PR pros: Know when to use your fastball

A fastball is about power and strength, and about having the temerity to go directly after a batter.

I have a longtime friend who says very wise things.

We were colleagues together in the ’90s, and he since went on to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He’s one of the smartest executives I’ve worked with, and also one of the most plainspoken. He tends to use homespun phrases such as "that dog won’t hunt," and he has a way of making complicated things sound simple.

One of his best phrases came out when we were discussing a potential candidate for a senior marketing role at our company.

"Do you think this guy would be a good fit?" I asked.

"He’s smart enough," said my friend, "but I don’t think we should hire him."

"Why not?" I asked.

"He has no fastball."

As a baseball fan, I knew exactly what my friend meant. A fastball is about power and strength, and about having the temerity to go directly after a batter. I think about this phrase all the time when evaluating talent. No fastball. It means backbone, tenacity, and the ability to drive a project forward in the face of strong opposition.

Some people only throw fastballs, which can quickly grow old, annoying, and ultimately, self-destructive. A more common problem though, particularly among communications people, is the lack of a fastball. It’s an inability to be aggressive, particularly when it’s warranted. PR pros tend to be solution seekers, but occasionally they also need to be ferocious. The trick is in knowing when to flex.

When I was younger, I didn’t think I had a fastball, but much to my surprise, it would emerge in times of crisis, or when I felt truly passionate about an idea. My normal demeanor was one of collaboration and compromise. But when all the chips were on the table, I found myself willing to fight hard for a cause.

We had a case at Nissan where one of our dealers was secretly videotaped uttering vile, racist epithets during a tirade at work. The tape aired on a local station in a small market, but within 24 hours it was broadcast across the country. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanded that we terminate the dealer.

I found myself in a conference room with executives and lawyers, arguing vociferously. I knew what had to be done: The dealer had to be terminated as soon as possible. The brand’s reputation was at risk, and the controversy would not go away until we did the right thing.

And then one of the lawyers spoke: "We can’t say we’re going to terminate the dealer," he said. "Legally we’re not allowed to terminate him. According to our franchise agreement, we have to issue what’s called a ‘notice to cure letter,’ which gives the dealer time to address the problem."

I pushed back hard, arguing that the financial exposure with this dealer would be far less costly than the potential damage to the brand. I was adamant that we couldn’t be wishy-washy about tolerating a racist dealer. Our lawyer was equally adamant that we couldn’t use the word "terminate." So we elevated the issue to our CEO.

The CEO listened for all of about 10 minutes, then said: "We have to terminate the dealer, we can’t abide by this behavior." Then he looked at the lawyer and said: "You figure out how to deal with this in the courts. But we’re issuing a statement today on the termination."

We issued the statement, the controversy died, and we worked out a settlement with the dealer. And my fastball got that little bit faster.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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