“Absolutely. Of course! Sure thing. We’ll get right on that!”
To most PR professionals and our clients, those phrases are heard countless times throughout the day. Successful, savvy PR teams recognize that a big part of delivering excellent client service – not to mention results that matter to our clients’ business priorities – is by taking on what our clients ask of us, and then doing the best we can to exceed their expectations. Yet often, I’m struck when hearing others agree to a client’s request without a second thought, even when the ask doesn’t align with previous direction, an agreed-upon strategy, or the actual objective of our entire program. Call me crazy, but I’m a big believer that sometimes, what a client is really paying us to say is “no.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be flexible, open to new ideas and shifting direction, or recognize that there are times when all our clients want is for us to roll up our sleeves and help them accomplish something without pushing back. But there are numerous circumstances and opportunities that arise where our clients expect – and greatly benefit from – a “no” from their PR agency. Here are three such examples:
- Not all publicity is good publicity. When we do our job right, media often come to us (or our clients) with requests for interviews, and offers to participate in their stories. Our clients depend on us for our counsel and expect that we’ll carefully vet each opportunity and make a recommendation that makes sense for their business. When I first started working with one of our major consumer brand clients a few years back, it was exhilarating to get a call from the AP, or the New York Times, inviting us to comment on a trend or supply information for a story. “This is incredible,” I thought, “Instead of having to pitch them for hours on end, they’re actually coming to ME!” But as I got more experienced, understood the nuances of my client’s positioning goals and priorities, and also learned how to accurately predict the angle of the story, it became clear that sometimes the best advice we can give our clients is to pass on participating. Sure, there were times when those reporters truly did give us a chance to be a part of a story that we otherwise would not have secured, and that ended up earning us a huge “Congrats!” from the client. But there were also a lot of times where it became abundantly clear that by agreeing to an interview or providing a statement, we were potentially inserting our client into a conversation they didn’t ultimately want to be a part of. So by saying “We don’t think this is the right story for us – our recommendation is to pass on this one,” we were actually helping make more of a positive impact on their business than if we had told them “Hey, it’s the Wall Street Journal…of course you’ve gotta do it!”
- There are only so many hours in the day, and only so many members on a team. Part of what separates Matter from other firms is that we work on a retainer basis – when a client engages us as their agency partner, we agree to a specific program and a plan, with a clear scope of work and measurable goals that guide where we put our time and energy. And then we do whatever it takes to meet our metrics or exceed them. Part of that upfront conversation about what the program looks like, and what the goals should be, is built on an honest assessment of what our client hopes to gain by hiring us and what they want us to spend our time on. It doesn’t benefit us – or our clients – to stray too far from that path and say “yes” to every new task or side project that pops up, without taking a step back from time to time to evaluate whether it impacts the rest of the work we’re doing and may actually divert the team’s attention away from what we agreed is most critical for us to accomplish together. Don’t get me wrong – we love being seen as a trusted resource and an extension of our clients’ internal teams, so taking on more work or weighing in on something that isn’t 100% related to our core PR responsibilities is certainly welcome. It’s when the scope of a program shifts slowly over time without acknowledgment, or when the activities we’re being asked to execute begin pushing the team in a direction that doesn’t align with our end goals, where the problems truly start. Those are instances where we owe it to ourselves and our clients to raise the red flag, say “no,” and have an honest conversation that starts with “Let’s make sure we’re correctly prioritizing what the team is spending the bulk of our time on, so we can make sure we’re making the most impact on your business and meeting the metrics that matter to you.”
- Not every idea is a brilliant one. We’ve all been there…our client, their boss, or a representative from another department at their company gets that glimmer in their eye, enthusiastically pitches a big idea, and then eagerly leans forward, waiting for the rest of the team to get excited and rally behind it. And then there’s the awkward pause, and the nodding and furtive glances, and the “Oh, that’s so interesting…I really like that idea, but let us think more about it and get back to you.” Our clients expect us to be receptive to their ideas (and the ideas of others at their company). They expect us to be professional, respectful and open-minded. But they also expect that we are capable of more than just saying “yes” to every suggestion in a brainstorm, and that we will find a way to take the spirit of a bad idea and weave it into something that makes sense, is executable, and that accomplishes our big-picture goal without compromising our credibility or wasting resources. So sometimes, we need to be empowered to say “You know, I don’t think that’s exactly the best way we should approach this…but what I like about that idea is X, so let’s come up with another way to achieve that in a way that’s more efficient and in line with our broader PR strategy.”
Saying “no” can be hard sometimes, and it’s not a word that should be over-used or taken for granted. Saying “no” is a powerful way to demonstrate you have your clients’ best interests in mind; for clients, it’s often an important reminder that your PR team is still thinking critically about what’s best for you and your business. So don’t fear “no.” Embrace it.