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The power of no: when and how to say it

25 November 2016

You are a comms officer, hard at work on a brochure when a director from a different department appears at your shoulder. Glancing at your screen, they suggest you try a different background colour – then wait for you to do it. 

Or they ask if you could spare five minutes to check their project proposal for typos. You drop what you are doing and spend an hour proofreading the document. 

Next time, it’s a bit more substantial; a presentation they have been asked to prepare for some big event. Could you do the slides, they wonder, or even come along and film the session? 

It can happen in any department. But comms teams are more vulnerable than most to interference or ad hoc demands from elsewhere. 

The reasons are simple. For a start, communication skills are needed in most other functions, so communicators are known as useful people to turn to whatever your field. At the same time, since colleagues in other departments read and write, they tend to see communications as a generalist discipline in which they have competence worth sharing. 

Add to this the misconception that comms is only a  “service function” – offering publicity and production services to the rest of the organisation – and there you have it: a culture of expectation that those nice people in comms are just waiting to do your bidding. 

When to say no

Regularly advising and assisting other departments is often part of the communications remit, but only where such activity is a recognised and resourced part of the strategic plan. Every individual situation involves a judgement call, but in the following circumstances, it will often be best to decline:

1. Casual favours

If it’s a tiny thing, and just the once, then of course we don’t mind. But did this person make us feel obliged to take on a time-consuming task, unscheduled and unrelated to our work, perhaps not for the first time? Then they shouldn’t be asking.

2. Outside interference

A thoughtful suggestion could be welcome, but unless the person making it is a named participant in your project, or in the sign-off process, then you should be at liberty to turn it down. 

3. Late requests

Maybe the director concerned is involved in your project. But that doesn’t give them an automatic right to change their mind about something they have already signed off. It certainly doesn’t mean they can miss your deadline and still get their article in the newsletter.

4. “Just because” projects 

A surprise project request from another department – say for a report, a new web page, or a spontaneous publicity campaign – must be treated with caution. Perhaps it’s the best idea ever. But who says so, does it progress key strategic objectives, and what are the resource implications? The comms lead and possibly the CEO too, must be fully signed up to the idea and satisfied that it can and should be accommodated. Otherwise, it’s a no.

5. A bid too far

An inappropriate request can compromise a communicator’s professional or ethical judgement. For example, you get asked to handle a press statement on a crisis you have not been briefed on, or where you have good reason to believe you have not had access to the truth. No – not OK. 

How can I refuse?

It’s all very well wanting to refuse something, but how do you do it? If you’re a one-person comms team without senior status – or a comms officer whose line-manager doesn’t mind you getting random outside jobs – you could be in a difficult position. Try the following: 

i) Get your manager on-side

Perhaps your line manager doesn’t realise that all these outside requests are starting to compromise your work. Tell them. They will probably be supportive. Next time an unwelcome request comes your way, you can refer it to them for a decision, allowing them to decline on your behalf.

ii) Establish a protocol

If you have no obvious line manager or if, despite your manager’s interventions, the requests keep coming, propose a protocol. The protocol would indicate acceptable criteria and a process for filing job requests to the comms team and should discourage less reasonable approaches. Clearly you would need to get buy-in for the idea. 

iii) Develop your comms function

By continuing to do all you can to reinforce and develop the status of comms in your charity, you should notice a positive knock-on effect in how colleagues from other departments engage with you. 

iv) Personal assertiveness

Practising personal assertiveness helps us to work with our colleagues, not in conflict with them, even when we turn them down: I respect you and your explanation of why you want me to do this; I will listen, consider, help if appropriate or, if I think necessary, explain respectfully why I can’t help with this one.

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Kay Parris

freelance journalist and editor

Kay Parris is a freelance writer, journalist and editor working in the not-for-profit sector.