A beloved alumnus of our shop, Danny Sullivan, once wrote on the subject of managing client expectations:
“Every story has a natural news value and, while it’s important for PR people to understand what this value is, it’s even more important that the client understands it too. Without mutual agreement about what level of media traction can be expected, you’re flying blind and all too likely to crash.”
And our namesake tells this story:
“One of the first of what I like to call ‘Francis’s favourite fictions,’ or ‘Everything I know that’s wrong about PR I learned from technology company executives,’ was a line from the CEO of one of the very first tech companies I pitched when I originally ventured out on my own in the early 1990s.
“‘I want to be on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen tomorrow morning,’ he said.
‘I was a lot younger, thinner and more intemperate in those days, so I replied, ‘Okay. Go home and shoot your wife tonight.’”
Will they vs. how will they
It is imperative to impress upon a client how much traction their story is likely to attract from the ranks of harried writers and editors who loathe to see yet another pitch land in their inboxes. This is not the time or place for enthusiastic optimism. If you have 20 media targets to pitch the story at and are reasonably confident half of them will bite, it may still be naively optimistic to commit to that with your client. Prudence is the better part of valour.
No matter how certain you are, either from past experiences with other clients or even past engagements with the same writers and editors, there will always be variables beyond your control that can leaved you crashed and burned. You can control the message of the pitch, but you can’t control what’s happening in the world today, tomorrow or next week that will impact a publication’s news cycle and how it chooses to deploy its resources.
But just as important as managing a client’s expectations for media coverage is managing their expectations around how the media will pursue that coverage.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. If you are not paying to see your name in the press, you seldom have any control over how it appears in the press.
Case in point.
I recently engaged with a client organization with a team that was not media savvy. It was a modest engagement, focusing on a product launch to local media. I thought I had managed their expectations for coverage well, but that wasn’t where the relationship soured.
My primary contacts with the client, two individuals in a marketing and business development role, had left me to close the loop on an opportunity with a local newspaper while they had to travel out of country. No problem. Glad to be of service. It was what they were paying me for, after all.
But as it turned out, the editor needed a number of things from me – photos, details about product release dates and retail availability. I provided what was requested and attempted to keep my client contacts in the loop, though they were often offline.
Then I got a somewhat grumpy email from them a few days later. Turns out the editor had decided to quote me as a source in the published article, by lifting comments from one of my emails. At no time had the editor suggested her intention to do so and at no time had I said I was a spokesperson for the client to be quoted.
Nonetheless, there it was.
It was harmless enough. Everything was factually correct and above board. But my client contacts were less than happy that I had stolen their thunder. If anyone’s name should have appeared in that article, it was theirs not mine.
This was of course true. I’m not in this for my own glory. But the editor made a call that was beyond the control of any of us. It happens. There was nothing to be done about it. If a factual error had been made, a request for a correction could have been submitted, but that is all.
Media savvy individuals would have understood that. But these folks appeared to take it personally.
The pros and cons of earned vs. paid coverage
I’ve also experienced situations where I have successfully pitched a client, such a lawyer, as an expert source on a timely story, only to see the media outlet not include the name of the lawyer’s firm. Or I have secured a favourable product review on a website, only to have the reviewer not name the company or provide the link to the website that I had provided. In these kinds of situations, the medium will determine whether or not such omissions can be addressed with a polite email. If it’s an online story, it shouldn’t be a problem, but if it was a broadcast segment, you’re stuck with it.
The media plays by its own rules. You have to understand those rules and ensure a client understands them, too. What’s important to remember is this: The fact that a source has so little control over the final cut of the story or the interview or the broadcast segment is why such coverage tends to have so much more credibility with an audience than paid advertising does.