I have a colleague who is also a life-long PR professional (more than 15 years experience, and we were recently talking about how frustrated we are with clients expectations.
Now, whether you’re in-house dealing with the head of your department or C-level executives, or at an agency dealing with clients, you always have to manage expectations. From the small business client who says, "My priority is to get my company an article in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal," and has no possible story that would appeal to either of those publications, to the large corporation which says, "We must have at least 25-30 major features each month," you need to realistically know what you can conceivably accomplish for your clients. Part of this is knowing the media really well. And you also need to know what’s not only expected of you as a PR person but what’s (not) in your job description – from the beginning.
Going back to my colleague for a moment…her small theater client has a great story – it includes kids, non-profit, cooking, environmentalism, etc.; there are so many different concepts and media to pitch this story to it’s crazy – but the client only wants TV…and nothing else. In fact, the client said that if she doesn’t get TV, she’ll consider the PR campaign a failure. Now, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on my colleague to deliver one thing and one thing only – a TV appearance for her client’s new musical. It won’t matter if she gets any story in the New York Times, radio or online…this client has made it clear that TV is the only thing that matters. So, while my colleague is focusing on what her client wants, her client is missing out on all the other possibilities for exposure. My colleague is frustrated that she can’t manage her client’s expectations enough to say, "While I understand what you want and will do my best to get it for you, I think you should also consider these possibilities."
In addition to the above, the client now also – with three weeks until the premiere of the show – wants to send information to the local city schools about her production and encourage the teachers and kids to attend the show. Let me explain how this will NOT be accomplished. First, there’s not enough time to build a contact list to do outreach to all of the city’s performing arts teachers. Because this can’t be pulled from a Cision or other media list (as it’s not media), this is something that should’ve been requested at the beginning of the campaign, if at all. Second, because my colleague doesn’t handle anything beyond media relations (in other words, talking to journalists on behalf of clients), outreach to the schools is beyond the scope of her duties, not to mention her knowledge base (she wouldn’t even know where to begin to get contact info). This is a perfect example of needing to manage a client’s expectations – as the client probably wasn’t paying attention to what was said in the initial conversations or the contract. My colleague was very clear about what she does and doesn’t handle – and here the client is asking for something that just won’t happen. (And I’m not trying to make her seem like a whiner but it’s not something she’s ever done before and doesn’t have the time to accomplish it before the premiere.) Does the client have the right to be upset for asking my colleague to handle something she’s not used to doing? I don’t know.
Managing expectations is about not being so narrowly focused on something that you can’t see the bigger picture – and being realistic. First, as PR people, we can only pitch our client(s) so hard to the media that we begin to turn the journalists off. Second, unless the client has a story so new or different from anything else that’s ever been covered, it’s pretty likely that a journalist won’t be too interested. With all the clutter today, a client has to have a fresh angle on a product/service in order to break through and be heard. Gone are the days when a PR person can simply call a media contact and say, "Hey, you’ve GOT to speak to my client. They’re doing X, Y, Z," and get a story. Now, that same client has at least 3-5 competitors, who may not be as big or even doing PR yet, that are doing the exact same thing. And any search engine worth its salt will help a journalist find the competition within minutes. So what you expected to be a feature on your client is now a round-up story, if the journalist is even interested.
My points are: 1. In this environment of fast-paced technology and 24/7 news cycles, clients need to cast their nets a bit wider to accomplish their PR goals. So many clients and their PR people are fighting for the same editorial space in The New York Times, they’re forgetting about the other media outlets – smaller or local print, radio, internet, etc. – that can yield bigger results in the end, especially if those outlets are targeted to the client’s audience…which is why the client is working with a PR person in the first place – to gain greater exposure with the client’s audience. 2. PR people have to know the media well enough to continually explain to clients why an outlet will or won’t take the client’s story, therefore managing expectations and helping the client see the long term results.
While we can converse about and put our expectations from clients and their expectations of us in our contracts, it’s not always "heard and understood." Managing expectations is not easy but it is necessary.
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Jocelyn Brandeis is an accomplished and award-winning communications professional with more than 15 years experience in the entertainment, consumer, new media, B2B, Hispanic, and nonprofit industries. She is responsible for securing interviews and media placement and creating full PR campaigns. Since co-founding JBLH Communications, the client roster has included: National Lampoon Comedy House, Doggy Tug, Mandinez.com, Play Clay Factory, The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, and The Child Center of NY.
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