How To Set Expectations In Public Relations

Public relations is known for being versatile, occasionally glamorous, and, yes, stressful. In fact, CareerCast listed “PR executive” as one of the top ten most stressful gigs in its 2019 Most Stressful Jobs report. Some of the pressure we encounter in PR is preventable, however. We’ve all worked with, and been stressed out by, demanding bosses or clients that expect unrealistic outcomes. On the agency side, it’s sometimes because the team overpromises in their eagerness to win a new client. Yet corporate PR officers also fall victim to inflated or impractical expectations when their internal clients don’t understand what’s possible. Here are some tips for avoiding the difficulties that can come with an expectations mismatch. 

Offer honest feedback

Sometimes a client has a program or story idea that they’re certain is a winner, yet the experienced PR team feels less confident. Maybe the story idea simply isn’t compelling or timely enough to capture media attention. PR advisors should voice their opinion when they feel something won’t work. No one wants to be negative, but a viewpoint grounded in experience and phrased constructively can go a long way in heading off trouble later. Often, the idea floated isn’t bad, but it’s incomplete, badly timed, or needs more workshopping. Clients pay us for our recommendations, so we do everyone a service when we share them. 

Explain what is required 

Fortunately, most collaborative ideas can be successful, — with research, work, and creativity. If you want a product launch to be covered in a top-tier publication, journalists will need to talk to someone who has used the product or can speak to its market value. In ad tech, this means getting a brand or publisher client onboard; reporters aren’t going to take our word for it. Stories about products or services in low-interest categories will need to borrow interest in the form of new information, like survey results, new research, or big names attached. Stakeholders must understand that if they can’t secure assets to round out a story, media may not be interested. The same thing goes for business success items; you generally can’t tell a business story in a top media outlet without disclosing financial information. Everyone should be aware of these requirements so they aren’t blindsided later in the process. 

Flag challenges that could impede success

We’re living through COVID-19 and a presidential election year, and both eat up a huge amount of media bandwidth. Media relations deals with the news environment, which is by definition unpredictable. There are huge tech launches, social movements, and hard news stories breaking every day. If a stakeholder is pressing to release something during a big news cycle, it’s the job of PR professionals to explain how the timing will impact reporter interest and coverage. A major announcement or event must be carefully planned around avoidable happenings like earnings calls, congressional hearings, or other news-making things that are on the books, and PR teams need to be flexible for those events that can’t be anticipated. Again, communication is key. 

It’s PR, not ER

News cycles are 24/7, and most PR people are trained to be hyper-responsive to media and client needs. But it helps to establish a cadence for ongoing meetings, email contact, course corrections, and reporting at the beginning of a PR program. Personally, I make myself available from 8am to 7pm on weekdays and only answer email at night or on the weekends if it’s vital. With this, my mind is fresh everyday to think creatively for clients. Others may have a completely different work style or service ethic, but the point is that it should be communicated at the outset.

Never make coverage guarantees

Walk away from any PR person who tells you they can guarantee earned media coverage. A PR team can’t force journalists to cover a particular story, and we don’t exert perfect control over when and how they cover it when they do. Ours is a relationship business, and those relationships will pay off if our insights and content prove helpful to reporters. Being an information resource is an excellent way to build up to getting solid coverage. But for companies who don’t understand that or simply can’t wait, consider mixing earned and paid tactics in the overall plan. Paid opportunities will ensure messaging pull-through while earned media works to validate and build credibility. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, especially in B2B PR.  

Not everything is about coverage

One function of a good PR campaign is to connect organizations with key media targets so they can tell their story to the right audiences. Unfortunately, those opportunities don’t always result in coverage. For example, we may recommend that a client sit down with a journalist or producer to familiarize them with their brand or business category. We call it a background interview because it is just that – an exchange to provide background for a future story. Every now and then, a PR person forgets to explain the goal, and/or the brand executive gets the idea that the meeting was a waste of time. We need to make sure that participants understand the value of such meetings and make sure they budget time for such media interactions in monthly planning.

And earned media isn’t magic

Congrats, you got a big story! Yet the CMO is disappointed because the interview didn’t immediately produce new business leads. This is also an expectations problem. While earned media can sometimes generate sales prospects, it is primarily an awareness play. Placements generally work to get the name in front of the decision- maker to exert influence over time. If the company name is seen in enough articles, people will become familiar with its offering and recognize it, or even bring it up as an option when making buying decisions. 

Don’t confuse PR and sales

Maybe a marketing executive bores a reporter to tears with brand-speak or hits him with a product sales pitch instead of telling a good story. Our job is to educate them in advance about what media need and want. By the same token, an internal executive may think PR content should look and feel like advertising or sales materials. At our agency we create and place a lot of contributed content, and we know clients need to understand that pieces like bylined articles or op-eds cannot be promotional or commercial. Our content is designed to inform, engage, or issue a call to action, not to sell a product or service.  

With better expectations-setting, PR can be less stressful for those of us on the agency or corporate side. But we still love the “good” stress — tight deadlines, competing priorities, and stretch goals – at least that’s what I’m telling myself today! 

10 Rules For Keeping (PR Agency) Clients

For a PR agency, what’s better than winning a new client?

Keeping the ones you have.

Naturally, any good PR firm wants to do both. But it costs a lot more to find a new client than to keep (and grow) current ones.
Research by Bain & Company shows that boosting customer retention rates by as little as 5% grows profits by 25% to 95%. In the PR business, client retention is tied to staff retention, and both impact the health of any creative services agency. There may always be “a hole in the bucket,” as an ex-boss used to say, but client churn is deadly.
So, how do we ensure we’re keeping our clients happy?

Don’t oversell.

Yes, it all starts with the proposal. In any competitive situation, it’s tempting to promise more than may be possible. But smart operators resist that temptation. In my big-agency career I’d sometimes cringe as the firm owner dropped names, bragged about his boldface contacts, and made absurd promises to prospective clients about the results my team would deliver. Years later, I try not to be that guy. In our field, we need to walk the line between being too modest and raising unrealistic expectations. With the latter, even when you win, you lose.

Agree on KPIs.

At a prior agency we had a nifty client selling proposition known as the 10/10/10 guarantee. Here’s how it worked: We’d reserve 10 percent of the agreed-upon fee. After 12 months, if we failed to meet goals, we’d forfeit that 10 percent.  If we exceeded goals, however, we’d pocket the full fee, plus a ten percent bonus. Clients loved it, but they rarely took us up on the guarantee, because their goals weren’t well defined. The ones with fuzzy goals were the most likely to leave. Agreed-upon KPIs is the best way to be aligned and a strong foundation for any client-agency relationship.

Get a fast start.

I’ve noticed a strong correlation between a fast start for a given PR program and the longevity of the client relationship. There’s so much that we don’t have perfect control of, like day-to-day media response or the climate for a marketing partnership. But one thing we can control is a swift and proactive onboarding and planning process. A sense of urgency is an asset in a PR professional, and in any event, a quick start shows hustle. A good onboarding will also lead to early tangible results, which are like money in the bank for later in the partnership.

Dig. Then dig deeper.

Much of our success has started with pulling quality information and insights from our clients. If that sounds obvious, well, yes, it is. But they tend to be busy tech entrepreneurs and executives, and it’s not always quick or easy to identify and translate the most powerful thought capital into results. But it’s our job.


Most people who thrive on the agency side, at least in PR, have a built-in radar for what’s brewing. We become adept at anticipating all angles of a situation before offering advice. It’s directly linked to the curiosity point below, but it’s also a valuable management discipline. At one of my prior positions we adopted the management principle known as “completed staff work” – the commitment that any proposed action or recommendation would be fully vetted and analyzed before management (or the client) sees it and and need only be approved (or not) by the decision-maker. At the time, I was bored and a little resentful that we were made to attend seminars, but the principle still holds today, both internally and with client programs.

Be curious.

Especially about business. Agency people should be valued for our objectivity and depth of experience outside the client organization, yet sometimes we can be insular. Communications is only one function among many in the organization. A degree of knowledge and intellectual curiosity about the overall business, internal processes, and the backgrounds of team members are valuable for laying a foundation and getting out of the starting gate quickly. Also businesses are subject to change, and we can only benefit from being in the know.

Be accountable.

Of course, we all say what we mean and deliver on what we promise, but mistakes happen. Clients will forgive them if the PR team is accountable and honest.

Be a recommender.

Let’s face it; the tactics of media relations and content generation are similar from agency to agency. Many teams are good at the nuts and bolts of PR work. What clients are paying for, and what can set an agency team apart, is objective advice borne from expertise. If arms and legs are all a client needs from an agency, that service is likely to be interchangeable with the next team.

Be responsive.

A former boss of mine launched a three-year study among his agency’s former and current clients and found – to his shock –  that the clients cared less about big ideas than they did about how fast a team member got back to them with an answer to a question, or being on time for calls. Client service is made up of lots of tactical things, like meeting deadlines and returning emails. Proactivity is also valuable; if clients don’t hear from us, they may assume we’re not thinking about them or working on their business. An informal progress report goes a long way.

Choose your clients wisely.

Anyone who’s been around this business a while can look back on failed relationships and realize the red flags were there. We’ll do well to listen to our gut and align with clients who are truly a cultural, experience, and business fit with our own organization.

Do’s And Don’ts Of A Successful PR Agency Partnership

Have you decided that 2017 is the year to form a partnership with a new public relations agency? Whether it’s your first foray into agency PR or you’re an old hand at such relationships, we have some advice to help you and your team create conditions for success.

Do be prepared to bare your (company) soul. For your PR team to both burnish and protect your company reputation, you must have honest conversations about the good, the bad and the ugly. One of the worst and most counterproductive things that can happen to an agency team is to be blindsided by something a journalist unearths about a client company. The best course is for the client to have a candid conversation about any vulnerabilities, including recent history. If there’s nothing there, so much the better, but a good reporter will find it if there is.

Do put important requests/promises and desired outcomes in writing. This, of course, applies to both parties. The best way to prevent misunderstandings is to memorialize any discussions in writing, which is standard operating procedure at most agencies. But it’s even more important to agree on outcomes, and to revisit them regularly. What’s not as useful is to agree to a list of abstract goals like “raising awareness” or “supporting sales” that exist only on paper are aren’t revisited regularly or clearly defined on a quarterly basis. That leaves both the agency and the internal team vulnerable to scrutiny without proper ammunition when budgets are reviewed.

Do link PR success to business outcomes. We’ve tackled this topic before but can’t stress enough the importance of setting business-based goals and KPIs at the outset to keep all eyes on the prize. This focus also prevents firms from falling into the trap of “quantity over quality” when setting a media relations strategy. The best compliment a firm can receive is when a client can tie a successful business outcome (increased site visits, conversions or funding, let’s say) directly to PR agency work.

Don’t expect the PR agency to do it all. No PR firm can operate in a vacuum. The best clients feed agencies information early and often. One of our favorite clients begins many conversations with “I don’t know if this will be of any interest” and then lays something very cool on us, such as the first-ever swimming pool design from a 3D printed model. To help jog client memories and keep the pitch pipeline full, we rely on very detailed weekly meeting agendas that provide numerous opportunities for even the most reticent clients to keep us informed of company goings-on.

Do adhere to the scope of work – or expand it with proper adjustments. Today’s PR agencies do much more than media relations. Our scope of work can include everything from management of a client’s entire social media presence, drafting executive thought leadership platforms and bylines, and putting together extensive panel discussions with lots of moving parts. PR agencies excel at this work but as clients look to add on these initiatives, the partners have to discuss and agree on additional budgets. Even the best relationships will suffer from unaddressed “scope creep.”

Don’t start the relationship on an adversarial note. A colleague who joined from another agency told us about a client who started a meeting by telling the agency team, “You’re the third firm we’ve had in a year, so, what’s different about you?” We’ve heard entreaties like, “We have very little budget and need to turn things around quickly, so we’re counting on PR!” There’s nothing wrong with stretch goals; in fact, they are recommended. But this type of challenge can set a more negative tone than the client intends and it fails to create the right conditions for success. There’s a fine line between what is challenging in a motivational way and what is simply counterproductive.

Don’t be shy about your preferred work style. A good example is to determine how the agency and client communicate ongoing work status. Weekly calls and monthly face-to-face meetings seem to be the agency standard, yet a good client relationship is a flexible one, with each side feeling comfortable to change it up. Therefore, we have some clients who often forego the weekly call – preferring short check-in calls every (or nearly every) day, while others keep mostly to online communication. There are no absolutes, and the best agency partners work to accommodate individual work preferences.

Do have each other’s back. As in any relationship, respect and support for each other’s work is critical. Also critical, the ability to forgive a mistake, to pick up the pieces if a deadline is missed and to repair a relationship threatening to go south. For clients, this can mean propping up a PR team member to a skeptic on the client side. For the firm, it may mean doing damage control with a journalist your client snubbed. It’s important to keep in mind that every client/agency relationship has bumps – which we work to smooth out – so we can celebrate the successes that help define a perfect PR partnership.

15 Top Questions To Ask During A PR Agency Search

Selecting the right public relations agency is a bit like dating, and it can be fraught with some of the same perils and challenges. It’s easy to be swept off your feet by a charismatic team, or dazzled by a slick presentation. How do you get both style and substance, as well as the perfect fit or the closest thing to it?

It helps to break down the PR agency search process into key phases and to articulate questions to elicit the best responses.

Initial Vetting of PR Agencies

Many companies looking to bring on a PR partner distill their goals and needs into an RFI (Request for Information) as a starting point.  In my view the RFI is an easier early vetting tool than a full-blown RFP (Request for Proposal), which requires far more time and creative input from participating agencies.  Many organizations may not need a lengthy or very formal document, but it’s essential to convey your goals and needs to all agency teams who may want to play. Remember, you want a talented agency team that can accomplish great things for your brand, not just a group that has perfected the bureaucratic art of responding to RFPs. The most relevant questions for this phase are client-driven. Before preparing the RFI, think about the following.

What are our specific public relations goals?

What mistakes or missed opportunities do we want to avoid? What successes do we want to build on?

What are our key criteria for an agency partner? Here, consider factors like size; a smaller agency will likely have gentler fees, but a large multinational will offer the greatest depth of experience. Then there’s location. Do you prefer a team in your own time zone? Is familiarity with local media important? The essential factor is likely to be relevant experience. Decide what your needs are and whether some are dealbreakers, and whittle the list accordingly.

What are the most important business challenges we face in the coming year? You’ll likely get the best responses by being candid about needs and challenges, and all participating agency teams should sign an NDA.

Who will ultimately decide on the PR agency? (Pro tip: these individuals should be involved in the process.)


Meeting with PR Firm Hopefuls: Sample Questions for Agencies

It’s best to narrow the field before meeting with agency teams, and to spend more time with fewer agencies to better understand intangibles like workstyle, chemistry, and individual expertise. Below are some questions that go beyond the obvious, designed to draw out the agency’s best thinking and unique attributes.

What are our biggest communications challenges in your view? You want a team that has thought through problems and opportunities and who will speak their mind. It’s good to find an enthusiastic group, but if all they can offer is praise and eagerness, you may not get the best counsel down the road.

Describe your ideal client. This shows your good intentions and elicits the qualities that are valued by the agency team and may contribute to a positive outcome.

How will your team perform better or differently than the others we’re seeing? There’s no “right” answer here, and the best agencies may show that they’re sizing you up as much as you are them. That’s a good sign.

How do you ensure quality and accountability within the agency team? You want a team that is responsive and committed to quality without being stifled by process.

Tell me about the last client who fired you. If they can’t admit this has happened, they’re probably not being candid.

Defining Success in the PR Agency Relationship

This is arguably the most important phase of the agency search process, but if often receives short shrift. Listen carefully to how the agencies under consideration define and measure outcomes. You want to do everything you can to set the relationship up for success.

What will the outcomes look like after three months? Client needs differ, but be wary of a team who overpromises. And remember that in most cases, strategic PR is better at building brand visibility and reputation over time than it is at generating fast sales.

Tell me about your greatest success over the past six months. This is a good question to ask every team member to better define the role and priorities of each.

What tools and methods do you use to measure impact? The key here is to be on the same page and to avoid surprises in the form of extra charges.

How much should we invest in outcomes measurement? It’s very important to be realistic about measuring outcomes and to recognize the cost of research if it’s warranted.

Is our budget sufficient to accomplish our goals? You want a team that will focus on positive outcomes, not merely adding services to pad their billings. And no one wants to hear later that the budget was too small to ensure success.