We are all familiar with the old cliché, “The customer is always right,” aren’t we?
But what if they weren't? Seriously, think about that—what if a client’s choices while working with you, in this case, as a PR professional, turn out to actually hurt their business as well as your own?
That doesn’t sound appetizing at all.
Sometimes, as painful and awkward as it may be, it’s crucial for you to be completely honest with a client and tell him or her that the ideas and plans they’ve come up with aren’t going to work well.
Identify the Issue
Early last year, I decided to get my feet wet with some graphic design. Generally speaking, the field—though involving little writing and media maintenance—runs similarly to how a regular, run-of-the-mill PR shop would.
Basically, I was working for a screen-printing and advertising store, designing signage for a handful of local businesses in Utah.
While there I had the opportunity to work with a variety of people from all sorts of professional backgrounds. This included college administrators, athletic trainers, maintenance workers, door-to-door salesmen and even families in need of simple signs and banners to welcome home returning relatives at the airport in Salt Lake City.
On one occasion in particular, the store had a client who owned an HVAC company. He needed a full vinyl wrap for one of his service trucks. Unbeknownst to us initially, working with this client turned out to be a long, frustrating process.
In order to complete the job, I worked alongside the marketing guy my client had recently brought onboard to handle his marketing endeavors—just for the sake of this story, let’s call him Eric.
To be honest, Eric seemed fairly new to the world of marketing and wasn’t all that sure of himself. Obviously, this made working with him all the more difficult.
On top of that, Eric’s managers felt they had to have the final say in everything.
Seriously, what was the point of creating Eric’s position if he wasn’t even allowed to do his job? I thought about this constantly as the two of us worked together.
Know When to Step In
Together, Eric and I were able to come up with some awesome ideas.
The downside? After hours of brainstorming, most of them were later tossed out because not everyone in our client’s camp could agree on what to do.
We had passed on some great designs, many of which would not only have made their business look spectacular, but would’ve also garnered a great deal of attention as employees cruised around town in their work vehicles.
This was frustrating, and I realized I had to step in and say something.
At this point, Eric, his manager and the founder of the company were all hovering over my desk, providing me with suggestions as to how I should bombard the vehicle with a wide variety of images and textual tidbits.
The designs we were working on for the truck slowly, and I mean slowly—by that time, we were working on our eighth concept—began to decline in quality and appeal.
It pained me to continue working on these lackluster designs.
I couldn’t let these graphics be installed. Simply put, I genuinely cared about the client’s future success, and in that moment, I’d felt as though I hadn’t provided them with my best work.
“These designs aren’t going to work!” I belted out, interrupting one of them as he argued about how a graphic should be both sized and placed.
Mercy, it felt relieving to get that off of my chest …
Be Honest, but Considerate
By far, this was the hardest part of the entire process.
Sure, I made them aware of my disagreement, but I then had to tell them why I disagreed in a calm, respectable manner. It can be hard to tell someone they’re wrong—especially when they’re wholeheartedly convinced they’re right.
However, everyone has a job to do, and we all have certain skills that make us unique and valuable. At that point, I knew what was going to work for their truck—what would make the company as a whole stand out and look professional.
I didn’t want to disrespect them in any way, and no one in my position should really ever have to. There are strategic ways to change someone’s opinion, and I decided to try a few of them on for size.
“These designs won’t look as solid as the earlier ones we developed,” I continued. “Let’s take a look at some of the previous designs, and maybe we can combine them with the best elements from a few of your favorites.”
They seemed to be onboard for the idea, so we did just as I’d suggested.
In little time at all, we were able to accurately pinpoint what they liked from some of my earlier concepts. After that, we put them together in a way that would look incredible once the final design was installed on the truck.
Always Use Transparency to Your Advantage
The three guys I was working with didn’t even notice that I’d verbally opposed them.
Why? Well, because I did so in a manner that wasn’t all that confrontational. In short, this is how a successful public relations specialist or manager must deal with difficult clients.
My story may have been that of a graphic designer, but the lesson applies just the same to a web developer, copywriter, editor or social media marketer. All clients have certain ideas about what they believe is best for their business.
While many are willing to listen and are extremely excited about open collaboration, others can’t remove the blinders from their eyes long enough to see what’s really needed to succeed.
This is where you come in.
Be confident in your abilities as a PR professional. The best PR people are not only transparent and honest, but also methodical and intentional. As a client, it can sting a bit to learn that the idea you’ve always had in your head was, in all actuality, not a very good one.
Strategically breaking this news to a client as respectfully as possible will ensure that they stick around for the long haul and increase their trust in you.
Let them know you care about their business and that you hear what they want, but that you’re also dead set on doing things in the best, most efficient manner.
Needless to say, practicing public relations in this way will create stronger relationships with the people you work with and will assist them in being more successful.
Rhett Ahlander studies Public Relations at Utah Valley University. He will graduate in April of this year with his bachelor’s degree and will begin a master’s program in Public Relations & Advertising this fall at DePaul University in Chicago. When Rhett isn’t studying, he enjoys writing, playing soccer and discovering awesome new eateries.