Anticipate Confrontation With Proactive & Relationship-Preserving Language

When’s the best time to broach a potentially difficult conversation?

As far in advance as possible–preferably days ahead of time, if not weeks, months or years. It’s proactive, pre-emptive and relationship-preserving.

Every time I go through my bank’s drive-thru a proactive, pre-emptive, relationship-preserving message greets me. In essence, it plants the seed that they may not recognize me at some point and may need to ask for my identification–and for my protection.

Have they ever had to do so? No, not yet. But if and when that time comes, I will have been well prepared so as not to take offense.

With public relations clients that I have, in and around Chicago, I have taken the same approach for more than five years. It comes in the form of my Inside Edge Partnership Pledge.

It’s about setting the proper, professional tone–and setting the stage for confrontational dialogue that may never even be necessary. But if it is, then you will already be getting off on the right foot.




In 2013, Resolve to Thicken Your Skin And Learn From Criticism

The year was 1992, and I had just written an investigative story laying out the failings of a landlord in Elgin.

On the phone, his son was irate, arguing that I hadn’t given his dad a fair shake – that the piece that appeared on the front page of The Courier News wasn’t balanced.

I explained that I’d tried to include his father’s side of the story, but that he’d declined repeated opportunities to do so. And I re-extended the invitation for his father (or this evidently talkative son himself) to be interviewed for a follow-up story.

He loudly, angrily refused as he instead tried to bait me into an argument. Whereupon, I thanked him for his feedback. I wasn’t being dismissive or condescending–I was sincerely interested in exploring whether I had in some way fallen short of treating his father fairly.

In the end, reassured by the absence of substantive criticism from the caller, I was satisfied that I had indeed been fair and professional. Meanwhile, the furious family member was incredulous that I wouldn’t get drawn into a shouting match. My placid response made him even more livid and me even more determined to remain calm.

He was angling for more confrontation; I was angling to get off the phone and onto the next story.

Having a thick skin is an imperative for journalists. Same goes for those in public relations and marketing, whether you are dealing with a client whom you believe is overbearing or a reporter who brushes off a story pitch.

Two years ago, one of my clients at the time, Chicago-based EnergyMen, was repeatedly pressing me to secure more media coverage on its behalf. And with justification–they had made an initial financial investment and news placements are a central tangible evidence of return-on-investment.

Rather than get defensive, I got even busier with media outreach, securing print placement in several regional publications, including the Chicago Tribune. In addition, I took steps to create plenty of content, from photo galleries on the Tribune website to videos on a YouTube channel that I created to client testimonials, all of which remain available for EnergyMen’s prospective clients to view.

Sure, the experience of being criticized made me uncomfortable. More importantly, though, it made me better. And that growth came not only on the content-creation and media-outreach side. I also learned an important administrative lesson from the engagement: even in the midst of a client’s stated dissatisfaction, stand firm on receiving payment in a timely manner.

Some will use that discontent as justification for delaying or withholding your fee. (So far, choosing to don my eternal optimist hat, I like to view EnergyMen’s failure to pay for two out of six months’ service as a protracted delay, not an outright stiffing.)

As I have long advised all clients, results are not guaranteed, but persistent, professional effort is, and needs to be compensated.

So in 2013, resolve to see the good in those moments when someone’s input is threatening to get under your skin. It will make your skin thicker, and, particularly in those instances when the feedback has validity, it will make your work better.

The Inside Edge Partnership Pledge

One of my favorite clients is someone who challenges me regularly to explain what I’m up to.

Just today, she asked me about the placement of a news release on a user-generated website owned by the Sun-Times News Group. Why, she wondered, was the piece placed on a community page many miles from where she will be delivering three talks in the next few weeks?

I had a ready reply.

It’s because the Neighborhood Circle website’s “default” page happens to be that particular community. I assured her that the release had been simultaneously posted on a few dozen community pages, including some much closer to where she’ll be speaking.

It’s vital that I had a logical response. But even more gratifying to me is that my client felt the freedom to question me bluntly on the issue. Candor and transparency are so important that over a year ago I developed the Inside Edge Partnership Pledge.

I share it with each new client, and post it here in the hopes that it may help you in whatever endeavors you pursue:

“I am excited that we have embarked on our partnership.

I highlighted “partnership” in the first line not in the legal sense, but in the spirit of how I view my work with your business. I do not regard myself as a vendor simply providing services to another entity, but as someone who is now a motivated, independently contracted part of that entity with a vested interest in your—more accurately, our—success.

In retaining me, you now have someone who will provide you with clear, honest feedback about any matters pertaining to your business that I believe would be helpful for you to hear—even if they do not directly relate to my Public Relations and Media Services.

Success occurs more frequently and resoundingly in an environment where trust, mutual respect and open, honest communication thrive. I am excited about working with you and on behalf of (your business/organization/association.)

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about anything that arises out of our business relationship. I truly appreciate the opportunity to help serve you and your business.”

In short, this is permission marketing with my clients, and it sets the tone for an honest, constructive relationship whose focus is not on preserving anyone’s ego (though I take great pains to do that) but on helping the client achieve his/her/their goals.