By Nikkia Adolphe, PR Director
Several weeks have passed since the 2018 US Open women’s singles final when icon Serena Williams vehemently argued with the chair umpire about code violations he had handed to her, and then lost to Japanese player Naomi Osaka. While critics called Williams’s behavior an ‘outright public display of poor sportsmanship,’ I walked away with a different sentiment about Williams’s behavior: I found it admirable, particularly as a public relations professional.
I found it admirable in that Williams was persistent in her efforts to call out what she felt was discrimination and a clear display of the double standards female athletes have been subjected to for decades. And admirable that she would not back down in demanding an apology from the umpire.
It was refreshing and commendable to see a woman in her position argue for what she believes in. And after reflecting over the weeks following the event about what transpired on that tennis court, I see it as lesson that PR professionals can apply to their practices: the power of pushing back.
Many PR professionals follow three core principles: to remain ethical, to grow and maintain client relationships, and to always ensure that the client is pleased and gains value from our work. Of these, growing client relationships can be the most challenging, especially when a client is passionate about an idea or a project that their PR professional knows is not necessarily a positive or savvy direction to pursue.
And despite best efforts, all too often PR teams fail to guide their clients away from decisions that not only disregard industry best practices but also risk their brand’s reputation.
I can attest to how challenging it can be as a PR professional to strike a balance between ensuring the client is satisfied while simultaneously supporting ideas or concepts that are in the client’s best interest.
It is in these situations that PR professionals should remember that they are the expert who was hired by the client because they are successful and knowledgeable. While navigating conflict between a client may feel uncomfortable, PR professionals must be confident in their counsel (even when it’s the opposite of what the client may want to do) – never wavering and always keeping the client’s best interest in mind.
When faced with a scenario that may require disagreeing with a client, PR professionals should factor in these three things:
1. Leverage proven best practices. Whether it’s explaining why the suggested timing of a client’s announcement is off or pushing back on a campaign that would clearly fail to resonate with the client’s target audience, cite proven industry best practices to provide context and reasoning. Use examples to support your point and demonstrate your experience and expertise.
2. Create solid relationships with clients. At the core of every great client – PR professional dynamic is a respectful and professional relationship. This foundation, built before a disagreement occurs, makes the prospect of disagreement less daunting.
3. When all else fails, meet in the middle. There’s nothing more uncomfortable or challenging than to have tension with a client or colleague. Have a meeting of the minds to decide on the best course of action – this may require a little push, pull and compromising during the process but it’s better to hash it out collectively, come to a mutual decision and determine a plan of action as a team.
When encountered with pushing back in a PR client situation, PR professionals should ask themselves ‘what would Serena do?’ Think back to Williams’s courage to speak up and push back not only for herself, but as a representative and example to her peers and fans. Pushing back in PR doesn’t have to be a battle; it’s about leveraging knowledge and intuition, having conviction in decision-making, and going the distance to advocate for the best interest of the client.