Random PR Thoughts

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger. I Guess.


Anyone who has spent a few years in a PR agency can tell you about the client that never should have been. It’s an experience that scars you for life and has caused many a green pea to decamp for business school. When revenue growth slows, and especially during recessions, PR firms get nervous and take on clients they know they shouldn’t. It’s that, or start handing out pink slips. As my own experience suggests, the latter might be kinder.

I was summoned to my boss’ office at Hill & Knowlton, then the biggest PR firm in the world. “I’ve got some great news!” he said. “We’ve just won a new account and I want you to lead it.”

This was heady stuff for a lad with a mere four years experience under his belt. “Great!” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s the city of Corpus Christi, Texas. We just met with the Corpus Christi Business Development agency and sealed the deal.”

I was young, but I knew enough to ask the next question: “What’s the budget?”

My boss glanced at his shoes. “Well, they signed up for the agency minimum.”

H&K was so dominant among PR agencies that its leaders had established a minimum fee for client engagements — you know, to keep the riffraff out. Unfortunately, that minimum — $5,000 a month — must have been set in the 1960’s and had not been revisited for decades. It was now 1984 and by any stretch $5,000 a month was chump change for a firm of H&K’s size and resources. Hell, an account team could burn through a couple of grand just inputting their time sheets each month.

I realized that a) the agency must have been struggling a bit to take on such a chintzy gig (and that was true – not long after, H&K slipped to second place) and b) I had been selected for this plum assignment not because of my keen insight and take-the-hill determination, but because I had the lowest billing rate in the Corporate group.

I mustered all the ersatz enthusiasm I could: “Uh…great!”

At this point, I should note that the account would have been lusted for by any local agency, which would have done a great job for $5K per month. But these were Texans and they seemed to like things to be big. As I said, H&K was the biggest.

A week later, I flew to Corpus Christi to meet the VP of Business Development. And, unexpectedly, the head of the Port of Corpus Christi. And the head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Since we’re splitting the fee three ways, I thought we should all meet right away,” the VP said. Suddenly, I had not one but three clients, each of them groaning about coughing up the princely sum of $1666 per month and making it clear that they had high expectations. Very high. Oh, and they wanted to have the fee inclusive of out-of-pocket expenses.

They took me to lunch and stuck me with the bill.

The VP kindly drove me out to the airport, saving me a cab fare. (I had briefly considered whether I should take a Greyhound back to New York to save money.) As we drove through the city, I noticed that all of the vegetation had a brownish tinge and I asked if it was always that way. No, said the VP, we’ve been having a little drought. Nothing to worry about.

A couple of weeks later, the New York Times ran a front page story about the terrible drought in Corpus Christi. I was summoned to Texas. As I pulled up to City Hall, I saw workers at the big hotel across the street spraying some kind of fertilizer on the grass. Only there was no grass.  And it wasn’t fertilizer. It was green paint. The whole city was being sprayed with green paint.

I was ushered in to meet the City Manager, a burly no-nonsense type. Before I could even sit down, he waved the offending New York Times story under my nose and screamed – and I mean screamed – “YOU’RE FROM HILL & KNOWLTON. WE PICKED YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE THE BIGGEST PR FIRM IN THE WORLD. HOW COULD YOU LET THIS GODDAM STORY HAPPEN?”

I stammered. “Well, er… you see…um…” I toyed with the idea of asking, “How could you let the goddam drought happen?” but thought better of it. We’d only been on the case for a couple of weeks and they hadn’t had a chance to get used to my sense of humor.

He trained his steely eyes on me and shouted, “YOU’RE ON THIN ICE, MISTER! We just had a Pool and Spa convention cancel. They are going to San Diego. SAN DIEGO! We haven’t had a single company call about relocating here since we hired you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?“

I glanced out the window at the workers with their spray-can backpacks putting the finishing touches on the park at City Hall. “Let me get back to you.”

From the airport, I called my buddy back at the shop. “We’ve got to come up with something fast. Set up a brainstorm for tomorrow.”

We cooked up a dandy idea: a marketing brochure that listed all the great reasons why a company would want to be in Corpus Christi, and a roster of all the big names already there.

The tagline: “Who Put the Corp. in Corpus Christi?” We loved it.

The art department ginned up a dummy and we faxed it to the VP. His immediate response was quite good. “I don’t recognize this company Lorem Ipsum, but overall I like the concept. The Business Development council is meeting today — let me run it up the flagpole. In the meantime, good job.”

We were elated. Until that afternoon, when he called back in a sweat. I mean, we could actually HEAR him sweating over the phone.

“I need you to write a letter to me taking full responsibility for your insensitive and tasteless campaign idea!” he bleated. “The Archbishop of Corpus Christi has made a formal complaint to the Mayor and the newspaper is pointing at me! I need that letter now!”

We hadn’t considered the fact that “Corpus Christi” is Latin for “Body of Christ.” The Archbishop sat in on the Business Development council and had gotten his mitre in a twist when he saw our sample brochure. There was no opportunity for a mea culpa. Even if we’d wanted to.

The VP’s parting shot: “And we’re invoking the 30-day termination clause in your contract, effective 30 days from today!“

It was the best news I’d gotten all month.


Categories: Random PR Thoughts

10 replies »

  1. Chris, you should really write a book. This story is wonderful. I’ve only been on the client side. Still I could identify with it completely. I had some internal clients who would have made the Corpus Christi folks look like generous geniuses. It was more than a decade ago and I still can’t laugh about it. I admire your resilience. All the best. Dick

  2. Chris, you remind us that choosing the lesser evil is often the worse one after all. Been there, rode the roller coaster and bought the t-shirt!
    John Fletcher

  3. One more comment: this reminds me of the client so rude and mean to our creative director that I gave the CD permission and the joy of calling and firing that client. The client immediately apologized, we finished the project and sent payment, and we sent him his files. Adios and my CD appreciated the reinforcement in his value.

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