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July 8, 2008
Truth to Power
In an article by USC Professor Warren Bennis titled Followership, he notes: "In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.”

"Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn seems to have had a gut-level awareness of the importance of what I call "effective backtalk" from subordinates. After a string of box-office flops, Mr. Goldwyn called his staff together and told them: 'I want you to tell me exactly what's wrong with me and MGM, even if it means losing your job.'"

Let's face it, the same holds true for outside counsel of any kind advising a client. The only question we have to ask ourselves is: Are we selfless enough and courageous enough to speak truth to power? Is it enough just to speak truth to power, or do you we have to actually be successful at it? How far can and should you push your point of view?

In the movie The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker portrayed Ugandan President Idi Amin in a story about a young Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who was bored with the family practice at home so he travels to Uganda, and as fate would have it, meets Amin. Impressed by the young doctor, Amin asks him to be his personal physician. Nicholas welcomes his new position.


As the confidant/client relationship grew over time, Amin would consult with Nicholas on a broad range of matters. (Here's where it gets interesting). There is a terrific portion of the film when Nicholas is consulted about whether to expel the Asians from Uganda, and he strongly urges against it. Amin dismisses his advice, moves forward despite Nicholas' counsel, and the results are as disastrous as Nicholas had predicted.


Following the debacle, Amin was enraged at Nicholas, blaming HIM for the failure. A stunned Nicholas replied, "I told you NOT to do it." To which Amin responded, "Yes, but you failed to convince me." It was a scene that left Nicholas and the audience in stunned silence.

This may sound a bit twisted, but Amin had a point. There's a lesson here. Could Nicholas have really stopped Amin from doing what he wanted to do? In that situation, probably not. However, under many circumstances one CAN effect change in high stakes situations if they truly care enough to do so.


As a practical matter, when it comes to speaking truth to power, there are three distinct issues to consider. First, it’s about taking a real stand with your client versus taking a ceremonial position - saying just enough to make the point, but without any earnest attempt to persuade. (The assumption here is that just mentioning a concern is enough to give the agency cover, regardless of the final decision or the subsequent result. It’s also based on the belief that the agency risks the relationship by challenging the client – particularly if they do so too vigorously). This I believe is a false choice. While it may depend on the client, one likely places the relationship at arguably more risk for being a yes man/yes woman.

Second, is the issue of bringing your client bad news. If your client is inclined to shoot the messenger, then this is not a client you want. By and large, a client would rather hear bad news from you than find out about it elsewhere - you should want it that way too. That said, if you're going to break the bad news, do so with empathy and proposed solutions.

Third, if you choose to make a convincing argument, you have to use good judgment when it comes to how hard and how long to push your position. Smart people given the same set of facts will often reach different conclusions, and one choice is not always categorically right or wrong. This is where trusting your client comes into play. Your client typically understands the information on which you are relying to draw your conclusions. You should allow for the possibility that you are not always aware of everything your client knows, and that often times the client is not at liberty to share everything with you. If the decision doesn't go your way, but you made an earnest effort, then it's time to move forward and get behind the determined (ethical) course of action. You'll never go wrong being a professional.

If you intend to speak truth to power; if you're going to truly put yourself on the line for the good of your client, then understand what it will take to move your audience and make your case in a manner that is both compelling and convincing. Act with the same level of conviction you would if the fate of your own agency depended on it - if you don’t, it just might.

Your client may be no Idi Amin, but you don’t have to be Nicholas either.

Leo J. Bottary is senior vice president, account director PR at Mullen, headquartered in Wenham, Massachusetts. He also authors the blog Client Service Insights…(CSI/Season 2).


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Leo Bottary serves as SVP, account director PR at Mullen, headquartered in Wenham, Massachusetts. He’s spent 25 years in the PR business and is passionate about the topic of client service. Prior to joining Mullen, he served as SVP, corporate practice and director of client service for the U.S. at Hill & Knowlton. Leo also authors the blog Client Service Insights…(CSI/Season 2).

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