Sometimes it really does take courage to hold on to your convictions, says Bell Pottinger’s chairman David WIlson

When do communication professionals maintain the courage of their convictions and stick by their considered position … even when their advice is rejected?

It’s a question we’ve all had to address in our careers, for me in corporate life and for the past decade on the agency side. Often your views are simply being tested. On others, you’ve encountered an intransigent opposition.

I pondered the point during the FIFA World Cup. After three disappointing performances, could you argue with John Terry’s honesty that all was clearly not well in the England camp? That was obvious after the first two tortuous displays. Yet Fabio Capello appeared an immovable object in changing his tactics and team selection. In the blink of an eye the former England football captain went from hero to zero, vilified for hanging problems from the dressing room onto the public washing line.

Footballers do have a habit of putting their foot in it – if not another part of the body! JT, Cashly, Stevie and their like have all been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or let their mouths lead their brains. Tell me a footballer who hasn’t. The combination of young men with too much spare time, far too much money and inadequate guidance amid acres of adulation seems to spell the recipe for disaster. And yet footballers are often forgiven certain woes – especially if they’re scoring for your team! Terry has always put his body on the line for a football cause. No-one could question his qualities of leadership on the field of play … the football pitch that is. And yet his brutal honesty has not always helped his cause.

In our role as consultants we face daily requests for a judgement call on many an issue. There’s no black and white AND IT IS AN ART NOT A SCIENCE. That’s what makes our work so stimulating.

As JT discovered, the media can quickly change its tack..

I remember my judgement being questioned on one strange occasion, when giving the most obvious of recommendations. I couldn’t comprehend the alternative. How could the client consider the complete opposite a valid approach? It wasn’t logical. And yet, having previously spent a decade in corporate life, I began to realise that in an agency I no longer controlled the approach. Perhaps I didn’t have all the facts at my fingertips. I wasn’t then, or yet, "within the CEO’s head". One stage removed from the board or executive team, I wasn’t now controlling the complete strategy and approach. But I could sleep easy that my advice was right, at least in my mind and that of my colleagues.

Like JT, there are indeed moments to pause and keep one’s counsel. With our clients or within corporations the strength of relations and the trust we’ve earned help us know when and how far to push our case. But faced with a direct challenge to your viewpoint what do you do? It’s the strength of the relationship and size of the bank of goodwill that you’ve managed to generate over time that will help you choose how far to push your point. There’s no harm in backing away, to fight another day, if the end game is not terminally disastrous.

Step back and watch minor hiccups when your advice has been refused. But just don’t look too smug. Inner satisfaction can be more than ample compensation. And then you can reinvigorate the strategy and approach that you’d planned all along! 

David Wilson is Chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations

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