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When to walk away from a client?

Obviously, all PR agencies need clients, but this doesn’t mean clients are always well behaved. Bradley Pallister, director of agency Innovolo, gives two examples of annoying habits: “Being late on payments can be one of the biggest ones. Also, not giving me enough time to turn around good quality work is annoying. Unrealistic expectations for turn-around times are also really frustrating, as well as being demanding at short notice.”

The biggest bugbear for Judith O’Leary, founder and managing director of agency Represent Comms, is when a client fails to meet a signoff deadline: “This can damage your credibility with a journalist which is really frustrating. An early deadline is a way to get around this.”

Sophie Marsden, director of agency LIT Communication, agrees that letting journalists down is a no-no: “One thing that would make us walk away from a client is if they are constantly letting journalists down and missing deadlines. This can be really damaging to our relationships with journalists, and it’s something that we have to keep a close eye on. Being helpful and responsive is essential for us to maintain positive relationships with journalists and support them as much as we can with expert comments and stories.”

Below PRs give their top tips for dealing with unreasonable clients and explain when they have had to walk away.

Explain PR best practice

Georgie Upton, managing director of PR agency Wild Card: “Many clients don’t come from a PR background, and some haven’t worked with an agency before. We owe it to ourselves, and the industry, to show them what best practice is, and work together to deliver great work for them and their business, at an appropriate (and profitable) pace.“

Jessica Pardoe, account manager at agency Source PR: “I think for me one of the most difficult things to deal with is clients who don’t understand PR and its value; and then you either have two options: to educate them or walk away. I would always go with option one and have found in the past that this strengthens relationships and creates a better understanding all round. Once clients perceive the purpose and value of PR it’s easier to work with them to achieve their goals, and also get that recognition and credit for work done well.”

Find real news from clients

Jean-Philippe Glaskie, owner of PR agency Peppermint Soda: “Clients sometimes struggle to recognise whether copy is newsworthy or not and will occasionally insist on pushing a sales message out to press - which in reality won’t get coverage without any advertising spend. The best way to handle this is to take responsibility for educating them and helping them to find an alternative newsworthy hook that the media will be interested in. If a client is insistent that a press release does have a strong sales focus, managing their expectations on the level of coverage they can expect to get is also important.“

Ask for an elevator pitch

Helen Croydon, founder of agency Thought Leadership PR: “When you’re competing with 300 other emails in a journalist’s inbox, the PR needs to frame a client in a sentence. I get around this by telling my clients that we need to create an elevator pitch - they may not like being categorised as a ‘business coach’ but to a lay person they are! I explain that the gentle nuances can be explained at the next stage.”

Listen hard

Jamie Irwin, director and founder of agency Straight Up Search: “I'm fortunate enough to operate within a very specific area of digital marketing - organic channel growth and SEO. The first thing I do is I listen to my client (listen is the keyword here), hear them out and appropriately handle this dialogue in a respectful and polite manner. The second thing I do, where possible, is to try and relate this back to the scope of our arrangement. For example, how is your demand/request going to increase our organic traffic? How is this demand going to help us achieve our KPIs? Business owners absolutely love hard data and analysis, so try and remove emotion from this interaction and consider the impact these demands will have on your end goals.

“Bear in mind that your client is the subject matter expert in their industry, they will, most likely, have more operational industry knowledge than you so it's always useful to listen to their demands as sometimes it can lead to a fruitful collaboration. And it could increase client retention likelihood.”

Set clear boundaries

Chloe Walden, account director at agency 84 PR: ”Clear boundaries have to be set out from the get go. It’s not about not wanting to work hard or deliver results - we all know how hard we work for our clients - but when it starts to have a negative impact on people's lives and mental wellbeing, it’s simply not acceptable. We’re all human at the end of the day, and having open and honest conversations, understanding the pressures the client is under and how you can best ease that, and making achievable and fair ways of working for all parties, will only create healthier working relationships. If your client isn’t willing to see the benefits of boundaries on both sides, then it’s time to review if you really want to be working with companies who don’t value or prioritise mental wellbeing amongst their peers.”

Be open and forthright

Tim Gibbon, founder of communications consultancy Elemental: “Clear, open and forthright communication is best. Both parties need platforms and opportunities to share constructive criticism to develop and progress. When there are whispers going around team members to create walls to protect accounts or revenue, this can reflect poorly on those involved. Clear measurement, budgeting, transparency with open ways to demonstrating value, can circumvent these issues.”

Offer quick feedback

Emily Keogh, co-founder of agency Palm PR: “We work hard to have positive and open relationships with our clients. We do regular feedback calls and address issues within 48 hours. A demand that is particularly tricky is when a client is pushing for more than the agreed scope of work without additional fee. For example, with the diversification of social media platforms, clients can expect the addition of newer accounts like TikTok within the same fee base. It always goes back to education on the new scope of work, negotiation on priorities and best use of budget.”

Case studies

Why we had to walk away

Sometimes, the only course of action is to resign your client. Agency chiefs describe when they have had to do this.

Darryl Sparey, managing director at marketing agency Hard Numbers: “In terms of walking away, I'm proud to say we've done that three times now, from different clients, for different reasons. The first, which was within our first year of trading, was a two-person company in the mobility space who were utterly awful to deal with and didn't listen to a word we said. We sacked them within two months of the pitch.

“Another was a business where two external consultants were bought in to split a CMO role between them. What both these speak to is that sometimes, no matter how much you try to plan and reinforce values, you can't quite get the shared understanding and expectations that you want. In those instances, it's best for everyone to walk away.”

Georgia Gadsby, co-founder and head of PR at agency Unearth PR: “I know it’s time to walk away when a client consistently disregards our communications. I’ve worked with clients that have attempted to pressure us into using ‘black-hat’ PR techniques, when we are strictly a ‘white-hat’ PR agency. When a client doesn’t align with your agency values, the collaboration sadly can’t continue.”

Being diplomatic is always a good skill for a PR to have and it is definitely needed when dealing with difficult clients. You can read how to deal with difficult bosses here

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