Being in public relations means working with people — and no matter how long you have been in the industry, chances are you will stumble across difficult clientele. What makes these encounters so tricky is remembering that challenging clients aren’t necessarily bad clients. In fact, some of them can even inspire you to be a better PR practitioner.

More often than not, a client isn’t being difficult ‘just because’. They are usually frustrated or upset about something that happened or didn’t happen, and they are expressing their emotions instead of thoughts. An example of this would be when a publicist is tasked with creating social media content but the client feels strongly that the picture that the PR pro used is not in line with the brand’s image.

Instead of saying exactly these words, the client jumps between how disappointed they are in the publicist’s service and how they don’t like the social post. The client comes across as difficult, but in reality, they might be struggling to express the core of the issue at hand.

When confronted with difficult clients, professionals need to be able to problem-solve, challenge their own thinking and find solutions. This leads to the improvement of your skills and the expansion of knowledge because you are pushed beyond your current limits. But, to achieve that, you first need to actually deal with your client. The only way out is through, right?

To help you tactfully manage these situations, media update’s Maryna Steyn brings you the top seven tips to help you navigate this minefield.

1. Keep calm and don't be defensive

The PR pro doth protest too much ... or so the saying goes. Jumping to your own defence as soon as you face a challenging client gives the impression that you are unwilling to help, hiding something or acting superior. These three things are definitely not what you want to portray!

If, for example, a client starts making offensive comments that are directed at you personally, it is easy to lose composure. Let’s say that a client approaches a PR officer with a brand image crisis. As the PR is trying to find out exactly what is going on, the client begins to panic and lashes out at the PR, questioning their ability to handle the situation and deeply offending them.

If you are the PR officer in this scenario, remaining calm is vital. It will help you to stay level-headed and enable you to answer your client in a respectful and professional manner, as well as to stay focused on their respective complaint or need.

Maintain a positive attitude, strive to be objective and count to 10 before you answer if need be. Don’t take what the client is saying personally but rather work with the client to resolve the issue at hand in the most civil way possible. Remember, you are a PR pro — be professional.

2. Listen actively

If you are actively listening to your client, it means that you are really paying attention to what they are saying. There is a difference between hearing and listening.

With an angry or upset client, it can be difficult to immediately identify their initial concern. This is because they are expressing their disappointment or frustration incoherently and possibly jumping around from fact to fact, due to their emotional state. That is why you need to show the client that you are engaged and focused on what they are aiming to communicate.

Practice active listening by nodding your head to show that you are understanding. This only works if you speak face-to-face. Do not interrupt them, but ask probing questions when you need to clarify a point. If you are speaking in person, take note of any non-verbal cues that you might be receiving.

For example, a client is proving to be difficult by being meticulous in their instruction about what they want out of a public relation strategy. The client is upset because they believe the PR coordinator is not doing what they want. From their words, it sounds like they know exactly what they want and expects the coordinator to immediately comply.

However, if the PR pro is actively listening and is taking note of the many hand gestures and facial expressions the client is using, they will realise that the client is actually unsure if they are verbalising themselves correctly. Paying attention to this will help the practitioner to navigate the rest of the conversation and come to a mutual understanding.

3. Identify the problem and solve it

Identifying the issue and finding a solution will be your main aim throughout the process of dealing with a client. It may be the case that their problem cannot be addressed immediately or solved within a day, but you need to show the client that they are your number one priority.

Start by using the information that the client has said. Repeat it back to them to confirm that you are on the same page. Ask questions for clarification if you need more information about the situation.

Once you have a good grasp of what the issue is, devise a way to solve it. Offer the solution to the client and explain what it will entail. Where possible, involve your client in making the decisions. This is important because you want to assure them that you are addressing the situation.

Let’s use the example of a public relations director. A furious client raises the issue of a recent press release that contained an erroneous fact. It is the PR pro’s responsibility to then identify where the crisis started and what caused it, and subsequently communicating this back to the client to keep them involved in the process. This means pinpointing who wrote the press release, if they used the correct info or if the issue was caused by the client’s company. More than this, the PR director will also need to offer a solution in order to save the client’s reputation.

In the process as a whole, take note of how similar issues can be avoided in the future.

4: Be sincere

Walt Whitman wrote, “All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candour”. Apologise for the issue to help de-escalate the situation. Offering an apology communicates that you empathise with their situation. When the client sees this, they feel heard and acknowledge that you want to help them.

Be mindful in your responses. Choose your words carefully to convey that you are sincere and respectful. Your tone and attitude play a vital part in this, so pay attention to what they communicate. If you are thinking that you are not really sorry while apologising to the client, your tone might come across as sarcastic. You definitely want to avoid that!

Sticking with the previous example, the PR director needs to inform the client about how the erroneous fact came to be in the press release and how they intend to address the issue. The client is still upset and frustrated because the director could not immediately explain why the error occurred. But if the director apologises to the client about the mishap, the client more likely feels that they have been heard by the PR and is more willing to cooperate.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Constant communication is key and it relates to every aspect of dealing with your clients. This ranges from alerting them about what you're posting on their social media platforms to the press releases you've compiled about their new product launch.

Remember to keep them in the loop while solving any problems they may encounter. If you ensure that your client stays informed, you are indicating that they are your priority. Using the previous example, informing a client about the progress of fixing the mistake shows that the PR company is dedicated to correcting the error. It also makes the client feel more at ease knowing there is improvement regarding the situation.

If an issue was initially caused by a communication break-down, it is important to improve on your overall communication. Use this as a learning curve!

6. Set boundaries and expectations

When dealing with difficult clients, you may find yourself in a position where they are, in their frustration, telling you how to do your job and what they think is best.

In a previous media update article, we summarised some points on how to ‘push back nicely’. Here they are:
  • Meet face-to-face. In this way, it is easier to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
  • Evaluate the objectives your client has set: This can potentially mean that you also need to explain to them why it cannot be reached.
  • Support your explanation with concrete data: Using researched facts and figures shows that you are prepared and that your explanation is credible.
  • When you offer your solution, explain why it will be the better choice to resolve the issue.
  • In the instance that your client still prefers their suggestion, devise a compromise to reach both your objectives.

7. Use your expertise

An important thing to remember is that you are an experienced professional within your field. And so, you need to show your client that you know what you are doing.

You may find it useful to explain the process that you use. However, it is not your job to teach your client about PR. Explaining your research and how you came up with a certain strategy would be something of interest and would benefit them, but lecturing on about the history of PR might put them to sleep altogether.

Consider their input and why they feel a certain way about the strategies that you present, but trust your own skills and expertise too. Find a balance between using your client’s suggestions as they know their own brand, as well as applying your own knowledge.

For example, a difficult client might have their own opinion of how a publicist should portray the company. They might not understand that your years of experience has taught you much more than how to create media kits and how to set up publicity events.

Although you cannot spend hours and hours giving them training on what you actually do, a publicist can take the time to explain why they chose to create a particular piece of social content or what their reasoning was behind planning a particular event.

Don’t tell your clients how you are going to solve their problem and how well you are going to do it — show them why they are getting their money’s worth.

What are your top tips for handling challenging clients? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Want to know more about interacting with journalists? Then be sure to read about these Three ways PR pros can treat journalists with courtesy.
*Image courtesy of Canva