Are You a PR Puppet or a PR Counselor?

I’ve heard the same story a million times from senior and mid-level PR pros.

I’ve also experienced it firsthand.

The client proposes an idea and asks for your advice, you give it, and they proceed to do the exact opposite of what you advised. Your team is then stuck with the unenviable task of executing the client’s plan that you are not in favor of.

What happens next? One of two things:

  • Your team does as well as can be expected, the results are OK at best, and you move on to the next project with a sigh of relief that the client didn’t fully blame you for the results.
  • Your team does as well as can be expected, the results are OK at best, and the client blames your team for not doing a better job.

Clearly, these are not situations anyone wants to be in where you are set up for failure. But too often this is happening between agencies and their clients. Makes me wonder why some agencies don’t just change their name to “We Do What We’re Told, Inc.” or “We Don’t Want To Do Amazing Work, Inc.”

So who’s to blame for going along with everything a client tells you to do? The team lead? Upper management? In some cases an agency has no choice but to do what the client asks because they need the business. That’s fine, but how long are you going to keep that business and how are you going to attract new business prospects when all you do is average work? I know I don’t want to work at an agency like that. Do you?

If our specialty really is communicating, then we need to start proving it a lot more. If you disagree with the direction of a client campaign or program plan, say something! Don’t just keep your mouth shut or only push back a little bit because you don’t want to upset the client and you want to keep being best friends with them. Being best friends with a client is not in our job description. We’re supposed to be their counselors who advise them on the best ways to move forward to meet their goals and objectives. 

It’s our job as PR pros to always challenge clients and bring different thoughts and perspectives to the table. If you sit around and agree with everything a client proposes (or don’t challenge their thinking at times), well, you are just going to end up being another PR pro who is OK collecting a paycheck and going along with the status quo. And ya know what? That’s OK.

But if you don’t want to be just another person on the team, I suggest you take a different approach. Offer different viewpoints, back-up your case with specific reasons and examples of why you feel the way you do, push the client to make this the best campaign it can be. Don’t go on and on if the client is just not getting it, but feel out the situation and do your best accordingly. And by doing this it doesn’t mean you are going to get your way or that every time you speak up you are on your way to being a good counselor. But at least you are showing the client that you have put a lot of thought into this and are there to provide as much advice as possible. Remember that more times than not it’s the agency that ends up being the scapegoat when a campaign goes sour. You don’t want to get caught at the end of a failed campaign knowing that you didn’t speak up when you had the opportunity.

Either way you slice it, none of these situations are easy to take on, but know that you should speak up when the time is right and that it’s OK to disagree with a client at times. I don’t have all of the answers, and I know that it’s easier said than done to push back on a client, but many of us need to be trying harder (myself included) to make sure that the campaigns we’re working on are positioned for success and we’re not just doing things for the sake of it.

With that in mind, I’d love to hear from agency folks who have been doing this throughout their career. Do you have any suggestions on how you can push back on a client in a professional way? Any examples of what’s worked/hasn’t worked in the past to get your client’s attention? How can you educate a client with a big ego to accept that their initial thoughts and ideas may not be the right way to go?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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15 comments on “Are You a PR Puppet or a PR Counselor?

  1. This is a tricky line to navigate in the agency world– I’m glad you brought it up. I used to work in a PR agency where we would run into these sort of situations and I recall our account lead telling the rest of the team that we would have to “pick our battles” with the client. If the project was minimal enough that we could execute it successfully and move on, then it wasn’t worth the fight. However, if it looked like the project set us up to fail in any way, then I noticed the higher-ups become more inclined to push back and make alternate proposals.

    But it’s never easy, because some agencies really need the work. No one wants to be a “yes man/woman,” but what I often saw as effective in swaying a client’s opinion on a not-so-great idea or tactic was to tie it back to their (the client’s) goals and objectives for their performance review. Some of our clients were constantly aware of how their higher-ups would evaluate their performance and were more inclined to take our advice and counsel if it continued to make them look good. Another tactic is to hit them in the pocket book and ask them if they are prepared to spend x-number of their budget on their project or if they’d consider an alternative.

    It’s still a fine line to walk, and every agency and client is different. I know if I were still in an agency, I’d appreciate reading this post even more because I’ll bet a lot of agency folks are in the same boat.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your take on this. In the past I have worked with a client who wanted everything done in a certain manner; however, the directors were not seeing the desires results. My team decided for a meeting we would bring in sample plans and the results the strategies and tactics returned. The tactics were similar to the ones my client wanted to execute; therefore, as soon as they could see results they were much more willing to give leeway. I agree with you, we are required to challenge our clients and bring new thoughts and perspectives to the table. Once again, great blog!

    • Would you say a majority of your clients are willing to listen to your ideas and want your direction? Or do most of your clients have an idea already and don’t necessarily need direction as much as they need to know how you will execute the plan?

  4. I disagree. I don’t think it’s okay to sit back and accept a paycheck to be a yes-man. Part of our ethical obligation is to provide counsel. And if the client doesn’t want or trust our counsel, why are we accepting their business? There’s other ways to make a buck.

    • Do you work for an agency? Are you a senior person there? Curious if that’s your own personal thoughts or if your agency has that view as well – most agencies want to bring in revenues first and then worry about the counsel part.

      • Yes, I have worked for an agency and been a consultant. I’ve also worked in-house at a publisher, and had authors hire out their own PR counsel to supplement the publisher’s. I understand that people “in the trenches” often don’t get to make higher level decisions about corporate culture, and I have no illusions about whether or not I’d compromise on some of some of my ideals to collect a paycheck (I would.) I just don’t think it’s okay, and if I were, I’d be actively seeking a position with a organization that didn’t force me to be a “yes-man.” A corporate culture that values revenue (yes-man) over quality work (counsel) is a corporate culture that often inadvertently courts a spiraling decline in quality, which leads to a decline in revenue. If you provide quality service to your customers, the money follows. Beyond the ethical considerations, there’s a strong business case for why we as worker bees ought to seek positions with organizations that eschews short-term “yes-man” profits in favor solid counsel.

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  6. I can relate to this on a similar but different level. I work as the only designer at a church in my home town and I have proven, on multiple occasions, that I know what I am doing and I produce quality work. However, there have been times that a creative form is submitted and I create what they are asking for and it is sent back for two… three… four revisions. It gets to the point where I feel like saying “If you know EXACTLY what you want, then why did you hire me?”
    But at the end of the day THEY are the client and we have to give them what they ask for. I have learned through experience to keep documentation of me encouraging to make other decisions and if anything doesn’t go the way they wanted it to, I have proof that I did my job to the fullest. Hang in there!

    • I know it can be frustrating and demoralizing at times. but as you move forward in your career and begin to have more say in how things are done, you’ll develop a greater voice and get to do more things the way you’d like them done. Just hang in there!

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  8. This topic is extremely interesting and relevant for me. I am a soon-to-be graduate of Kent State University in public relations and marketing, and our final class challenged us to form a team and take on a real-world client as a pseudo-agency. Our client thankfully was appreciative of any ideas we put forth, but it made me think of the possibility of being challenged by the client, and having my “agency’s” ideas put down.

    I’m glad that you say as PR people we can push back at times. We’re specialists and hopefully can be regarded as such. Obviously, there are limits and lines that should not be crossed, but it’s important to know that our PR voices are important and vital to a campaign plan, or other piece of strategic communication.

    Thank you,
    Heather Thomas

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather. Congrats on the upcoming graduation!
      The bottom line is that every client is different. Some are going to love your ideas, some aren’t. The key is to not get too demoralized when (and it will happen a lot) this happens. Just keep bringing the great ideas to the table and never give up.

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