This month marks the eighth anniversary of my firm, Bridge Global Strategies. Anniversaries are a good time to reflect on what’s gone well, what hasn’t, and why. We’ve had some tremendous successes for clients, but also a few instances where we haven’t achieved what we had hoped. Failure to meet expectations, whether our own or a client’s, always keeps me awake at night.
As an anniversary exercise, I surveyed industry colleagues about failure to meet PR goals and expectations. I emailed the survey to people I know and posted it in several LinkedIn groups on public relations and corporate communications. There were 53 responses. While the methodology and number of responses may not provide statistical validity, I think you’ll find the responses informative and thought-provoking. The survey obviously resonated with many of the respondents, as there were a surprising number of open-ended comments in addition to responses to the multiple choice questions. I sense a lot of frustration by PR professionals (whether in-house staff, or PR agency practitioners) in working with their clients.
All survey respondents work in PR, either in an agency, a corporation, a non-profit or governmental organization or as a freelancer. Most respondents were very experienced:
- Over 94 percent had 10 or more years of experience
- More than 67 percent had more than 20 years of experience.
Have you ever failed?
Asked, “After working very hard and making a huge effort, have you ever failed to meet your company’s or client’s PR goals and expectations?”
- 85 percent admitted to having failed at one time or another.
- 100 percent of those with 20 years or more of experience said they had failed at some point.
What are the biggest factors contributing to failure?
Respondents were asked to select the top three reasons for failure to meet PR goals.
- #1 (56 percent): “The budget was too small (the client wasn’t paying us for enough hours to accomplish the goals).”
- #2 (54 percent): “My client (or company) saw itself (or its product) as really unique, but it turned out that it was not very well differentiated from competitors.”
- #3 (15 percent): “My client contacts (or internal executives if you work for a company) were not available enough to us and/or didn’t cooperate.”
The role of goal-setting
“Was the failure tied in any way to not setting any PR goals (or setting unrealistic goals) at the start?”
- Yes: 57 percent
- No: 43 percent
There were several comments about this question: one person said the biggest problem was clients’ unrealistic expectations; another said clients often define success differently than the PR team.
Could you have avoided failing?
When asked if they could they avoid failing in a particular instance, if they were able to go back and start over, 47 percent answered yes, 33 percent said no and 21 percent didn’t know.
Lessons learned from failure
When asked to comment on how failure could be prevented, or why it couldn’t, more than half of the survey respondents had comments about lessons learned, and ideas about how to prevent future failure. Here are just a few of the comments:
- It’s crucial to set clear goals with measurable criteria, and agree on them at the start, to help manage expectations. We need to fight harder and not agree to unattainable goals
- PR professionals need to educate clients about the PR process and help them understand the media landscape and be aware of factors that could prevent achievement of goals.
- Sometimes failure is due to the mediocrity of a client’s product. It’s especially difficult when a client misrepresents the quality and doesn’t inform the PR team about problems. The PR team needs to conduct advance viability research to find out if the company has a realistic impression of itself and its products, and of the levels of interest of its audiences.
- We need to insist on a big enough budget so that adequate time and effort can be spent.
- There is considerable frustration by PR professionals in dealing with clients. Most of the comments made by respondents revolved around unrealistic expectations by the clients, and inability of the PR team to manage those expectations.
- The majority of respondents felt that failure was usually tied to not setting any PR goals or creating unrealistic goals in the beginning. It’s easy to declare the results a failure if measurable objectives and goals weren’t established from the beginning.
- However, it’s often difficult to get agreement on the desired outcomes. Clients with the most unrealistic expectations also tend to have the smallest budgets. Agencies need to fight harder to resist going along with unrealistic expectations, and to make sure that budgets are commensurate with goals and expectations. If the budget is insufficient, the agency shouldn’t accept the assignment.
- While survey respondents seem to blame most failure on clients, almost half felt that if they could start over, they could prevent the failure. Comments pointed once again to agreeing on goals from the start and managing client expectations.
- Sometimes the only way failure can be prevented is by not accepting an assignment when you sense that a client doesn’t understand the overall PR process in spite of efforts to educate them. As one respondent commented, “Sometimes as PR people we are optimistic that we can be successful even [in] a no-win situation.”
My next blog post will include more of the many comments made by survey respondents.