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February 2016
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Managing Public Relations clients

by Marie Yossava, managing director, Grapevine Communications

InternationalWhen a public relations consultancy comes on board with a company, a new relationship starts… And, as with any new relationship, time is needed for each party to get to know each other. The public relations consultancy needs to truly understand a client’s business and the industry in which it operates in order to be able to communicate effectively, while the client will be finding out how the consultancy works – what is public relations and what it isn’t.

As part of this groundwork, the dynamics of the individuals on the account need to be established, as well as the responsibilities and the reporting system. This is also the time to learn about one another as individuals and to start building trust.


From the outset of this new relationship, this long-term investment, clear and achievable goals, timelines, budgets and strategies need to be set out to prevent future misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations.

Media coverage and the ‘timing’ issue

The most important starting point is for the client to understand that coverage isn’t instantaneous now that a public relations consultancy is on board. The initial two to three months of a project/retainer are all about laying the groundwork for coverage to happen, which includes getting to know the business, looking for opportunities and researching the media pertinent to the client’s business. A great deal of behind-the-scenes work needs to be done in order to secure an interview/published article.

It’s a fact that it’s never been easy to get published on the big media platforms. These days media owners have even less manpower to send out to do interviews. Even if the client has a newsworthy angle, they must understand they are up against hundreds of other companies with strong angles, who are all vying for attention and space.

This is where the value of online and social media can’t be underestimated. Besides offering a global audience (which local newspaper can offer a client that?), online platforms are fast while social media is immediate. It is also not as difficult to garner interest from these editors who are looking for fresh content to update their sites. Agencies need to educate their clients that online and social media are not the poor cousins of traditional media; they are, in fact, powerful platforms that offer many opportunities for exposure. And when combining social and traditional media this offers clients a powerful and eclectic marketing mix.

Not many clients are aware that many print publications work in advance, making it all the more difficult to secure coverage. This is where building relationships with the media can pay off. A journalist could be aware of the clients that the consultancy represents and therefore able to contact the consultancy directly to set up an interview. But this is a process that takes time and which clients need to understand.

Those impossible demands

Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate Public Affairs in the United States has been quoted as saying, "One of the biggest mistakes public relations professionals make is to agree to unrealistic expectations to close the deal with a prospective client. This is sure to result in a short-lived client engagement and a damaged reputation."

It is important for public relations agencies to stand their ground and not allow themselves to be coerced into something they know won’t work; it will only backfire. The client ‘is always right’ does not apply when either the consultancy’s or the client’s reputation is on the line.

The onus is also on the agencies to advise their clients on the appropriateness of a story for a particular publication or audience. The client may want to appear in a financial publication, for instance, but if they are a small, unlisted, unknown entity there is zero chance of this happening. The consultancy must explain to the client why there is no sense in pursuing publications or journalists that have no interest in covering their story.

Then there are those front cover demands. It’s always awkward to explain to a client that while their pride in their achievements is understandable, this doesn’t mean that they are front-cover breaking news. In this instance it helps to explain that many front covers are paid-for (in magazines).

A two-way street

This relationship is a two-way street – in order for the public relations consultancy to deliver results, the client is required to participate in the process by providing input from their side, such as information about their business and activities and being available for interviews.

Too often a public relations consultancy scoops an exciting interview opportunity to find the client out of town or holed up in meetings, despite having made a prior arrangement with the client to be available. This kind of lost opportunity is also detrimental to both the client and the public relations consultancy – the journalist will not be receptive next time around.

The A-type personality client

We all know one. The client who wants everything done yesterday, feels the need to constantly check up on the progress, calls after-hours and ultimately wants to micro-manage their public relations consultancy.

There is only one way to deal with such a client and it is surprisingly easy for a public relations consultancy to do because it is what they do every day – communicate. Provide regular updates, reports and feedback meetings to give this client peace of mind. Why not even pre-empt their calls and emails? In this way the client will realise they are in good hands and will slowly start to relax and feel more comfortable.

Some other client management tips:

  • Be a good listener. Listening to the client’s concerns, ideas and feedback will alert the consultancy to areas where there may be potential issues. Simultaneously the client will appreciate that they are being heard.
  • Be a true partner. Offer direction, help, support and advice when needed.
  • Be available. The client must feel their consultancy is available (within reason of course, not midnight on a Friday) and approachable.
  • Be quick. Client concerns need to be addressed immediately; they should not be allowed to fester.
  • Be proactive. This will go a long way to cementing the relationship and trust.

Written by Marie Yossava, managing director, Grapevine Communications

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