About a year ago, I was sitting in a kick off meeting. The client was an existing one, but the client contact was new and we were all trying to get a sense of the new expectations. I asked what an ideal story would look like to him – what’s the headline and what’s the publication. He rattled off the headline from the company’s most recent press release, which was something with a lot of version numbers, and told me he would like to see it on the front page of the New York Times.
Situations like this are where things can get tough for the PR professional. Within the entire scenario there are many challenges; we have a new client contact, it was our first meeting with him and we’re trying to impress each other. But by blindly agreeing to this suggestion, we could put ourselves in a tight spot later on by encouraging unrealistic expectations.
Saying “no” to a client can be incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, many of us in PR are people pleasers. We work hard to meet and exceed client expectations to make them happy, but the consequences of being “yes men” can be huge.
For one thing, it gives the client unrealistic expectations. In the case of my new client contact, there was no way that a press release about version 8.5.2 is making the front page of the New York Times. Allowing unrealistic expectations or unlikely definitions of success to perpetuate only sets you up for failure and the client up for disappointment.
It can also place the team under unnecessary pressure. It most often falls to the manager to appropriately set client expectations and timelines, but it is often the hard work of the account team that delivers on these expectations. While there is nothing wrong with challenging the team – in fact, a lot of good work comes from these challenges – setting them up for failure doesn’t do anyone any favors. It can also demoralize the team, which can have a long-term impact on results.
They say money talks, and if you never say no, you end up with a to-do list a mile long and blowing through budget like there’s no tomorrow.
At the end of the day though, being a “yes man” perpetuates mediocrity. It allows a client to put out non-newsworthy press releases netting zero coverage, enables spokespeople to get on the phone with journalists and rattle off a list of product features and perpetuates case studies with no storytelling element. It also supports a boring blog platform and an all-about-me social strategy which will likely drive engagement numbers down.
As PR professionals, it’s our job to tell our clients “no”. Not all the time, but when they need to hear it. It can be done professionally and politely, but it needs to be done. The most important part of saying no is to not only understand when to do it, but to also understand what the client is trying to accomplish and suggest alternative means to get there. Explain why the original request isn’t likely and why the suggested alternative will achieve the same goal. It may take some time, but eventually, you’ll be working with better stories, stronger spokespeople and more thought leadership. The point is not to be a Negative Nancy but to transform the PR program into one that pursues its goals strategically as well as aggressively. The results will thank you.