PR TECHNIQUE: Wary resignation: When to quit an account

No agency ever wants to lose business, particularly in a tough economy. However, Tanya Lewis learns that sometimes an account relationship can reach the point where it's best for both sides to part ways.

No agency ever wants to lose business, particularly in a tough economy. However, Tanya Lewis learns that sometimes an account relationship can reach the point where it's best for both sides to part ways.

Resigning an account is a difficult decision and should always be a last resort. Prevention is the best medicine for problematic client relationships, but circumstances may lead you to resignation - no matter how carefully you've screened your clients or how diligently you've served the account. The decision to resign is doubly tough because it affects your two most valuable assets - your business and your employees. But if handled properly, it can be a positive thing. "Certainly, you need to think about how losing the revenue will impact the agency," says Leanna Clark, principal and co-owner of Schenkein. "But as onerous as replacing lost revenue may seem, it's much less costly than losing key staff. If it has been especially challenging for your employees, resigning an account can positively impact morale and send a message that your people are important and supported." Your integrity may also outweigh any immediate financial loss. "Our reputation is more valuable than a fee that any one client pays us," says Patrice Tanaka, CEO of PT&Co. "We can't support an indefensible position simply for the sake of a fee." The most common reasons for sacking a client include unethical or inappropriate business practice and requests, abusive behavior, unrealistic expectations, and financial problems. Tanaka resigned her agency's biggest account when a crisis triggered the client to adopt an antigay position. "We tried to explain that it wasn't smart business practice, and we didn't think it was ethical to not welcome any segment of the population," she says. When the client refused to change its stance, the agency had to decide if the account was worth keeping. The matter was discussed at all levels - from the ownership, to the management, to the account team. "You can imagine the Hamlet number we pulled," Tanaka says. "But we decided that at end of the day it was our reputation. We helped them through the crisis and then resigned via certified letter in response to a contract-renewal formality." Keeping your employees in the loop helps clarify issues and strengthen your internal relationships. "Owners or senior management making decisions by themselves isn't a good idea because you don't take into consideration what your staff knows," says Jeff Julin, president of Denver-based agency MGA, who is also on the PRSA's board of ethics and professional standards. "The best thing you can do is work with your people and decide together what to do. If you're letting a client go for ethical reasons, you need to have a very balanced view." When a client behaves badly - towards the firm or its own employees - it impedes performance and erodes the relationship. Julin says it should always put you on alert and you should look for patterns (unless one instance is particularly horrific and stands on its own as a reason to resign). Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell Public Relations (YPBR) terminated its relationship with a Michigan-based resort client because the point of contact was rude and abusive to both agency and client employees. "They continually engaged monologues, not dialogues," says EVP Rod Caborn. "Everybody needs business, but nobody does their best work under such circumstances. You can't succeed." He set up a conference call and included another person from the client side, as well as a third party to listen in. "I told them that we were satisfied with the work that we'd done, that we'd done our best, but we still felt unable to get as much out there on their behalf as we could," he says. Caborn followed the call with a certified letter, but didn't mention the bad behavior because he didn't want to put the person's job at risk. Another client employee subsequently called Caborn, and he explained to her that the agency couldn't work with the Michigan contact. She got in touch with the owner of the company, who rehired YPBR to work on the opening of a northeastern US resort where the original contact would not be involved. Not addressing the behavior issue with the source benefited YPBR in this case, but most agree that candid (but not critical) communication is usually the best policy. "Give [the client] some insight into their behavior, otherwise they're oblivious, and that doesn't help them, and it doesn't help our industry," Tanaka says. She adds that agencies are obliged to let clients know if an employee is jeopardizing the company's reputation. "If the action isn't illegal, but you feel it's unethical from your perspective, tell them, but don't crusade," Julin says. "Candor is the only way to conduct client relationships," says Leslie Sutton, SVP and US director of client services at Hill & Knowlton. "Their reaction gives you the opportunity to determine if it's really necessary to end the relationship." Keep in mind that resigning a troublesome account can also free you to pursue other business. "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith," says Laura Davidson, president of LDPR, who ended a 10-year relationship with an international hotel chain when new management didn't value PR and wouldn't cooperate. "Resigning that account allowed me to double the business by taking on a bigger company that I couldn't work with before because of a conflict of interest." Financial problems are probably the most clear-cut reason for saying goodbye to a client, but that can be a difficult situation to manage. You might have to stop work or withhold proprietary material on a long-term, but overdue account. Make sure your contracts are clear, and use a lawyer if necessary. "Be careful what you write down because writing can be misconstrued - not because you don't want a paper trail," Julin says. Your overall objective should be to resolve the situation in the most positive way possible, as you never know what latent ramifications might lurk in the future. While you should be careful about recommending other agencies, it's good practice to help make a smooth transition if the client hires new counsel. "Withdraw as quietly and gracefully as you can," Tanaka says. "Don't create a negative story about a client, and don't leave the client in a bind without PR representation." ----- Technique tips Do communicate truthfully with your client and your employees and look for solutions Do make sure your contracts are clear and watch what you put in writing Do leave on good terms Don't exclude your employees from the decision to resign an account Don't criticize the client in a destructive way Don't react emotionally

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in