The client is always right…except when they’re not: the power of constructive challenge in PR

Written by Mike Greenshields

28 May 2024


As PR professionals, we shoulder significant responsibility for our clients. They entrust us to guide them through the intricacies of media relations, public and industrial perceptions, and brand reputation. In return, we owe them unwavering honesty and directness.

So, what happens when a client presents an idea, suggestion, or direction that isn’t quite…right?

It could be a campaign concept that won’t resonate with the target audience, a press release destined to fall flat with journalists, or a crisis response strategy that could backfire. In many of these cases, it might seem easier to default to a ‘client is always right’ mentality to avoid any potential conflict. But that’s not why we’re here.

To provide the best possible service to our clients, maximise their coverage, and elevate their brand perception, we must have the ability and confidence to challenge them.

Why challenge is essential

If our clients were already PR experts, they wouldn’t need us. And though a team of yes-men might be great for the ego, it can be incredibly dangerous for the brand.

Our role is to elevate and safeguard our client’s reputation and brand awareness. This isn’t just about amplifying positive messages; it’s about identifying and mitigating risks. Sometimes, that involves saying ‘no’ to a detrimental idea or suggesting a more aligned alternative.

By constructively challenging ideas, we increase the likelihood that the PR investment will yield the desired results. We ensure campaigns resonate with the right audience, tailor communications to specific media outlets, and drive positive outcomes for our clients.

Challenge is also a catalyst for creativity. By questioning assumptions, exploring diverse viewpoints, and pushing boundaries, we unlock new possibilities and arrive at innovative solutions.

Above all this, we challenge our clients because they trust us to do so. We work with some truly incredible companies, and we are invested in their success. Respectfully disagreeing with a potentially damaging idea is a major part of our prioritising their best interests.

Tactfully challenging, not confrontational

While the importance of challenge is undeniable, there is a line. Advocating for our clients may mean occasionally pushing back, but it should never become confrontational.

To avoid this, there are four general principles we follow:

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff: Sometimes we might disagree on the wording of a certain sentence or the placement of a logo. But, at the end of the day, if its not going to significantly affect the campaign’s success or jeopardize our client’s reputation, we’re happy to let it go.
  • Focus on the ‘why’: Simply dismissing an idea as ‘wrong’ is wildly unproductive. If we are disagreeing with something, we will always explain the reasons behind our concerns. Where possible we will also back this with evidence to support our perspective, such as data from previous campaigns, relevant case studies, industry trends, or insight from audience research.
  • Offer alternatives: If we are disagreeing with an approach because we think it could be a problem, then it is also our job to solve that problem. This means identifying a different approach that addresses our concerns, but still aligns with the overall goals and objectives of the PR campaign.
  • Be respectful and collaborative: We are never going to be disrespectful or rude if we disagree with something. Instead, we approach the situation constructively, understand the rationale behind the idea and work together to find a solution.

The bottom line

The adage “the client is always right” often hold true, but in PR, it’s not absolute. Our responsibility extends beyond mere agreement; it’s about protecting our clients’ reputations and ensuring campaign success.

Constructive challenge is a testament to the trust our clients place in us. It’s a balancing act of tact and expertise, where disagreement is respectful, evidence-based, and accompanied by viable alternatives. This fosters creativity, demonstrates commitment, and empowers clients to make informed decisions, navigate the media landscape, and achieve exceptional results.