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Are PR Pros Entitled to an Opinion?

July 29, 2009

As PR professionals, we represent a client, brand and organization. Even if it’s not between the 9-5, we are still oct_23_association_news_spokesperson_trainingrepresentatives to a point after work hours. I work for an organization that takes no stance on political issues – which is unusual for an association. When talking with the media, I am representing my organization and what they stand for. More often than not, I am labeled “spokesperson” rather than “marketing coordinator.” With that language, what I say represents a more than 57,000 member organization, and not just me.

Good time for opinions

1. Around your friends – Your friends know where you work. Keeping your private and professional life separate can help because you’re able to unwind. It’s not likely that your friend will e-mail your boss saying you disagree with how many trees are being cut down and their non-existent carbon footprint – but a co-worker might.

2. If you disagree and it will affect the outcome of a project – Sometimes you’ll be asked to do something which you don’t agree with, whether it’s how to pitch, what outlets it needs to go to, verbage of a press release, etc. If you feel strongly about it and can back it up, a boss should be open to hearing it. I’ve heard more often than not that a boss values what you bring to the table – but you have to be brave enough to do it.

Bad time for opinions

1. If you serve as a spokesperson and disagree with a client’s stance – I know this might seem like a big ‘DUH’ – but you would be surprised what comes out of people’s mouths when they start going and stop thinking. Have talking points. Practice offbeat questions. Have a friend call you randomly and grill you on your client. All of these practices will help you fine tune and practice. Plus, seeing your name with ‘spokesperson’ attached to it serves as a reality check, one which shows that you serve as the mouthpiece. Remember that.

2. If you have too much to drink at the company holiday party – I really put this here because I couldn’t think of a 2nd reason not to state your opinion, and I like balance.

What do you think? Do you believe as communicators, we have to censor ourselves a little bit more because of how in the public we are?

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2009 7:41 am

    Lauren – I like these. Perhaps inherent in #2 (under good time for opinions) is sharing your opinion with a client if you disagree with them. Sure, there are clients that pay for you to be a “yes man (or woman),” but realistically they are paying for your expertise. If you feel that the project could be better if you went with X instead of Y, then it is your professional obligation to say so. To not would be to dramatically underserve your client.

  2. July 29, 2009 7:42 am

    Good point, Chuck. Do you find, though, that you try to break it gently to a client? With me, I’m on the corporate/association side, so it’s a little different. Do you try to work out a compromise, or maybe ask why they want to do it that way?

  3. July 29, 2009 7:45 am

    And never, ever, EVER talk politics in a work setting, even if you think you know where someone stands. Sometimes that’s just bait.

  4. July 29, 2009 7:47 am

    True, Lindsay. I never talk a whole lot about my political thoughts around the office – it can start a war.

  5. July 29, 2009 8:15 am

    This is an interesting topic. I work for a public school district (government agency) and there are many times when my views have to be kept internalized. This is especially true when dealing with questions, explanations, etc. on decisions/ramifications from higher authorities (national, state, agency, municipal, and local board) have for the organization and our operations. I have to remember to keep my big mouth shut and not interject my very opinionated/argumentative thoughts into conversations in my spokesperson role.

    Actually, for me (and other school PR people) having an opinion around your friends within the district community could end up being an issue.

  6. July 29, 2009 8:17 am

    Thanks, Richie – and thanks for bringing up the point about co-workers, or industry folks, that are also friends. You really have to be careful when mixing the two, because if anything work-related comes up, it’s almost as if you’re on the clock.

    I think being a spokesperson and having set statements, as mentioned above, do come into play with this topic.

  7. Rich Pulvino permalink
    July 29, 2009 8:18 am

    Avoid the personal opinions that fall under the umbrella of “office gossip” at all costs. Office gossip seems to be inevitable because everybody enjoys drama, but by becoming involved in office rumors or talking behind a colleague’s back, you run the risk of destroying morale around the office. This turns the atmosphere into something that can be too tense to function properly, or an environment where employees do not trust the people that they work with. How can you work effectively and efficiently if you do not trust the people you work with?

  8. July 29, 2009 8:38 am

    Another terrific topic!

    One struggle I’ve had with some clients over the years in the matter of opinion is the expert vs. hired gun role.

    Do they bring in a PR agency for their advice and guidance or to do exactly what they tell us to do?

    There are some clients that think they understand PR because they watch “Extra” or listen to Rush Limbaugh and completely disregard ANYONE’S advice, choosing to stick to their gut.

    Others realize that they are paying good money for experts in the subject matter that will work in their best interests. Anyone else run into that issue?

    In regards to this post, you hit the nail on the head…there are times to speak your mind and others to just shut the heck up. I don’t know if there are steadfast RULES on when those times are, since the context (time, place, relationship) of the situation is extremely important, but everyone should always think before opening their mouth.

  9. Elisha Velez permalink
    July 29, 2009 8:40 am

    Lauren,
    Good post today. I think all your points are valid. Having an opinion is perfectly fine in the workplace but having a valid opinion with reasons to back it up gives you more power. One thing I would add is the right to have an opinion on ethical standpoints. I also believe that right should be extended to not only friends but the workplace as well. This of course has to be done with respect and professionalism. With that said, I don’t think the public needs to know my ethical stance when I am representing my company but I would hope that my boss would me open minded enough to hear my thoughts.

  10. July 29, 2009 8:43 am

    Elisha – I actually ran into that in one of my jobs. It wasn’t really an ethical stance, but because of a personal issue I felt I could not represent the client 100 percent. I let my supervisor know this, and why – and explained that I didn’t want to be on an account where they might be hurdles. I respected the company and client enough to state that.

    Mike – I think that’s how clients should operate, but they also are drawn to big names. They don’t fully understand how PR agencies serve as counsel, which is why a lot of the times the PR or comm dept is first to be cut in budget crunch.

  11. July 29, 2009 9:34 am

    Totally agree…we’ve always got to be careful who we’re talking to. A quick pre-interview discussion while not paying attention could always go south.

    As an outside firm tho I think there’s a bit more wiggle room as we obviously aren’t representing all our clients if we say something publicly and our opinions on certain topics just don’t overlap with a client concern so there’s obviously no connection.

    There is also the strategic use….”I haven’t consulted with the company, but for my own 0.02….” use it to test public reaction. Classic West Wing technique…see my own upcoming blog post, “Everything I know about PR I learned from CJ.” (kidding).

  12. July 29, 2009 9:39 am

    Sigh. You would use a WW example, Cog. 🙂

    I like the distinction between outside firm and internal PR. It’s something that many do not consider, because they don’t realize the dynamic is different. Outside firms really aren’t privy to a lot of the info internal marketing/PR kids are. If you have a lot of clients over different industries, that will have play too. I think thats why many medium to smaller PR firms only take on a certain industry or sector.

  13. July 29, 2009 9:56 am

    Hello again! It’s been too long since I commented.

    This might seem obvious, but another good time to have an opinion is simply when you’re asked what you think. All too often people attend meetings (internal or external) and answer questions safely. If your boss asks, it’s because he/she wants to hear your unique perspective on the topic. If you’re invited to a brainstorm, speak up – no idea is a bad idea, and seemingly random thoughts can spark the best ideas. If a client asks, it’s because they want you to add your unique value/POV to the mix so the best course of action can be taken. People who interject their thoughts well when given the chance – with a touch of personality – seem to become the most valued counselors.

    On the flip side (again, maybe obvious), it could be bad to interject your opinion when others haven’t asked for it. Doing this could create a perception among co-workers/clients that you are a “know-it-all” or an attention hog. Basically, if you stay buttoned up and do good work, opportunities to contribute will come along all by themselves. No need to force the issue.

    Thanks!
    @JasonSprenger

  14. July 29, 2009 10:11 am

    J – Sometimes it’s the most obvious issues that need to be brought to light. Thanks for contributing – excellent points!

  15. July 29, 2009 10:12 am

    This is and always be a tough issue. We like to think that everyone will be receptive to our opinions but that just isn’t the case. People can get offended, whether rationally or irrationally, and that can hurt your business.

    When we had this discussion at SMCPhilly last night, a couple people said that they have their politics, they share their politics, and if you don’t like their politics, you don’t have to work for or with them, but that’s not going to change their opinion.

    You also have to distinguish between a situation where it’s your company, or whether you’re working for a company. It’s a lot easier to be publicly opinionated if you’re only representing yourself. It becomes a bit messier, when you’re representing others, or your company.

    Personally, I definitely have a filter on…I think everyone does, to some extent…except maybe Stuart Foster =) My filter is pretty open though as I share most of my opinions on my personal account. When using my company’s accounts, the filter becomes very fine and I don’t let a lot through.

    What we came down to in the end of SMC was that it’s a common sense thing. Before you say something, think about it, think about how people might react, and if it’s going to hurt you, think about whether or not it’s worth sharing.

    @DavidSpinks

  16. July 29, 2009 10:20 am

    Ha! I love David calling out Stuart on here.

    Anyway, Lauren, to answer your question…Yeah, I think you need to find a way to delicately present your idea. Something like – “That’s an interesting idea. Have you considered x, y or z?”

  17. July 29, 2009 10:56 am

    I think everyone – no matter where they are – had a right to their opinion. It’s how you express it and react to differing opinions that cause problems, in my experience. Some of my most productive, flourishing career moments are when I’m working with someone that doesn’t agree with me. Adults should be able to “share” opinions and not get in to a shouting match because they disagree (at work or otherwise).

    Much of PR is about common sense. If you use that when determining your opinion, your duties as a spokesperson, and representing clients, your opinion should prove nothing but valuable (even if those who make the ultimate decision don’t agree with it).

  18. July 29, 2009 11:05 am

    Lauren,
    Great topic. I love the feedback – especially the promise of an upcoming blog about WW, which is where all great PR advice comes from.

    I think somewhere to be cautious, not necesssrially about sharing your opinions, but about being vocally critical, is when our peers are going through crisis. I know thatmy family. friends. and co-workers will often talk critically when they see – say a superintendent scandal in another district – that happens very public and goes all wrong. It is so easy to sit back and play Monday morning quarterback as we watch the news stories and thank the news gods it’s not us this time.

    I learned a long time ago that it is best not to say, “Well if I were running their pr depr…” becausw I have no idea what the real story is and usually my peers are doing a darn fine job with the hand they’ve been dealt. I am also smart enough to know that on any given day it will be me in the hot seat and I hope I will get the same courtesy.

    @kescovedo

  19. Kyle Johnson permalink
    July 29, 2009 1:04 pm

    Going off of Jennifer’s comment, it’s actually been proven that it’s extremely advantageous to have a room full of diverse people when brainstorming. Diverse, meaning of many backgrounds, experiences and OPINIONS! No matter how crazy someone’s idea may sound, there is most likely a group of people who agree with them and by considering their opinion and at least addressing it in the final outcome, you could add that group of people to your affected market. No campaign or idea will ever get out among different types of pople if a group of 50 year-old white men, who share the exact same opinions and ideas, came up with it.

    Ok, refocusing here. What about personal opinion filters in the workplace as an intern? I’m interning right now and constantly have to knock myself down a little bit because things are happening all around me that I have a comment for. So far, I think I’ve done a pretty good job about only offering my thoughts when someone of merit asks for them, as Jason was saying. Being an intern, I’m not able to get accustomed to how the office runs and operates, what’s ok and what’s not ok, who to steer clear of, etc. Any by the time I do get an idea of all that stuff, internship’s over, time to move along (maybe).

    All I can do is go out of my way to soak up as much as possible while keeping my nose out of gossip. I know that no one’s loyalty is to the intern… they’ll squeal on my in a heartbeat if I contribute to bad-mouthing anyone or, heaven forbid, a client.

    This brings me to another idea… what about romantic relationships in the office? My PRSSA chapter made a quick “Office Do’s and Don’ts” video based on NBC’s show, The Office, if anyone wants to check it out. There’s bloopers at the end of part 2!


  20. July 29, 2009 2:53 pm

    What are you guys talking about? I totally filter myself.

    Weirdos…

  21. July 29, 2009 3:00 pm

    Great Post, Lauren. This is one of the biggest reasons why I fully believe in ‘training the trainer’ – especially if you serve as a spokesperson for a company from time-to-time. It’s one thing to believe that you can taalk the talk in a pinch, but if you’re untested (even in a controlled situation), you can make a HUGE mess for the brand.

    Moreover, and to your second point, if your personal opinions don’t reflect what the ‘company stance’ is, you *will* show that – especially on camera. Which brings ,e back tomy original point – even if you have been frank wiht your client on a few message points, you must still get some camera time and work wiht another ‘outside’ professional to make sure that if/when it comes to answering ‘that’ question, you know how to bridge it back to the messag w/o compromising your beliefs.

  22. July 30, 2009 9:53 am

    Thanks, N. This post really resonates with me as I serve as a spokesperson much more frequently. I think being prepared for the situation helps a lot – even if you don’t think you’ll get in it.

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