Picture yourself as a doctor. You’re confronting a sensitive, serious issue with a patient. When you recommend a plan, the patient offers an alternative. I’m not talking about getting a second opinion, but piping up to tell you what to do.
It would seem bizarre.
The same goes for legal counsel. Imagine if you were a lawyer counseling a client—as long as it wasn’t a fellow lawyer—and a similar scenario occurred.
Why would someone who isn’t experienced and professionally qualified tell a highly trained expert what to do? Especially considering the person willingly selected that expert. Crazy, right?
Well, it happens every day in PR. Professional, experienced, well-qualified practitioners in this field are often told—by the very clients who hired them—how to do their jobs.
It’s vital to listen to clients and to take into account their thoughts and feedback.
That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m going into that long dark tunnel most of us have found ourselves in, where a client insists on an idea that’s dreadful: a “solution” that would backfire, make the client a laughing stock with the media or even worsen a crisis.
You can’t give in, but it’s delicate. You can’t laugh in the client’s face, nor say the idea stinks.
What to do? Here are five tips:
Stay informed about trends, mistakes, and successes.
This way, you’ll be more likely to offer situations in which the idea your client is suggesting totally backfired. Have examples ready, or know where to get them. This strengthens your contention considerably.
Oh, and when television cameras are present, hiding behind milk crates
in a hotel service alcove is always a bad idea. Really. Bad. Idea.
Keep a neutral tone when rebutting and countering the client’s idea.
Stay calm, and keep your voice even and pleasant. Avoid being emotional or showing irritation or anger—even if you are annoyed or frustrated. The client is going to be far more inclined to listen to what you have to say if it comes in a manner that is professional, civil, and logical. Also, listen attentively before offering your view. The client should feel like you understood the idea before you shot it down.
Ask the client to play the scenario through.
Actually having your client step through a dry-run, role-playing exercise with the cringe-worthy idea can let the worst case unfold in a safe setting. It lets the client see why you wanted to nix it, but it also lets them take some ownership over the decision. Ego is at work here, don’t forget. Nothing wrong with respecting that fact while getting the desired result.
Give the client the worst-case scenario yourself.
If there is no other example to show, and your client isn't game to role-play it, you have to pull out the serious ammunition: Save them from themselves. Say that you cannot, with a sound conscious, allow the client and his or her reputation and brand to risk the damage and embarrassment likely to result if you let them go ahead with this idea. Don’t forget that your reputation is on the line, too, as the PR pro on the case.
If you really feel strongly, or if there’s an ethical lapse involved, bail out.
I will hear from some who disagree, insisting the client is paying, and so on. I don’t buy it. You’re being paid for your judgment and expertise. When that gets trampled—and you strongly suspect it will end very badly—you have to reassess your involvement. That might include parting ways. If it comes to this, be professional and courteous, but honest.
I have used all of these pointers—except No. 5, thankfully. I’d be interested to hear about a time you successfully steered a client out of a really bad idea or, perhaps, when you didn't.
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC.