The worst clients in PR

PR agencies discuss their worst clients ever and offer tips for being a terrible client should you wish to make your agency’s life hell.

How to be a terrible client

1. Be insecure
Suzy Socker, board director at communications agency Talk Global, advises: “Bad behaviour often stems from a client’s insecurity or lack of capability in their role. Being more open about how client and agency can support each other ensures a more transparent and fluid working relationship.”

2. Have a superiority complex
Socker says: “Clients often assume they’re above their agency peers in the pecking order, acting in a way that shows it. But clients should remember that the agency is there for a reason – to provide strong counsel that results from being constantly submerged in cultural nuance.”

3.. Get everyone involved in decisions
Socker is not impressed by clients who decide by committee: “Having represented some of the biggest global conglomerates’ brands, I’ve often found no one wants to be the decision maker; be it signing off creative plans, engaging influencers or challenging the past to drive change. Building trust with your agency partner can be hugely impactful, ensuring there’s confidence to make those choices.”

4. Treat the agency like a slave
Holly Pither, MD and founder of agency Tribe PR, explains: “Great clients work in partnership with the PR consultant, rather than treating them like a mere supplier. This is a far more rewarding way of working for all parties and certainly more effective when it comes to getting results. Having worked both in house and agency side I know this only too well.”

5. Be inconsiderate
Pither says: “If you work with a PR agency remember they are likely to have a number of clients, so take that into consideration when booking in a call or a meeting with them or asking them to turn around a piece of work. Likewise, whilst you may be paying them for their services, a simple ‘thank you’ or a ‘well done’ goes a long way, just like it would a member of your team. The same can be said the other way around too, a thank you to the client for having your back or getting something through approval quickly will make a big difference. PR can be fast and frantic, but there is always time to say thank you and treat people well.”

6. Never be satisfied  
Adam Craig, divisional director at PR agency Storm, knows what it is like to be unappreciated: “As the agency, one of the most important traits to have is transparency, whilst it’s vital that the client sees the value of investing his/her time in speaking to us and responding promptly. But, there will always be the client who can’t be satisfied, like the chap who demoralised his whole PR team by telling us his coverage on USwitch was worth 12p!”

7. Micromanage  
Craig says it can be hard to let go of control: “Having also worked in-house I appreciate both sides of the client-agency relationship. If you’re looking to invest in PR you need to trust your agency to deliver. Try not to micromanage them – I tried and failed! No doubt you’ve gone through a proper pitch process, and your shortlisted agencies should all know what they’re doing. My advice is this: you’ve selected an agency for a reason, listen to their advice but insist on regular reporting and that they respond promptly to your messages – one of my biggest frustrations from being client-side was slow communication. Finally, ensure you have both agreed KPIs. By doing this both the client and the agency staff will have happier lives!”

8. Don’t listen  
John Ozimek, director at PR agency Big Ideas Machine, makes this last, very important point, so listen up! “Many exciting companies become bad clients for a variety of reasons, but a universal thread is poor communication, and more specifically, an inability or unwillingness to listen. 

“Good clients are the ones who take your ideas and feedback on board – even if they decide to take another route. Bad clients are like smashing your head against a brick wall, telling them over and over why their terrible idea won't work, week after week, merely because you – the person they are paying for experience, insight and expertise – is not saying what they want to hear.

“There are lots of clients that are annoying or difficult due to the fact they are disorganised, don't pay on time, or make the time-honoured mistake of confusing tactics with strategy (ie, they don't have one). But these are issues which can be solved, with time and a good client/agency relationship. A client who doesn't listen will always be a bad client, regardless of how much you try to cajole and educate them. 

“But the worst thing about clients who won't listen is that they won't accept the inevitable failure of their PR brief as their fault. Therefore, these bad clients will move from agency to agency, ignoring well-intentioned advice and spurning good ideas, and like an energy vampire, sucking all the joy from being a PR.“

Case studies

Here are some examples of clients who know how to get the least from their PR agencies.

My worst client ever
Suzy Socker from Talk Global: “I couldn’t possibly choose just one. Over the past 18 years, I’ve gathered enough to write a book…. Where to start?

“Sharing a bed with a colleague because the client’s budget was tight or sleeping on beanbags for three nights because they wouldn’t pay for a cab? A client generously offering their half-eaten sandwich for lunch? Receiving an ‘apology’ email from one client who screamed at you in an all-agency meeting because she ‘needed a scapegoat’? Daring to challenge a client’s decision and earning the nickname ‘Margaret Thatcher’ for it?”

Louise Chandler, PR manager: “During my time as a freelance PR person, a women’s workwear start-up business hired me to plan its PR strategy and campaigns. I spent time with the owners of the company to discuss ideas and find out more about their business so I could construct a thorough and proactive PR plan. At the time, they told me they had no idea about PR and media and didn’t believe in it, but they desperately needed my help! I was excited at the opportunity to help and make a difference so I made many suggestions that were met with negativity and a defensive attitude – leading to a difficult working relationship.

“For example, I suggested a photograph of the female founder should be put on the website because she was the creator and muse for the fashion range and this would form the basis of the brand story and credibility of the designs. She flat out refused and was extremely reluctant to go with this idea, despite my detailed explanations. She confessed she didn’t want to be visible in the business!? Sigh!

“Second, I suggested the business should offer or incentive for new customers to purchase their first outfit – for example 20% off (or whatever would suit their business model). The client shouted at me and grew very animated at this suggestion and refused to do it, claiming ‘you say I should give my product away for free’. This was not the case at all!

“After this meeting, they were slow to pay me for my time and we didn’t work together again. Suffice to say, the company never launched and I’m yet to see the women’s wear clothing range in any shops. I learnt that even when you give good advice, some clients are terrible at accepting advice, even though they asked for it.”

There you go, everything you need to know if you are a client hoping to waste your own, and your PR agency’s, time. But let’s not end on a negative note. Everyone who took part in this feature is keen to emphasise that poor client behaviour is rare, and most clients are absolute gems (ahem).