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How to dump PR clients

Breaking up is hard to do, as much in business as in your personal life. As Sarah Harris, group commercial director at communications agency TVC Group, says: “A bad break up – you lose your friends, your dignity and your sanity. A good break up – you lose a lover and gain a friend, you remember the good times, you both move on to better things.”

As with all relationships, you have to analyse your part in the problem. Before making a break with a client, Harris advises asking yourself why you think things might not be working. Be honest about where the fault lies and question, for example, if you have the right team on the account. Other questions to ask, says Harris, include: “Do you have realistic KPIs and budgets in place to deliver against the expectations? Is there anything you could change from your side to make this work? Is the client prepared to change to make things work? Have you fallen irrevocably in love with a competitor to your client – with bigger budgets and more ambition?”

Once you are sure there is no future, it is time to say goodbye. In the panel Harris outlines a step-by-step guide for making the break as clean as possible.

Six ways to break up with dignity

  1. Be timely, don’t let things drag on
  2. Do it face to face
  3. Be clear and honest about your reasons
  4. Have a fair exit strategy
  5. Use your contract to help you through the process
  6. Set an end goal of remaining “friends” as you never know where your ex-client might end up

If only the path of client relationships could always run smooth! No agency wants to dump clients, but sometimes you have to move on.

Case studies

 It IS you! 

Two agency heads describe reasons for resigning clients. 

Teresa Horscroft, owner of agency Eureka Communications: “I have stood down a number of times over the years. The first time was because the client was operating in a sector that I was tiring of after 15 years working for large corporates and start-ups in the information security space. If, like me, you love the challenge of having to position not just your client, but a new industry, then there will become a point where it stops being so innovative or new and the excitement wanes.

“Then there was the client who just had nothing new to say. In this instance I felt they would be better served spending their PR pounds on sales and marketing campaigns instead. There’s only so much you can do without client input. This is particularly pertinent when industry statesmanship is a core component of a campaign. It’s becomes more challenging to create an industry statesman when they’re not actually saying, and importantly doing, anything authoratitive.

“Time served is another important consideration. I have had the privilege to retain clients for a long time, but perhaps client contracts should come with a sell-by date. The time limit when you tire of each other may be different for each client, but it does exist.”

John Warburton, managing director of PR agency jwc: ”Sometimes you just get a client who starts off like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, but turns into Begbie from Trainspotting. You can get a sense of it from the way they talk to you. Great relationships work on mutual respect, but if they speak to you like you’re a servant – alarm bells should start ringing.

“I remember, as a freelancer, one client who would to text, skype and call me every day to find out what I was doing and would take great umbrage if I was working on a different account. Then, and this is the best bit, I found out that he had been calling journalists to check I was doing the things I said I was doing. I politely told him we couldn’t work together anymore. He said he wouldn’t pay me … so I sued him. That didn’t end well.

“Another time, I had to drop a client after they saw a major tragedy as an opportunity for publicity. It was a thoroughly tasteless idea and there was no way we’d do it. I lied and said we’d lost staff and no longer had the capacity. That ended better.”

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