Monday, December 7, 2009

Is the client from hell always right?

My 13-year-old son asked me the other day, "When you are driving the car, how do you know when to signal left or right? Do you automatically do it without looking?"

I responded that just like riding a bike, if you've done it well for years, you instinctively know how to steer in the right direction, when to change lanes, and how far ahead you need to signal.

Public relations operates similarly: if you do it long enough, and undergo many situations, you eventually know how things are done right instinctively. You acquire a set of professional ethics and guidelines to operate on the high road so that you earn the respect of colleagues and journalists, and your execution rate far above the norm.

Along that road, once in a long while, and perhaps luckily never, you will be tested by a client who makes life difficult. It's been drilled into your head that the client is always right, but what if the client is incredibly wrong? Instead of participating in an ideal collaborative public relations relationship, it's a one sided dictatorship where the common standard of practices don't count at all.

An intelligent public relations pro listens to their clients, and incorporates their wisdom into planning and execution. There is always room to learn, and from experience, I can tell you I've picked up many things from my clients.

Yet, there are clients who are not public relations savvy because they are great at the job they do, but not in the ways of PR. They can either learn from you because they trust you and your experience and insight (after all, that's why they hired you), or they can ignore you and impose their misguided will. And that's when things get difficult, because there's nothing worse than being stuck with a client who knows nothing about PR and never listens to anybody else. It's a train that is bound to crash.

Can you or should you jump off that train?

Consider this dilemma...

The press release you drafted four weeks ago finally returns from "approval purgatory" with a new headline and lead that are so wrongheaded and unimportant that issuing it would cause both the company and you great embarrassment. The real relevant and critical information has been pushed down so that the new yawn-inducing stuff leads off the release. The second half of the release is now filled with three pompous executive quotes. Everything about this document smells from amateur hour and an over-sized ego.

It's what I call "an instant delete."

You don't want to issue this release.

So you plaintively make your case to the client -- here's why the original news is so important and will have an impact on the bottom line, the dull material should be given second fiddle. You tactfully allude to the fact that the company will be made a laughingstock in the eyes of reporters and bloggers. You explain why reporters will never get past the present headline and lead. It's all about the good of the company.

Not only does the client not budge one iota, but they advise you to send the press release exactly as it is as an attachment, and you can write a cover note explaining what you really want to say.

You reply that you never send out press releases as attachments because reporters and bloggers have hated that since 1995, so it's not possible to send a cover letter.

They reply that they do not care, please issue the release as is.

Now you are at that fork in the road that you hoped you'd never arrive at...

do you adhere to the old motto "the client is always right" and issue the press release to your great professional embarrassment, knowing this is not the way you'd ever do your job, risk mockery and ignorance, while the real news peg never sees the light of day because it's been buried...

or does your inner professional alarm ring loudly, saying that you can never have your name on that press release nor can it come from your firm's domain, and suggest to your client that they issue it directly from their office via a paid service like PR Newswire, Business Wire or PR Web, not subtly implying how you really feel about this release?

Remember, it's a tough economy out there and clients don't just drop from the skies these days.

What would you do?

4 comments:

Jessica said...

That is tough one. I would suggest a paid service. It's much worse to waste the reporters and bloggers time and your reputation for someone who may drop you anyway due to the economy and their constant difficult demands. They probably aren't worth your reputation. The "customer" isn't always right when it comes to your profession and your expertise. That is what they are paying you for and exactly why you said they hired you. Stick to your guns.

Steven Spenser said...

This boils down to two issues: Your professional reputation, and its worth, and how to keep the client happy. They may conflict, but perhaps--depending on the client--you might be able to have your cake & eat it, too.

Few journalists are going to remember your name if it only appears as a press contact. As long as you don't add the further identification of your PR agency's name, they will assume you're one of the client's corporate PR staffers. Thus, the only target for derision will be the client itself, for sending out such a poor press release. In all likelihood, the release will just get deleted, because most journalists won't read past the first two grafs if they decide it's not newsworthy.

OTOH, the most embarrassing case is if the release attracts so much attention for its awfulness that it winds up on Web sites mocking PR & poor business communication. That is a powerful reason to keep your name & agency's name off the release, and to ensure, as you already have contemplated doing, that it does not get sent out through your domain. The release may live on forever in cyberspace, and any future client researching you may come across it and assume you wrote it. That's reason enough to stay as far away from it as possible.

If you routinely handle the dissemination of all client releases, then the client probably is not going to know whether you actually sent out the release as an attachment or simply include a link to it. Regardless, the real issue is to avoid sending it out with your name & agency attached to it in the first place, so that none of the stench ever sticks to you.

The only problem regarding e-mail pitching with the revised release attached and fone calls alerting journalists you'll be sending them the release, as Dick recommends, is that both methods still involve besmirching your hitherto impeccable reputation with the poorly written press release.

(And who e-mails entire press releases anymore? E-mail pitches need to be succinct, with just one or two grafs to whet interest, accompanied by a link to the press release and contact info.)

So, pitch the news without using the revised press release.

Take your name off the revision, and send it out via PR Newswire. (If you'd rather not alert the client to your distaste, and field the inquiry that might provoke, pay for the PRN release yourself.) Boil the original draft down into its smallest set of newsworthy details and use them in e-mails to all targeted media. Follow-up via fone. Do not, however, include the butchered press release in your e-mails or refer to it on the fone. If anyone asks for more details, don't send the revised press release; give them a URL and/or send a summary of the details from your original draft.

Alternatively, you can simply take a public stand and insist the client distribute the release without your name on it. When she asks why, explain that your professional reputation is your most important asset, and that you will not allow any client (or client's press release) to damage it. She may further ask how the release could damage your reputation, which will give you the opportunity to restate your case against the revisions. Link each poor component of the release, and its dissemination as an attachment, to the loss of respect your reputation will suffer.

If it were me, I'd fire the client. No one needs this kind of aggravation in their professional life, and if the client doesn't listen to your professional counsel then where's the honor in serving that particular client? You may even have an ethical responsibility to advise the client that she would be better served by another firm.

If losing this account will mean going hungry or missing payroll, then by all means cowboy up and swallow your professional pride. If you can afford to do without the client, however, you're better off firing her. Odds are, her refusal to accept your counsel will only get make things worse for both of you down the line.

Steven Spenser said...

This boils down to two issues: Your professional reputation, and its worth, and how to keep the client happy. They may conflict, but perhaps--depending on the client--you might be able to have your cake & eat it, too.

Few journalists are going to remember your name if it only appears as a press contact. As long as you don't add the further identification of your PR agency's name, they will assume you're one of the client's corporate PR staffers. Thus, the only target for derision will be the client itself, for sending out such a poor press release. In all likelihood, the release will just get deleted, because most journalists won't read past the first two grafs if they decide it's not newsworthy.

OTOH, the most embarrassing case is if the release attracts so much attention for its awfulness that it winds up on Web sites mocking PR & poor business communication. That is a powerful reason to keep your name & agency's name off the release, and to ensure, as you already have contemplated doing, that it does not get sent out through your domain. The release may live on forever in cyberspace, and any future client researching you may come across it and assume you wrote it. That's reason enough to stay as far away from it as possible.

If you routinely handle the dissemination of all client releases, then the client probably is not going to know whether you actually sent out the release as an attachment or simply include a link to it. Regardless, the real issue is to avoid sending it out with your name & agency attached to it in the first place, so that none of the stench ever sticks to you.

The only problem regarding e-mail pitching with the revised release attached and fone calls alerting journalists you'll be sending them the release, as Dick recommends, is that both methods still involve besmirching your hitherto impeccable reputation with the poorly written press release.

(And who e-mails entire press releases anymore? E-mail pitches need to be succinct, with just one or two grafs to whet interest, accompanied by a link to the press release and contact info.)

So, pitch the news without using the revised press release.

Take your name off the revision, and send it out via PR Newswire. (If you'd rather not alert the client to your distaste, and field the inquiry that might provoke, pay for the PRN release yourself.) Boil the original draft down into its smallest set of newsworthy details and use them in e-mails to all targeted media. Follow-up via fone. Do not, however, include the butchered press release in your e-mails or refer to it on the fone. If anyone asks for more details, don't send the revised press release; give them a URL and/or send a summary of the details from your original draft.

Alternatively, you can simply take a public stand and insist the client distribute the release without your name on it. When she asks why, explain that your professional reputation is your most important asset, and that you will not allow any client (or client's press release) to damage it. She may further ask how the release could damage your reputation, which will give you the opportunity to restate your case against the revisions. Link each poor component of the release, and its dissemination as an attachment, to the loss of respect your reputation will suffer.

If it were me, I'd fire the client. No one needs this kind of aggravation in their professional life, and if the client doesn't listen to your professional counsel then where's the honor in serving that particular client? You may even have an ethical responsibility to advise the client that she would be better served by another firm.

If losing this account will mean going hungry or missing payroll, then by all means cowboy up and swallow your professional pride. If you can afford to do without the client, however, you're better off firing her. Odds are, her refusal to accept your counsel will only get make things worse for both of you down the line.

Julia K. Wakefield said...

Great question to raise! I think most PR professionals have been in similar, if not as extreme, situations. I once had a boss - for whom I have enormous respect as an effective and wise professional - who referred to these disputes as "mat issues": you have to decide which ones you're going to "go to the mat for." That is, which ones you're going to put up a kicking-and-screaming fight over. At the end of the day, not all are going to be worth it in the long run.

Today (actually, as recently as this morning!) I'm still trying to learn the lesson of picking my fights. The issue you're referring to sounds like one I'd take to the boxing ring.

Thanks for broaching the topic and starting such a productive discussion.