One of the first clients I ever won at an agency in public relations, was a large resort hotel adjacent to a major theme park. At the first meeting after we were assigned the business, the client took me on a tour of the property pointing out the various amenities, which were nice, but scarcely novel much less newsworthy.

Nevertheless, the client outlined her expectations for the publicity program we were about to launch and, to put it mildly, they were wildly unreasonable. I said nothing.

Being relatively new to the role of account manager, I should have met with more experienced professionals at my agency to pick their brains about the best way to attract media attention to the resort. That unfortunately didn’t occur to me so I attempted to publicize the nice but not newsworthy amenities, basically following the client’s orders rather than seeking better ways to execute our program.

After a few months the futility was beginning to show. For example, the property had a well-stocked wine cellar where adult guests could unwind after a day at the park with their kids. We produced a press release and photography and distributed them to travel editors who, almost unanimously, shrugged. One told me that most all resorts had similar accommodations; mine was not unique, thanks but no thanks.

I tried similarly fruitless tactics to the growing frustration of the client. With each meeting we had she would politely but pointedly tell me she was looking for far more than we were delivering. In the end, after a year on this merry-go-round, our contract was terminated much to my embarrassment.

I’ve talked to other seasoned PR pros since then and a lot of them have experienced similar failures, usually early in their account management careers. Our common mistake was, we all failed to match client expectations against the client story we had to tell and adjust expectations and tactics accordingly.

When you’re confronted with the unreasonable, here are some suggestions:

  • Be candid. You’re a PR counselor so counsel the client on what is realistic and what isn’t. It’s better to lower those expectations early on and then work to exceed what you’ve explained is possible.
  • Consult with your experienced agency colleagues, especially those who have background in the category. Study their past programs and find out what made them successful. In my case, I was surrounded by really smart, creative folks who could have helped me but I didn’t seek them out until it was too late.
  • Don’t be afraid to scrap some or all of the program you presented to win the business. After following tip one and two, I should have dumped our plan for the resort entirely and, with the available budget, immediately organized a themed “fam trip” for major travel editors from across the U.S. That would have yielded the kind of results the client was looking for and, quite possibly, we would have been rewarded with a bigger budget.
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