Advice from Public Relations Pros: How to Deal with Difficult Clients

Recently I’ve received a number of emails from PR Fuel readers offering up insight, advice, and some rather hilarious stories about how tprotecting one’s personal and professional integrity when dealing with frustrating clients. In the public relations industry, advice from peers can often be more useful than advice from an “expert.” So thanks to our PR peers for lending their voices to the mix. Their identities have been kept anonymous, but they’ve nonetheless provided good tips and a healthy dose of reality.

Reader No. 1’s Story

My client is the owner of a thriving company worth $30 million. My small public relations firm was instrumental in: 1.) Getting him a cover story in a classy four-color state magazine; 2.) Earning the client two awards from our local business publication; 3) Getting the client recognized as one of five “Best Business” winners by a four-color national magazine published by a Fortune 500 company with a circulation of over one million; and 4.) Entering him in a big-time N.Y.-based competition where my client was named one of the 20 winners. This particular win resulted in my client accepting his award at a fancy Chicago ceremony, complete with celebrities and an eye-popping, mantle-loving trophy.

Then the big win came.

My client ended the year by winning a high-profile business magazine’s award, complete with a smashing feature about him in the well of the book. So what bad could come from all this good?

Quite by accident, I learned that my client signed a contract with ANOTHER public relations firm several months ago. Turns out my client wasn’t satisfied with the amount of coverage I was getting him. If my small firm could do this much for him, what could the BIG BOYS do if he turned them loose? These BIG BOYS worked for a public relations firm located about as far away from our city as it is possible to be and still be in the USA. My client wanted more publicity and he wanted faster.

When I told my client what I had learned, he was shocked. Thunderstruck is more like it. How could I know about his contract with a public relations firm located on the other end of the country? My client forgot about the magic of 21st-century communications technology and the fact that PR people often do public relations for themselves when they sign on a new client.

Long story short, once the shock wore off, my client basically informed me that I was now in a horse race with the other agency. Whomever got the story first won! I still don’t know if the other public relations firm knows about me.

Even in the face of all this, I am on good terms with my client, and I want it to stay that way because the money is very good. However, my neck gets sore checking out my backside all the time. By the way, I am winning the horse race by miles. No way would I lose this one.

Reader No. 2’s Story

Clients are not so much “stupid” as ignorant concerning the workings of some specialized fields. That is why they hire professionals to guide them.

The client’s ignorance is the sole reason why the opportunity to make a buck exists for the bulk of your readers. Clients pay for a service. That payment, great or small, combined with their reasonable desire for a return on investment leads to high expectations. Dispelling ignorance is a part of what we are paid for. The job should be approached with sensitivity and tact, not derision.

My clients are “stupid,” too. Thank God.

Reader No. 3’s Story:

The unfortunate part is that very often the client relationship is damaged; however, my experience has been that those relationships aren’t worth saving anyway. If you’re hired for your expertise, the client should probably listen to what you’re telling them.

I’ve had clients who wanted to “edit” my press releases to say “The XYZ Company, innovative cutting-edge producers of XXXX are proud to announce XXXX.” I’ve told them I won’t send them out. The end result would be a negative one either way. If my name was on it, my credibility would be shot–not to mention it wouldn’t be picked up anywhere anyway.

I find that sending an article written by a public relations pro as to why this is a bad idea often stops further discussion. But there are some clients who will nitpick everything and are never happy. These are generally the same ones who want to know exactly how many placements you will get them or when they’ll be on Oprah. My feeling is tell them the truth: I honestly don’t know.

Reader No. 4’s Story:

The topic of your column today presents one of the great paradoxes of the public relations business, especially for those of us who spent a great deal of time on the agency side. While this issue also applies to internal “clients,” it speaks directly to the constant tug of war that goes on behind the scenes with many agency-client relationships.

The paradox is this: clients hire agencies because they admittedly lack the public relations expertise and/or resources to do the job effectively, yet they consistently attempt to assert themselves as the public relations authorities in these scenarios and that they know best. Say what? If these buffoons know best, then why do they need agencies in the first place? If clients cannot respect agencies for their strategic counsel and expertise, then they should not hire public relations firms to begin with. Simple as that.

As a long-time public relations practitioner, and one who has spent countless years on the agency side, I have encountered many situations like the ones described in your column. For example, I had one client whose primary public relations objectives was to secure a story in the Wall Street Journal, especially since his publicly traded company had never been featured before in the publication. After much planning and persistence, I got the story for him–only to be told by him that he wanted to review the text of the story ahead of time and before it went to print. When I explained to him that the Journal and many other publications do not engage in such editorial practices as a matter of policy, he blew a gasket, and threatened to fire me and my firm.

I diplomatically held my ground, and I subsequently arranged a brief conference call with the Journal reporter to explain to the client that this is, indeed, the newspaper’s policy. Of course, the reporter thought I was nuts, and it badly damaged my credibility with this reporter. However, I knew I was doing the right thing, and the client was appeased when the reporter repeated the same information that I hold him. However, it was like pulling teeth to convince this imbecile that what I was saying was accurate, and he did not appreciate my knowledge and insight for which he was paying $250 per hour.

As you have so astutely pointed out in past columns, public relations practitioners, at the end of the day, only have their credibility and reputation to conduct their business. If that is damaged, even by a client, it prevents us from being able to effectively do our jobs–with the client in question, as well as future clients. I am a firm advocate in telling clients to go take a hike if they are not going to respect me and follow my advice.

Trust me, most agency professionals will back me up on this one. Clients come and go, so why would I want to continue working with a bunch of bozos who are not going to respect what me and my account team offer in terms of recommendations and advice? It would be the equivalent of a criminal retaining an attorney for legal advice, paying him thousands of dollars to counsel and represent him in a court of law, and then completely ignoring all of the attorney’s advice which would have acquitted him. Why should public relations clients tolerate the same treatment? It is ridiculous.

Reader No. 5’s Story:

Ignorance in customers is the norm for any service industry. To assume one should always get the clever, motivated, and knowledgeable clients is to be in a state of delusion that is probably illegal in some states.

So, we educate them in as many ways as they need it to understand what can and cannot be done. We look them in the eye and treat them like adults–with patience and understanding. We ask them questions about what they are trying to accomplish with their newest wacky notion. Then we offer even better suggestions on how to accomplish what they want to happen. Always offer a better idea.

For an example: A company that wants to hold a press conference even though the company hadn’t done anything newsworthy. Then suggest holding a newsworthy event. Hosting such a thing is much superior than a dry press conference that won’t be covered if something else exciting happens in the news. Ask for a little time to come up with an event that will fill the need for a press conference.

A public relations professional should be their own best client. In doing so, they become a person that clients want to do business with. However, if it comes down to the wire and the client insists on doing something so totally boneheaded as bribing a journalist, then refuse. A person’s personal and therefore professional integrity is not negotiable.

Reader No. 6’s Story:

I recently had an overseas-based industrial client who insisted that: 1.) I incorporate overblown adjectives such as “only,” “best,” etc. in product and application press releases aimed at the U.S. trade press, and that 2.) I deal only with magazines showing a willingness to “work” with the client by publishing this rhetoric. The feeling on the client’s part was that positive reader response was enhanced by these claims.

The client was accustomed to working with the European trade press, which often would publish these claims with little thought for accuracy. I had come out of an editorial position with a magazine in my client’s market and attributed much of my success in public relations to knowing the technology and how to write releases and feature articles for publications in my client’s field.

I wouldn’t accommodate the client’s “guidance”–and lost the account–principally because of the potential damage to my company’s perception by the media. This is nothing to celebrate, but 10 years in the business has demonstrated that the integrity of my firm is as important as that of my client.

Reader No. 7’s Story:

I worked at a magazine publisher for 17 years and one day, after hours, I was sitting in an editor’s office just gabbing. This fellow did the “newsy bit” section in the front of the magazine, and he had a foot-high stack of unopened press releases. (These were the pre-internet days.) And as he chatted with me, he had the stack over the trash can and would look at the return address and throw most of them away, unopened. Maybe one out of 10 got opened. I’ve told that story to clients who just gasp. They believe the editor opens the envelope, smoothes it out, keeps reading ’til the end, and then strokes his chin and says “hmmmm…”

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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