Monday 17 June 2019

Balancing communications in controversial situations

Barack Obama. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA
Barack Obama. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA

Gina London

The small pet store in Blackrock where we bought our hamster, Mr Sniffles, has a stuffed effigy of Donald Trump displayed in its front window. "Look at that doggie chew-toy," my daughter Lulu said, pointing to Trump's likeness as we went in to buy a plastic rollerball to replace the one I accidentally stepped on. (Thankfully, Mr Sniffles was not inside it at the time.)

"Can we also buy the Trump doll?" Lulu implored at the till, "I could wave it at him when we go protest against his visit."

"What? We're not protesting against his visit, Lulu. For one thing, I think he's going to be down in Co Clare at his golf course," I said. "C'mon!" she persisted. "There will be loads of people. It will be fun."

Whether you and your family are debating to protest about or support Trump's upcoming visit to Ireland, I'm sure you agree plenty of controversy surrounds him. A fact which makes preparing for the first US Presidential visit since Barack Obama's trip in 2011, a potential controversy in of itself.

With Obama, there was fanfare. With Trump, there promises to be demonstrations of, er, 'huge' proportions. That fine line between diplomacy and denunciation is a delicate balancing act; prompting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to publicly welcome both the president and the protesters.

It's something that not only political leaders - but many business professionals too - can find themselves in. So, knowing that the US and Ireland have a strong relationship and want to keep it that way - and wanting to help you forge strong relationships in your professional life too, here are my tips to help you navigate your next high stakes, complex corporate situation.

1. Anticipate the Negative

The best defence is a good offence, the old military adage declares.

When you realise you are about to enter a potential war zone of controversy in your workplace - be it an emergency crisis event, or a visit from a controversial CEO, board chair or big shareholder - it's important you spend some time listing out the issues, possible pitfalls and concerns that you or any other employees or stakeholders may have. Don't forget to put yourselves in the shoes of the other people involved. What do they think of the situation or the individual? Try to leave no stone unturned in your due diligence.

2. Prepare and Practice the Right Language

After you (preferably in co-operation with your leadership or communications team) have considered as many scenarios and possible questions for this impending (or unfolding) event that you can conceive, craft - and rehearse - a range of appropriate positive responses depending on your situation.

I want to stress how critical it is that the words you choose carefully reflect your agreed-upon positions on the matter. If you don't clearly understand how you need to articulate answers to expected questions, you risk ad-libbing yourself into an embarrassing corner or exacerbating an already sensitive state of affairs. Make sure your responses are believable and actionable. Don't try to cover up with corporate double speak.

3. Control your Body Language

Remember you don't only communicate with words. How you behave around a controversial person - or during a conversation about a controversial topic - also sends messages. For instance, you may decide to be courteous without being overly chummy during interpersonal reactions. How formal then, should your facial expressions and gestures like shaking hands be? What is the relationship tone you want to strike? These should be deliberate, conscious decisions discussed and agreed to during your due diligence session.

4. Remember your Core Values

The verbal, written and body language decisions that stem from your preparation meetings should stem from and support your principles. Remind yourself and your team about them. In a volatile situation, you can successfully entertain someone with different values, but still come out with your reputation intact. That's possible if you are viewed as someone who looks for common areas of interest but doesn't compromise when it comes to the essential philosophies that define what you stand for.

5. Keep your Cool

Despite your best efforts, here comes that unexpected hostile question or heckle. Don't let yourself be goaded into saying something you'll regret. In the heat of the moment, there's an acupuncture technique my clients and I find really works. When someone lobs a question that throws you, you can immediately bring your hands together in a calm, beatific clasp in front of your chest. As they're clasped and your face remains impassive, discreetly push your thumb into the palm of your opposite hand. This pressure action removes the flush of emotion that may cloud your more rational judgment and allows you to refocus on regaining control in a calm manner. Try this next time you're caught off guard and let me know how you felt.

6. Understand the Big Picture

Finally, step back from whatever particular event or incident is about to take place and get perspective. With proper preparations to minimise controversy fallout, you can keep your long-term trajectory going forward.

Sunday Indo Business

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