Monday, September 21, 2009

Lessons Learned

A college professor sent an e-mail asking me to respond to a story reflecting a recent situation involving her public relations class and a client with whom the class was working pro bono. She shared her frustration and that of her class with this account of what happened:

I met with the client, the local public library director and PR person, this summer. They told me they wanted an event in November, fundraising because the system has lost so much government funding this year. Books and other materials are funded by the library's Foundation. The team did the research and came up with a chili cookoff downtown in November. They went to the foundation's board meeting, and the board said they didn't think there was enough time and they'd rather have it at the middle school anyway. They now want the event in March.

OK, fine. The problem is that the students are all graduating and won't be here to do the event. Instead of getting hands-on event planning experience, they're now looking at writing a plan and handing it over to the board in hopes that they'll implement it well. They are SO disappointed. They feel cheated because they did what they were asked and never had any idea that the board might totally change the plan in this way. I met with them yesterday and tried to explain that this is what happens with clients -- for example, they send out RFP asking for A,B,C, and then choose the agency who pitched D. Sometimes they don't know what they want until you give them something to look at.

Also, you should know that the board gave them a budget of $6,000 even though they only asked for $4,500 -- so clearly the client was NOT disappointed with their work. But the students are angry and disappointed and some said they don't even want to help the library anymore -- one asked if they could change clients! (Obviously I said no.) I tried to rally them by saying that they've been tested and have to rise to the challenge, but I don't know if it worked.

I don't want to embarrass the library or even necessarily have it directed at me/my team/university. I was just hoping you could write something that might help them understand their duty to the client (which is a little less obvious because they aren't being paid) and maybe even a little on the client's perspective.

I'm happy to respond and will do so based on the information provided in the story. First of all, I believe the lessons here are far more valuable and pervasive than what might have been gained from ordering plastic forks and napkins for a Chili Cook-off. As a professor you should be grateful and as students you learned more than you realize. Consider this:

  1. Based on what's stated here, you offered the board a single idea (risky) - the chili cook-off. Don't assume that because they said they liked it, that they really liked it. You never know.
  2. The argument that there wasn't enough time to pull it off could have been rectified by offering a detailed time-line, dating backwards from the event date demonstrating that it was well within reason to hold the event in November. My guess is that because you didn't provide it, you created an opening for your client to delay it, and if you did offer a time-line, then they were either not being straight with you (see above) or they thought your time-line was unrealistic.
  3. The suggested change of venue to the middle school is suspect on a number of levels.
  4. You stated: You should know that the board gave them a budget of $6,000 even though they only asked for $4,500 -- so clearly the client was NOT disappointed with their work. I'll admit to not following the logic here. Price and the quality of the work are entirely separate issues.
  5. Not sure why you'd come in with a budget of $4,500 when given a budget of $6,000. In the case of an event, that doesn't make sense. You should have come up with some creative ways to use that $1,500 to create something more special that would have drawn bigger crowds/raised more money and, more importantly, inspired the board to scream YES, YES to your idea. (And if I misinterpreted this and you're saying you asked for $4,500 to pull off the event, and then the board gave you $6,000, I ask what kind of board would do something like that when it's trying to raise money for books in the absence of a killer idea that would justify the additional budget?)
  6. Not to be harsh or to minimize the contribution you were making here, but the responsibility of the board is to serve the library not your class.
  7. Clients can, will, and have every right to change their minds about what they want to do at any time and for any reason. Such an occurrence will happen countless times during the course of one's PR career. Get use to it.
  8. Another important dynamic to consider is you initially spoke to the library director and PR person, yet you presented and needed approval from the board. Hard to know who the real culprit is here. Be careful of this dynamic in working with future clients!
  9. Rework the plan and add a line item for how to spend that $1,500 in an innovative way. It will be a great way to get your class to take the plan to the next level.
  10. Thank your lucky stars you don't actually have to manage the event. If you have these kinds of problems now, there's a 95% chance that they just get worse. Happily hand them the plan!

Tell your students from me: Welcome to the wonderful world of public relations!

Thank you for sharing your story!

*Image from


  1. Great piece! Thanks for writing it. I teach public relations and we, too, handle real clients in our classes. Students need to learn the art of client relations. While in school, they are so used to courses revolving around their needs and their work. They must learn that in public relations, everything revolves around the client and its needs. Clients don't always tell you if they think your proposal stinks. They can just ignore it if they don't like it. We spend time in my classes talking about client relations and managing client expectations. Students must learn that public relations is never about THEM, it's about meeting the client's needs.

  2. One of our clients is a school that offers Graphic Design, including a course that pairs the students with non-profit agencies for two quarters so the students can help with the agencies' promotional needs. While the partnerships usually work very well, I am pretty sure some of the students have learned similar lessons about working with difficult clients!

  3. Clients aren't always right, they're just clients. I think we have to teach students to keep their eyes wide open and to grasp the concept of enlightened self-interest. Thanks to you both for your comments!

    Recent blog:=- Lessons Learned



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