Crucible moments in PR force us to confront ugly truths

It was my crucible moment, which the dictionary defines as "a place or occasion of severe test or trial," and most of us have such a time in our career.

I almost abandoned the business world in my early 30s, ironically just as my career was about to take off. I had hit my emotional limit, and did not think I could take any more of the stress or pressure.

I had come home one evening from a particularly bad day at work, sat down to dinner and asked my wife if she’d be open to moving us and our two small children to Iowa City. I wanted to apply to The University of Iowa’s creative writing program.

It was the late 1980s, and I was an SVP for a large PR agency. I headed the biggest account in the office, a luxury automotive brand, and my client was a mean-spirited, deeply insecure, micromanaging, control-freak bully. (Other than that, he was just delightful).

He was terrified of moving forward, and thus would delay every proposal we submitted by finding insignificant, nitpicking flaws that allowed him to put off making a decision.

It also enabled him to blame us, the agency, for any fallout from missed deadlines or delayed implementation.

I tried my best to manage him and the situation. I coddled, rewrote, apologized, accepted blame, pushed back, held firm, acquiesced, double and triple checked details, but there was no pleasing him. I was growing despondent.

The final straw came in conjunction with a big press introduction, when he insisted we purchase and bring a portable fax machine to the event. In those days fax machines were the size of small refrigerators and were not portable, yet he insisted.

Not only did he insist, but he refused to move forward on anything else with the press conference, including news releases, photography, speeches, invitations, and media alerts, until I located and purchased this piece of machinery, which as far as I could tell, was only available to the military at the time.

I began to crack. I could not see any way out. If we lost the account, we would have to lay off most of the office and I would likely lose my job.

If I went over his head, our firm might lose all of this client’s business, not just my part of the account. The more paralyzed I felt, the more attractive the prospect of studying creative writing became.

It was my crucible moment, which the dictionary defines as "a place or occasion of severe test or trial," and I’ve come to learn that most of us have such a time in our career. What I’ve also come to learn is that these moments help define who we are and what our path should be. I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on moving to Iowa. I actually liked my job when I wasn’t dealing with a sociopath.  

So I worked up the courage and contacted my client’s boss. I explained everything – that the press introduction was at risk, that things were in bad shape, and that the guy they had in charge of this launch was an absolute disaster. I had specific details to support my contentions, and I was careful not to make it personal.

The awful guy was fired. My confession only reinforced what the company already knew – this guy was in over his head and was spiraling out of control. We kept the account, they were able to replace the fired manager, and my career took off.

Sometimes these crucible moments open a new door for us. Sometimes they create hardship and disruption. And sometimes they simply force us to confront an ugly truth. But they always teach us something about ourselves. 

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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