For 15 years as a magazine editor, I never understood why publicists always said things like “my client.” By definition, a client is a person or organization using the services of another professional person or company. It always struck me as cold. Yes, PR is a business — there’s a monetary transaction, and sometimes those relationships end. But so do friendships, marriages and good books. For my firm, all of our professional relationships tend to weigh heavily on the side of partnerships rather than clients.
Clients are just people you represent. Partners are people you book, pitch, accompany, call, text, Telegram, WhatsApp, DM, invite and more. For our clients that have been on national TV, magazine covers and newspaper, as well as those who have spoken all over the world to global leaders and Fortune 500 companies or entertained presidential cabinet members and billionaires in their offices, we are right next to them on the plane, in the car on the couch. They’ve broken the good and the bad news to me. I’ve traveled with them, broken bread with them and reprimanded them, and they’ve critiqued me. It’s safe to say I see them more than I see 90% of my friends and family. When the crap hit the fan in March, we had tough conversations. Some paused us. Some pushed us harder than ever. And some kept on rolling — no different than family and friends when things go bad.
So I refer to my “clients” as partners. I bleed their colors: blue, yellow, green, orange. My partners are different logos, slogans, Instagram handles and personalities. When I was an assistant to the editor-in-chief of Us Weekly in 2002, I had her Social Security number, address, credit card number and children’s birthdays all memorized — I had to in order to do my job. And now, that same experience is what drives me to know the important pieces of information for my clients.
For other PR pros, here are five ways you can treat your clients more like partners:
Be prepared for crisis communications every day.
Don’t wait for a scandal, bankruptcy or downsizing to be in full defense mode. In fact, 90% of the urgent moments we’ve dealt with have been exciting, good and positive news. But 10% of the time it was a bankruptcy, shutdown or scandal. So it’s important to walk in every day ready for that. Make sure that every word and statement is reviewed with a fine-toothed comb. Catch things before they happen. And that sometimes means Saturday conference calls, Sunday copywriting and Monday morning quarterbacking. But you can never be too ready.
Learn to think like them.
If you’re really going to be successful at pitching your clients, you have to think like them. I’m used to that. I wrote books for people who were very different from me, but I had to do it in their voices. Same for my clients now when I have to think like them. Sometimes I write quotes for them, sign them up to speak at places they have no business speaking at (but they’ll love me for it), or throw them on TV in a moment’s notice. You can’t do that if they’re just your “client.” You won’t know them well enough, and you’ll be out less than 12 months into your contract. You have to learn to speak, think and act like them. What would they do at this moment? They are out making money, fixing the world, being fabulous. It’s your job to secure them the press hit, the panel seat, the TV appearance. You can’t text them 100 times asking for their opinions.
Pick up the call.
Our partners are international, traveling the globe from Australia to Ecuador, and not always available for a 2 p.m. Wednesday PR call. So we have to take their call no matter the hour. Most contracts for PR stress availability for the client “during normal business hours.” If your client calls at 11:30 p.m., are you going to answer it or let it go to voicemail? But what if that “client” is your partner? What if they’ve helped build you, and you’ve helped build them? What if you’re not only there to answer the call, but actually excited for them (not faux client/agency excited)? That’s a partnership.
Incorporate them into your life.
I have pictures of my clients all over my computer desktop. Sure, they are properly organized in a Dropbox and a Google Drive, but to be honest, I pitch them so often and think about them so much that more pictures of my partners are on my desktop than pictures of my own children (of course, my kids’ pictures hang in my house, and my clients’ don’t!). My iPhone is full of client photos. My car is littered with paper rough draft versions of their press releases for my approval.
Know they’re good for it.
I don’t always bill back all receipts to my clients. Sure, if I travel for them and stay at a luxury hotel, you can expect the client is covering the flight and a night for the room. But sometimes there are little things we do for our clients — from name tags at events to drinks at happy hour — that I never bill back to them. Why? They pay us well, and we do the work. When building a company, little specifics about money don’t matter. In the end, I’m looking for something big time, not a plus-minus of $1000 at the end of the year. It is what it is.
When push comes to shove, PR isn’t about the daily hits, what you did yesterday or even tomorrow. It’s a big picture. How do you get along with your partners? How do you go above and beyond? How do you go the extra mile? What are you creating for them that gives a lasting impression? Some people bill extra for it. Some people just don’t do it at all. You’d never leave a family member or friend out to dry; you can’t do it with your “clients” either.
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