Turning A Bad Habit Into A Big Weapon

by , Oct 19, 2012, 8:00 AM
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Two debates down, one to go. And one final opportunity for President Barack Obama to prove he can turn a bad habit into a big re-election weapon.

What habit is this? Considering that my PR hat is never fully removed, even when I'm not in the office, Obama's schizophrenic two debates -- one a massacre and the other a rock-solid performance -- got me thinking about three terms (and not presidential ones): over-promising, over-servicing and over-delivering, and how they relate to the PR profession as well as the POTUS.

Watching the first of three debates, while extinguishing my own professional firestorms, I found myself agitated over what many called Obama's weakest showing. According to CNN, 67% of viewers thought Mitt Romney “nailed it,” versus 25% for Obama. It was as if our eloquent president failed to show up for work, treating supporters to a stunt double -- someone who looks like Obama, but is rightly given no dialogue. Unfortunately, this “stunt double” spoke: Too much professorial style, too much equivocation on what Romney called his over-promised record, and when he did answer back, too many over-serviced responses.

With the Romney rematch, Americans were treated to a different Chief Executive. If anything, this Obama over-delivered. There were times during heated exchanges -- women in the workforce, the Libyan terrorist attack -- that I thought the President would leap from his lionesque stance and pounce on his challenger.

But even an Obama triumph has left some miffed. If on one debate Obama can over-service and another he can over-deliver, what does that say about the President’s true character? And which character will show up on November 6?

Switching over to public relations, over-promising is often the first step on that slippery client-agency slope where saying “Yes” too often cements an expectation that there will never be a “No.” And once you have over-promised, it becomes second nature to over-service, delivering more than what budget lines called for, and more than what can be accomplished in a reasonable timeline.

Agencies that find themselves on this path toward self-destruction, like Obama did in debate one, become their own worst enemies. In a recent article on the subject, Wallop! On Demand, CEO Kristin Jones rightly calls this cycle a “plague” -- and I’m sure many in the PR profession will agree with us both.

Jones offers some straightforward advice for combating the over-servicing affliction that many agencies suffer. Like an insurance claim, documentation is critical -- making sure deliverables are clearly spelled out. That way, when something “extra” is asked from the client, there is data to support your agency’s contention that it wasn't part of the original planning and will cost more.

Tracking goals versus actual results is also vital, as it serves as a check on PR executives’ natural tendency toward being “Yes” people (guilty as charged). You know who you are. You find excitement and exhilaration in the challenge of rising to seemingly impossible heights -- like, say, career-defining political debates.

But in all fairness to this over-servicing malaise, casually dismissing these terms as 100% negative requires a debate-style rebuttal. 

Used in limited proportions, periodic over-reaching is good for the mind, body and soul of an organization. Think of how many people became world leaders (or even CEOs) by just doing what they were told, towing the line, or completing their list of daily tasks and calling it quits? Not many -- and a recipe for mediocrity. Andrew Carnegie, who was known for his strong opinions on hard work and going beyond the call of duty, captured that in his quote: “Do your duty and a little more and the future will take care of itself.”

Translation for PR execs: if you over-promise and over-service, you had better over-deliver. If used in the right amounts, over-servicing can be a helpful weapon in allowing your agency to stand above the crowded rest -- no matter what the short-term balance books say -- instead of a bad habit.

As for this article’s own internal debate, charting the right communications course between Carnegie’s and Jones’ opinions requires careful sounding. Four years ago, President Obama revved up crowds with his campaign slogan, “Yes we can!” And perhaps in three weeks time he will convince enough voters that “yes we still can!” equally applies.

Today, whether you’re the president of the United States, the president of your own company or chief visibility officer of a global PR firm, “No, we can’t” is all right too -- provided you have not over-promised or over-serviced what you can deliver and it isn’t your company’s 24/7 knee-jerk response.

1 comment on "Turning A Bad Habit Into A Big Weapon".

  1. Susan Von Seggern from SvS PR
    commented on: October 19, 2012 at 2:51 p.m.
    I find the recipe for client happiness is to reasonably manage expectations and then over-service to a reasonable amount. My (20 year +) experience with PR is that even if you land huge stories in top outlets and a zillion impressions, clients rarely think you have over delivered. They got the coverage they deserved!

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