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The nightmare of becoming a PR client

29 April 2019 By Victoria Tomlinson

After 30+ years working in PR – in-house and then setting up and running Northern Lights – we launched Next-Up last year, a business to help people use their skills and find opportunities in unretirement.

Initially Next-Up was far more of a consumer business – selling to individuals direct, whereas our PR skills are in the professions and B2B.

So we decided to appoint a PR agency to do our PR – partly because we were all focused on getting the business itself going, partly because we felt we probably needed different PR skills and contacts.

I was enormously conscious that working for someone who has expertise in PR is probably the worst kind of client. So I purposely tried hard to let go and let the agency do the work. But things didn’t go well and we started trying out a number of other agencies and freelancers on different, small projects.

The experience overall was not a good one.  Rather than dwell on what went wrong, I thought I would turn this all around and share what would have made it all a great client experience.

I’d welcome other views on this.  What do you think makes for a great PR client experience?

  1. Focus on achieving business goals

Working with the first agency, the initial proposal was based on a monthly retainer, very vague plans and no outcomes.  We eventually worked together to shape something more tangible and more focused against what our business needed to achieve – a key goal was to get people to the Next-Up conference we were organising.

  1. Be realistic about what you promise

In one version of the PR plan, there was a goal to get something featured in our key regional media every month. We had done our own initial launch and appeared everywhere in all the key media – it seemed unlikely we would get much more for a few months.

But – I was really excited to learn from another expert.  If they said they could do it, fantastic – and maybe I had been missing tricks all these years!

The reality was we not only didn’t get anything each month in the regionals – we only got one more piece six months on.

It is not easy launching a new business – it is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

  1. Don’t get too legalistic

I was interested that two of the people we tried on small projects sent us contracts that were several pages long. I looked at them and decided they weren’t worth the paper they were written on and I would sign them just to get the work going.  Were they honestly going to take us to court for less than £1k? One was for contacting one journalist and the other was a half day’s piece of work to take a new look at the wording for a project.

In 30 years of business, nearly all our work has been based on a proposal and email outlining a few terms. The only legal contracts were with government agencies and even these were less onerous than the contracts these agencies sent me.

The most important thing in PR is to focus on agreeing clear goals and making sure you deliver – if there are problems, you have to be honest about them, sit down with the client and agree what is the best way forward.

  1. Think hard about what you invoice

With the smallest piece of work, the copy was sent over on a Friday afternoon.  I thanked them by email and said we had got a meeting on the Monday morning to go over the project, which was struggling, and we’d see if the copy was going to fit the bill. 

At 10am on Monday morning, I had an email with the invoice for this.  Not even a follow up email or call to check if we were happy. Bang. Honestly, it took my breath away. The copy wasn’t right and we ended up rewriting it all ourselves.

I should have asked them to have another go but I decided to write this off as a bad experience and move on. I couldn’t be bothered to fight it so just paid the invoice.

Nearly all the agencies were happy to submit their full invoices for no results.  I did pick up and negotiate with the bigger ones and they were apologetic that I had to ask and immediately agreed, yes there should be a discount.

The exception was a freelancer we have worked with for years who came to me and said, “I honestly don’t think this project has delivered anything you need.  I am not going to invoice you.” 

There were a lot of reasons why this project was so hard. We’ve all been there when things just didn’t work out as expected. But few were honest about this or took the initiative in the way this freelancer did.  Guess who I will and have used again?  They will get far more money over the long term by being decent and fair in what they charged.  Or didn’t charge.

  1. Be proactive with updates

As I am writing this blog, I just did a quick skim of emails from the various people we worked with to remind myself of the issues.  I found endless subject headings on the lines of ‘Progress report?’, ‘Next steps?’, ‘Any news?’ and more – from me.

Surely a client shouldn’t have to keep asking what is happening?

  1. Be creative

I was really surprised at the actual work approach of the PR people we worked with.  It was all about meeting journalists – when I did get any reports, it was always just a list of the people they had met, spoken to or whatever.

Not once did anyone say, “I’ve had an idea about taking another approach”.  When we launched Next-Up, we had commissioned our own research for the launch – which led to us getting on BBC You and Yours. 

PR is a mix of being creative with new angles and ways to explain an issue or business, along with journalist contacts.

  1. Build a relationship with your client

What I think I minded most about all this PR, was that everyone was keen as mustard to invoice us but there was no attempt at being interested in our business or the conference.  No-one sent us a good luck note on the morning, thanked us for our business, helped tweet about the conference during the day or rang us after to ask, how did it go? A couple had asked for free tickets to attend the day, which I gave – but I don’t even remember getting a thank you note for these!  And one of those attending, used the conference to try and get business for themselves and did nothing to help us – if the positions had been reversed we would have at least helped with social media on the day, but probably done a press release and had one more go at trying to get some coverage.

These people were all transactional. I will neither recommend nor use them again. I have had numerous calls over the last year asking if we can recommend a PR agency and I have had to say sorry, I can’t – except for a few specialist agencies that would not have fitted the bill.  Yet it would only have taken a few calls and a bit more interest for me to have rated these people still, even if they hadn’t delivered. I paid all the invoices on time despite this – because we are ethical and frankly, because I couldn’t be bothered.

We are in an industry that is changing – and dying.  If we want to retain what business there still is, we need to help each other understand what good client relationships look like, how to retain clients – and how to deliver results and invoice what is valuable.

 

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up, which helps people leaving full time work to use their skills in unretirement. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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