We often say that PR is all about relationships. While most often in reference to media relationships, as a service-based business the relationship between publicist and client is perhaps the most important one of all. Different management styles, communication styles and expectations can all color how effectively a particular agency and brand are able to work together. One of the biggest mistakes PR novices make when growing reputation and client roster is taking on any client who is willing to pay, without paying heed to any red flags. Inevitably, both parties end up frustrated. Even when initial intentions are positive, the ramp-up time and earned media aspects of PR can lead to tension. Sometimes when the client values don't match yours, and especially when client expectations are unethical, the best thing to do is cut lose, take the monetary hit, and learn from the experience. But how do you know if firing a client is the right thing to do? Here are eight signs it's time to let a client go.
Your client is a jerk
For Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO at Mavens & Moguls, the need to let go on a client occurred during her first year of business and was "was absolutely the right decision! The guy never paid on time and was rude to my team who was doing great work for him. Even though he signed a year-long year contract I ended it after 3 months. It sent a signal to my team that the money was not worth an unappreciative client who was a jerk and treated us poorly. We replaced the income and more within a month with a much better client. I have never looked back."
Your client has no boundaries
While it is great to work with a client who wants to be actively involved in his campaign and to understand the PR process, there is such a thing as too involved. Miranda K. Spigener of Film PR Literary discovered that while waiting for her in her office, a troublesome snuck into her office to send "pushy pitches." This client also created his own version of a PR contract because "he thought his was better." It took a few times, but eventually Miranda terminated the relationship. She says the experience taught her to "draw the line," and to be "wary of folks who try and take advantage of my kindness."
Your client won't provide what you need
In order to run a successful campaign, you need certain things - images, product information, samples, an accessible spokesperson. Particularly in the lifestyle arena, a lack of samples can be fatal, as Tyler Williams experienced early in his freelance career. "While I completely understood that the products were high-end and that my client did not want to risk losing anything, when editors or stylists called in samples, it would take more than a week before I received the samples. This resulted in more “missed opportunities” than placements. My client also had a habit of traveling without telling me, sometimes for weeks at a time, so getting samples and questions answered was nearly impossible." Although letting go of income was difficult, Tyler ultimately realized that "even though I was working hard, there was only so much we could accomplish together, so I let the brand of out their contract."
Your client is a clinger
The client who is always changing her mind or giving contradictory direction or feedback can be a nightmare, and takes valuable time away from actually working on the account. "The client would request days and days of changes and edits to content and then suddenly switch things back to our first draft," explained Monique Tatum, CEO of Beautiful Planning, who also said "I would leave my computer for an hour and come back to over 15 emails."
Knowing that this client wasn't working out, Monique tried out a few alternatives, she issued a change order to increase the amount of money the client paid, to allow for the time required to address client demands. However, it became clear that no amount of extra funds could cover the stress of this client. Unfortunately, the client was insistent in wanting Beautiful Planning to be her firm, initially refusing to leave when Monique terminated her contract and offered to refer her to another agency! Now, Beautiful Planning has added terms within contracts that state clients cannot make unreasonable requests.
Your client has outlandish expectations
At WrightIMC, contracts comes with a 30-day out for both the client and the agency. As CEO Tony Wright explains, "the most common reason I have fired a client is because they continually want more service than they are willing to pay for or I don't feel that they will be successful with our programs because of their product or internal factors."
For Dana Humphrey, CEO at Whitegate PR, the decision to fire a client came from a mix of lack of appreciation and a really bad idea. "We had every media outlet covered, from national tv crews, local news crews, newspaper reporters from NJ to Queens, bloggers and magazines and before the press conference had even ended, the client immediately wanted to stage something else to draw attention to his business. His idea was a protest. As we work on a monthly retainer basis, we had gone above and beyond our hours for the whole month in those five days leading up to the press conference, and we considered it a huge success. Next steps were thank you's and follow-ups - not another PR stunt."
Your client refuses feedback
In order to have a successful PR campaign, a brand may need to make some updates or investments. In fashion PR, this might mean taking great editorial photos or having samples available. For a brick & morter boutique or a new restaurant, reviewing Yelp reviews and adjusting customer service, or in the case of Joseph Szala, Pricipal/Creative Director at Vigor, cleanliness. "The brand was created and designed by our team along with the pre-opening public relations and ongoing media and community relations. We were doing a stellar job, but the reviews on Yelp and other places went from 4-5 star down to 1 star claiming "cleanliness" was an issue. So, I took a trip out there unannounced and I found a dirty storefront crawling with cockroaches. I told the ownership they needed to close the doors and take care of the problem, their response was "our AC unit broke and it's too costly to fix. The customers will understand and if don't want to deal with it, they can go somewhere else." I thanked them for the opportunity and explained that it was no longer in our best interests to represent them." In a word, yuck.
Your client wants to bash the competition
If a client proposes a PR campaign that bashes the competition, or suggests any sort of nefarious, shady promotional tactics, steer clear. The only time Jarrod Holland, CEO Holland & Holland Public Relations has had to fire a client was for just this reason. "I had an ethics issue with badmouthing the competition for several reasons: it's just plain unprofessional, plus I know and have worked with many of the folks who work at the competition and I'll be damned if I'm going to put my name on press materials disparaging their products. Also, I have to see these people at industry events and this promotion would have burned bridges with many people I respect. A client may not last forever but a reputation does."
Your client wants you to makes false claims
Similarly, if a client asks you to publicize something that isn't true - from a celebrity client to greenwashing, it's time to part ways. Having no framework of what type of returns the investors would receive, the client simple guessed. For Dan O'Connell, CEO of O'Connell Communications, a great client relationship who drew strong headlines on CNN, MarketWatch, Chicago Tribune and FOX News turned sour when the client guessed on some financial numbers and expected Dan and team to "publicize these returns, as well as draft a website for investors, social media, advertisements and brochures." It was time to part ways.
As in any relationship, the key is to set clear boundaries, accountabilities and expectations from the get-go. In fashion or entertainment PR, there is often an added level of extremism, such as a celebrity client of CeCe Stein's, CEO of Rock and Revolution PR, who "will not be photographed before noon (and maintains that no woman over 30 should be photographed before noon)," will only use one makeup artist and is very particular about wardrobe. However, this relationship works, according to CeCe, because she found out about all these quirks up front. "Getting to know your client as intimately as possible is crucial to the success of your business relationship." If you do find yourself in a less than optimal working relationship, don't be hesitant to move on, as Monique Tatum remarked, "Not all clients are good ones and honestly you may have to toss one back every now and again. If we dont like our client then there is no way we can do good work for them as their publicist. That's the truth."
What have been your experiences with ending client relationships? Share your experiences and how you guard against having to let a client go in the comments or on Twitter.