’Difficult clients? Oh no, we don’t have any of those - all our clients are lovely,’ Mike Clifford, president of New York-based Mike Clifford PR, says and laughs. But of course every agency has one or two clients that induce dread in pros; the trick for account executives and senior ups is turning that nightmare person into a dream client - or at least a tolerable one.
’Difficult clients? Oh no, we don’t have any of those - all our
clients are lovely,’ Mike Clifford, president of New York-based Mike
Clifford PR, says and laughs. But of course every agency has one or two
clients that induce dread in pros; the trick for account executives and
senior ups is turning that nightmare person into a dream client - or at
least a tolerable one.
Just like herbs and spices, there are several flavors of difficult
Clifford names one type simply ’The Bully.’ ’This is someone who will be
as sweet as can be to me, but once he is dealing with the account
executives becomes totally irascible. Most likely, he or she does not
like having their account delegated to an exec and reacts
In this situation, which occurred recently, Clifford says the answer was
to sit down with the account executive and help her understand how to
win the client’s respect by facing up to the client’s challenges and
dealing with them confidently.
But dealing with the second variety, ’The Alarmist,’ called for a far
more direct approach. This client, who had been interviewed by a
journalist for a profile, felt the need to call the reporter, before the
piece was published, to take issue with one point. ’We had to explain to
the client how damaging her actions had been,’ says Clifford.
’The whole point of the piece was that this woman was a calm and
considerate business person - an image she instantly blew by calling to
harass the journalist,’ he adds. ’It was also very damaging to our
relationship with that reporter.’
Most agency pros agree that where problems occur with clients it is
generally because they can’t get their head around the concept of the
lack of control that comes with dealing with the media.
’These are business people who have achieved success by managing to
control circumstances,’ Clifford notes. ’It can be hard for them to
understand that they cannot dictate everything where media relations are
Straight talking at the beginning of a project is the best way to deal
with ’The Client’ with Unreasonable Expectations, says Jens Bang,
president and CEO of Boston-based Cone Communications.
’The challenge any agency faces is managing client expectations,
particularly when the client doesn’t understand the seemingly random
nature of what makes a story in the national media,’ Bang adds. ’This is
why it is so essential to discuss how the success of the campaign is
going to be measured before it is started. If you wait until the end to
have the conversation about what is and isn’t practical, it will
inevitably become emotional.
For example, any agency that allows a client to say, ’I want you to get
me on the front of The Wall Street Journal,’ without explaining why this
may not happen is asking for trouble.’
At New York-based Fenton Communications, a specialist in nonprofits, a
related problem is ’The Client Who is New to PR’ and wields a fairly
modest budget. ’At many of these not-for-profit organizations, it may be
the first time they’ve decided to publicize an issue and they’ve
appropriated perhaps dollars 30,000 for a campaign,’ says managing
director Josh Baran. ’It seems like a huge amount of money to them,
especially if the directors only earn dollars 50,000. And they feel that
should entitle them to ask for a lot. We have to gently explain that in
our world that sum doesn’t buy too much.’
Baran has also experienced our fourth type of tough client, ’The Client
who Brings PR in Too Late.’ This client views PR pros simply as
publicists, expecting them to garner headlines for any project brought
across the agency threshold. ’We had a case recently of a women’s
organization that had completed a survey which they wanted publicized,’
explains Baran. ’But no one had thought to retain details of some of the
subjects of the study so that these people could be used as small case
studies to spice up the report. It wasn’t colorful enough to attract
coverage and we had come in too late to be able to make meaningful
Action in this case is difficult, as the damage has already been
But if the client and agency have an ongoing relationship, the agency
can point out - in the hope that this won’t happen next time - how much
better the campaign would have worked if it had been involved
This arm’s-length attitude to PR is also exhibited in ’The Unresponsive
Client.’ This person hires an agency, then expects it to get on with
things with very little dialogue.
’We’ve had clients like this who don’t return calls, take ages to sign
off releases and don’t let us know what is going on within the company,’
says Alan Taylor, CEO of sports PR agency Alan Taylor Communications in
’We have to explain that we can work so much more effectively if we are
taken into their confidence,’ Taylor adds.
Ultimately, the best way to deal with difficult clients is to try to
understand what is driving their attitude, rather than simply seeing
them as the enemy.
The chances are that clients are being put under pressure by their own
managers to deliver results and are passing that stress onto their
But empathizing with their situation can only go so far.
If you have landed the kind of client whose destructive influence is
making itself felt across the agency, don’t shirk from the hardest
decision. He or she may be paying a bill, but losing valuable staff
would be far more damaging in the long term.
DOS AND DON’TS
1 Do make clear at the start what is achievable.
2 Do set out how you expect the client to behave in order for the agency
to work most effectively.
3 Do support your junior staff members if they are feeling the weight of
an unreasonable client. But be careful not to undermine their authority
by directly intervening.
1 Don’t over promise, especially with media placements.
2 Don’t get into an argument with aggressive clients; they’re paying -
you’ll never win.
3 Don’t shirk from the tough decision to resign an account if one client
is creating too much havoc within your agency.