• 06Jul

    The Gates of Hell by Auguste RodinOne of the biggest challenges of working with clients is helping them achieve their objectives without investing too much of your ego in the process. Over the years I have worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, both as a consultant and as part of an agency team. Public relations and marketing communications services need to fall somewhere short of “the customer is always right”; perhaps it’s safer to say “the customer is never completely wrong.”

    While there are some who argue that to be a successful executive, you need to have psychopathic tendencies, I do know that successful senior managers have very healthy egos, don’t often take criticism well, and are very wedded to their own ideas. I can’t recall how many times I have had a client come to me with a project already mapped out in his or her head, complete with impossible targets and unrealistic deadlines and the mandate, “Make it so!” Your job is to assess the situation and determine if you can pull the rabbit out of the hat, or reset the scope and expectations of the project so you can pull off a lesser miracle, make the client happy and help him or her achieve his goals, and still look like a hero.

    Of course, agency executives and consultants have egos too. I have been in a number of meetings where the senior executive on the account clashes with the client in a battle of wills over who is right and who has the best approach or idea. I have worked with consultants with the same challenge. Their argument is “you are paying me all this money for my opinion, why won’t you listen to me?” (Of course, one of the reasons consultants become consultants is that they don’t play well with others, especially authority figures, so consulting is preferable to unemployment. But I digress.)

    Trying to win an argument with your client may be good for your ego but it’s bad for business.

    As with most interpersonal relations, you need to learn how to pick you battles. There are so many small things that you can let go, despite the fact it may hurt your professional pride, if it doesn’t’ compromise your professional integrity. Let’s look at some specifics.

    Writing has become a battleground where I am prepared to give ground on a regular basis. One of the biggest complaints within the PR community is that the latest crop of PR professionals are such atrocious writers (note: the age group varies depending on how long you have been in the profession). You can argue about grammar, usage, the use of the serial comma, and whether AP Style is dead. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you made your point, and there are no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. A common problem I see among PR professionals is writing and rewriting a press release or other copy, not because it’s wrong but because the text needs polishing or doesn’t conform to house style. While this may chew up a lot of billable time, in many cases it’s wasted effort. Early in my career, I had a client who referred to this as the “happy/glad” syndrome; there are different ways to express the same idea, so at the end of the day what does it matter? In cases where a client has an emotional commitment to the way a press release or article is written, there is no reason to argue.

    Then there are the ethical issues. I have had clients ask, no tell me to lie to a reporter. Of course, I refused. There also have been instances when a client has lied to me and I, in turn, lied to a reporter. In such cases, it’s my reputation at stake and I will resign the client in a heartbeat. As I explain to all my clients, my integrity with journalists is my bread and butter, despite the fact they write the checks, so if they ask me to do something unscrupulous or dishonest, it’s a deal-breaker.

    And then there’s everything in between. The smart PR professional doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his judgment. If you adopt that as a cardinal rule, you can navigate most client situations to a happy outcome for all, even if they don’t do things your way. Maintain your professionalism and always give your best counsel, but be prepared to compromise when the need arises. The best public relations professionals are excellent diplomats, and in the end, you have to remember that you are just the messenger. What’s the point in getting shot?

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  • 23May

    Maybe you have to be a writer or editor to get excited about the latest release of the AP Stylebook. The AP Stylebook is the bible for professional writers, providing standardized usage and definitions for common terms. It provides a standard for things like comma usage, hyphenation, capitalization, datelines for cities, and other commonly used terms. It also helps me settle a lot of arguments with clients about how to write press releases and where to put the punctuation marks.

    ap-320piI am particularly excited about the 2011 release of the AP Stylebook because, for the first time, they have provided standardized usage for a variety of technical terms. Now I now no longer have to argue with clients about the proper spelling of email versus e-mail or Web site versus website. According to Mashable, there are at least 42 new terms that have been included to define common technological terms, social media terms, and TLAs (three-letter acronyms).

    Now we know that, according to the Associated Press, proper usage is email and website as one word, smart phone is two words, and e-reader is hyphenated. And now we can use “fan,” “friend,” and “follow” as both nouns and verbs. (I can’t wait to see if they have decided that other changes are acceptable, like using “grow” as an active verb – “to grow a business” – which is one of my pet peeves.) They have also added unfollow, unfriend, and retweet to the lexicon. According to a preview offered by MarketingProfs, some of the terms that are now standardized include:

    •  
      • check in (v.), check-in (n. and adj.)
      • download
      • end user (n.), end-user (adj.)
      • Foursquare
      • geolocation
      • Gowalla
      • Internet-connected TV
      • iPad
      • Link shortener
      • social media optimization
      • stream
      • tag
      • tablet computer
      • Tumblr
      • WAP

    AP has also tackled the alphabet soup of technology acronyms, including those used in texting (another new verb) and instant messages. They define ROFL, BRB, G2G, and even POS, which I thought meant point-of-sale but apparently means “parent over shoulder”; a term younger IMers and texters use to indicate that parents are approaching.

    I have already pre-ordered my print copy of the 2011 AP Stylebook, and I am sure it will be more comprehensive than its forebears. For some time I was using Wired Style published by Wired magazine a number of years ago as my guide, but I found it to be extremely poorly organized and incomplete. Like most writers, I suspect I searched publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal looking for common usage – their editors are very diligent about maintaining consistent editorial usage and standards. AP needs to get their guidance from somewhere.

    E.B. White (co-author of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which is still the “must have” book for any writer who cares about his or her craft) noted that English is an evolving language, “The language is perpetually in flux; it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.” As the language evolves and technology changes usage and brings new terms into use, someone needs to find a way to codify these terms so the rest of us can make sense of them. Like the OED, the AP Stylebook provides a lifeline for the rest of us who are trying to maintain standards of usage in the face of change. Everyone needs standards. Just as the IETF relies on standards like TCP/IP, SMTP, and HTML to form the common language of the Internet, we need similar standards for English usage to promote clearer understanding.

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