Opinion: When 'firing' a client, best be discreet

There are mixed opinions as to whether Max Clifford is always an ideal ambassador for the PR industry, but few can doubt his instinctive ability to create news.

His ‘firing' of beleaguered England football manager Steve McClaren as a client last week is a case in point, generating national headlines and, for me, raising an interesting debate: just when is a PRO justified in dumping a client?

There is little doubt the practice is becoming more widespread, reflecting the growing confidence and maturity of an industry ever more assured of its worth. (It is also helpful, of course, that well-run PR agencies are currently enjoying an economic boom, with more clients vying for their services.)

Max's view of the McClaren account was that it had become a waste of his time and McClaren's money. Putting aside any cynicism about a jump preceding an anticipated shove, and the volume of work Max has done for McClaren, there has to be validity in a PR agency terminating for the reasons described.

Effective PR companies set out not simply to make money, but to deliver real value. The benefits of a prestigious account extend beyond fees. They lie in the discreetly shared knowledge and recognition of a job well done - one that will earn plaudits from existing and potential clients.

If, for whatever reason, the agency/client relationship is not able to provide all this, then an agency is as justified as a client would be to call things a day.

I know of one PR company that recently serviced a corporate client which had insisted on trying to obtain committee-style consensus among 20 diversely motivated internal voices. Of course, this made coherent external strategies impossible.

A polite but firm letter of resignation to the MD was greeted with outrage that was only partly in jest: ‘The agency can't resign. How the hell do we PR that?'

And therein lies another presentational challenge for the seasoned communicator: while a thriving agency may quietly pride itself in dumping a client that made the delivery of campaign objectives impossible, it would not want to become widely known for the practice. Nor would it want to be seen to have opportunistically dumped a client because the going got tough - whether it be the loss of a football match or a fall in share price.

Far better for everyone's reputation is to publicly use those old favourites, ‘mutual consent' and ‘no comment', rather than go into who fired whom. After all, it happens to most of us in our lifetimes.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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