When Aggressive Responses Backfire

I recently led a webinar with Ragan Communications, during which I discussed a few aggressive PR tactics professionals can use in a crisis. One of the people listening in on the call asked me how she could use one of those tactics to deal with a tricky situation she’s contending with.

It seems that one of her company’s board members disagreed with a decision the rest of the board approved—so he took his disagreement public by speaking to the media about it. As you might imagine, the local media seized on the internal disagreement and spilled a lot of ink covering the issue.

After thinking about her problem for a moment, it occurred to me that an “aggressive” response would likely backfire. So I advised her to consider the opposite approach.

Angel or Devil
First, imagine if she was aggressive in her response. The resulting quote might look like this:

“Bob had every opportunity to express himself in our board meetings and he’s upset that his view didn’t prevail,” said Mary Smith of Big Company. “It’s a real shame that he’s handling this issue in the press instead of dealing with it internally. I’m not going to say anything else about our internal deliberations.”

That aggressive response would make Big Company look like a bully, validating the archetype of a corporate Goliath squashing the more heroic dissenting voice.

Instead, I suggested that she take the high road and drown “Bob” with praise.

“Bob has been on the board for five years. He’s smart and deeply committed—and the board always listens very carefully to what he has to say,” said Mary Smith of Big Company. “In this case, the rest of the board respected his argument, but concluded that a different approach would serve our customers better. Despite this disagreement, we know we’re fortunate to have him, and we look forward to his continued service.”

In some of these types of situations, I’d maintain that you can make the opposing party look more unreasonable by being especially reasonable yourself. Your measured response may look better in contrast to Bob’s more emotional one—and the public may conclude, from the differences in tone, that Bob may just be a bit disgruntled.

Taking the high road may not be the most effective PR tactic in every situation. But in many cases, it’s not only the best tactic, but the right thing to do.

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