Subconscious Payback

Subconscious Payback

Even more interestingly, you will often find that the person who made negative statements will bend over backward to do something nice for you later on. Admiral Joseph Prueher advocates developing a "media bank account." You make some "investments" by helping out media personnel from time to time with stories, and then when you need some help from the media, you can make a "withdrawal."

Southwest Airlines CEO Jim Parker told me an interesting story along these lines. He considers Southwest to be a "media-friendly company," and he personally likes reporters. However, he recalls one instance where a reporter for a major newspaper had run a story critical of Southwest's labor relations policies. Southwest's management felt that the article was unfair and communicated its concerns to the newspaper—but in an even-tempered, respectful, and private manner. A couple of weeks later, the same paper ran a very favorable feature story about the airline. Parker does not believe it was an accident. Rather, he believes that the careful cultivation of a good relationship with the media—even when you are disappointed with a particular story or commentary—almost always produces tangible positive results in the future.

I call this phenomenon the "subconscious payback"—and it is a common theme among people who deal with publicity issues successfully. Even the sports world lends support to this idea. Former Chicago Blackhawks center Adam Creighton discussed with me the subconscious payback phenomenon in professional hockey when dealing with referees and linesmen. "If the referee makes a bad call, and you let him know it in a respectful rather than angry way, more often than not, a judgment call will go your way later in the game. It's not something intentional on the part of the ref, it's just human nature," he says.

The same principles hold true for smaller-scale PR nightmares, such as the actions of backstabbing coworkers. More often than not, you can totally disarm backstabbers by getting to know them, showing respect for their viewpoints, and then slowly trying to bring them around. The person might not apologize or correct past wrongdoings, but you will find that he or she will stand up for you in the most unlikely circumstances down the road.

Legal Intervention

There may well be a time, however, in your career when you are dealing with a person who is genuinely dishonest and out to get you. There is no chance at all that reason and sincerity will placate the liar—be it a member of the media, a competitor, or someone within your organization. It is in these situations that invincible executives realize that they need professional help. Many people make career-ending mistakes at the time when they are receiving some bad PR. They write angry or aggressive e-mails that get into the wrong hands. They lose their cool in front of a camera. They fire someone without properly documenting the reasons. They self-destruct.

When confronted with seriously false allegations that could jeopardize your company or career, the best thing you can do is get a skilled lawyer and professional media adviser into the picture early. The reason for getting the lawyer transcends good advice. Communications made to or from a lawyer during a dispute, or even communications between nonlawyers made at the direction of a lawyer, are usually protected from disclosure to any third party by the attorney-client privilege. This privilege is a secret weapon that the vast majority of top executives use—even though many will not admit it. The privilege effectively immunizes you from the effects of your own misstatements or emotional outbursts. According to Pat Finneran of Boeing, most good executives have a special relationship with a lawyer or two, whom they use strategically as sounding boards to get them out of nasty situations, but whom they also use tactically to get a cloak of protection around their communications. The lawyer then helps that person decide—in a reasoned, protected environment—how to proceed against the individual or organization who is making the false allegations.

Behind every invincible executive, there are a couple of trusted lawyers and similar such advisers. While I, as a lawyer by trade, may have a conflict of interest in saying so, I firmly believe that the executives who hate the lawyers are the ones who go down in flames—and I can give you a lot of examples to support the point. Keep in mind that valuing legal advice is very different from valuing lawsuits. The best lawyers keep you out of court 98 percent of the time. So swallow hard, and take the advice. Get to know a good attorney, and make him or her a friend, make him or her part of your inner circle. It is a like buying career insurance.