Some of my favorite conversations with PR practitioners have started with discussing the “people pleaser” issue. In PR, your life revolves around keeping everyone happy: your clients, your contacts, your colleagues, and even your vendors. Here, Abbe Buck, a 30-year veteran of marketing and PR, explains what “No” means, and when to say it.
So often, between wanting to please everyone, and never wanting to risk the loss of a client or potential client, professionals in PR forget that they have a right, and a responsibility, to say “No.” Abbe recently put her practice on hiatus, and for good reason—sometimes you have to say No to everyone and Yes to yourself.
As anyone in sales will tell you, Yes breeds Yes. Once that client has your head nodding on that one tiny, insignificant (and free) addition, it’s only a matter of time before you’re facing a laundry list of extras. Gratis. Pro bono. Free. And the last time I checked, free work for paying customers won’t keep your lights on.
Abbe’s father used to tell her, “If you work in a matzah ball factory, you do what the Rabbi says.” These words led to her working in the industry for 12 years before learning how to say “No.”
Every time you do free work for a paying client, you’re taking billable time away from other paying clients. You’re paying your needy client for the pleasure of working for them. You have bills to pay. Your staff have bills to pay. And your client needs to pay that bill. So, you need to say No. No. A hundred times, No. But sometimes, that isn’t enough. As Buck related, in at least one incident, saying No just wasn’t enough. She even wrote a great post about it.
The downside to the story is that even after Abbe took the high road, the situation deteriorated. “Poor tactics” were used and eventually a lawyer needed to get involved. And none of us ever want to have a situation go that far.
But saying No to potential clients is often even more important than saying No to current clients. Why? Because when PR pros and agencies fail to turn down “anchor” opportunities, they risk falling behind. We’ve all had the too-good-to-be-true opportunity come knocking. Maybe they can pay full price, maybe they can’t. Maybe they can even afford to pay a little extra. The work looks challenging. The potential acclaim, laurels and exposure could do wonders for the practice. But to take it on, you’ll have to drop anchor, get all hands on deck and ignore everything—and everyone—else. But, in her words of wisdom, Abbe says, “I just kept running into clients that were too [demanding]. I did not want to overpromise and underdeliver. [You] have to understand, Strategic vs. Tactical.”
You can call them anchors, time-sucks, or anything else you want (when no one else is around, of course). They’re the potential client that you know can pay off huge—that is, if everything goes smoothly, ahead of schedule, and at the cost of pretending you have only one client until the job is done. This is a time where you say No. In fact, before they finish pitching you for your services, you should be mentally practicing your forthcoming No. Taking these clients on is akin to emptying the savings account, driving to Vegas, and putting it all on Black. If it pays off, it’s amazing. A big If.
Saying No to a bad bet will remind you, and your staff, that the quality of the work you do—for all of your clients—is paramount. The potential client, with their extraordinary requests, will respect you, perhaps even see reason and change the scope of their needs to fit you. Because working with you is worth it. So, we can all agree with Abbe: “I can’t do the impossible, I’m not a manager, I’m a publicist.”
After all, if you really wanted to work exclusively for a demanding client, for free, you would have stayed an intern, not become a PR superstar.