How do you respond when someone is unaccountable or otherwise fails to meet expectations?

Many years ago, a mentor offered me wise words on how to handle these situations. His counsel went something like this:

“If you want to yell at them, or give them a piece of your mind, or tell them how they failed in some way, then be prepared to get in a very long line—because that’s the typical reaction. When they mess up, that’s what they are hearing from everybody else. Instead, be the person who stands apart by responding differently—assume the best in them, and that they want to do better, but circumstances came up that prevented them from doing so.”

In short, the better response is to give the other party an expectation that they want to live up to. Implicit in this process is keeping your eye on the prize—what goal do you have in mind? What do you want to happen as a result of your communication?

To be sure, “getting something off your chest” in anger and frustration, while “natural,” does not constitute a worthy goal. Those outbursts are merely unhinged, undisciplined reactions unlikely to move you productively toward a worthwhile goal.

Instead, as my mentor pointed out, be part of a very short line as you demonstrate respect for and patience with the person who doesn’t seem to “deserve” those things.

This approach has application in every area of life. In the media relations sphere, it could come in the form of how you respond when a client is subjected to unfair, biased coverage. Being a strong advocate for your client and practicing restraint are not mutually exclusive.

Case in point: not long ago, a media outlet (which shall remain nameless, in the spirit of this entire post) produced a blatantly slanted story about a client. Unfairness, bias and lack of professionalism oozed through the entirety of the article, which was topped by a headline that exposed the outlet was more propaganda tool than legitimate news source. (Sadly, that is not a rarity in our free-for-all, media-splintered world where partisan views drive so much of what’s covered as well as what is not covered.

I reached out to the editor (who also wrote the story) and rather than travel the “You biased, unprofessional hack!” route, I respectfully and firmly issued a challenge containing a few key points:

  • From your headline’s word choices to your omission of any input from my client, you are revealing your bias.
  • Your audience and the community deserve better
  • You can do better.
  • We respectfully request that you update your coverage to include our input.

The result:

On the one hand, the editor deflected my corrections by pointing out, somewhat lamely, that my client wasn’t the focus of the story. (If not, then the client was a very close second place–and since when does that justify blatant and unfair bias?) But, then, to the editor’s credit, came implicit acknowledgment of the story’s skewed treatment. The editor promised to add, in an updated version, input from my client that I had provided.

That insertion came within hours, offering at least a semblance of balance to the story. Looking ahead, an even more important development had occurred: the publication has now been challenged to meet a much higher expectation for fairness and balance than they had previously exhibited. And, of course, that was my goal from the get-go.

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