One 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?