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C. Cryn Johannsen

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Attacking PR Support: An Ugly Look at How Clients Bully Publicists Behind the Scenes

Posted: 08/30/2012 1:52 pm

Mainstream media have focused on bullying among young people in U.S. society for quite some time now. Indeed, countless stories have been written about the way in which bullying has worsened for many children. In many cases, the harassment and abuse is so severe that some victims choose to commit suicide in order to escape their tormentors. This bullying is not limited to classrooms and school yards, however. The recent story of 68-year-old Karen Klein, a bus monitor in Rochester, New York, who was viciously bullied by middle school students, offered insights into how serious the problem has become in U.S. In this case, an adult was the target of cruel treatment. The incident was filmed, immediately went viral, and sparked public indignation.

Again, Klein's assailants were teens, but bullying -- a term, incidentally, that does not adequately convey the seriousness of this tyrannical behavior in the U.S. -- is far more widespread. After all, children learn behaviors from adult actions. Bullying is pervasive among adults as well, and has become -- for many - part of daily life, both at work and at home. Unfortunately, bullies can be found in all sorts of settings. While they may differ when it comes to their age, their status in life, and so forth, their tactics are always the same: they seek to ritualistically terrorize victims and maintain brutish control over them. It should be noted that there are variations on how bullies affect the lives of others, especially in the professional realm. When it comes to the issue of bullying, many people have not considered how this problem persists -- and some say has worsened in recent years -- in the field public relations. Indeed, while there are negative stereotypes about publicists, most of these individuals are dedicated to promoting their client's brand. The job is grueling and intense -- long hours are spent ensuring that the brand stands out and is being discussed in a positive way.

Unfortunately, clients do not always treat publicists with respect. Since a publicist works closely with a client, the relationship is often tighter than other professional relationships. While this can be enormously rewarding for both parties, if the client winds up being a bully, it can quickly devolve into chaos for the publicist. This type of abuse can lead to trouble in the publicist's personal and professional worlds. When interviewing publicists who have been severely bullied for this article, all of them were reluctant to reveal their identities for fear of retribution from their former clients. The three who agreed to discuss the issue insisted that they remain anonymous. Despite their fears, all three of them were eager to share their thoughts and stories.

One publicist, who lives on the West Coast, opened up about clients who have bullied her in the past. Once the bullying intensifies, she refuses to engage the person. In addition, she has even received death threats from people.

"A former client bullied me and of course, it's disturbing. They threatened me, sent horrible, threatening emails. I finally just turned it over to my attorney. I won't deal with people like that on my own and I refuse to be threatened. When I was first in business and working on a much smaller scale this happened once, the author just lost it and threatened me if I didn't get her on Oprah. I canceled her contract but she kept calling. It doesn't happen a lot, obviously, but when it does I turn it over to legal."

Another publicist, who is based in New York, explained that when some of her past clients had unrealistic expectations, such as expecting to get on Oprah, they lashed out at her.

"When someone hires a publicist, they have a dream. But it's not a reality," she said during a phone interview. These people have outrageous expectations that they don't even tell you about. I'm not going to buy publicity. I think that's unethical. I am not going to buy a spot on a television show," she added.

It might seem that the obvious solution is to simply cut off the professional relationship with the abusive client and move on to new projects. Naturally, this decision makes the most sense. Unfortunately, the outcome does not necessarily deter the bullying client to disappear. In some cases, their abusive behavior worsens. That is why many publicists must turn to legal counsel to protect their reputation and professional networks. Furthermore, if you are a publicist and work for an agency, and find yourself being bullied, the steps to move away from the client must be supported by your company.

A former publicist based in New York offered this advice, "First, take the high road and don't fire back in a personal manner at the client. This can be tough to do, especially if it's on a phone call and not via email. If you are receiving hateful emails, create a CYA file (cover your ass) and make sure you're saving all the communication. As soon as you can, talk to your managing director about the bullying or harassment. If he or she is more concerned with some miscreant's monthly retainer than you as an employee who is being harassed, then you should put in your two-week notice on the spot. There are plenty of agencies to choose from, and no one is going to fault you for quitting over real harassment. A good managing director would fire the client anyway."

For publicists, however, who run their own businesses, find that bullying clients can take a serious emotional and financial toll -- this hurts their productivity and ability to work effectively. After all, they do not have co-workers or a company to fall back on, and so the experience can be isolating.

One thing is clear, when someone has been bullied -- regardless of their age -- they ask similar questions.

As one publicist explained, "It is the same cry: 'Why is this happening to me? What do you want from me?' I feel like these people are trying to kill my life. I'm a grown woman and I've been bullied, and I think, 'What the hell do these people want?' I can see why a child winds up making that choice to commit suicide, because they feel like someone is trying to kill them. The pain becomes too much, so they want to end it. After a while, you can't take it anymore, and you get to this place and you say, 'I can't take it anymore. I mean, I am not going to kill myself, but I can see how a child gets to that point.' The bully is not allowing peace. And with publicists, they are hired to help the world find out about their clients. Even though it is business, it still ends up being personal. We're told so much."

She added, "What is their goal? I mean, does this one bully want me to close my company? Every person who is bullied asks that questions. It's the same thing. We all ask the same thing: 'Why? Do you want me dead? Do you want my life killed? Am I not allowed to have my life because we no longer work together? Is this because interviews didn't happen or whatever?' Why has our culture -- even politically -- gotten to this place? Our society must become kinder."

 

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