Reflecting feelings to solve problems

One of the most challenging aspects of PR is dealing with a pesky group of professionals called journalists.

One of the most challenging aspects of PR is dealing with a pesky group of professionals called journalists.

The media occasionally publish articles that reflect negatively on our employers or clients. They actually have the temerity to produce stories that are not aligned with our long-term business strategies.

Sometimes management has a hard time understanding this.

When I worked at Nissan, there was an automotive writer at USA Today who delivered a scathingly negative review on an important new car we introduced. As a result, the head of our US sales division paid an impromptu visit to my office, and he was not happy.

"Did you see this?" he angrily demanded as he slapped a copy of the publication on my desk. "Why didn’t you do anything about this?"

"Well," I said calmly, "Clearly he didn’t like our new model." "Well I don’t like him!" said my boss. He then harangued me for 20 minutes, pointing out that we spent millions of dollars a year advertising in USA Today, that it was pointless to be cooperative with this clearly biased journalist, and we should stop talking to the outlet because it was getting us nowhere.

Then he paused and delivered his coup de grace: "We should withdraw our advertising for the rest of the year."

In those days I liked to engage in verbal combat. This was before my wife taught me about reflecting feelings.

My wife is a public health professional and has spent many years working with troubled teens. She taught me that if someone is upset, the first and best step is often to reflect feelings. The key is to make them feel as if they have been heard. This seemed utterly implausible to me, but history has proven her right.

So what I should have said to my seething superior was, "Sounds like you’re upset. I don’t blame you." Then he hopefully would have ranted for 20 minutes, wore himself out, and left feeling like he had been heard.

Instead, I pointed out that withdrawing advertising and boycotting USA Today would likely hurt more than help. That we still needed their cooperation on the six other new models we would be launching that year, and that the outlet was a key conduit to our customers, dealers, and employees.

My logic only made him more angry. He told me I needed to "think out of the box." "How do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, why do we have the automotive writer review our cars? Why don’t we pitch the real estate writers, let them take our cars when they visit a property?" He was dead serious.

I started to explain that we don’t actually get to choose which reporters cover our company. This accusation only made him angrier, and he accused me of narrow thinking.

I started to get defensive, and of course, the conversation soon got heated. I could not listen to him any longer, so finally I told him I would consider his suggestion and got him out of my office.

If I am being honest, I did not handle it very well. He left my office frustrated, and my only real strategy was to hope that he would eventually move on, which he did. But it didn’t have to escalate. I know now that I should have reflected feelings and assuaged his anger. I should have understood that he was enraged over this review, and needed to vent.

So my wife was right. I should have reflected instead of trying to problem solve. Who knew?  

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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