In business as in life, even a seemingly harmless remark can backfire. Think about it — how many times have you hit send and wished you could get that e-mail back? How many times have you regretted something you said that hurt someone or positioned you poorly in an important meeting?
It happens to all of us and is a reminder that we are responsible for what we say — which is why it’s so important to keep the end result in mind.
Learning how to better handle slip-ups and prevent future errors in judgment can actually help you turn negatives to positives.
For example, a television reporter I know aired a scathing report about broken security cameras at one of this country’s busiest airports. The report was loaded with inaccuracies.
Instead of calling management and blasting the reporter as airport executives wanted to do, we took a different tack to try to help them change the end result. Airport communications professionals phoned the No. 1 local television station and offered them an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at airport security. The station jumped on the chance to have a private tour and it resulted in a positive story watched by a much larger audience.
If executives had simply reacted and called to complain, they might have generated more negative publicity by creating an even bigger controversy. The lesson: think about the outcome you seek and program your internal GPS to take you there before you shift into gear.
That leads to a story that didn’t have such a happy ending, when a leading expert in homeopathic medicine agreed to do an interview with John Stossel, co-host of ABC-TV’s “20/20.”
The title of the segment: “Gimme a Break” should have put him on the alert. Refusing media coaching, the spokesperson decided he was fully capable of debunking myths and handling any tough questions that might come his way. And they came. When Stossel stated that perhaps homeopathic medicine was for “suckers,” the spokesperson said, “you can choose to call us suckers, but we have experience that suggests otherwise.” Not only did he inadvertently validate what Stossel suggested by repeating negatives, but also, those words became his words — devoid of message.
As you can imagine, the spokesperson was outraged at the edited television program, which he felt misrepresented a scientific study of homeopathy in its visual portrayal of how homeopathy works.
In a memo to colleagues, he labeled it a “story of science fiction” and “reality television” to “discredit homeopathic medicine.” He wanted a retraction from ABC and considered writing letters to the media publicly denouncing the broadcast.
We advised against it, explaining the importance of realizing that what was upsetting to him was not as big a deal to those who saw the piece. Writing emotionally charged letters only keeps the negative alive instead of educating people, sharing the positives of homeopathy and positioning the industry in a credible light.
“Until you start focusing on what you can control,” we told the spokesperson, “you will never further your own agenda.”
Clearly, we’ve all made mistakes and have said things that unintentionally offended others. For example, people sometimes use words like “gay” or “retarded” in contexts that have no relevance to homosexuals or challenged individuals without realizing how hurtful and offensive these words are to others or how what’s acceptable and non-acceptable changes according to the times.
We all need to think before we speak to prevent blunders that can have long-lasting results.
As former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater once said: “You don’t have to explain what you don’t say.”