PR agencies and freelancers who work in the business long enough eventually encounter impossibly challenging PR clients. The clients advocate ill-advised PR schemes with no chance of succeeding. They demand unrealistic media coverage like a front-page feature in The Wall Street Journal. They yell and insult PR staff members. Yet they pay invoices chronically late or don’t pay them at all.
The following tips from PR veterans can help manage overly-demanding, bad-tempered, or otherwise troublesome clients.
Set expectations at the start. Determine the client’s objectives and reach an agreement on what you were hired to do and how you’ll measure PR results. Have an honest conversation about strategies and outcomes. Clearly state in the agreement what the client can expect in terms of communications, PR efforts and results.
Communicate regularly. Frequent communication helps keep clients happy. “A client should never have to follow up with you for information or an update – if you do, you’ve failed in your job as their PR rep,” writes Rebekah Epstein, founder of fifteen media, in PR Couture. However, some clients are obsessed with constantly contacting you to check results. Incessant phone calls and emails can be become overwhelming. Define and then stick to the communication plan, whether you share information daily or weekly.
Don’t be defensive. Don’t take the client’s behavior personally. Avoid arguing, making negative comments or blaming your client for the discord, says PR expert Rachael Hesling. Instead strive to understand the underlying issue. Some clients are rude but don’t voice a specific concern. The client may be upset about something else other than PR results. In these cases, it’s important to uncover the underlying issue. Ask probing questions to reveal the actual issue behind the complaining. If the problem is about you, honestly assess your efforts.
Be the expert. Without sounding arrogant, assure them that you are the expert and know what you are doing. Some clients are not so much unreasonable as they are ignorant about PR. That’s why they hired you. Confidence is crucial to winning a client’s respect. Keep in mind that client ignorance is common in any professional business service.
Just say “no.” Be prepared to decline unreasonable requests. You can’t please everyone all the time. Agreeing to a client’s arbitrary and uninformed demand could damage your reputation and relationship with the media — in addition to causing a PR failure. If a client wants a press conference without news to announce or demands to review a reporter’s story before publication, firmly and patiently explain the PR realities.
Fire them. Sometimes a difficult client is not worth the effort. Nonpayment may be the most common reason to terminate a PR client relationship, but sometimes a paying client can be so difficult and time-consuming that they’re not worth the misery.
“It’s tempting to continue these sorts of client relationships, in the hopes that they will one-day change, but trust me, it will continue to be a headache and will take time away from your currently amazing clients who can see their way toward paying an invoice,” says Adriana Marie, owner of PR and events agency AMCONYC.
The best disengagement letters are professional, simple and straightforward, yet polite, Marie advises. Include a monthly report to show your completed work, media mentions obtained and pending.
Bottom Line: Difficult clients are a major headache for PR pros. Establishing fixed ground rules and expectations, including agreement on measuring PR results, at the start of the relationship will help manage unreasonable clients. At times, terminating the relationship may be the best solution.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.