How to say no to clients and bosses: the PR practitioner as rebel

Delivered to the PRIA National Conference, Darwin, October 25 2010

It may seem odd to be sub-titling a speech about PR practice – about the PR practitioner as rebel.

The comment, however, was inspired by the words of Albert Camus who asked: “What is a rebel? A man who says no.”

Now, while Camus was all in all a more interesting character than many of his French literary scene contemporaries he was partly a prisoner of his times and hence the noun ‘man’, so please read his quote as referring to both men and also the majority of the practitioners in our industry.

What I want to talk about today is the act of rebellion in saying no to clients, managers, bosses, even Ministers and their advisers.

But first, what do I mean by saying no? It does not mean saying “no I don’t want to do that” – a sentiment many of us have felt at various stages of our life and careers. Rather it is a case of saying “no – that’s not a wise thing to do” or “no – that’s the wrong thing to do.”

It is often a euphemism, of course, for what you really want to say, which is “that is an extraordinarily dumb thing to do.”

What I want to talk about?

Within that context I want to address five things:

  • Why the pressure to say ‘yes we can’ is so great.
  • Why saying yes is not always a good idea, and why we need to say no sometimes.
  • The outlook and approach which makes it easier to say no without endangering our livelihoods.
  • How to frame advice in a way which doesn’t endanger your livelihood.
  • Some brief examples of saying no from my own career followed by an opportunity to have a short discussion in which we can talk about each other’s experiences of saying no.

The pressure to say yes

The pressure to say yes we can is enormous. It stems from a wide variety of things.

Most businesses are inherently optimistic. Indeed, optimism is probably one of the key characteristics of entrepreneurial organisations. You don’t start a business – and this applies to consultancies in particular – unless you think you are going to succeed and you are confident about your outlook.

I know that everyone in consultancy experiences that 3 am existential angst about whether the payroll will be met, what happens if the biggest client disappears and so on – but during the day it is all about relentless optimism.

Saying no is the antithesis of this optimism.

CEOs – whether good leaders or psychopaths – expect people to say yes when they ask them doing something. In the latter case we all know the right answer to the question from a CEO about the need to jump. It’s also normally a very bad career move to say to no to a CEO.

Unfortunately, it is often CEOs who most need someone to say no to them.

Most CEOs bring a wide variety of skills to their job. But we also need to realise that many of them also begin to live in a bubble which distances them from the lives and realities facing ordinary people.

My favourite Petty cartoon depicts a group of US businessmen sitting in their club and saying: “I cannot understand why we are spending billions sending a man to the moon when the whole world is crying out for company tax relief.”

The bubble phenomenon was a key factor in the recent global financial crisis.

In their book about crisis management (Damage Control) Eric Dezenhall and John Weber write about the problem of senior finance executives being walled inside a world of luxury.

The details are cited in Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book Smile or Die which I’ll mention in another context in a moment.

Anyway Dezenhall and Weber, describing Dick Fuld, the head of Lehman Brothers and one of his senior managers, Joe Gregory, say that Fuld have five homes and Gregory commuted to work by helicopter from one of his sprawling Long Island homes.

“The problem with this is that when a subject goes from a Gulfstream V airplane to a limousine to a catered meeting to a four star hotel, he lives in an artificial bubble of constant, uncritical reinforcement. He becomes a demi-god who is a consumer of reassuring clichés, not of life’s friction.”

Australian examples of are often not as over the top as this. but all of us can probably think of appropriate analogies.

This culture of re-assuring clichés is re-inforced by the relentless power of positive thinking which is inculcated into many organisations.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book is about the pressure this imposes on everyone from the cancer sufferer to the newly unemployed.

You must think positively; you can be anything you want; you can change anything you want; you can overcome any problem – these are the messages with which positive thinking spruikers bombard people who are never going to have everything they want, and who will never overcome their problems.

As most of us can testify, this new age nonsense is not only something which is part of many people’s personal life but is also officially sanctioned in many organisations – whether in counselling for the sacked or building the culture.

Cultures – whether re-inforced by positive thinking or not – are also strong influences on whether you can say yes or no.

With psychopathic CEOs and dysfunctional cultures the fear which is created can make it impossible for people to say no. I think the film Michael Clayton, which is about lawyers, is an instructive tale for PR people as much as it is for lawyers, in terms of how fear can lead to dreadful decisions.

The obverse of that – strong cultures which create bonding and capacity to achieve enormous amounts – can also have a downside if they lead to group think which prevents organisations from responding flexibly to challenges and opportunities.

There are two other special categories where it is difficult to say no.

One is with consultancies which believe – unjustifiably in my view – that PR people are like barristers and should operate on the cab for hire principle. The analogy is false for many reasons and is fundamentally self-serving rather than anything else.

The other is when public service practitioners need to deal with Ministers and Ministerial media advisers. In my experience many Ministerial advisers are arrogant and inexperienced, obsessed by media to the exclusion of more effective communication methods and not very competent. They are also demanding and resistant to opposing opinions.

So there are many reasons why it is hard to say no whether you work in a consultancy, a company or the public sector.

Why we need to say no

If you think about these reasons – all of which encourage conformity and saying yes, you can start to see why we need to say no.

In the last example – public service and Ministerial advisers – if we were able to say no then the quality of public and policy discourse would probably be better.

In most other organisations, the pressures to say yes are all the symptoms of organisations which:

  • Are ambushed by changing social and political attitudes which then threaten their businesses and their profitability. Energy, chemicals, forestry, pharmaceuticals, mining, health care, banking – and on and on – these are industries which have been surprised when changing attitudes start to result in changing demands from stakeholders and governments or when ignorance of the real world provokes anger among consumers and customers..
  • Have ongoing issues management problems. Once again think about that list of industries and think of how ‘issues rich’ they are. Great for our industry because it leads to lots of work helping fix things up, but not for the organisations’ reputations.
  • Have issues develop in to full-blown crises which require massive investments of resources – people and money – to rectify situations.

…But there is an alternative

The alternative to being ambushed or becoming ‘issue rich’ are partly created by an attitude of mind and a specific philosophical approach to PR practice.

That approach is summed up by what I think is the most profound thought about PR yet put forward by a management thinker.

The insight was by the late management guru, Peter Drucker, who defined PR as a function which brought the outside inside an organisation.

The emphasis in this definition is not communicating to stakeholders and publics, it is not even that much about symmetric communications and conversations (although they can help in achieving what Drucker is talking about), rather it is about understanding what is going on in the wider world and ensuring that a crucial part of your job is interpreting and communicating that to your organisation.

It is interesting that Anne Gregory is at this conference as she is one of the most original thinkers in the PR academic world.

If you want to know how important this Drucker insight is I suggest you read her paper on what the very most senior PR counsellors actually focus on and how their work is evaluated by their bosses.

Two years ago she published some other really important research in a paper called The competencies of senior practitioners in the UK in Public Relations Review Vol 34 No 3 ppp 215-223.

I can’t go into the detail today but it focuses on competencies, behaviours and attitudes and emphasises how much of their work is about networking, interpreting and bring the outside inside an organisation.

Key words and phrases which come through are big picture, networking, consulting and involving, values, strategic/long term view, investigating and analysing are the qualities and traits which emerge from the research on what these senior practitioners do.

In simple terms, it involves closely monitoring the social, political and economic environment.

When I was first in this industry back in the 1960s everyone talked about the need for PR practitioners to be in the board room. Well we are in the board room now and where we really need to be spending our time is on public transport, at the outer at sporting events, in mothers groups and community organisations where the real world is operating and from where we can take reality back into the board room.

We also need a degree of healthy scepticism to guard us against the re-assuring clichés and the conventional wisdom. If anything more was needed to convince of us of the truth of J.K. Galbraith’s comment that the “conventional wisdom is always wrong” we only need to look at the GFC and our recent Federal election campaign.

How to do it

Having a world view and an approach is useful, but as I mentioned earlier – saying no – can have a very deleterious effect on your career if you get it wrong or phrase it the wrong way.

Fortunately, we can solve the problem by how we frame our practice and our advice.

In this sense I am using framing in the technical way – how we frame a message, a policy or insight to enable us to set the agenda and set the terms on which an issue is debated.

For those of you who haven’t read it, George Lakoff’s book about framing, Don’t look at the elephant, is a good guide to the theory and practice of framing.

So how can we frame our nay-saying?

First, we need to re-define our role within organisations. Too much of our focus is on communications and we use our own technical jargon to describe what we do – issues and crisis management, stakeholder communication and so on.

In fact the real role of a senior strategic communication adviser is in the area of risk and opportunity analysis.

What we do is identify social and contextual risks and opportunities and develop strategies to deal with them.

Because of my background in political, environmental and community activism I was able – at the start of my consulting career – to think in different ways about environmental and community problems.

It is hard to imagine but when I started in consultancy the response to a dirty chimney was to airbrush it out of the photo. The answer to a pollution monitoring device showing unacceptable levels was to get it moved.

The answer to community pressure was no consultation but the steamroller and the wrecker’s ball.

Today the answer is to assess the risks, to do something about them and then to communicate.

To give you an example of how you can use risk analysis as a basis for advice, some years ago one of my clients was going to sponsor the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne – the biggest Victorian G&L event.

Given their product – which was not specifically targeted to the G&L community but which fitted well with the lifestyle – it was a sound marketing decision.

But the company also had extensive operations in the Bible-belt US South. On the one hand it was a good marketing move in Australia – on the other hand it risked a much larger backlash in a much bigger market.

My advice in the situation was not about saying yes or no but rather about helping them think about the relative risks and opportunities.

A second, way of framing advice is to put it in the context of scenario planning.

Scenario planning went out of fashion for a while but is now back in. We can’t predict the future but that doesn’t stop us thinking about it and considering what possible futures mean for us.

Scenario planning and analysis is basically a question of asking what ifs?

Whenever we ask the question in a meeting: “what if this thing we are considering ends up on the front page of the newspaper?” – we are practising a form of scenario planning.

The Shell company, which along with most major multinationals undertakes a lot of scenario planning describes scenarios as “stories about the future, but their purpose is to make better decisions in the future.”

There is a really easy way to check out everything you need to know about scenario planning by visiting

One good element of scenario planning, which is also a third way of re-framing saying no, is to contemplate failure what it looks like and what it might result in.

Potentially being on the front page of a newspaper is one example of this. During a discussion with a good industry clients about GMOs and whether they would have any GMO stuff in their products I was able to produce an actual tabloid front page with a headline about Frankenfoods to make the point more vividly.

In a meeting about a project where you want to say no but the yes culture is strong don’t say something won’t succeed but instead say: “well this is a great idea but, just in case, we ought to have a worst case scenario if something goes wrong.”

The words ‘worst-case scenario’ are a very elegant way of getting people to think about why something might not be successful. The process of identifying what might go wrong, in the context of risks and opportunities again, is a useful process in itself and is a form of issues analysis and management.

The other useful words are; “have we done any research on this?” Often research finds that what seems to be a great idea is not so great. I should say that in the marketing communications field research can sometimes be misleading because people can’t envisage a new product or service but when they finally see it love it.

But research can be snap surveys, online, some reading or just talking to experts outside the organisation. This is not only research in the normal sense but also as a means of framing advice.

A fifth method is about how we use our role as communication experts to influence the language which gets used about things and decisions.

‘Jet lag’ along with ‘the dog ate my homework’ are good examples of a problem which could have been solved if some communication adviser had say – no there is another way of saying this.

I found it really hard to read Don Watson’s last book, Bendable Learnings, mainly because page after page of sludge and incomprehensible jargon was wearying and depressing – particularly given that I knew many PR industry people had written the awful stuff.

But it’s not only incomprehensible jargon but also ordinary words in ugly constructions which make them meaningless.

New Labour in the UK was really good at this. In 1998 the UK Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, said “We will give direction. We shall set targets and chase progress, and where appropriate we will take direct action to make sure that our objectives are achieved.”

This is as bureaucratic and soulless as a Stalinist five year plan and if you, as a communication expert, let someone talk like this then it’s not surprising that things go wrong.

As George Orwell said: “The English language…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Similarly with the tyranny of PowerPoint which forces thinking and presentations into conventional, ordered and pre-determined formats.

It provides a neatness which doesn’t apply in real life.

I recommend everyone reads Edward R. Tufte’s short pamphlet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, which excoriates sloppy thinking dressed up as well-packaged PowerPoint presentation.

The most telling example in the pamphlet is how the fault that caused the Columbia shuttle disaster was lost because the reports which went to senior management were all in PowerPoint format and the little uncertain details about foam insulation didn’t make it into the big type in the big boxes.

It is also telling that one the US banks which best survived the GFC, JPMorgan Chase, had a CEO, Jamie Dimon, who discouraged PowerPoint presentations and preferred detailed reports and detailed questioning.

You can say no simply by asking for the detailed report on which a Power Point is based.

These concerns about language and presentation, by the way, are not simply a case of an ageing curmudgeon bemoaning falling standards.

They are about clarity of thinking and questioning. If we are complicit in producing sludge we are complicit in producing unclear thinking and obscuring reality.

There is nobody better placed than us to show leadership in these areas by showing leadership in our core competence – communications.

And if we do we will find that our organisations will have their reputations improved, their brands seen as authentic and the level of trust and quality of relationships with stakeholders improving their issues management and crisis preparedness – because we were able to say – “no don’t say that, say this instead.”


You will notice that I have not said anything so far about saying no for ethical reasons. This is partly because I am on a panel tomorrow talking about ethics but partly because I think it is a no-brainer.

If I can go back to another French male – 18th century instead of 20th century – I often feel the need to quote Louis XIV who said “artifice always fails and does not long produce the same effects as truth”.

Everything about saying no is about sticking to the truth and being ethical not just because it’s moral but because it is good practice and good business.

Finally you need to have your own ethical framework – there are many clients I wouldn’t take on or work for because I had personal objections to what they did. This is not because I am holier than the next consultant but because I recognise I have strong views on some subjects and couldn’t represent some people. Others might find some of the clients I have worked for as distasteful.

That, however, is a personal choice and a circumstance in which, unless you have an accommodating employer, you may have to consider resigning.

But be careful

I might also say – although it probably doesn’t need saying – that you need to be careful about saying no, however well you frame it.

You need to be confident, in command of the facts and fairly sure that you are either right or have a perspective which it is dangerous to ignore.

My view is that if you use some of the tactics discussed above you will find that you get a reputation for being astute and an excellent strategic counsellor.

…and when you get to that stage you need to use your new-found authority to ensure you listen carefully to people who want to say no, or think again, to you.