As posted previously, the Jian Ghomeshi sex abuse scandal is a PR meltdown – a real study in a breathtakingly swift public fall from grace. In PR land, it’s also a knotty moral dilemma for any PR or crisis agency who might take him on.
The whole mess is a reminder that, just as no one marries with the thought of divorce, few agencies expect to have to fire a client.
Yet there are valid reasons for dropping a client company. Here are the most compelling ones.
Ethical objections. Every agency has its own criteria for the clients it accepts, as we saw in the pledge by many large PR firms not to work with companies who deny climate science. Of course, there’s a gap between promising not to take on climate change deniers in the first place, as many mega-firms recently did, and resigning a large client company because it works to block climate-friendly legislation, which no one seems to be rushing to do. In my experience, it takes a lot to move a PR agency to quit a well-funded or well-known client, but if there’s a reputation cost, or if staff morale is impacted, it’s the right move.
Unreliable information. Or worse. This is apparently what happened in the Ghomeshi situation. If your client isn’t giving you accurate information, you can’t do your best work, and that’s probably the very best thing that will happen. Bad information can damage an agency’s reputation or even make it a target of litigation. (Yes, this why most agencies have a “hold harmless” agreement in their contracts, because lying for a client, even unknowingly, is not just unethical; it may constitute liability.)
Mission impossible. This is a more common reason for an agency to drop a client, although it’s typically a last resort. Occasionally, a client believes the agency team can work miracles, and when that fails to happen, no one is happy – not the client, the account team, or agency management. Ideally, a little expectations education before the LOA is signed will prevent a relationship doomed by unrealistic or misaligned goals.
It’s a (money) losing proposition. A well-known “secret” of agency life is that firms do sometimes take on clients that are below their minimum fee level, or that won’t be profitable, and for legitimate reasons: it’s a brand name, it can help the agency win future business, or the work is particularly inspiring. But if the gap between scope of work and remuneration is too wide, and/or if there are several money-losing clients on the roster, the agency is probably flirting with disaster, and it may decide to cut its losses.
It’s a poor fit. I’ve had a few clients come through personal references that are a bit out of our comfort zone, but where I felt it would be awkward to turn down the engagement, or I rationalized that we could make it work. And sometimes you can, but it’s usually a fifty-fifty proposition at best.
It’s bad for the team. This one’s also rare, but it happens. A client contact is not merely demanding or difficult, but dysfunctional, or prone to outbursts of temper, or he/she delights in making staff run in circles. But removing a toxic relationship is always good for staff morale, and those who’ve done it swear that it’s invariably a business decision that opens new doors.