Taking the gloves off: how to defuse a war of words

Taking the gloves off: how to defuse a war of words

Alright, so I’m a bit off schedule this week as it was a long weekend here in Canada, and I just could not bring myself to post a half-hearted blog that would essentially be filler. So, without further ado, let’s get rolling on this week’s topic …

In public or in the boardroom, between the clearly marked borders of unethical decision making, workplace bullying, harassment, and generally not being a good person, is a blurry middle ground that many have found themselves trapped in. It was a fleeting mistake; a trivial matter that escalated out of control; a heated argument that reflects poorly on everyone involved. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it “Unprofessional Conduct”.

In most instances, we have laws, policies and procedures that govern when we have stepped out of bounds and recommendations about the ways in which people should be dealt with to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But what do we do when tempers flare?

In PR, you need to keep a cool head when the pressure is on. It’s made much more difficult when you put yourself in a heated situation.

A recent incident put this all into context. A local politician in Toronto has been in a war of words with Uber, the ride-arranging app that is stepping on the toes of a great many cab companies across North America, and turned it into a public display in a heated exchange outside a rider’s home.

What began as a conversation quickly erupted into a tirade. The city councillor’s one saving grace was that it was not caught on camera. The media are still able to make plenty of hay, but it would have been a lot worse if they had images or video of the event. Just ask our former mayor Rob Ford.

How do you stay under control, on message, and in command? Keep these tips in mind.

Step back from the situation

A deep breath can do you a world of good. When emotions are being fueled by adrenaline and any number of other hormones, it can be difficult to get out the right words, or at least sound convincing. Not only does it give you a moment of pause to collect your thoughts, but it is a not-so-subtle cue to your ‘opponent’ that you are about to drop some science. If nothing else, it will ease the tempo of the conversation and allow for a more reasoned exchange. In a more corporate environment, it’s likely that your role will be as a trusted advisor to senior leadership at the table with your stakeholders. Make sure everyone stays calm and restate the purpose of the meeting. This takes the focus away from the moment and puts the meeting in perspective.

Remember your objectives

Did you arrive for an argument where people shout their ideas or ideology? In all likelihood, you came to this meeting or media conference for the dialogue. A means of coming to some sort of agreement where both parties walk away achieving something. Focus on your objectives, and the harsh words of others can roll off your back.

Put yourself in their shoes

Your comms tactics can take many forms, but you must ensure you are speaking their language. Touch on the things that trouble them the most to demonstrate that you are not just making demands, telling them how it’s going to be, but that you are listening to their concerns and willing to be a partner in solving them.

In short, be prepared to give a little to get a little. Many people oppose and challenge what they don’t understand. They usually don’t have all the facts or can see the full scope or benefits of your operations. Take the time to educate your stakeholders, communicate with them on a regular basis, and the number of times you are faced with an adversary will be few and far between.

Have you ever been in a shouting match? Seen on from the sidelines? How did you perceive the parties involved? Let me know in the comments below.

photo credit: Istanbulls v Milano Thunder via photopin (license)


Published by

Ashley Brown, APR

I have seen and done it all, on large and small scales, including communications planning, event coordination, print production, digital presence management, media relations, and more. Bringing in an outside perspective, with an objective set of eyes to pour over your organization's communications programs is considered best practice and yields actionable results. I gather anecdotal and empirical evidence to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of your current communications programs, and make suggestions about how to improve your planning and execution processes, as well as your communications products and materials.

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