Inside the Profession PR Training

Determine Your Diagnosis: Setting Up Your Clients for Success

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As communicators, we find ourselves faced with specific requests from our clients that they think will solve their problems. However, unless we ask key questions and clearly understand the issues, we may not get to the root of their issue by simply meeting the request.

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Diagnosis:  In an ideal world, this should be the first stage of all of our client engagements. But in reality, do we actually give diagnostics the weight they are due?

If a patient comes to a doctor, and based on online research, says “I have a certain condition and I know how you should treat me,” would the doctor simply prescribe the medication requested by the patient? It’s unlikely that a good doctor would do that.

As communicators, we face a similar predicament. We frequently find ourselves faced with specific requests from our clients, such as placing an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal or securing an interview with a morning show, that they think will solve their problems.  However, unless we ask key questions and clearly understand the issues, we may not get to the root of their issue by simply meeting the request.

Why is it so challenging to be a strategist?

We’re often faced with trade-offs in this business.  These essentially fall under one common theme: assuming the role of “yes” man versus fulfilling a higher calling to serve as advisors. Responding to client requests is a responsible way to go about our daily business, but reactionary, tactical actions are merely flapping in the wind if they’re conducted without supporting a strategic plan.

Why is this a continual battle?

Throughout the years I’ve spent as a strategic communications practitioner, I’ve noticed a consistent trend – we are operating in an environment flourishing with communications hypochondriacs. Like patients who turn to WebMD in an effort to seek a solution for an ill that may be improperly self-diagnosed, our clients frequently presuppose that they understand the proper path, when perhaps the diagnosis may be premature or inaccurate. Often, our clients view a shiny new tool or a popular channel as the ultimate fix. But when such self-diagnosis is not rooted in correcting a proven problem, time and resources may be spent in a feeble attempt to solve an issue that may not exist or be fully defined. All positive intentions noted, there is a reason that our clients have hired us. We are to provide strategic communications counsel that creates long-term prosperity, not mere satisfaction in response to an undiagnosed present state.

Why must we properly diagnose?

To address our clients’ needs accurately, we cannot simply react to their wants. We can only fulfill these needs by first properly diagnosing the problem at hand. Revisiting the Journal scenario, let’s suppose that your client has just called you to follow up on the article. “What is the status update on our Journal piece?I’m eager to see it featured on the front page.”  Based on your research, you know that the audience the client is trying to reach is more likely to subscribe to the The Washington Post, spends time with industry-specific publications and avidly tweets. Do you simply fulfill the clients’ request, or do you offer alternative guidance that speaks to your knowledge of the situation?

Chris Foster is a principal of strategy and organization at Booz Allen Hamilton. Previously, Chris was as an adjunct professor and guest lecturer at Columbia University, Western Kentucky University and Howard University teaching on topics ranging from strategic communications to health policy.

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Chris Foster


  • Excellent post. It really makes you think. Although you don’t want to cross the line with your client, I think it is important to offer any guidance you can especially if you offer research to back it up. However, you don’t want to upset the client or make them feel like they are not getting what they’ve requested. Let the client make a decision they feel strongly about and hear them out but always offer advice that you feel strongly about as well.

    Britten Feldman
    Freeman School Student

  • Chris thanks for the post. You allude to the importance of research,
    which is an often overlooked critical competency for any serious
    practitioner. Having worked for private sector and public sector clients, I can tell you that (in my experience) earning a trusted adviser role can be a challenge in the public sector. Aside from strong data and research, what else can we do to gain a client’s trust in the public sector?

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