if is spam, the client insists we pitch. When we get to that point, when a client doesn't want our advice and expertise, then it is time to part ways. Fortunately, these examples are the exception and not the norm.

Jo Trizila

Without a doubt the most difficult clients are those with unrealistic expectations. They believe that everything they say and do is worth a press release or a media pitch. They also think that just because they exist their service or product is worthy of getting on Oprah, the Today Show or in the New York Times. Managing expectations is almost impossible with these clients.

Whenever we engage a new client, we talk about managing expectations. If they have done PR before, were they disappointed with the results or were they happy? If they were disappointed, was this because the expectations were too high about what could be delivered or was it because the agency failed to deliver on its promises?

Remember, in public relations there are no guarantees, except those that once the objectives are decided, the agency will do everything in its power to achieve by working hard.

Setting a realistic goal -two stories a month, writing one in-depth case history a month, doing social media at least 15 minutes a day on behalf of the client, talking to reporters by email and phone about story ideas-those are realistic, assuming that the client has a good story to tell. If there is no solid news, you might want to pass on that client.

When Oprah had a hugely popular TV show on commercial television, clients said, "Please get me on Oprah." I am sure everyone in PR reading this had a perspective client ask, "Can you get me on Oprah?" Your reaction was probably identical to mine. Much of time the prospect asking that question had something fairly dinky to sell. That didn't seem to matter. To the prospect, the product, service or nonprofit he or she was selling was just what Oprah was supposedly waiting to see. We coined a term and call this phenomenon "oprahlusion," or delusional thinking that a toy, DVD, food item or "insert new product here" is worthy of Oprah's attention. A client must have a newsworthy product or service in order to generate news.

Susan M. Tellem, APR, RN, BSN
Tellem Grody PR, Inc.

The most difficult PR clients are those who come with a preconceived notion about what makes a successful media relations program. They require patience and a lot of education. The two things I ask when such a client wants a news release every week/month, etc., are:
  1. What do you want to have happen after someone reads the release?
  2. Who are you trying to reach?
In my 30 years as a consultant, I've found that in most situations I can work them away from their faulty perceptions into a program that reaches the right audiences through the right communication vehicles. I'm always prepared to resign the account if they persist in wanting non-productive tactics. In all those years, I've only resigned from two accounts.

Mary Ann McCauley, ABC, IABC Fellow
Catalyst Communications, Inc.

Extraordinary people skills and a "way" about you (solid emotional intelligence) helps to work with difficult people. I had a client who just left my office. He was aggressive and insistent that he did not have an anger issue and that he did not need to be here. He was argumentative and defensive. I let him talk himself out. I disengaged while remaining attentive to his babble. I feel that it takes two to have conflict. Conflict can't and doesn't happen without your accepting the invitation.

***Yacine Bell CAMF; CPCC; CDVF; V.P.S; Certified Mediator

I'm an entertainment publicist and have handled a number of music artists. I find that the most difficult clients tend to be the ones that select the smallest package based on their budget. It's not so much that their expectations are set at an unreasonable bar-which sometimes it is, until I explain exactly how publicity works, especially for independent artists-the problem is usually their lack of drive, dedication and enthusiasm for their own project. That could be directly related to the small amount they've invested in themselves, but it leads to lost opportunities, no-shows, and the ball being dropped. It's a saturated industry so an opportunity lost is just a shame in my opinion and a waste of my time even if I was paid.

Then you have a client like my artist Greek that's investing fully in his craft and it shows in his drive. He's in the studio, he's doing shows, shooting videos, he's self-promoting and genuinely excited about his project, which makes it easy to seek out unconventional methods of promotion to pair with the conventional/traditional methods. The way I handle those types of clients is to continue to do my portion of the project and do it the best I can, knowing in the back of my mind that ultimately success is a group effort.

Rain Dazed Entertainment

By far the most difficult client to have is one who doesn't fully appreciate the importance of a positive public image. Bad Boys / Bad Girls might be very profitable for the PR practitioner due to their talent(s) and need for publicity to promote their craft. But they also require their PR person to keep a close watch to put out fires. A PR practitioner is a lawyer in the court of public opinion. Having a BB/BG as a client is akin to being an attorney for a mob boss; sure, they might rarely go to jail, but it's a lot of work to make sure that's the case. I manage these clients using these methods:
  1. Talk straight to them. Don't mince words, hold back, or refrain from swearing. Doing so makes them respect your opinion more.
  2. Every BB/BG has a primary motivator, determine what it is. If it's attention, find ways to get them positive attention in order to balance out the not-so-good. If it's money, explain to them to potential financial repercussions of certain actions.
Nature vs. Nurture arguments aside, BB/BG have an underlying reason for their behavior. Generally it's related to an actual or perceived weakness and the rebellious behavior is their way of compensating for it. As they might lack the self-awareness to tell you what it is, you have to figure out what it is. I manage their reputation using these methods:
  1. Look for positive opportunities to gain media exposure. Working with non-profits is a great way to build up a positive image.
  2. Never, ever lie to the press. As a PR practitioner, your credibility is what matters above all else. Remember, it is okay to say "I don't know/I'm not sure/ Let me get back to you on that."
  3. Be quick to use a redirect if you detect a line of questioning that goes down a road that is unfavorable to you or the client.
Having managed a variety clients ranging from rowdy to outright self-destructive, there are times they made my life more fun and other times that I regret the day I took them on. One the other hand, they've been some of my best-paying clients and have forced me to improve as a

practitioner. Any PR flunky can get the press to report positive stories about a cancer treatment center. It takes a PR pro to build a positive reputation for an entertainer with an appetite for cocaine and married women. They don't teach classes on handling this in any accredited

university or webinars I've seen-this skillset is acquired on the job.

Brian Massie
Communication Consultant
American Timing Group, LLC

I am the owner of a fashion and lifestyle PR agency and I have had my share of dealing with difficult clients. Here are some of my tips for dealing with them:
  • Listen to what they say. Their requests/claims may be valid.
  • If they have unrealistic expectations, be honest with them. Tell them what you can and cannot do.
  • Don't be rude and mean. Other clients will find out. I was rude to a client when I was first starting out and it caught up to me. A potential client found out through social media and did not hire my firm.
  • Explain the way the PR process works before you sign them.
  • Keep cool and composed when they call asking 1,000,000 questions you already answered.
  • Always get back to them even if you do not want to speak them.
  • Although I still struggle with this, never take what they are saying personally. It is just business.
  • Look at the problem from their point of view.
  • Be responsible and don't place blame. Try to resolve the issue.
  • And if they are still calling you during the night and giving your employees a hard time after you've tried to resolve the issue, it's okay to fire them. I have more than one time.
These are the top things any PR manager or agency owner can do to resolve difficult client requests.

Kristin Marquet
Marquet Media

I am the founder of JCEC Public Relations and a 15 year PR veteran. In representing corporate accounts, non-profits, and celebrity clients, I've found that handling difficult clients is a dance. Timing is key. "Yes- men" only set up their clients for failure down the road. But you can't be a bull in a china shop either because, regardless of what people say, it's not just business, what we do is very personal.

Let me give you an example.

1. In PR, sometimes you have to know when to push, when to pull and when to stop. I had one emerging Hollywood actress whom I pitched to do a fashion spread in O Magazine. We landed the opportunity and all she had to do was fly to New York. She was in a deep personal funk at the time and was using every excuse not to go. Boyfriend problems. Complaining that she didn't trust the hair and makeup artists that the publication was going to use and wanted them to pay for her own glam squad to hair and makeup. She actually said that she didn't want a fashion spread; she wanted a feature article specifically about her. Many times with celebrity publicity the publicist becomes more than a publicist; she becomes the "Reverend Doctor Sister Publicist." This was one of those cases. After negotiating with her television network to cover the cost of flying her to NY for the shoot, and also negotiating that they would cover the cost of her hair and makeup glam team (who's rates were three times the normal editorial rate for hair and makeup), we came to the point where all she had to do was get on the plane. She didn't want to do it. As a novice publicist, I would have pushed her to do it anyway. However, I knew this actress. When she got in this place, she had the capacity to damage relationships permanently. So I thanked the folks at O Magazine profusely for the opportunity, told them that she was not well and was unable to participate, but would love a future opportunity. O Magazine was fine with it. And we moved on. Even though it would have been a plum opportunity to put her on Oprah Winfrey's radar and expose her to the incredible readership of O Magazine, I was in crises communications mode and was preventing what would have been a very damaging experience because of her state of mind. If she had moved forward with the spread in her state of mind, she would have damaged any future invitations for her, and me (always remember as a publicist, you have relationships to protect).

Example two is about knowing when to cut ties with a difficult client:

2. One of my company's service platforms is talent relations for high profile events. We negotiate celebrity participation in events to elevate profile and drive media support, as well as strategically position the client's event or brand. I had a client with a high profile event sponsored by elected political officials. Several celebrities were invited to host, perform and participate as part of the event entertainment. We had offered our services to assist with booking talent, but the client was convinced that they could do it themselves. During the course of the event, I learned that for one segment of the program, the "confirmed talent" wasn't confirmed at all. And the client had not listened to our recommendation on how to promote the talent participation so as not to create a crisis if the talent did not show up. Integrity is critical when dealing with media and talent. My agency's rule of thumb is to carefully craft wording around celebrity participation so as to not mislead the media and prevent backlash if the talent does not show up. Rule #1: Do not say talent is "confirmed" unless they are paid to participate with a contract or letter agreement. Rule #2 Talent who are not paid to be on a program, but are invited to participate and have offered an RSVP with the intention to attend, should be listed as "special invited guests." This way the media know they are invited guests and as any invited guest, they have the option not to attend if they want. Rule#3: Do not promote talent on any level unless they were booked through the representation that has the authority to determine the client's schedule. The client had contacted one of the talent's relatives to book the artist. Turned out the artist never knew anything about it. So we had to swing into crisis mode and pull favors to get a comparable celebrity to come to the rescue and appease the media and general public. We saved the day. Unfortunately, the client never admitted we'd advised them in advance to avoid this situation. Nor did they pay us for the added services of booking a talent to prevent major media backlash. We released them as a client. All clients have a learning curve. And even if it's at a glacial pace, there is always hope. But when a client is not willing to heed advice that is potentially damaging to their brand and yours, it's time to cut ties.

Jeanine Taylor
JCEC Public Relations
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