Tip Sheet: Face the Challenge of Engaging in Tough Talks

Alan Cohen

We all like to be liked, and PR executives are no exception. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—unless and until the desire dominates their decision-making process.

That pitfall is dramatically apparent in the fact so many PR heads avoid the difficult talks they know they must have if they’re to preserve and enhance their organization’s effectiveness (while, at the same time, modeling this avoidance behavior for their employees).

They may be fearless in talking to reporters, editors, community groups, analysts, activists and others about the merits of the company, client or cause they represent. But, faced with the need to have a tough talk with a client, manager or employee, many avoid the experience, regardless of the cost. Some communicators even deceive themselves into thinking the avoidance is really a virtue they rationalize is diplomacy or tact.

Why? Respected consultant David C. Baker suggests the impulse to avoid tough talks may arise because the public relations field tends to attract “non-confrontational, conflict-averse” individuals. “They’re often well-connected, well-liked people-pleasers who were disinclined to rock the boat in the past,” he said, and so they lack the ability to engage in tough conversations.

In preparation for my just-published book, Tough Talks for PR Pros: How Best to Say What Needs to be Said to Clients, Colleagues and Employees, I surveyed more than 100 PR practitioners about their most difficult types of conversation. The toughest (according to 28.7% of respondents) was addressing personality issues like rubbing people the wrong way; next was breaking the news that someone’s job is being eliminated (23.8%).

Also high among gladly avoided conversations: telling employees they’re not developing skills to advance, and informing clients they can’t get what they want.

One reason cited for not wanting to address these issues was discomfort in dealing with emotional responses the conversation might provoke, and, sometimes, wariness about offending clients who have the power over hiring and firing. In the case of giving feedback to one’s own manager, there is fear of being passed over for promotions and raises.

So how to overcome the reluctance to engage in necessary tough talks? Here are some ideas, gleaned from top PR pros, industry surveys and my own experience:


The Boy Scouts have it right: Be prepared. Before the talk, know exactly what you want to accomplish and how you plan to get there.

Just as some athletes respond best to a pat on the back and others to a kick in the pants, individual staff members and bosses will react differently, so tailor your approach accordingly.


Ideally, you’ve developed a company culture in which one-on-one talks are not a threatening novelty and an atmosphere in which staff members have always felt comfortable engaging in frank discussions with colleagues and superiors.


No matter how serious the point that needs to be made, remember the most successful tough talks are not lectures but give-and-take conversations. So listen—and learn.

Encourage the other person to speak freely. Maybe jump-start the conversation with a question about the staff member’s own evaluation of what’s going right and what could be improved in his or her job performance.

A question about the staffer’s life outside the office might trigger a response that sheds light on the employee’s recent inertia or negative attitude.

Where the employee has identified a failing, don’t respond with a personality attack but address the behavior with a helpful statement along the lines of: “How can we work together to correct or improve it?”

It’s vital not to let a situation that needs addressing fester. Allow it to go unchecked for too long, and what might have been a relatively easy issue to quell may escalate into a raging problem.


With a client, a tough talk’s worst-case scenario is losing the account. But for a constructive win-win outcome, the same principles apply with clients as with employees: a comfortable atmosphere for candid conversation; your readiness to listen and emphasize the positive; all while making the point that must be made. PRN


Alan Cohen is president of Acts of Balance Executive Coaching and Training. He is the author of Those Difficult Talks for PR Pros (www.actsofbalance.com). He can be reached at alancohen@actsofbalance.com.