There’s nothing like the thrill of starting a public relations partnership with a new client. All parties are on best behavior, getting to know one another and establishing the rhythm of a working relationship. But, then like a sinking ship, signs start appearing that make you ask if the “marriage” is on the rocks. Many times the desire to dissolve comes from the client side. However, there are those occasions when an agency has to cut the client cord. We’ve been lucky, and we choose our clients well. But we’ve gathered some “dysfunctional relationship” examples from colleagues and our own archives.
Demanding clients are a challenge. But the right type of demanding client offers an opportunity to set a high bar and achieve greatness. The problem occurs when the original bar is moved from high to unrealistic or even outrageous. We encountered this once when a client visiting a major market for a media tour doubled the goal for high-level media interviews from an ambitious 18, to an unreasonable 40. The best way to deal with an unrealistic demand is to manage expectations from the start and to define expected outcomes clearly and in writing. But when even that constant communication fails, that may be a client fail that can’t be fixed.
Nothing creates a fraught client relationship like budget uncertainty. An agency has put together a strategically sound plan backed by solid research, and the client has pulled the trigger. The team is invested and engaged and then the unthinkable happens. The company suffers a setback and the project is upended. The consequences are not only financially unsettling to the firm but demoralizing to the team. Unfortunately, there’s often no way of predicting a situation like this, and it can happen to virtually any client. But when it happens with multiple agencies, or repeatedly with the same external team, it’s time to cut the cord. The best safeguards are to build mutual accountability into business agreements, including a reasonable termination notice.
One of the worst client offenses is lying, which we define similarly to the New York Times, — telling untruths with the intent to deceive. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence. When it does happen, it’s pretty universally considered grounds for immediate dissolution of the relationship. The basis of any good partnership is honesty; PR agencies expect to be told a client’s full story, warts and all. It is then incumbent on the PR team to give counsel on the best way to shape and share that story with press. But the expectation is always that the client is providing facts. How can a communications team remain credible in the eyes of journalists if they’re found to be lying? We PR people want to deal in facts, and after all the noise about “fake news,” we want to do our part to combat it as an industry.
Some clients naturally have consistent news to share and plenty of POV to promote, and others less so. That’s okay; our job is to ferret out nuggets that can be shaped and communicated to tell a compelling story, so we don’t need it served up on a silver platter. But even the best PR counselors need some raw material, which is why we probe and question clients to determine news and story angles. We once worked with a law firm that did very interesting work, none of which they felt they could discuss. They were also reticent about making their top leadership available. As much as we pushed for more candor and probed for news, the more the firm clammed up. Which left us very little to work with. PR agencies create the most successful partnerships when clients are receptive to education at the beginning and really understand the “rules of the game.” This way clients know what is required of them to make the relationship work.
When a company brings on a PR team specifically to introduce a product or service a great deal of time is spent developing the right strategy. This includes crafting a story, scoping out competitive initiatives, researching the target audience, and preparing spokespeople. But none of that matters if the company encounters countless delays and can’t seem to pull the trigger. These are serious red flags. We once worked with an app developer who asked us to begin shopping an exclusive to a top tech publication, only to find flaws, get cold feet and leave the PR firm with some explaining to do. This is another rare situation that can sometimes be spotted with serious vetting of a company, its financial backing, and product roadmap.
Every experienced PR person has had a relationship with a “difficult” client, usually an individual who simply doesn’t know how to work with other people. The hypercritical client, the client who ignores you, the client who tries to compete with you in the mistaken fear that the agency might show them up – those are key examples. Usually, these issues are resolved in a satisfactory way and the relationship strengthens and progresses. Sometimes, however, in PR or any other business relationships, there are incorrigibles. They’re the ones who just can’t act with civility or clarity, and with whom a breaking point is unavoidable. Although rare, if you find yourself in this kind of consistently abusive relationship, just fire that client and move on. When a window closes, a door will open.