How to not be submissive in PR

How to push back, professionally

One of the most underrated skills in Digital PR is resilience, and this does not mean becoming someone that can stand up against challenges, although this is a skill worth having too. Resilience in Digital PR is effectively growing a thicker skin and determining if it is worth pushing back or, in the words of Jinx Monsoon, let it flow like ‘water off a duck’s back.

It is no secret to those inside the Digital PR bubble that it is a tough, and sometimes, cruel industry. As professional middlemen (women/people) we are in the prime position to get the flak from clients as well as the journalists we pitch to. When working within an agency, client retention is paramount, and as a result, delivering above and beyond becomes the norm to aim for. However, this is an industry where 50% of your role is skill and 50% is based entirely on luck.

Will another brand put a similar campaign out before this goes out? Will it reach the journalist’s inbox? Will they actually see it? Will they have space in their editorial calendar to cover it? Will their editor approve it? Will they add in a link? All the above is out of our control and yet we have targets to hit and KPIs to — but of course, the client is spending budget and expects an ROI, hence the pressure from the client side.

Then occasionally, and it is occasionally, you will reach a journalist that is either having a bad day or is just inherently rude, that will send you a response that makes your stomach turn and make you feel like an imposter in your role.  

With the few out there, as shown above, that feel it is necessary to send unhelpful, negative responses, there is obviously a breakdown of understanding. They fail to realise, like them, digital PRs are just doing their job and a lot of work goes into what they push out. And yet in an instant that one comment can make some feel as if they want to run and hide. As professionals, we feel as if we cannot fight back because, as it is stated in every conference, tips article and course (if you went to uni), building media relations in PR is paramount to your success.

With all of this, add the dash of toxic workplace cultures found within some agencies, you have a perfect recipe for a high-stress role and eventual burnout.

So, should PR professionals just sit back and accept that this is what the role involves? NO.

This should absolutely not be the default and those starting out in PR need to know that it is okay to push back and that they don’t have to fold to every remark. By leaning into the trend of accepting this behaviour, not only will it perpetuate this conduct, but also the mental health crisis in PR will expand. This could lead to more imposter syndrome, anxiety and burnout and no one will enjoy working in this industry.


Pushing back can seem scary, especially when you are relatively new to the industry. The trick is knowing how to pick the right battles, when is appropriate to fight back and how to do so effectively and when you need to just brush it off. Here are some tips that could help give you the confidence to do so.

Kill ‘em with kindness

No one likes receiving negative responses, particularly from journalists. We all want to hit those huge link numbers and keeping the journalist’s sweet is ‘advertised’ as our best way of achieving this. When a reply from a journalist lands in the inbox the first response is excitement which is then quickly thwarted when the contents are rude, and in some instances, explicit. Rude behaviour should not be tolerated in any role, but there is something about a keyboard warrior not having to experience the impact their words have that doubles the effect. Not only do you go from the excitement of receiving a reply and thinking, ‘yes, a result!‘ to having to be face-to-face with a rude response, but you then have to struggle with not taking that feedback personally which can lead to doubts about your skills.

There are two ways to handle this. The first is simply to ignore and block this journalist. Make them a Do Not Contact and move on, as this type of feedback doesn’t even deserve a response. When the response is short or particularly rude with no real feedback, this is the best option.

The second is to kill them with kindness. Instead of matching their tone and sinking to their level, acknowledge their request (if they have asked to be removed from the list), maybe explain the reasoning for sending it to them if they question the relevancy or campaign itself. Then sign off wishing them a lovely rest of their day/week/weekend. As mentioned previously, these people are either having a bad day and will hopefully feel bad when they receive a level-headed, polite reply or they are just rude and they won’t get the satisfaction of knowing they got to you.

Get receipts

Some will argue that calls are better for client interactions and that having that rapport with them is vital for retention and a healthy relationship, however, be sure to follow up with emails to get everything in writing. Having receipts will give evidence to push back should someone forget something, change their mind or question the work. This will give you the confidence to stand your ground if any difficult conversations arise.

This doesn’t need to be presented in a ‘he said, she said‘ or ‘I told you so‘ kind of way, but will just allow you to refer to the facts when needed.

Manage expectations

Although this is a bit of corporate jargon in an industry which is as much about luck as it is about skill, it is vital we manage expectations from the onset. Especially when we don’t have full control over some of the KPIs, such as traffic and conversions, which are dependent on other factors too.

Some potential clients will ask for a link ‘guarantee’, or agencies will promise it in the pitching stage to secure the win. This is a slippery slope, as nothing in PR is guaranteed. The best example of why link guarantees are a bad idea is the pandemic. No one except maybe The Simpsons predicted a global pandemic, and as such, there were campaigns that were planned, in the works and being outreached that had to stop dead, putting a dent in that guarantee.

If a KPI for a contract is link numbers, then setting a link target is the best way to go, explaining to the client that this is what the work is aiming to achieve over the course of the contract period. But you’ll also want to report on other key metrics which DPR activity has an impact on too — referral visits from linking publications, traffic to the linked URL, target keyword ranking improvements and so on.

Have a professional clone

Lastly, have a professional clone. It is easy in this industry to take things personally. Digital PR is full of incredible highs, but also shocking lows which can take their toll on your mental health. If you can, try and separate your professional self from your personal self. This is an industry in which our work isn’t going to kill anyone if you make mistakes, so treat it like that. This is where being more like Jinx Monsoon comes into play. If you get unhelpful negative feedback from a journalist, just remember: ‘water off a duck’s back.‘ Sent out a press release with a typo? It’s ‘water off a duck’s back.‘ Your campaign isn’t going viral? It’s ‘water off a duck’s back.‘ It is hard, but try not to let these workplace woes impact your personal life and mindset. No one ever learns anything from being perfect; we learn through our mistakes and give it another go — which is why making these mistakes is vital.

When you stop taking things personally it becomes easier to push back, as you can compartmentalise it as an issue for your work self, rather than an attack on your personal self. Which can help to remove any rash emotional response.

The more experience you have when it comes to pushing back or brushing things off, the more resilient you will become within your role. Keep reminding yourself ‘it is PR not ER.’

Featured image: Julia Taubitz / Unsplash

Gemma Flinders, Digital PR Lead, Brave Bison

Gemma has 10 years experience in the digital marketing industry. Knowledge sharing is a passion with a particular focus on data in digital PR, but also in helping eradicating burnout in the industry and educating juniors starting out in DPR

All articles