What I Learned From Working For An Unethical PR Firm

PR is inherently an unpredictable business.

At different stages of my life, wonderfully gifted and generous mentors have taken me under their wing. I owe them so much, and I strive to pay forward the opportunities they have afforded me. Interestingly, I’m almost as grateful for the worst professional experience I’ve ever had. The lessons I learned from it continue to guide the client and journalist relationships of my firm to this day.

Years ago, after working as a journalist and dabbling in PR for a startup, I took an opportunity to work with a friendly and experienced publicist—we’ll call her Janet—who had recently moved to my city. Things went awry extremely quickly. I got out as soon as I could, after about four months. That was enough time to obtain a perfect blueprint of how to run a PR firm: do the opposite of everything Janet did.

Make expectations clear

PR is inherently an unpredictable business. Since we rely on journalists to partner with us to tell our client’s stories, it’s impossible to know exactly what the outcomes will be in advance. Janet failed to manage this uncertainty. Her clients were routinely outraged—some to the point of lawsuits—because she would promise the world, and, in many cases, deliver little if anything of value.

In every client relationship my firm has, we make sure that all parties are clear about what we hope to achieve, what we can realistically expect, and what would qualify as a win. This extends not just to the coverage we aim to generate, but also to its effect on the client’s business. When having these discussions, I think of Janet and under promise and over deliver. If we can’t come to an agreement with a prospective client about what’s possible and probable, we won’t enter into a contract. The last thing we want is a disappointed client.

Share ownership of the results

Though she created the conditions for her disastrous client relationships, Janet always blamed the client, both to their face, and to anyone else who would listen.

The most important aspect of my firm’s client relationships is the idea that we’re in this together. We outline the road that lies before us, and what is required of each of our organizations, so that there’s transparency and ownership on both sides of the equation. When a campaign is finished, we share the credit for what we accomplished, and have a clear understanding of what it will take to reach our next objectives.

Be available

When I worked with Janet, the clients were constantly calling me trying to reach her. She routinely lied about being sick or traveling. Despite the fact that they were being scammed, the clients came to like me because I picked up the phone. Some of them actually became my clients when I started my own firm.

These days, I ensure that my team and I aren’t just easy to reach—we’re emotionally available as well. We listen to our clients. We get excited about their victories and empathize with their concerns.

Partner with journalists, don’t manipulate them

Janet claimed to have quite a few “friends” in the press. She gave her clients the impression that these “friends” would cover anything she asked them to cover. In fact, she did hang out with a number of reporters. She would flatter them endlessly and then turn around and beg them to cover her clients.

As a former journalist, some of my friends are members of the press. However, I only pitch my clients to them when the story is a perfect fit for what they cover. I don’t need to muddy our friendship by asking them to compromise their ethics because my team and I have plenty of healthy professional relationships with reporters. They need story ideas and sources for the topics they cover, and we bring them ideas that excite them. They don’t need sweet-talk or subterfuge—they need help doing their job. When we don’t already have relationships with the perfect journalists for a given story, we find them and propose the story in a way that values what they do. This is how we forge new relationships with the media.

Earn respect and give it

There are so many things I learned from watching Janet, but at the core of it all is the simple concept of respect. As she abused her assistant and her employees, burned bridges with clients, and further complicated reporters’ already difficult jobs, I realized that not only did she not respect her clients and media contacts—she didn’t particularly care if they respected her.

After I recovered from my ordeal with Janet, I became determined to build a different kind of PR firm by being genuine and communicating clearly in every situation. I could see that by earning the respect of the clients, my team members, and media contacts, I could create a business that would provide great value for the clients, assist journalists with their job, and bring meaningful stories into the public consciousness. I have Janet to thank for providing the inspiration for this standard I hold myself to every day.