Learned the Hard Way: 3 Lessons That Made Me a Better Client Partner
I got a lot of great feedback and questions on my previous post, 4 Tips for Transitioning from an In-House or Agency Role to a PR Consultant. So first, thank you! I’m so glad many of you found it useful. Second, the most common question that I received in response to my post was, “What have been your biggest lessons in PR consulting outside of the operational ones?”
I thought it would be a lot harder to pick some of the defining moments that have served me well as I’ve grown into my career as a PR consultant, but there were 3 that quickly came to mind. Sadly for me, all of these have been learned the hard way, but I hope they serve as food for thought for those of you that are thinking about starting your own consulting career or a reminder to those of you who have already been practicing.
Trust Your Gut: I failed at this spectacularly in multiple ways with one of my very first consulting clients. The company and CEO turned out not to be the right fit for me and I should have listened to my instincts and bowed out sooner, but I also let constant questions and push back around my strategy and recommendations make me doubt my own decades-long experience. Because I was so nervous about branching out on my own and maintaining a full client roster, I didn’t push back on the CEO in ways that I had done when I was in-house or that I do now.
Not only did I fail myself professionally in that situation, but I also let down my client. I let their doubt shape my counsel rather than stand firmly behind my recommendations.
At that point in time, my friend (collaborator & mentor) Sarahjane Sacchetti shook me by the shoulders and sagely reminded me to never forget you were hired because you are one of the best at what you do. Since then, that advice has served as my motto. The clients that I work with now engage me because I am candid and direct and they know I have their best interests at heart. Of course you will still get push back — and strong dialogue and back and forth is important! — but if things are going in a direction that you don’t feel comfortable with, it might be time to have a conversation about wrapping up and moving on. You should never be strong-armed into executing a strategy that you don’t believe in or think will be successful, and if a client thinks otherwise, they also have the right to find a partner better suited to help them execute that vision.
Never (Ever) Promise Coverage: Most clients are hiring you specifically for media coverage — never, ever promise it. This is something that has held true at the very start of my consulting career to 5 years on and is unlikely to ever change. From breaking news or a whiffed interview to shifting product availability or a GTM product that does not actually fulfill the product vision that you were pitched on (yes, this one actually happens a lot), there are so many factors that can go into whether or not coverage happens that are so beyond your control. Instead, focus on things you know you can deliver like sit-down meetings with reporters or smart content pieces — and, as my friend Sarahjane noted from her own experiences as a consultant, always be clear with your client on what the dependencies for success are. You don’t want to be in the position where you’re on the hook for something that could be impossible to deliver.
Having these types of conversations early and often can also be an education opportunity for your client to better understand how the media work. In fact, I explain my approach to my clients up front so they know that while I can get them to the finish line, it’s often up to them to cross it.
Know Your Worth: I had the same bullet in my earlier post, but I wanted to cover it here in a different capacity. If you’re like me, most of the clients that I work with are early stage and getting ready to launch and make their debut into the world. The work that you’re doing for them — messaging, strategy, content, relationships & very often, much more — if done well, should have a massive impact far beyond that launch. Smart founders get that and invest in their PR and marketing efforts accordingly. While some negotiation is fine and often expected (and there are also ways to be compensated outside of just monetary!), don’t be afraid to walk away from a potential client that does not want to pay for the short and long-term value that you will create for them. They either don’t get it, or at the very worst, don’t value it.
While these lessons have served me well in my own professional development, I’ve found that all of them have made me an even stronger partner to my clients. I now have a better lens for the types of companies and founders that will be best suited to my skills and approach, and I also better appreciate that in addition to my PR capabilities, my clients are hiring me for my experienced counsel — they don’t want a “yes” woman (and rest assured, they won’t be getting one ;)
What has been an invaluable lesson that you’ve learned in your PR career?