Though there are many benefits and positive perks of being a publicist, the gig also has some drawbacks. One of the most challenging tasks is being the bearer of bad news, particularly around the holiday season. You may see a story go live and wonder how to tell clients they didn’t get into a gift guide they had their hearts set on. Or, maybe you thought the gift guide placement was a done deal, but a last-minute change impacted the coverage.
This time of year also happens to be one that’s pressure-packed for all industries, particularly public relations, says Patrick Gevas, the vice president at the GreenRoom.
“For nearly any company selling a product or service, the last quarter of the year is always one that’s hyper-focused on performance and doing everything to maximize sales since the start of the year is generally quite slow,” he says. “As such, there’s intense competition in both the online and brick and mortar marketplace with a lot of the onus falling on PR and digital teams for compelling campaigns and gift guide saturation to drive sales.”
Gevas says that brands are paying attention to their competitors, and they’ll want to (obviously) outshine them more than ever. Since being listed on a publication’s top 10 picks for a niche category is a glowing endorsement, they may covet a gift guide placement more than any other ‘win’ of the year. Part of maintaining a client relationship is talking them through the gift guide placement process, offering solutions, and a reality check.
“A brand seeing a competitor get more attention in the media could lead to frustration, especially as they look at how sales are trending,” Gevas says. “Even if sales are on track, there will always be the, ‘what else can we be doing?’ question from brands to maximize sales. For some brands, there are specific guides that carry greater weight internally.”
So, when they don’t make the cut, how can you share the news without burning a bridge? Or frustrating the client? Here, publicists offer their top solutions for handling this delicate situation:
Remember, you can only control so much.
Most founders or leaders at a company make their way to the top because they are ambitious and passionate. And also, perhaps... ahem... control freaks. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to have all of the information to make the best decisions, there are never any guarantees in public relations and pitching media. Part of discussing gift guide placement with clients is about setting expectations, says Nora Wolf, a publicist and founder of Wolf Craft.
“There are so many reasons why your product might not have been selected for a holiday gift guide that is out of your control: the publication ran out of space, they selected a similar product earlier in the editorial process and didn't want two of the same thing, or they decided to pivot to a different theme, which wasn’t a good fit for your product anymore,” she says.
When you find out a client didn’t make the final selection, try to think of ways to position them better so they’re ready when the next opportunity comes along. “What's important is perfecting the things that you can control, like having good photography, knowing the themes and price points of the publications you're pitching, and making sure you have a gift-guide-able product. No one gives dish soap, for example, as a holiday gift,” Wolf adds.
Ask the journalist or editor questions.
Gevas recently had an experience where his agency was tasked with preserving a client relationship when they didn’t get their top pick for a gift guide placement. As he explains, one brand was hyper-focused on getting into ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things’ since it carries a certain cache and sales velocity. In 2019, they were kindly turned down. In 2020, they were precluded from guide inclusion, since it featured only Black-owned businesses. Undeterred, Gevas submitted again in 2021 and made it through all the way to product testing before being told they again didn’t make the cut. “We were gutted and knew the brand would be, too,” he shares.
How did they handle it? First and foremost, Gevas and his team asked Oprah’s team questions. As he puts it, a common misconception in public relations is that a PR team can call in favors to get a gift guide placement, when in reality, it can take a skilled professional who knows how to tell a story that fits the right perspective.
“In this case, the narrative that was crafted was enough to pique the editorial team’s interest enough into wanting to try the product. That’s an important win and a piece of feedback that was communicated back to the brand,” he says. “The previous two years the brand was shut out of consideration, and it took the PR team to pay close attention to what was being covered to craft a differentiating narrative.”
Then, of course, they needed to be able to maintain their client relationship by understanding the ‘why’ in the situation. Or, perhaps more importantly, the ‘why not.’ “There was a legitimate concern with the functionality … [that] was enough for Oprah’s team to not move forward with presenting to the queen herself,” he says. “While the client never loves to have those conversations, it’s our responsibility to deliver the feedback in hopes of improving future generations of products. In this case, we have a tangible change that can be made that will hopefully push us over the edge next year into making it into Oprah’s Favorite Things.”
Illustrate how the client has been featured elsewhere.
When a client only has eyes for one gift guide placement, they may easily forget all of the other hard work you’ve done throughout the year. To strengthen a client relationship, Gevas says to try to blunt the disappointment by reminding the client of all of the places they have been included or are currently in testing.
“Taking a vertical market approach increases the chances of being seen in more places, knowing that not all opportunities will be a good fit. By showcasing success in other areas, that gives the internal team ammunition to communicate to their superiors on how progress is trending,” he continues. “[G]etting creative with campaigns and even harnessing a select spend on broadcast segments or with relevant content creators can still yield a lot of success to keep your relationship with the client sound and deliver results that help move the needle.”