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October 5th, 2008

Why Do PR People Bother With Insolent Clients? I Mean, Really


I know what you’re thinking: Here he goes, another high-powered PR exec complaining about crappy customers. Guess what? That’s what this is.

I’ve heard it said innumerable times how our jobs would be magnificent—were it not for the clients. During a recession (welcome to it, dude) there is no better time to live that motto.

I’ve been thinking, and laughing, lately about the way people’s expectations have shot up in ways that are mind-blowing. Gee whiz. Can’t anyone trust anyone anymore, or are we all just, as USA Today stated last week, completely convinced that human nature is bad.

Well, crap. I have always known that human nature is ostensibly yucky, that most people you deal with love to gossip, put people down, spin negative, but that does not mean I’m not a positive guy, au contraire. I believe that a good humor and the ability to say screw you to (in the wisdom of Boy George from a hundred years ago) “those who whisper never” is the way up and out of any rut or bad state.

But enough about me! What do you think of my rant so far?

Seriously. So many are bitching these days and most of them pay us for the pleasure of listening to them. It’s time for some clear-thinking—and a little revenge. Clients for the most part are asking for the impossible. They want it quick, they want it now, they want it yesterday. And in the old days (say, three years ago when the media we pitch actually existed as full entities) could probably get something going in a matter of moments, hours, a day maybe.

Today everything is about timing and no one has the time for an explanation. There was one guy we worked with who was adamant about “top tier press” even though it wasn’t really going to get online traffic for him. I mean, look. You get on Portfolio.com and it reaches millions. He was pissed because the magazine did not run any excerpts – all 45,000 readers of that magazine! Who could care less about his Web (read: online) product.

You know, and they know, but are afraid to tell their funders: people click to them. Reading about them in the Daily Times is not going to help get customers—only make their Mommies proud. Clippable? Sure. Usable? Nope…

To the stubborn ones I offer a solution: Want print? I’m going to go get you a better PRINTER.

Then there is a client—-you will recognize him from miles away-—who swears you are doing such a great job but golly somehow he can’t see results. A friend of mine in our industry shakes his head like a Bobble-head wshen this happens and wonders if these people think that when press happens the cretins fathom how everyone sees it and do nothing with the material itself. (Wait for the phone to ring much?) But it’s not going to be seen unless you show it off. If you are on a top-notch blog or even in the (*ugh) newspaper, you need to DO something with it, send it to folks with a “I’m sure you saw this” note or post it everywhre. Not just imagine that because it appeared it will be seen, like in the Walter Cronkite Era when there were five channels. Back then, everyone got a whiff.

You’re thinking I could go on all day like this! What makes you think that?

So I recently had a conversation with someone who pays me who swore that even though their numbers (i.e., goals) were fantastic and being reached, the VCs weren’t biting so it has to be the fault of the PR. Like, us! Maybe they needed to cast a wider net for money and not go to the most-hyped Venture Vultures out there. Or perhaps a little patience might help.

There was (key word here: was) a singular customer of mine who swore up and down that everything we did was immeasurable. Not the good way. But gosh darn it – there are ways to measure everything if you work hard enough to cooperate. Problem is, most clients don’t want to do surveys of their customers to see how they found out about “them” because I think clients are frightened to hear the rest of what the respondents have to say.

In order to find out that WE reached THEIR customers (caps mine), a company has to touch their own faceless consumers, whom they would rather imagine as numbers. In this world of Captive Consumerism – where someone is a customer because an alternative hasn’t reared its head – the company asking the questions will be told that, well, yeah sure I read about you all the time and see your face on Net/TV, but to be honest I don’t know why I care. That’s harsh. Whenever a company tells me the press we get them isn’t measurable first thought I have is: get better salespeople.

You’re out there, in a ton of targeted media outlets and online influencer columns. Don’t expect the sales to come to you one-to-one, but directly market to folks with what we did for you. Is that so hard?

Three client traits to avoid are Kool-Aid(tm) drinkers, naïve youngsters, and worst of all: the untrusting. The latter is the one I can’t get over because it almost seems they’re looking for something to go wrong. An old Chinese proverb: “A man does not look under the bed unless he’s been there himself.” One dude (also young) was interviewed for a major print magazine and at the end said, with me on the line: “So is this for the magazine?” As if. The reporter was dumbstruck, but later laughed with me about his ridiculous, nervy and unnecessary query.

Ones who are sure their bullshit doesn’t stink need to be avoided at all times and costs. It will never end well. They are certain everything they do is brilliant—even when it’s a far cry from smart. I say tell them the truth (“Your product needs work”) and counsel them. If they are smart they will a) be mad and b) call you the next day and say you know what, you might be right. If neither a) nor b) happens, burn the bridge down. No amount of acid indigestion is worth listening to people telling you they have “invented a category,” when all they’ve done is made minor improvements on a product already in vogue.

Youngsters are always going to be naïve in one manner or another. But the ones who keep saying will this really happen are those who think their stories are so fabulous on one hand but also not worth telling on the flip hand. With those you just got to breathe deeply and hope they grow a pair-—I mean, up. No, I meant what I said the first time.

Lest you forget insolence also seeps into the bones of executives who are ill-prepared to deal with issues that are bone-headedly easy to put out there but somehow the client feels can wait until it’s already been discovered to disclose. Didn’t anyone learn from Bill Clinton? You got to just say it: he did have sex with that woman. If he had just opened his mouth and gotten the words out front and center, he’d be an icon without that messy trial behind him. Everyone knows by now: say it and it’s over with. Try it and hide it—that’s all reporters have going for them is uncovering some kind of mess you are playing down.

I’m almost done now.

There are groups inside client companies– and many there are – who can’t get their act together to any degree and so on weekly calls you need to listen as they discuss, argue, wheedle and finally disagree with one another. I have recently stepped in and said “What do you do all day?” That usually shuts them up. I don’t know about you but I haven’t got time for this painful exercise in listening-to-others.

Finally, last of this itinerary of client problems: Meet the guy who, G-d love him (as my Grandma and Biden’s Mama murmured), told our employees during a phone meeting how he had taken out a second-mortgage to pay for PR. First, who the hell cares? Second, telling the team? Third—and most important for our purposes—maybe you should be budgeting better and selling more. My final shot: This is meant to INSPIRE PEOPLE to work harder, or this is supposed to make people feel bad? My group’s response was simple laughter. They pay their rent, no problem.

Yes, yes. I know how hard it is to cope with the guy or gal who is hard to talk to. Believe me, I’ve been one as well. You can’t slap them. Yet…PR people need to stand up for what’s right and that is that what we do is hard work—with measurable impact that no one should bitch about. For that they should go home and see their significant others. Who probably don’t care what they have to say either.

It’s a shame that so much of our workday is waiting for people to stop talking. And, to quote Mike Walker of the National Enquirer, how was your week?

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