How available should you make yourself to your clients? How about your supervisor? Your teammate?
Expectation setting and maintaining boundaries can be very challenging as a public relations professional. The evolving landscape of client needs, media relationships, crisis scenarios and technology within the communications field can make healthy boundaries seem impossible. Add to this reality the fact that many public relations professionals work exceptionally long hours and are notoriously “on call” for their clients and teams -- and you have a recipe for disaster.
I’ve found that in public relations, there are five core groups that present regular opportunities to maintain boundaries and set or adjust expectations:
Partners (agency, vendors, etc.)
Each of these target audiences come with their own expectations, and whether you have been working with someone for a long period of time or you are onboarding a new client or team member, ensuring you are both on the same page is vital to help create thriving business relationships.
Even though I’ve been practicing boundary setting and adjusting expectations for years now, I still find myself getting sucked into new situations, which tend to bring opportunities for broken boundary barriers.
Here are some common scenarios under each of the above groups that occur regularly in day-to-day PR life and tips for how to adjust expectations, avoid pitfalls and maintain boundaries:
1. Guard your time. Here’s a scenario for you: Your new client sends you a quick note via email requesting an impromptu phone conversation asking, “Do you have 10 minutes to spare right now?”
Whether you do or don’t have the time, this scenario is the perfect opportunity for expectation setting. If you respond immediately at this early stage in the relationship, you are communicating that you are willing and able to drop everything for that client. This may sound customer service oriented at first but it’s setting a standard that will drain you in the long term. Just as your client doesn’t want their employees coming in asking for 10 minutes of their time on the hour, your client will respect your boundary if you give him or her the direction to do so. Consider countering with a 10-minute meeting later in the day or next day.
2. Limit the channels of communication. With so many ways to communicate through social media, email, text messages and with internal messaging software, it can be all too easy to expose yourself to contact overload with clients, colleagues and acquaintances. Communicate your preferred method of staying in touch and once you've communicated your preference and set the boundary, do not compromise. This means, the next time a team member forgets to use the internal messaging software your company provides (see: Slack) and instead asks questions via email, you can simply remind them and, moving forward, only respond in when they use that communication channel.
3. Communicate your expectations. To succeed in the PR field, it's simply not realistic to be stuck in your inbox all day. However, email response time expectations vary from person to person and it’s not safe to simply assume that another party shares your expectations or boundaries when it comes to email response time. It’s essential to set your typical response time expectation on the front end to avoid misunderstanding. Examples: Replying to emails within 24 hours, checking email at certain times of day, etc.
4. Get comfortable with the word “no.” Sometimes, you just have to say no. Not maybe, not possibly, not "I'll see what I can do" – just a clear and simple “No.” The opportunity to say no is empowering. Allow yourself to get comfortable with the freedom of kindly but decidedly turning down an offer or firmly communicating a boundary.
5. If unsure, get a second opinion. As communication professionals, we often encounter (sometimes daily) new opportunities to set, adjust and manage expectations. This is to be expected but that doesn't always mean you'll have an answer or solution right when you need it. If you're unsure of how to set an expectation in a new situation or doubt whether a boundary is appropriate, too firm or too lenient, bring in a second opinion.
Share the scenario with your supervisor or a seasoned colleague and get their weigh in on possible responses and scenarios based on those responses. Or, simply refer to point four in this post.
When it comes to expectation setting and boundaries remember that you can and should maintain the highest level of customer service and client kindness possible. You should be a team player in the pursuit of extraordinary service, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a pushover. So, instead of responding to every email immediately or answering every person who calls you, choose to stretch your boundary muscles and politely push back those impromptu meetings or allow yourself the luxury of the occasional no.
Kate Finley is the Founder and CEO of Belle Communications, a digital integrated marketing communications agency based in Columbus, Ohio specializing in PR, social media and content marketing for food, restaurant and startup brands. Kate is a young entrepreneur who founded her agency at the age of 28 with the goal of equipping brands with the tools and exposure they need to THRIVE. Kate and her team have secured more than 2000 media opportunities for clients, including coverage with TODAY, Oprah, CNN Money and more. She has been featured in PRWeek, CNNMoney, Cision, PRDaily and Spin Sucks.
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