PR TECHNIQUE CLIENT RELATIONS: Dealing with the difficult client - All agencies have them: clients who are tough to work with. How do you deal with those situations? Claire Murphy takes a look at the variety of difficult clients you may come across

’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.

’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

clients.



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

aggressively.’



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

concerned.’



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

recommendations.’



Action in this case is difficult, as the damage has already been

done.



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

earlier.



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

New York.



’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

agencies.



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



DO



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.



DON’T



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.



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