Surprises? Great for parties and gifts, but not so great for public relations. Like many client service businesses, ours works best when it’s predictable and reliable. This means attention to staffing, budgets, deadlines and prep work to ensure successful outcomes. Our informal poll elicited some interesting – yet undesirable – surprises we all strive to avoid in public relations work.
How PR Teams Manage the Unexpected
The “bait and switch.”
We’ve all been there. The client and agency contacts have happily bonded at a new business presentation, with great chemistry all around. But by the next meeting, the cast of characters has changed without notice. This is bad practice all around. Of course, employee turnover can happen at any company, but when it happens on the agency side, it should be a blip, not a breakdown. It helps if the agency leaders are transparent about the change and make it clear they’re working to replace an outgoing team member with someone as good or better.
And if there are chemistry issues, address those at the outset to help establish trust in the teams that will work together.
The surprise budget overage.
When a scope of work and budget have been agreed upon, the worst kind of surprise is an unexpected increase. (Somehow, it never happens in reverse.) Any team asked to budget an event, product launch, or other initiative is expected to stand by their projections, and it’s smart to estimate “up” to allow for last-minute contingencies. A very tight and realistic budget at the outset demonstrates good stewardship, but in any event, weekly budget updates are recommended.
PR strategists and clients each occasionally overpromise in benign ways. The client details features and benefits of a new B2B tech product but they fail to materialize. The agency envisions a slew of great stories based on the product specs, but then can’t deliver because the product doesn’t. The client-agency relationship will be damaged if it becomes a habit rather than an honest miscalculation. There’s also the problem of the agency boss who is disconnected from the day-to-day work and makes grandiose commitments to clients due to wishful thinking or ignorance of the difficulty factor. The best rule, of course, is to slightly underpromise and overdeliver — in writing.
The unprepared spokesperson.
Occasionally we see overconfident executives who feel they aren’t in need of media training. With little reason to believe otherwise, a PR team will sometimes book an interview with a journalist, only to see it go poorly.
The negative media story
Experienced PR pros can detect a story going south before it actually runs. Maybe it’s the hardball interview questions, a complete 180 in tone or topic, or even some last-minute “contamination” by a competitor. In those cases, it’s critical to inform the client that a less than ideal outcome is likely, and to take steps to mitigate it. This can mean giving the reporter some fresh data or insights for the story, or even additional resources at the company. In some cases, disaster can be averted, but if it can’t, the best policy is honesty, followed by a proactive Plan B. Is the article factually inaccurate? If so, a reporter should be willing to correct it. Can a post or two in the comments section present another point of view? A timely and proactive response can often help — but be sure not to overreact.
The missed deadline
All who were polled agreed that this is a surprise that’s avoidable in 99% of cases. There are plenty of safeguards to prevent it, starting with the creation of a realistic calendar that accounts for the time to produce content, for example, but factors in things like rounds of client edits as well. Additionally, everyone should be educated on how long certain projects realistically take. Use previous work as a guide and build in the time it takes to reasonably turn each element around. On the other hand, there will always be unexpected crunches on press announcements or other assignments like the great newsjacking opportunities we pounced on for ad intelligence client MediaRadar. Hot news doesn’t wait, so keep your cool, make sure your team is good at the full-court press and work together to get the job done.
The “parting of the ways”
This is a surprise we all want to avoid. But it happens. A company abruptly runs through funding and chooses to let an agency go, or an agency commits a social media gaffe that angers key journalists. Conversely, PR firms initiate endings as well. An agency butts up against a conflict and has to sever ties, or the relationship becomes unworkable for several reasons, as we have touched on before. These things happen, but there are some ways to soften the blow. Building in an extra, agreed-upon budget will ensure that the PR firm isn’t cut off at a crucial juncture while working on a campaign. Otherwise, the plug is pulled and reporters may find themselves unable to access important information to complete a story. That’s a bridge no one wants to burn. An agency can work with a PR client to ensure a smooth transition to another firm so that workflow is fairly uninterrupted.
It should be noted that we’ll take a pleasant surprise any day. Like glowing media coverage from a writer we hadn’t pitched, or hearing from a former client who wants to re-connect. But the rule of thumb is to prevent uncertainty at all costs and keep everyone in the know.