If Someone Slaps You on the Left Cheek...

Don't get into a hissy fit! (courtesy of Kevin Steele)

Life isn't always a bed of roses in public relations.  Especially when public feedback and criticism seem to be directed towards your organisation, your products or even worse, your colleagues.

The easiest way to react is to shoot from the gut.  Take out that bazooka and blast those idiots into online oblivion.  After all, they have taken unfair liberty with your organisation's reputation by making unfair comments, unjust criticisms, or untrue allegations on their newspapers, magazines, radio programmes, blogs, forums, discussion groups, facebook pages, twitter updates, and others.

My advice? Don't get into the fray.  The surest way to stoke the flames of public wrath is to fight fire with fire.  As Gandhi himself would have put it, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." 

Such tit-for-tat exchanges seldom have a happy ending.  They end up with lose-lose outcomes where relationships just turn from bad to acrimonious and maybe even downright murderous.  Sometimes, bridges are burn so badly that they lead to boycotts (online or offline) of your organisation's brands and services.

You may have won the battle by defending your organisation's integrity, but lost the war for public goodwill.

How then should one react to negativity?  Can we truly just turn the other cheek and do nothing about it?

First, take a deep breath and maintain your cool.  Don't take it personally.  If you were in the midst of typing up that "kill those bastards" post on your blog, or writing a letter to the press that will "decimate the enemy", you should stop this very instant.  Things that are done when one is outraged aren't usually worded in the best possible manner, and may lead to a further negative spiral in relationships.

If you can't achieve nirvana at your desk, my advice is to leave.  Not quit the organisation, but take a walk perhaps to a park or garden nearby, along the river, or anywhere that is quiet.  Alternatively, you can perhaps confide to a colleague, scream in the toilet or do something to let all that negative energy out.  Don't just simmer and stew. 

Next, you should think through why that person (or group) is reacting in this manner.  Was heslighted by your organisation's officers in the past?  Have they been publicly attacked or humiliated because of something which your organisation failed to do?  Or does she have a vested interest in seeing to the downfall of your organisation?

As Stephen Covey would have said, "Seek First To Understand, and then To Be Understood".  And the age-old concept of thinking win-win.

When that is done, explore various ways to address that person's points and the best way to do so.  Would a direct approach (eg an email or phone call, if contacts are available) be better or would a public platform serve the purpose more adequately?  In all my years of dealing with people, I find that most of them are not really monsters but decent human beings who just need to be sounded out.  

Should there be a need for a written response, one should adopt some ground rules in any written correspondence as follows:

1) Be polite and pleasant, but don't be too superficial.  Always thank the person for his or her view.  Obviously, he or she must care enough to invest time, energy and effort in putting up a stinker!

2) Address the points raised as clearly as possible, in an objective and factual manner.  

3) Brevity is an advantage, but don't be too curt.  You don't want the public to think that you are unreceptive to feedback.  At the same time, you shouldn't belabour the point.  

4) Be honest about what's possible and what's not.  If space is limited (eg a press reply), offer your contact particulars so that the person or group can contact you directly for a more comprehensive explanation.

5) If you have truly screwed up, just admit it.  However, explain the circumstances behind that moment of failure if you can.  We are all human beings after all.

6) Finally, end off by inviting that person to continue to be a customer/client/patron of  your organisation's products and services, and to continue to provide inputs.  State that you value his or her contributions.

If the situation calls for it, arrange a face-to-face meeting, preferably over a cup of coffee.  I know this doesn't come across naturally for most people (you mean I have to meet that jerk? What happens if I end up punching him in the face....), but trust me, it works incredibly well.  Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don't go to that meeting armed with files, factsheets and bullet points to defend your cause.  Instead, just be prepared to spend more time listening than talking.

Should it be feasible, one could even consider inviting that person/group to be a part of your organisation's sounding board/ focus group.  Let them know the extent of your pain as far as possible (subject to confidentiality and competitive factors), and offer them the rare and privileged opportunity of coming up with a solution.  You can even formalise this relationship through some official letter or something.

Of course you would then ask me what happens if the person or group prefer to remain anonymous and choose to respond in a public online platform (like a blog or forum posting).  That will then depend on the gravity of his or her criticisms.  If it truly warrants a response, I would put one up on an official platform (personal or professional) that is easily viewed and identified, and leave the matter at that without responding to subsequent follow-up posts on the matter.

Eventually, all storms and battles will die-down.  The trick in good public relations is how one can get back to normality as soon as possible.  Keeping a controversy alive by fanning the flames or adding coal to the fire isn't a wise move.  Especially when social media has the propensity of magnifying and enlarging any misstep into a worldwide calamity.  

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