In public relations, balancing competing interests is all in a day’s work. On very good days, it’s not so hard – a reporter wants an interesting story, your client has intriguing news. The reporter and your client may not have the same ideas about which details are most important, but it’s generally pretty easy to work out.
But truth be told, most days are not very good days. More often than not, you’re juggling the needs of your agency (including those of your boss, your team and you), the needs of your client (including the various points of contact within the client company), and the needs of outside contacts like potential partners, reporters or vendors. Guess what? These needs generally don’t match up.
Recently, I received an angry message from a potential partner. She was upset because we had contacted her about her organization taking part in a special event we were planning for a client. They would send several members to the event, and we would thank them for the work they do in front of a group of photographers. It was to be your basic celebrity photo opp. I explained that the event was in the planning stages, but that we would love to know if they were interested in participating. We would share details about the event when they were finalized. She would let me know what her members thought.
Over several weeks, the event morphed from a PR-driven photo opp into a consumer marketing event with radio promotions and giveaways. A few days before the event, we realized that there would be no purpose in having the partner organization participate since we would not be able to recognize them as planned. No photographers would attend a meet-and-greet radio promo. We didn’t want to waste the partner’s time and we wouldn’t have the necessary staff at the event to ensure the organization’s members would have a good experience.
Here’s where I screwed up. Caught up in the planning for a weekend worth of campaign launch activities, I forgot to contact the potential partner to let her know the change of plans. When I received the call from my contact at the partner organization a couple of days before the event, I explained and apologized. She told me that her members had taken time off from work to participate in the event. Man, did I feel like crap. I told her we would get several gift cards in the mail to her as a thank you for her time and the inconvenience we caused her members. After all, we had planned to give the members gift cards at the event as part of the photo opp. My supervisor had told me that sending a few gift cards for their trouble would be no problem at all. The promise seemed put my contact at ease.
Fast forward two weeks. Despite multiple requests of the gift card-keepers on my team, the gift cards still have not been sent. I realize this because I receive that angry e-mail full of ALL CAPS fighting words about how disrespectful my client and I are. I check with my team, who now informs me that we actually can’t spare the gift cards. We have a big, much-needed potential media opp, which will require all our remaining gift cards (I requested 10, we started with 1,500). Which leaves me with the task of soothing an angry potential partner, empty-handed.
It got me thinking – we face these situations all the time. Changed plans that end up letting someone down. Broken promises that break someone’s trust in your organization. A focus on campaign goals at the expense of individual relationships. Could I have handled this situation better? Without a doubt. I should have been in constant contact with the potential partner to let her know what was going on. Like I said, I screwed up, and I’m willing to take the blame for letting the communication break down.
But I feel there’s a larger breakdown in these situations – a basic lack of understanding that the little things we do as PR practitioners can have a great influence on individuals’ perceptions of our clients. Are we so focused on meeting impression goals that we are unwilling to keep promises to regular people and unwilling to speak with a client to explain why we need to make good on those promises? Call me naive, but I think enlightened clients would appreciate our willingness to stick up for their reputations, even with just a few people. And unenlightened clients benefit from our tenacity even when they don’t understand it. If we can’t make good on a little promise, all the press in the world doesn’t mean a thing.
I’m looking forward to working in an environment where candor coupled with tact is appreciated – by the client and my team. With a little luck, that starts really soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what sort of similar situations you’ve faced and how you’ve handled them. What did you do to make everyone happy? Or did you end up disappointing someone in the end?
Photo: Seven Clubs by timailius