Pushing Back

I was struck by  Eric Eggerston’s Common Sense blog last week   in which he said

“Executives (in big companies, and small) spend so much time pursuing their company goals that they sometimes forget the relative importance of events.

A change that took a massive effort may be important to your organization. The employees may be fired up about it, and eager to know the details.

That doesn’t mean anyone else cares.


The PR function has to be able to push back when told by management to make a big splash about something that’s a non-event to customers, regulators, competitors and the media. It may be possible to get your message out, but if the result won’t be a changed perception about your organization, why bother?”

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.  But the situation is more complicated than “pushing back.”

We have the same problem in higher education.  Let’s say the music department wants to fill a 500 seat auditorium with their performance of a Mozart concert.  Can’t be done.  Not with all the publicity and advertising. On the other hand, we just instituted some new emergency procedures in the event of a Virginia Tech type scene.  Other schools had done pretty much the same thing and my news director wondered if any  media would use it. I thought they would.  The Virginia Tech tragedy affected all of higher education and it weighs on parents’ minds. Yes, local media did use it. This was  a case where our executives and our employees made changes and were “fired up about it,” and the public was interested.

A former president loved to have his picture in the paper, and while most area papers didn’t use whatever photo op, one or two did and that was enough to satisfy his ego. Is there any PR director in the U.S. who’s going to tell his or her president they’re not going to take his picture?

Business — and higher education is a  business — is not a democracy.  It is a bureaucracy and when the Alpha Dog barks, the pack falls in line.

Eric hits it right on the head: “a massive effort may be important to your organization.”  Yep, if it’s important to the president or CEO, you will find an outlet for it because it’s not an intellectual issue.  It’s an emotional issue.  It’s an issue of pride and accomplishment, even if editors don’t share the excitement.

The  other side is that the more the public (even if it’s a “local paper” public) sees your company’s name, the deeper it’s branded into audience consciousness.  They may not read the Mozart performance story but they see the headline, “Mozart Performance at X University.”  They may not read the article on bio tech research but they do see the headline, “Bio Research Advances at X U.”

As PR pros, you can nudge, but it’s hard to push back.  Better to educate, a little bit at a time, gently leading.  

The media has changed a lot over the past decade, but the  above challenge hasn’t changed.  The company (meaning the CEO or college president) is excited about something.  They want to see it in print or on TV.  It’s a third party endorsement of their university’s or department’s accomplishment.

In most cases, PR folks have to find the most efficient way to do it, and get on with the bigger business of PR and marketing. 

Thanks, Eric, for a thought-provoking post.

Note:  I asked Dick Jones of Dick Jones Communication for his thoughts.  His reply:

Dennis.  I agree.  The only thing that I would say is that you can push back—every once in a while.  But you can’t do it too often or you get the rep as not being a “team player.”  So you have to pick your battles VERY carefully.  And ask yourself this question:  “Am I willing to die on this hill?”  If the answer is no then you nudge but don’t push back. 

 Early in my PR career I pushed back a lot.  And eventually I lost the confidence of the University president because I pushed back too often.  If I had to do it all over again I would have pushed back occasionally, but less often.  I would have saved my push backs for times when it was really critical for the welfare of the institution to do so.


2 responses to “Pushing Back

  1. Dick makes a lot of sense. You definitely have to pick your battles.

    One way to “push back” without getting into a tug o’ war, is to get management to buy into a PR strategy or a promotions strategy that has some proven tactics in it. Once you have the buy-in, it’s easier to nudge things toward fulfilling the strategy. It’s less personal, and less about you not agreeing to perform a particular task. It’s about the urgency of making the strategy succeed. The need to keep your energy focused on making the strategy work.

    Of course, this doesn’t work if you trick management into agreeing to a course of action. They have to really agree with the plan.

    As for the grip-and-grin photos in local papers, they don’t do any serious harm. We just have to make sure we’re not spending so much time appeasing a few egos that we don’t have time to get anything done.

  2. Excellent points, Eric. Thanks for the input.

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