Public Relations Basics: Dealing with Difficult Clients

Over the years, I’ve made friends with many people who work in the public relations industry. We’ll often talk on the phone about the PR business, exchanging stories and ideas. Recently I’ve had conversations with a number of these public relations pals, and all of them had a singular complaint: My clients are stupid.

For example, one public relations pal told me about a press conference one of his clients wanted to hold. The only problem was that there was no news to announce at the event. The client merely wanted the press to gather so he could give an overview of the company — which is more than two decades old and hasn’t changed its business anytime recently — because the company was upset with the amount of publicity it had been receiving. The company’s public relations rep diffused the situation by curtly informing the company that his firm would not promote a press conference that involved no newsworthy announcement — because it would not only tarnish the company’s image, but the public relations firm’s as well.

Another PR person told me about a client who wanted to send reporters an expensive gift, something that hasn’t even been released in stores yet. When she told her client that it’s against most journalists’ code of ethics to accept such a gift, the client didn’t grasp the concept and wanted to proceed. It was only when the public relations rep explained how negative the response to such a gift would be — and that journalists may actually write negative stories about receiving such a gift — that the client finally relented.

Even when PR people are getting their clients ink, it’s not easy. A friend who works for a public relations firm overseas informed me that her client was the subject of a cover story in a local business publication. After the story, which the PR person termed “glowing,” was published, the client was unhappy, complaining that the story did not contain enough direct quotes. The client had prepared a lengthy letter to the writer who authored the story and the publication’s editor laying out his complaints. Luckily, he sent it off to the public relations rep first — but only to see if she wanted to add some remarks — and the letter was squashed despite persistent complaints from the client. The client still felt slighted by the business publication despite the overwhelmingly positive exposure he received.

The final client horror story involved a Fortune 500 company that wanted to put out a press release touting a new customer. The only problem is that the customer did not want the contract announced, at least not yet. Regardless, the company that won the contract wanted to move forward with the press release, but without naming the new customer, only hinting at who it is by giving an in-depth explanation of the customer’s line of business. Of course, this “hint” would tip anyone off to the mystery customer’s identity. It took calls from the customer’s public relations team — and finally from its CEO — to squash the press release. The calls, it should be noted, were set up by the public relations rep for the company that wanted to issue the press release. It was a move designed to convince her own client that the press release was a bad idea.

Customer horror stories are part and parcel for the public relations business, but as the role that public relations plays in the corporate world changes, clients now expect more and more from their PR reps. Unfortunately, they also seem to utilize less common sense than ever when asking for results from PR reps.

The most effective way to combat a client’s lack of common sense that I’ve found is rather simple: outline the most dreadful possible outcome of clients’ actions, and tell them in no certain terms that they can expect the actual outcome to be worse. This is what the PR person whose client wanted to give journalists a gift did, and she did so by showing the client a spate of bad publicity another company received for sending out high-priced gifts. Then she showed the client the sort of code of ethics in place at many newspapers and magazines.

“The client finally understood why they were about to make a major mistake,” my PR friend said. “But it took me a lot of time and energy to convince him, and the episode has hurt our professional relationship.”

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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