Once, after I offered unvarnished – and fairly negative – feedback to a prospective PR client about his company’s branding, an associate cautioned me for being so frank. The prospect was planning a luxury product launch, but the brand didn’t carry an upscale image. My colleague agreed but warned me that I was “telling him his baby is ugly.”
And I was. But he hired us a month later, and although the branding didn’t change as much as we would have liked, we reached a compromise and helped him achieve a successful launch in a local market.
Most PR people agree that honesty promotes transparency and trust, both of which are key to a successful relationship. In the case of the luxury client, it was easy to be candid, because the unsophisticated branding risked undermining our PR and social media efforts. But it’s not always so easy. It got me thinking about how honest any agency should be when the stakes are high or the situation is sticky.
In public relations, our reasons for objecting to a strategy or creative direction is not always straightforward. PR and media relations can be a “black box” to those not grounded in the business, which makes offering feedback on an idea or strategy particularly challenging at times.
Here are some strategies for making your point without fear of insulting someone’s “baby.”
Give legitimate critical feedback in the selling process. Most PR agencies will present challenges along with the opportunities, and I have yet to meet a client situation that didn’t have at least a few challenges. When constructive criticism is offered at the outset, it sets a precedent for the ongoing relationship.
Be a recommender. Problems are always easier to swallow when they come with recommended solutions, or at least alternative strategies. It’s not only face-saving, but it enables a constructive dialogue and lets you avoid political traps.
Listen carefully before weighing in. In our zeal to be decisive and offer value to clients, we sometimes fail to listen to all sides of a complex situation. Before weighing in, it’s smart to get a hearing on each aspect of the situation and ask pertinent questions. More information is nearly always better. Informal market research, competitive audits, and early PR outreach can all come into play here.
Reference specific experience. As much as we talk about public relations being data-driven, it remains an inexact science. Talent and expertise are our currency, and they come together in counsel that is on-target due to firsthand experience in a given category or with a specific PR tactic.
Avoid personalizing. That’s an obvious one, but in a corporation, each function or product division is linked to individuals, so it’s vital to know the internal lexicon and network of relationships that come with every part of the business. Precision of language is also important.
But beware of ultimatums. I was prepared to walk away from Mr. Luxury Client if he didn’t change his branding, but I’m glad I didn’t put a stake in the ground by stating it so baldly. Later we learned some things about the target audience that altered our understanding and enabled us to deliver an effective program under less-than-ideal circumstances. In most cases, a compromise is in order, so that – to adapt the old phrase — striving for perfect isn’t the enemy of the good.