6 red flags from prospective PR clients

Nabbing a big project or an important client can be great for you and your agency, but beware: These danger signs mean headaches on the horizon.

When business is booming, you can get so busy you can barely remember how to spell your own name.

Then you turn around one day and realize your new business pipeline is empty.

Self-employment can be like that. When I was first self-employed, I wanted to take on every single client who crossed my desk—even some who weren’t such a great fit.

I learned (in some cases the hard way) that there are certain prospective PR clients you should very much walk away from, even if you need the business.

Here are six red flags that should tell you to think twice about whether or not you want to take someone on as a PR client:

1. “I want to be famous.”

During an early interview with a potential client, a fledgling sci-fi author whose husband had bankrolled her self-published novel, I heard the words no publicist outside of Sex and the City wants to hear.

One of the questions I had asked her was, “What do you hope to get out of hiring public relations support?”

Her answer was:

“I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list, I want my book to become a movie and I want to be famous.”

The author then rattled off a list of all of the celebrities she was connected to through her child’s school, including Lady Gaga. What I wanted to ask her was, “Then why would you need to hire me?”

You don’t need to hire a publicist to get famous—just ask Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. No PR pro is going to fast-track anyone into becoming the next J.K. Rowling.

It’s great to have ambition, but you want PR clients who understand that a public relations program needs to include all the PESO model elements, such as paid media, social media, influencer marketing, thought leadership and more.

2. “My [sister/friend/neighbor/wife/husband/cousin/mailman/dog] keeps telling me I need more PR.”

I once worked with a husband and wife who owned a small restaurant. The wife was the proprietor, the “face” of the business. The husband, who had a full-time corporate job, ran operations behind the scenes.

During the interview process, I worked mainly with the husband, who understood the PR basics. Once I was hired, the wife became my primary point of contact.

It quickly became clear they were on very different pages when it came to their business.

The wife wanted to run her restaurant, not do interviews and TV segments. PR was not a priority for her. As a result, although I was able to secure them some media, the wife was consistently frustrated that she had to do extra work.

When you interview potential PR clients, be up front about how much time and effort is required from all parties. This includes identifying who will be responsible for those efforts on the PR clients’ side. I assumed it would be the husband, given his outgoing personality and marketing knowledge. I was wrong.

A little due diligence on the front end will save you from chasing unresponsive clients who underestimated the time investment needed on their part.

3. “We loved your proposal and we want to move forward. But we want to pay you 50 percent less than your quote.”

If “Today Me” could go back in time, I would smack “Seven Years Ago Me” upside the head for the time I sat in a room with a client who said she loved my proposal and wanted to hire me, but at nearly half the rate I had proposed.

Negotiation is a healthy part of business. There was probably a good way to meet her in the middle by scaling down the plan. However, with little experience, I said yes.

This is how I learned that if you take a client at 50 percent of your rate, you have to take a second client to make up the income you’re losing. You literally take two clients for the price of one. You’re working twice as hard and are stretched too thin to give any of your clients your full attention.

Instead, price yourself fairly and work as hard as you can, and you’ll end up with happier, more loyal clients.

4. “We thought you would be much cheaper!”

I once told a prospective client my freelance rates and she said, “Wow! I really thought you would be cheaper [than our last agency].”

Now that I work on the client side, I ensure my agencies feel fairly compensated. It’s important they know I value their contributions and commitment to my organization’s business. It’s a give-and-take relationship.

There are some things in the world I can understand wanting to save money on: your morning coffee, your unlimited data plan, even your federal taxes. There are also things I would never want to get from the bargain bin: Lasik surgery, a bikini wax, and the person responsible for managing my professional reputation.

You don’t want to be the cheapest option out there, even if it costs you an account.

5. “We didn’t like our last PR firm because they didn’t get us any coverage. We got it all on our own.”

Do you want to scream too?

PR results are very difficult to measure and they aren’t always immediate. You can spend hours pitching and following up, but for reasons out of your control, a story doesn’t stick.

Fast-forward six months: Your client receives a call from a reporter that you pitched. That is a result of your work. When a prospective client told me her PR person wasn’t successful, but showed me a long list of media placements, I knew something was off.

It’s perfectly OK to want your prospective clients to understand and respect the fact that securing media coverage is a complex process. Many do, and those people are called great clients.

6. “If this PR campaign doesn’t get more people in the door, I’m going to close my business.”

Enough said.

What are some of your red flags when it comes to vetting prospective PR clients?

Maris Callahan is the PR director for Donuts Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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Topics: PR

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