Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dealing with Touchy Situations

However much we hate being misunderstood or embarrassed, business life is full of such opportunities. As long as the world remains imperfect, there will be dissatisfied customers, media scandalmongers, and political-correctness-vs.-tradition. Anyone mature enough to be in business should be mature enough to avoid provoking such situations, and to deal with them when unavoidable.

To minimize the risk of your written communications’ generating bad feelings:
  • Understand the “political correctness” minefield. Nowhere is it so easy to insult someone unintentionally as in “outsider” references to their culture, gender, or religion. Some people are so sure the world hates them that they take anything short of wholehearted endorsement as a hate crime. The best way to minimize trouble is to surround yourself with advisors from a variety of backgrounds; there’s no one like an “insider” for keeping others sensitized to a group’s sore points and preferred descriptive terms.
  • Never, ever insult anyone personally in writing. The difference between unwelcome criticism and a personal insult is that the former is both specific and provable. “JD hasn’t made a sale in ten months” can be backed up with evidence; “JD is the biggest incompetent who ever lived” not only is unprovable but implies a smear on every aspect of the person’s character. And while even a verbal insult can come back to haunt you in court, if you delivered it in writing you lose all benefit of the doubt.
  • Focus on the positive. When you never have anything good to say, even people not directly affected by your comments reflexively look for bad things to say about you.
Of course, too much avoiding of the negative can get you into worse trouble if you owe the public an apology or if there is some other real problem to be dealt with. Everyone knows about corporations and government entities that insist finances are stable up to the moment everything collapses, or that no one did anything wrong long after the evidence is undeniable. To minimize the damage when real trouble strikes, the #1 thing to remember is: Never try to dodge the issue. It will only hurt you in the probably-not-so-long run.

Not dodging the issue means:
  • Not downplaying the seriousness of the problem. It’s bad enough to have the media and the public questioning your competence; don’t give them reason to question your honesty as well.
  • Being open about the nature of the problem, the challenges involved, and the planned solution. Many businesses fail here because of paranoia about “revealing sensitive company information.” It’s one thing if a revelation compromises someone’s personal privacy, or gives so much detail as to show competitors how to duplicate a product or procedure; but every word in the employee handbook shouldn’t be top secret.
  • Being willing to apologize on the company's behalf, without mixing excuses with the apology. People think more, not less, of someone who is willing to unequivocally accept blame.

When it comes to good public relations, a little healthy humility goes a long way.

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