The Role of “Loyal Opposition” – Both Risky and Rewarding

Like Bill Nielsen and Ray Jordan, I would feel better about this if I knew someone out there was listening and benefiting from this monologue, which I would prefer to be a dialogue. 

      My thoughts today deal with playing the role of “Loyal Opposition” when participating in discussions leading to important decisions.  It can be both risky and rewarding, but in my view it is one of the key contributions an experienced public relations professional can make to the decision-making process.  Even more important if it is a viewpoint that represents “the public interest.” 

      I have always felt that the public relations professional should be more attuned to “the public interest” than anyone else on the senior staff.  It is an important part of our area of responsibility. 

      When I went to Johnson & Johnson to help form its first public relations department I had come from the city room of a large newspaper – where opinions and beliefs are constantly challenged.  I naively thought it was the same in corporations. 

      The then chairman and CEO decided that the new PR department would report to him (and that’s the way it has wisely remained at J&J).  At an early discussion on an important decision I had the temerity to disagree with a decision that was evolving.  The subject had to do with the way an important announcement would be interpreted by the public.  Fortunately, my position proved to be right and I persuaded the others to see it my way.  That was my entry into the minefield of “Loyal Opposition.”  

      The importance of playing this role comes as no revelation to many of you who do it well.  For those who are wary, I offer encouragement. 

      When you are reasonably confident that your good judgment and knowledge of the subject strengthens your opposing view, become the “loyal opposition” even if most or all others are against you, including the CEO. 

      If you are right more often than you are wrong your views will be sought repeatedly.  Your value will be enhanced and your counseling will attain new levels of importance, especially to the CEO.  There will always be others in the room fearful about taking an opposing position.  You should not be. 

      I recommend being thoughtful about your decision, not disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing.  That gets you nowhere.  But often you will find that an opposing view stimulates more discussion, and even if your point is not adopted there is added value in stirring discussion.  Sometimes a compromise decision emerges. 

      It doesn’t have to be the CEO who is running the meetings.  It can be anyone in charge.  By raising concerns about a questionable decision you see emerging, and doing it in a diplomatic way, you will be serving your company and enhancing your own reputation as someone who is a vital part of important discussion leading to important decisions. 

      Your response to this bit of advice may be “Well, doesn’t everyone do this?”  The answer is an emphatic “No.”  How many times have you left a meeting and someone (maybe you) said:  “I wanted to tell them I thought they were wrong.”


(Posted by Larry Foster)



Filed under Communications / PR

5 responses to “The Role of “Loyal Opposition” – Both Risky and Rewarding

  1. Mark Groves


    In response to your initial remark, thanks to you, Bill and Ray for the insightful posts thus far – they’re valued by this UK-based corporate agency staffer.

  2. John Sheahan

    Larry & Bill,
    I am delighted to see you gentlemen are still actively involved in PR in your respective retirements. Somehow I came across this website and found it very interesting, having worked for both of you. I will continue to check it from time to time.
    Regards from Maine,

  3. I only wish, having been “the loyal opposition” in my own industry for many years, that more people understood that my feedback (and, sometimes, plain, flat out refusual to co-operate or implement) comes from a clear vision of a better option.

    Or a clear view of the consequences, even if there is no immediate idea of the right way to go. If you clear the decks and start again, you can find the right way to do things with a good outcome.

    Being “the loyal opposition” is a committed part of my career path and I have helped contribute to genuine change with incredible benefits for people who will never know I exist. Nor should they – because that is not the purpose behind “the loyal opposition”. Sometimes, though, I wish it wasn’t quite so lonely and that more people understood the reason behind it is genuinely to get things done – with better outcomes.

  4. Ray Jordan

    I hear you, Cool Nana. It’s so difficult getting both parts of Larry’s equation right: the “loyal” part as well as the “opposition” part. Folks really have to recognize the loyalty before they can even begin to accept the opposition elements. Meanwhile, professional loneliness does sort of come with the territory. I think it’s why public affairs and communications professionals need to gang up together and vent from time to time.

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