As part of our ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ series our Head of Media, James Brady talks us through some of the simple blunders and misunderstandings that can quickly escalate into costly disputes between PR consultants and their clients.

Here are his top tips on how to prevent the most common errors from occurring:

Over-promising and under-delivering

“We can make you stand out from the crowds because we understand what makes you different,” is often used in PR pitches to prospective clients. As a result, clients often become angry if they feel they’re being fobbed off with reheated ideas or a one-size-fits-all PR plan. What worked well for Client X won’t necessarily be what Client Y wants – even if the good PR you earned for X is what attracted Y to work with you.

We see negligence claims from PR agencies for delivering work that their client are not satisfied with, or to an agreed deadline. Problems often occur when both parties are unclear about what constitutes success. If the client doesn’t know what it wants then managing their expectations is vital, otherwise disappointment can soon turn into a dispute, which may result in a claim. Agreeing a brief with your client at the outset, which outlines what they want to achieve and how much time you have to deliver the goods, could save a lot of trouble in the long run.

Don’t get the bullet by jumping the gun

Financial PR can carry the biggest risks, because the potential fallout from making a mistake can be so big. A negligence claim from an irate client resulting from, for example, market information being leaked or released early could be very large if it is deemed to have materially affected the company’s share price or reputation.

It’s therefore important that a PR agency has a watertight process in place for handling potentially market-moving announcements. Make sure you are fully briefed by your client on the ins and outs of the announcement, particularly regarding when the announcement can be made.

Avoid hashtag hell

If you’ve been hired to curate a client’s social media profile it’s important that you are crystal clear about how they want to portray themselves. Do they want posts to be light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek or self-mocking? Or would they prefer them to be serious, intellectual or technical? It’s always best to agree some parameters first with your client way over the content, tone or theme of online output, because social media’s real-time nature can easily trip up over-eager PRs. Delta Airlines’ intended light-hearted tweet of a giraffe following a football match between the USA and Ghana backfired badly because the animals don’t live in that country.

Also, trying to earn some Brownie points from a client by generating free publicity by hashtag hijacking can be a dangerous game, as Habitat discovered, after tweets were sent out for its one of its collections using random trending hashtags, including ones for the Iranian presidential election.

Prevent a personal drama from becoming a social media crisis

A company’s social media accounts are now often used by people to complain about its service or products, so if your PR firm manages a client’s profiles it’s important that you keep a close eye on the accounts, to respond quickly if any complaints are posted. Otherwise, before you know it, you may have a full-blown social media storm on your hands. Actor Patrick Stewart’s angry tweets about an elusive cable engineer turned swiftly into a collective online venting of frustration about the company’s customer service.

Examples of good customer service can go viral too. A happy customer wrote an article about how staff at one hotel found his son’s beloved soft toy and took a series of photos to show how it was enjoying its extended holiday.

Always get the client’s approval

Insurance claims result from errors as simple as typos on press releases to making a mistake in a ghostwritten opinion piece. A PR agency leaves itself open to problems if it hasn’t received sign-off from its client before pressing ‘send’. “We didn’t have time” is not an adequate defence. Nor is “the new guy in marketing said it was OK” – he might be the only person who’s willing to stay after 5.30, but he might not have the authority to approve a release issued in the CEO’s name.

Mistakes may not simply result in the ending of your retainer. Clients can refuse to pay your fee, or could sue for the return of fees it has already paid, arguing it didn’t receive the service it was promised. Professional indemnity insurance can compensate you for unpaid fees and defend you in any legal actions brought against you by a disgruntled client. It can even help to limit the damage from a mistake that’s been made, even before the client becomes aware of it. If your business is not covered, read more about what indemnity insurance is and what it can do to protect your businses in our professional indemnity introduction FAQ.

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Hiscox offers a range of business insurance packages which include professional indemnity, or you can get a quote for a stand alone indemnity policy.