At the other extreme, about two in five invincible executives will generally ignore bad press. Ron Gafford of Austin Industries echoed the sentiments of many corporate leaders on the subject of untrue publicity when he said to me, "We elect the 'do nothing' strategy. Any request for retraction or clarification will probably only exacerbate the problem. We just let it die a natural death."
Sheryl Crow has a similar perspective. She believes that as soon as you get to the top of an industry or profession, there is likely to be a natural backlash against you. There will be jealous or resentful people, and there is not a lot you can do about it. Ms. Crow has concluded that negative publicity is part of the way the world of success works, and so what is the use in fighting it? She experienced such a backlash after the Grammy-winning success of her first record, Tuesday Night Music Club. While the single said "All I wanna do is have some fun," she found herself in a situation that was anything but that. The musicians who helped her with the record made accusations that she was not giving them enough credit, and a jealous disagreement arose. "So what happened was I became well known because it was my record, and a lot of other people felt that they should have become famous. And no matter how much press I did about the other people involved, the press was really only interested in me, the artist. So it was a really hard lesson because I lost the support of my friends." Crow chose not to engage in a public fight in the media with her former friends. "I just retreated," she told me. Ultimately, the incident had no negative effect on her career.
One reason to ignore bad publicity is that people only pay enough attention to it to believe that it is true. They rarely follow the details of the public debate. For example, a prominent broadcaster recently had to deal with a scandalous allegation about his personal life. A media outlet reported an untrue story that he was in a rehabilitation clinic for sexual addiction when he was actually risking his life in Israel covering the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. He too chose to ignore the bad publicity. He realized that by making an issue of it, he would call even further attention to the matter and probably increase the perception that the ridiculous story was true.
The Rest of Them Work the Soft Kill
So 20 percent fight the falsehoods, and 40 percent ignore it. From my interviews, it seems that if you are thick-skinned enough to ignore bad publicity, it will usually blow over. But not always. In some cases, ignoring the bad press or rumors could have lasting negative consequences. About 40 percent of invincible executives regularly conclude that it is worth investing time and energy to work a serious PR problem. When they or their organizations find themselves wrongfully accused of improper conduct, they set out to correct the falsehood in a tactful, but very tactical, manner. Here is the process that seems to work for them.
First, they have a standard by which they weed out the inconsequential falsehoods. They make this determination by analyzing the negative effect that the publicity is having on their careers and/or companies versus the cost of responding in terms of time, energy, and the risk of fanning the flames. Automobile executive Jack Schmitt told me that "if the falsehood is in the public eye, we ask if the information has a shelf life of more than two weeks—meaning that we ask, 'Will this blow over in two weeks or will it probably be worse?'" Joe Ryan of Marriott also believes that any rumor that has the momentum to build for two weeks is dangerous enough that he will work the problem. On the other hand, if the bad PR is an internal company issue, Ryan asks if it has a shelf life of more than two days. The internal "shelf life" period is shorter than the external one because adverse rumors inside a company have an immediate negative effect on productivity. Internal rumors are actually worse than bad press. If the answer to the shelf life question is yes, his company develops a plan to fix the problem.
Janet Reno probably knows more about dealing with bad publicity than anyone I interviewed for the book. Despite Waco, the Elian Gonzales controversy, "Saturday Night Live" skits, her chilly relationship with some Clinton administration officials, and a loss in the Florida governor's race, she remains a very popular figure among the majority of Americans—and she is particularly popular among women. How does she handle untrue publicity? First, she adopts a presumption that the person making the false statement has good intentions. Then she engages in a dialogue to try to correct the errors. If she learns that there are ulterior motives and there is no way she is going to get the truth out, then she ignores the bad publicity. But more often than not, she can engage in a constructive dialogue.
Coolheaded, constructive dialogue in the face of bad publicity is very difficult because the natural tendency is to launch a "nuclear" counteroffensive against the slanderers. After all, these people are spreading false information. Remember, however, most people who spread false information about you either (1) believe that the false information is true, or (2) believe that you have behaved so unethically that spreading lies about you is their only defense.
Ms. Reno also recognizes the incredible value of humor in defusing false publicity. Just after she left office, she went on "Saturday Night Live" and crashed the "Janet Reno's Disco Party" skit that the cast had been doing for years with one of the male cast members dressed up like her. It became a classic moment in TV and made her look great. In a similar vein, in 1984 President Reagan had to address serious questions about his mental capacity after a poor showing in his first debate with Democratic nominee and former Vice President Walter Mondale. He made the classic quip that age was not an issue because he was not "going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." That one line ended the issue of his competence and stopped the bad press in its tracks.
Hendrik Verfaillie, former CEO of Monsanto, agrees with Ms. Reno on the subject of untrue publicity. "The best way to handle it is with very open, transparent dialogue," he says. To illustrate the point, Mr. Verfaillie related this story to me. Prior to his becoming CEO, the management of Monsanto believed that genetically engineered food was the wave of the future—that by increasing yield through gene alteration, the problem of world hunger could be solved. They were committed to saving millions of lives with their new products. There was tremendous enthusiasm within the company for genetically engineered food. Monsanto believed that its commitment to reducing hunger would give it the reputation as the most responsible corporation in the world.
Much to the shock of Monsanto executives, widespread protests against genetically engineered food erupted in the late 1990s. Opponents of genetic engineering claimed that the food could cause medical problems for people who ate it, that it would contribute to disease, and that it would have catastrophic environmental effects. Because, Monsanto officials believed, there was no credible scientific data to support these contentions, Monsanto's management underestimated the potential effect of these protests—choosing for the most part to ignore them or dismiss their importance. What happened? The protests gained momentum and the volume of bad publicity increased dramatically. A large portion of the world's population began to oppose genetically engineered grains—even though Monsanto executives believed that their better yields represented a great possibility in the war on starvation.
Once Monsanto realized the magnitude of the problem—around the time that Mr. Verfaillie became CEO—a group of executives wanted to launch a counteroffensive to get the truth out. Verfaillie, however, adopted a more refined approach. He refused to demonize those who were spreading false information about his company's products. "What we had done is really defend our position and take the position that the other guys were just not smart enough to get it. We were right; they were wrong. What we found was that you cannot get dialogue that way.... By a willingness to listen, however, and by being open to the arguments of the other side—and by accepting that we might not always have the full truth—we started getting a better dialogue. We listened to their position and now we have a real possibility of getting together."
Mr. Verfaillie sat down and met with the leaders of the groups that opposed genetically engineered food. Initially, he was in a listening mode. He was not there to convince them that they were wrong. He wanted to understand whether they really believed what they were saying. The first step in defusing the situation was self-education. He determined that most members of the opposition did in fact believe what they were saying. Much to his surprise, he found that they were sincere.
While this dialogue did not eliminate the problem, it brought the bad publicity almost totally under control. The minority of extremists who spread the lies were separated from the sincere people who wanted to know the truth, and the result has been a defusing of the problem and a sharp reduction in negative press.
This process of (1) meeting the other side, (2) listening to them, (3) determining whether they are acting in good faith, and (4), if they are in fact operating in good faith, engaging in dialogue, is a very common pattern among executives who enjoy prolonged success.