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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Meltdown Advice For Serena, Kanye and Rep. Wilson
Susan Adams, 09.14.09, 6:44 PM ET

The human temper is a dangerous thing. Unleash it, and you can get yourself in a whole lot of trouble.

There has been a rash of shocking outbursts lately. Rapper Kanye West jumped onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday night and interrupted country-pop singer Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to insist that Beyoncé should have won the award. At the U.S. Open Saturday, tennis star Serena Williams let loose on a line judge, reportedly threatening, "If I could I would take this f---ing ball and shove it down your f---ing throat." It cost her the match and her chance at a title. And then there was Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., blurting "You lie!" in the middle of President Obama's primetime health care address to Congress last week.

If you absolutely have to lose it in public, how do you pick up the pieces?

Corporate and political leaders should keep three main things in mind, says Michael Robinson, chair of the corporate and regulatory practice at Levick Strategic Communications, in Washington: Immediacy, full-throatedness and a focus on the future. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, when word travels at the speed of instant messaging, there is no time to gather your thoughts. If you blew it, take responsibility, instantly and thoroughly. Then move the story beyond the outburst and the mea culpa, and focus on how you're going to change your behavior in the future. "By the time someone is asking you a question about your outburst," Robinson says, "you should be talking about your corrective behavior."

Ronald Culp, a partner at the public relations firm Ketchum, in Chicago, agrees that an apology must come without hesitation. He even advocates using sites like Twitter to spread the word. "If you screw up, get it on the record as quickly as possible that there's a lesson learned," he says.

Don't think you're safe just because you lose it behind close doors, cautions Robinson. "You could be in a closed meeting, but someone there could be on Twitter," he points out. "They could write, 'Guess what so-and-so just said.'"

Context matters, adds Eric Dezenhall, a communications consultant and co-author with John Weber of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong. Celebrities, for instance, "are expected to be completely self-absorbed," he says. Indeed, Sunday was not the first time Kanye West lost his cool in public. He has ranted at previous award ceremonies, including the Grammys. But West stuck to at least two of the rules laid out by crisis consultants. He apologized both abjectly and promptly on his blog, where he wrote, "I feel like Ben Stiller in 'Meet the Parents' when he messed up everything and Robert DeNiro asked him to leave. ... That was Taylor's moment, and I had no right in any way to take it away from her. I am truly sorry." Wilson and Williams have both apologized slowly and halfheartedly at best, and that's a big advantage for Kanye.

Corporate leaders, unlike Kanye West, are expected always to behave, especially if they're in industries that get intense public scrutiny. "I once told an oil company executive I represented, 'The fact is you represent an oil company and nobody likes you,'" says Dezenhall. Technology executives face a less rigorous standard, he adds: "The tech media sees it as a hip, cool, progressive industry." For instance, he points out, if an oil executive had covered up his health problems the way Steve Jobs did, the deceit would have led the business news until he was forced to resign.

Another valuable tool for hot-tempered leaders is a sense of humor. When Ronald Culp was running the public relations operation at Sears a decade ago, an executive blew his stack in a meeting with 30 employees. "He was pressed on something, and he totally lost it," Culp recalls. The executive promptly fell on his sword, and he cracked a joke at the same time. "I'm sure no one expected what you just heard," Culp remembers him saying, "including myself."

The result, according to Culp: "Everyone came up to him afterward and said, 'What a big hole you dug for yourself--and you came leaping out of it.'"

From Forbes.com


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