Sometimes, you need to say no

Here’s a column I was commissioned to write by Talent Zoo about one of my experiences on the front lines at a PR firm:

Public relations professionals often are looked at as guides to the media. Clients want to know how they can get news coverage. Do you ever use the opportunity to tell them they won’t?

When tasked with media relations, you often will go to great lengths to get that client’s news placed anywhere, so you can show them how valuable you are. Sometimes, you’re even willing to cash-in a little professional collateral with a reporter you’ve befriended over the years, landing at least a brief mention in a column.

But if you’re only willing to use your professional collateral with the media and not your client, you’re doing everyone a disservice. When I was working at a PR agency a few years ago, I had to help the folks around me learn this – both the younger PR practitioners and the seasoned pros.

Too often, public relations practitioners focus on the tactics, the strategies and their never-ending drive to get something accomplished. But what if the best tactics and strategies you come up with aren’t enough? What if, no matter how well-crafted your pitch is or how well you know the local newspaper editors, there is no way your client’s “news” will get covered?

Media relations isn’t just about getting a story published. It’s about being a media counselor as well. If your client’s story isn’t newsworthy, you need to help them understand why.

While at the agency, one of the account teams I was on was for a large law firm. They had intelligent people on staff who were successful in their field. These people often had smart things to say and their opinions were worth listening to. But what the firm considered newsworthy often wasn’t.

When I joined the account team, there were young professionals pulling their hair out trying to find a way to get this law firm’s self-proclaimed news published. They were constantly apologizing to the client, vowing to work harder.

By the time I got involved, this had been going on for months and no one was satisfied. The demands were growing and the agency executives were worried about losing a prestigious client. Meanwhile, the agency staff was exasperated with the client’s demands, frustrated with the executives’ constant pushing and demoralized by their lack of success.

I suggested that perhaps the best course of action was to tell the client they didn’t have any real news to share. We could tell them we’d try to make the information more newsworthy, but that even then, our success rate might be rather low. I also suggested we find events occurring in the region that were newsworthy and would benefit from the law firm’s principals speaking out about them.

The agency staff was excited to try something new. The agency executives were only cautiously supportive. But I prevailed and was told I could stand up to the client, albeit gently. We had to agree that their news was worthwhile, but perhaps we could incorporate some other ideas to get them additional media coverage. In other words, we took a limp-wristed approached to media counseling. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to learn that we failed.

All it meant, of course, was that now the account team had to work harder because we were still trying to get things published that weren’t newsworthy while at the same time monitoring activities in the region so we could place the client as a thought-leader. Essentially, we were doing more work for the same amount of pay.

To make matters worse, the client was unwilling to get involved in anything controversial or newsworthy that was happening in town. They insisted, instead, on pushing forward with their own news as the first priority. Eventually, we were fired.

Had I been given the green light to provide true media counseling – an honest assessment of the client’s strengths and weaknesses and a forthright review of ideas on how to get them in the news – things might have gone differently.

Instead, I was hamstrung by having to focus on the client’s ego first. Getting the job done correctly was a secondary consideration. Of course, once we lost that client, I gained an account team able to focus on other clients and record some accomplishments. I also gained a team that was enjoying a newfound morale boost from no longer having to sit through a weekly client berating.

I also learned a great lesson from this experience. I always treat clients and employers with respect when it comes to a disagreement over media relations. But if I don’t speak up and tell them when they’re wrong, it’s my fault, not theirs, when things go awry. I learned never to just say, “Sure, we can try this,” when I know it will never work.

Public relations professionals need to remember that we often are hired to say yes, but the greater value may be in earning our pay by occasionally saying no.

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