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Some rules of engagement to help avoid nightmare clients

Some rules of engagement to help avoid nightmare clients
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By Sally Saville Hodge

Public relations is one of those professions that’s generally held in pretty low esteem.  Practitioners aren’t quite down there with used car salesmen, but we’re not too far removed when it comes to public perception.

Gimmicky. Shallow. Deceptive. Order takers. Any number of adjectives like these come to mind – perhaps deserved by some (too many?) and reinforced in popular culture through depictions like Sex and the City’s slutty Samantha Jones. A party planner who never met a client she wouldn’t screw. Literally.

Then there are the rest of us.

Those perceptions were all brought home to me (once again) over the last few weeks with two posts by a small business blogger with The New York Times named Bruce Buschel. First, in his You’re the Boss blog in mid-February, he ranted about how PR people made him crazy, citing chapter and verse of all the ill-considered things his teams, hired for the opening of his new restaurant, did and didn’t do.

Two weeks later, he revisited the topic, rebutting, practically line-by-line, one particular response from among the dozens of comments, some pro, some con, that were submitted.

You can read both posts and the comments for yourself, but here are two particular highlights of his thinking, which reinforce the stereotypes that afflict us.

First, advertising was “too complicated, daunting and expensive,” what with all the channels, creative and metrics. Translation: PR’s cheap and easy. Reality: Today’s wealth of channels also affects PR, as positioning strategies are different among them. What works for print may be less appropriate for broadcast and social media is an entirely different can of worms. Plus, you’re not paying to control the message, so success hinges on the whims of individuals, no matter how strong your pitch. It’s less expensive. But it can be just as, if not more, complicated.

Second, his opening date was a moving target.  But a dream team chef and GM plus a winning concept of “sustainable” seafood would be sufficient to generate tons of pre-opening coverage. Hello? Why would someone cover the concept with the proviso “Opening…someday soon”? How long does he expect the “impression” to last? And how much coverage does one restaurant rate – especially before it opens?

Sadly enough, I’ve had clients like this. They have led me to determine some rules of engagement. Some exceptions have turned out fine – great, even – but most of the times that I’ve relaxed them, it hasn’t turned out well. Following them will help you avoid reinforcing those stereotypes.

#1. Determine the prospect’s familiarity with PR and attitude toward practitioners. If he or she knows more than you and considers the practice a necessary (and cheaper) evil, stay away. You’ll likely be micromanaged and underappreciated.

#2. Make sure the client’s expectations align with today’s media realities. Clients may think their offer’s all that and more, but they have to work with you in devising the best possible angles – and understand that no matter how great your expertise, the fine art of placement is subject to human whims.  (Compounded by shrinking newsholes, shrinking numbers of traditional journalists, and shrinking attention spans given the pressures they’re under.)

#3. Ensure you’re agreed on metrics, and that the client is prepared to do his or her part (tracking incoming business or queries) in measuring. Metrics must be more meaningful than impressions or hits – which only serve to reinforce the reputation for superficiality that PR has earned. Look to tangible measures. Even increases in website traffic will suffice, but better yet is a particular action tied to the traffic, like growth in the client’s e-mail list.

What we do can be hard enough without taking on clients that will undermine outcomes and, in the process, share their attitudes with abandon. We shoot ourselves in the proverbial feet often enough without encouraging an open season if we can avoid it.

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