5 PR clients to avoid: How to spot a bad client before you sign

You just fired a client who cost you tens of thousands and ruined your sleep for six months. What can you do to make sure this never happens again?

This article was originally published on PR Daily in April 2016.

Just because a client has money doesn’t mean you should take it. In my years in digital marketing and public relations, I’ve learned the hard way that not all money is good money. I’ve learned from my few mistakes. I spot the warning signs before drawing up a contract, because there are always warning signs.

Some of you know who I’m talking about: The clients that want it all, or don’t know what they want, or don’t want what they said they wanted when they get it, or talk a good game but never deliver. I’ve outlined five types to keep off your client roster—for the sake of your team, your relationships with media, and your sanity. If you spot these guys, run. Maybe if they’re rejected by enough agencies they’ll wake up. Or not:

1) The Do-It-All Ego Maniac

Just say no to the “good leads” who tell you before signing that they could do your job better than you, but they’re too busy and their time is too valuable. You don’t want a client telling you how to do your job, or one that will criticize and talk down to you. These clients want their fingers in all of the pie, eat two pieces, and then tell you what’s wrong with the pie. Your chances of making this client happy are minuscule, and the work you’ll put in will cost much more than what they pay.

2) The Busy Bee Absentee

Just say no to a frenetic potential client—”We launch our product next month and we need coverage yesterday!”—who disappears when you have a question about goals, or when you want to set a proposal meeting. They’re always too hard to reach. Only take on clients who return calls, respond to emails, and provide timely information. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t fall for the smooth talk or promise of easy money from charmers who right from the start don’t deliver. They won’t show up for appointments; nothing will get done and your stress will go higher than your retainer.

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3) The Stage-Struck Exec

Just say no to prospects who want you to make them “sound smart” on social media in ghostwritten articles, and only want coverage in “tier-one” outlets. If they don’t have anything interesting to say, anything that might warrant being quoted by the Wall Street Journal or AdWeek, don’t take them on. They’re more concerned about fame than good PR. These clients won’t care that an industry outlet carries more weight than WSJ with their target audiences and reaches more of them. Or that to be a contributor to “tier-one” outlets, you must write for tier-three and tier-two outlets first, to prove yourself. Small media are beneath them; their expectations will never be met, and they’re in it for the wrong reasons. We’ve worked with these guys. It’s not fun!

4) The Sales Chaser

Just say no if an executive tells you he or she is hiring you to manage PR to drive sales leads. They want a PR firm that acts as their company’s public retailer. Before you tell them thanks but no thanks, let them know that PR actually means public relations and it’s meant to build trust first and maintain sales, not drive sales. Lead generation, sometimes. Sales, no. And if it does, it’s icing on the cake.

5) The Non-Decision Making Decision Maker

Just say no if would-be clients don’t answer straightforwardly questions about their businesses, what makes them newsworthy, or what makes them thought leaders. NDMDMs like to hear themselves talk, but they don’t like you weighing whether their words are worthwhile and worthwhile to whom. They make excuses for their indecision. When their job is to be a decision maker, you’re screwed. You won’t be able to embody their vision of their product because they can’t commit to a vision long enough for it to become a hashtag, much less a brand. You’ll be forced to change positioning and find new outlets far too often to make it worth the retainer.

Do your firm a favor. Say no to the clients who will never let you help them or make the most of your team’s talents. Teach your team these warning signs and encourage your staff to refer trouble elsewhere. Your job is hard enough without them.

Nicole Rodrigues is the founder and CEO of NRPR Group, the premier public relations and strategic positioning agency in Beverly Hills, CA. She’s a publicist and social media marketing pro with 15 years’ experience. She’s developed campaigns for Yahoo!, Dolby, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Hulu, Demand Media, MobiTV, and the Oakland Raiders.

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