How Bad Pitches Trigger the Rule of Resentment

by Jeff Vance on March 19, 2014

in PR/Marketing

I’m currently conducting a survey about pitching practices. In my State of the Pitch survey, I pose a couple of open-ended questions, asking people to draw my attention to important things I didn’t think to ask about.

One question, “If you could teach journalists one thing about the realities of PR, what would it be?” has elicited some interesting responses, and a theme has emerged: clients can be a serious impediment to media relations.

Many times the PR person doesn’t really think what they are pitching is significant, they just haven’t been able to convince the client to elevate beyond the promotional level.

That we are NOT spin doctors, we are translators. We spend a lot of time with our nerd, communication-challenged clients to translate what is interesting and important about their technology and translate that into information that is of interest to a wide market, and not just information that is interesting to their target customers.

Sometimes our job requires us to carry “PR water” for our clients and we’re stuck pitching an angle that even we don’t like.

These answers aren’t surprising. I’ve talked with PR pros many times about clients who torpedo stories, or request them to pitch around promotional material as if it were a story. But the scale of the problem seems to be larger than I ever realized. Nearly 40% of the people who have taken the survey thus far have mentioned something similar to those quotes above.

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How Bad Pitches Trigger the Rule of Resentment #PR #mediarelations

PR: Should you carry water for crappy clients? Why that’s a bad idea. #PR

PR pros: Here’s a simple trick for dealing with problem clients. #PR #mediarelations

While you deal with this frustrating commonality, though, there’s one important fact to keep in mind: this is your problem, not mine.

I’m probably more sympathetic to this issue than most journalists because I’ve been there myself. We journalists who must make a good chunk of our living through copywriting deal with the same client headaches that you do. If you groan over having a press release picked apart and turned into some sort of stale, vendor-spin-heavy gruel, imagine having that sort of malpractice happen to a 12-page white paper.

Simple Trick for Dealing with Problem Clients

angerI have a simple trick for dealing with these clients. You probably won’t like it, and it’s a bit scary until you start doing it.

The trick? Simple: fire those clients. This one trick will boost your business. I’m not kidding. I rarely experience these headaches anymore because I weed out problem clients after a project or two. From my perspective, there are enough clients out there who are pleasant to work with – and smart about content, or if not smart, at least willing to learn – that I don’t have time for the malcontents.

Of course, there are exceptions. Maybe your agency focuses on a very small niche, or you work as internal PR for a semiconductor company with few target customer or something like that, but those are the exceptions.

I’m a believer in the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. According to the rule, 80 percent of my headaches come from 20 percent of my clients. Conversely, 80 percent of my income comes from 20 percent of my clients.

If a client is in the group generating 80 percent of my headaches, but is not also in the group generating the bulk of my income, the decision is easy. They have to go. If those two 80s overlap, it’s trickier. In that instance, my big trick is to outsource as much of the process as I can to another writer who can ghostwrite for me and deal with problem clients. But, typically, I’ve found that those two groups don’t overlap very often.

Think about the drag problem clients create. Think about the dread you feel each morning before going to work, knowing this client will be taking up your day. Think about the energy they consume. Think about the attention they take away from other clients. Think about how they drive you to not want a drink at the end of the day, but need a drink, probably by noon. 

Those clients rarely fall into the top revenue-generating bracket because their hubris and cluelessness probably isn’t confined to this one thing. The malcontents who cause all of the headaches also tend to be the clients who constantly nickel and dime me, who spring projects on me at the last minute, who pay late, and, well, just make life miserable. In other words, they trigger resentment, rather than loyalty, and they almost certainly do so within their own companies as well. 

When you’re on the bad-client treadmill, it can be hard to get off. These people demand so much of your time and energy that they’re hard to replace. You simply don’t have any time or energy left over to hunt for new business.

For PR pros, depending where you are positioned within your agency, the decision to fire a client may not be yours. I have sympathy, but only so much. It’s your job, then, to convince your agency that this client is more bother than it’s worth. It’s your job to show them that this client is stealing from other clients. It’s your job to show your agency that the client is costing you money, and you’d be better off finding a new one.

Now, a single bad story idea or crappy press release doesn’t necessarily make a bad client. These events can be useful, in fact, if the client is willing to learn from the experience. If they’re too stubborn to learn, though, you’re better off without them.

From a media-relations standpoint, these clients can even be dangerous.

I have zero obligation to carry water for your client, and when you ask me to, it’s sort of like the opposite of the Rule of Reciprocity. Let’s call it the Rule of Resentment.

The rule of reciprocity says that if I do you a favor, you’ll be compelled to do a favor for me. This is why so many direct mail campaigns include some sort of gift, whether it’s address labels or a dollar bill or a sample. This is why grocery stores have free sample tables. It’s why magazines run forced free trials. The idea is to set the rule of reciprocity in motion. We humans are social creatures who are hard-wired to return favors.

Asking a journalist to sit through a pointless briefing has the opposite effect. You’ve asked me for a favor, but what will I get in return? Typically, nothing, and it’s human nature to resent those sorts of interactions.

Before you send off a pitch you know is stupid, before you request a briefing about something you know I won’t care about, consider the risk you take. “Carrying water” for clients could do long-term damage.

Why a “no” is a good thing

The worst outcome when you send these requests out is not a “no.” The worst outcome for you is having me actually accept a briefing, but then resent it.

As I listen to your client drone on about how awesome that person’s company is, I’ll inevitably ask myself, “Why did I agree to this?” Then, my thoughts will turn to you, the PR Boring Presentationperson who roped me into this call (or meeting) in the first place, and my thoughts won’t be charitable. In fact, you very well could be training me to think of you as someone who wastes my time.

You could be triggering that annoying, uncomfortable feeling that I’ve been suckered. And what happens when you feel suckered? You start to feel stupid, and you regard the person doing the suckering quite negatively. You say to yourself, “I’ll never let this person sucker me again.” That’s the Rule of Resentment.

The Rule of Resentment explains a lot about human dynamics. Heck, we have a major political party that uses resentment as its most potent fuel.

The Rule of Resentment is akin to the Schadenfreude so many people feel when some scold of a politician (Andrew Weiner, Eliot Spitzer) is found with his pants down, or why we take such perverse pleasure in seeing the homophobic preacher caught with the male prostitute.

More specifically, the Rule of Resentment explains why so many people are celebrating the fact that snake oil infomercial salesman Kevin Trudeau is heading to prison. Even if he never suckered you, you kind of resent the fact that he’s even allowed to pollute the airwaves with his B.S. in the first place.

When you trigger the Rule of Resentment, you are playing with fire.

Because here’s the thing: you’re triggering it in yourself, as well. You know that your client is demanding that you do something you shouldn’t. And you resent it. That’s just not a good space to be in. If the resentment grows too large, it can poison the rest of your work, and it can even undermine your relationships with other clients.

To do your job effectively, you want me (and journalists in general) to think of you as the PR person who always delivers a source who is the perfect fit for my story. You don’t want to be the time-waster who I end up blaming for my lost afternoon.

If you toy with the Rule of Resentment too often, the next time I see your name pop up in my inbox, it could trigger negative thoughts – even if it’s just subconscious. So, be careful when carrying water for clients. You could end up doing more harm than good.


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