The Art of Dealing with Critics

In The Art of War Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher, makes this astute observation:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Critics can, at times, seem like enemies of an organization and the marketplace a battlefield.

Knowing your organization—namely the mission, vision and values it holds near and dear—and being committed to defending them is what makes companies authentic. There is a cost to standing firm in the face of aggressive opposition, but there’s an even greater long-term cost for failing to do so.

Understanding what makes your critics tick is vital, which is why it’s important to learn all you can about them by discerning their perceptions of the company, understanding what motives them and gaining insight into their beliefs.

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With this information in hand, it’s time to consider how an organization can effectively deal with its critics.

One of the best pieces of public relations advice I’ve ever received came early in my career from a vice president of corporate communications. His employer, a large international business, was routinely the target of criticism, so he had a lot of experience in this area.

  • His advice was simple yet spot-on: Divide your critics into two groups, the reasonable and the unreasonable.

GROUP ONE, the reasonable critics, are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. Work with them.

These are people with whom the organization should try to find common ground and accommodate whenever possible, provided the organization doesn’t compromise its values. If it has made a mistake, apologize and take corrective action. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies and ultimately fans. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find win-win solutions.

GROUP TWO, the unreasonable critics, are never going to be happy no matter what you do.  Ignore them.

These critics will be suspicious of your motives if you try to work with them, and any action you take will be found to be deficient in some way. Regardless of what they might say, they have no interest in having a dialogue about the issues and working with you. Their operative word is “more” – and ironically, no matter how much “more” your organization offers, it will never be enough. These critics thrive on attention and intimidating those with whom they disagree.

You can waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unreasonable critics, and at the end of the day nothing will have changed.

Plus, by trying to dialogue with them, you risk elevating their profile and giving them more credibility than they deserve. This is especially true in the age of social media, where critics can be relentless and exceedingly nasty online. They tie up company resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still criticize you.

An initial response to a complaint or inquiry is appropriate, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what has been said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, and silence can give the perception of guilt. At the same time, there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.

Once you have attempted to engage a critic and found that person to be unreasonable, the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that individual or group. Not only will you save a lot of time and grief, but posting a rational response that is rebuffed by an irrational person may actually help your organization.

Handling the situation with a courteous reply that doesn’t gloss over the complaint is likely to give reasonable readers a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Chick-fil-A’s Concession to Political Correctness Is a PR Train Wreck

Chick-fil-A has long been one of my favorite restaurant chains. It’s a cheerful, wholesome and clean environment, where the employees seem happy to be there and eager to serve customers. The food is pretty good, too. Chick-fil-A also has been a terrific corporate citizen and good neighbor, helping local charities and giving out free food when natural disasters strike.

There is much to admire about the company, which has risen to become one of the top fast-food chains in America despite being closed on Sundays. It has been a model of how a corporation that adheres to Christian values—and that creates a family environment while being inclusive and welcoming of everyone—can garner incredible loyalty that translates into financial success.

A couple weeks ago I stopped by one of our local Chick-fil-A restaurants, and the place was packed with people who were greeting each other and happily sharing experiences. A portion of that evening’s proceeds was going to help a person in need. It was an uplifting experience just being there, which is part of the reason for company’s strong attraction to so many of us who share founder Truett Cathy’s faith and values.

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Truett Cathy, who passed away several years ago, was the real deal. After reading an article about how his Christian values guided him through life, I wrote a brief letter expressing my appreciation for his testimony and faithfulness. A short time later I received a copy of his book, How Did You Do It, Truett?, with a personal inscription thanking me for my note and listing Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

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In 2012, a boycott of Chick-fil-A bombed badly. As I noted in a blog post, which was subsequently picked up by Baptist Press, the boycott was a classic PR backfire that scorched the boycotters when Gov. Mike Huckabee launched a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Millions responded to show their support of the company, resulting in a huge day of sales for Chick-fil-A.

Billy Graham and Rick Warren were among scores of leaders who joined Gov. Huckabee in defending the embattled chain. Ted Cruz, who had just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy’s franchise owner put, “We stand with Chick-fil-A” on his restaurants’ signs.

Chick-fil-A didn’t have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.

Seven years later, it’s a much different story. Chick-fil-A is once again in the midst of a firestorm of controversy, but this time it’s from some of its most loyal customers—the ones who have consistently supported Chick-fil-A and made the fast-food chain the success it is today.

Many feel betrayed by the company’s recent announcement that it will discontinue corporate donations to faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army, apparently because they believe in the biblical definition of marriage between one biological man and one biological woman. This, of course, is offensive to the LGBTQ community, which portrays such beliefs as bigoted and discriminatory, even though the Salvation Army serves all people in need.

Chick-fil-A’s announcement has been met with widespread disappointment and anger.

In a statement the Salvation Army said it is saddened by Chick-fil-A’s decision, noting, “When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk. We urge the public to seek the truth before rushing to ill-informed judgment.”

Gov. Huckabee called the decision “such a disappointment,” saying that after being so successful it was bewildering that the company would “surrender to the bullies.” He warned that the implications are “far broader” than Chick-fil-A. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the Christian community.

Christian Post contributor Mat Staver, an attorney and chairman of Liberty Counsel Action, reported that one of the places Chick-fil-A is now funding is Covenant House, which he alleges is an LGBTQ activist and “takes girls to abortion clinics.”

[Update: Townhall.com reports that as far back as 2017, the Chick-fil-A Foundation donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates conservative organizations like the Family Research Council as “hate groups.”

As noted in a Washington Times article, the gunman who attacked FRC in 2012 told the FBI that he found the organization on SPLC’s list of “anti-gay groups.” FRC President Tony Perkins said in a statement, “Not only has Chick-fil-A abandoned donations to Christians groups including the Salvation Army, it has donated to one of the most extreme anti-Christian in America.”]

While CEO Dan Cathy insists that the company was not giving into the demands of LGBTQ activists, the perception of Chick-fil-A’s actions certainly seem to be a step in that direction.

The loss of confidence in Chick-fil-A was further eroded by Tim Tassopoulos, president and COO, who was quoted as saying, “as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are.”

So who, exactly, is Chick-fil-A these days? A whole lot of people would like clarity.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, appeasing anti-Christian groups leads to nothing but further demands. Just ask the Boy Scouts, who are now reportedly considering bankruptcy.

Or, try making friends with ADWEEK’s Rigel Cable, who writes, “Dear Chick-fil-A: The LGBTQ+ Community Is Not Behind Your Latest Publicity Stunt.” It turns out that stopping corporate donations to what Mr. Cable terms as “anti-LGBTQ+ organizations” and instead giving funds to an alleged LGBTQ activist organization just isn’t enough to make him a customer.

There may be exceptions, but for the most part people like Mr. Cable are as likely to eat at a Chick-fil-A restaurant as the people who buy Nike’s new Colin Kaepernick shoes are to purchase patriotic American apparel.

Chick-fil-A could never do enough to placate the LGBTQ community at large because they will not accept anything less than total capitulation of its values and full embrace of the LGBTQ agenda. Tolerance of other views is a foreign concept to them, and it’s hard to imagine them being a significant part of the company’s customer base.
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In going down the path of being all things to all people, Chick-fil-A’s leadership has made the mistake that has caused so many brands to stumble, and in the process lose their identity and distinctiveness. The result: Sarcastic skepticism from the LGBTQ community at large, and a sense of acute disappointment and betrayal by scores of its traditional-values customers.

Forbes contributor Dawn Ennis, who reports on the fight for transgender equality and other LGBTQ issues, writes that the company is now getting “grilled by both sides.”

It appears Chick-fil-A took this action to make it easier to expand into new markets, but the opposite is likely to happen. Now that LGBTQ activists, abortion-rights advocates, far-left college professors and liberal news media outlets have seen a crack in the company’s values’ foundation, new demands will surface, which Chick-fil-A will have to meet—or else.

It’s a slippery slope. Detractors will demand more and more, until the company’s culture is no longer recognizable. If Chick-fil-A resists any of these demands, the backlash and outcry will be enormous. They know that if they can get the company to blink once, they can get it to blink again.

At the same time, it will be far more difficult to rally support from people who feel they’ve been burned. Chick-fil-A still has a significant amount of brand equity and goodwill, but the reality is that a lot of us just don’t feel the way we used to about the brand.

How did Truett do it? It wasn’t by caving to political correctness and taking for granted the patronage of people who have made Chick-fil-A such a great American success story.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

 

 

Keeping Your Agency in the News: The Drip, Drip, Drip Approach

My first job in public relations was with an international nonprofit organization. I was blessed to have a terrific mentor, a former newspaper editor who took me under his wing and really helped me understand the news business. He taught me how to think and write like a reporter, and how work with them successfully on stories about our organization.

We had a small staff and typically were overwhelmed with requests and things to do. All too often, we were putting out fires. We did very little proactive media work to generate publicity, except for some of the large events we held.

At the time, my idea of media relations was when the phone rang we answered it, and if it was a reporter calling we did our best to be helpful.

When I went to work for a large PR firm years later, I was immediately introduced to the concept of generating publicity for our clients by coming up with ideas and angles for what would hopefully be positive coverage.

And, by the way, the clients expected ongoing coverage, so we had to be persistent and sometimes creative in coming up with story ideas and new angles.

Consistency is an important part of an effective PR program, and finding ways to keep your agency front and center is vital to a program’s overall success.

  • Think of it as the drip, drip, drip approach to keeping you in the news.

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One of the most galling things for agency principals is to watch from the sidelines as competitors are quoted and featured in the news media. Even worse, agencies that were not part of the story may actually have more experience and expertise than the agency that received the coverage. Of course, the impression people get is that the folks quoted are the cream of the crop in their profession, which may or may not be true.

It’s no accident that some agencies get more ink and air time than others. It’s because they have an intentional, ongoing, strategic effort to get their names in the marketplace, and they have made PR a priority.

With that in mind, here are some publicity topics to help keep your agency in the news:

  • Commentary about marketing trends/current issues
  • Sponsorships
  • Community involvement
  • Events
  • New clients, employees, awards, publications
  • New services, office expansion, etc.
  • Mentoring programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Guest columns in the local paper or business journal
  • Articles in relevant industry publications
  • Human interest stories about employees (unusual hobbies, their community involvement, humanitarian work, etc.)

The effort is worth it. A consistent PR program can help agencies not only get more exposure to important audiences and build their brands, but also compliment their new business efforts.

photo credit: wuestenigel News via photopin (license)

The Best Tool for Evaluating the Effectiveness of Your Agency’s Communications

A communications audit helps identify strengths and weaknesses in an agency’s communications, as well as perceptions that exist and barriers which prevent or inhibit effective communication. An audit also flags areas that may require more in-depth, quantitative research.

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What is a communications audit?

A communications audit is a management tool that helps agencies and their clients determine how effectively they are communicating with various audiences. It involves the collection and analysis of information about perceptions clients and influencers have about the agency. In essence, a communications audit is a snapshot of an organization at a given time. An audit may be broad or narrow, focusing on a particular audience or a variety of audiences. Likewise, the audit may address a single issue or a wide range of issues affecting an agency. The bottom-line goal for any audit, however, should be to improve the effectiveness of an organization’s communication with important audiences.

Why should an organization have one?

A communications audit can help agencies and/or their clients understand how well their messages are being received and accepted by audiences. While people may think that others understand and accept their messages, the fact of the matter is that we are often unaware of how the messages we send are received or understood. Equally important as sending a message is listening for feedback. A communications audit also can help identify barriers to effective communication and provide practical solutions.

How is a communications audit conducted?

The best way to conduct a communications audit is through an independent, third-part individual who thoroughly understands the communication process. Audits typically include a review of formal and informal communication processes; one-on-one interviews with community and industry leaders, influencers, customers and members of the organization; focus groups; and sometimes surveys.

What are the expected results?

An audit gives organizations an opportunity to find out what they are doing well in their communications and where they need to improve. The audit also may uncover important issues or perceptions that need to be addressed, and in some cases it will significantly alter the way an organization operates.

It’s hard to fix something if you don’t know exactly where it’s broken. A communications audit helps identify communication gaps, barriers and pitfalls, and it ultimately provides a roadmap to get communications back on track.

photo credit: All Reverse Mortgage Check mark via photopin (license)

 

Strategic Use of PR Is a Competitive Advantage for Agencies

Whether your agency emphasizes inbound or outbound marketing—or a combination of the two—public relations is an important tool for attracting attention, building your brand and generating new business opportunities.

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Targeted publicity enables secondary sources—the news media and bloggers—to tell your story and build your brand’s image and reputation. 

It also gives your brand something no other marketing tool can fully replicate: credibility. Although you lack control of what’s reported by the news media, that’s exactly why such coverage is so much more credible than an ad—people know the story has gone through a third-party vetting process.

While agencies provide background information, messaging and insights to help shape stories, clients and prospects tend to give more weight to a news article or a post from a credible blog than from advertising, social media or personal sales.

Agency PR also is effective in increasing awareness among decision makers who may be difficult to reach through other means, and it enhances inbound marketing initiatives because a steady stream of favorable publicity makes your agency easier to be found by prospects seeking your area of expertise.

Many people in public relations have backgrounds with print or broadcast media. Former reporters tend to be excellent story tellers, which is essential for good content marketing.

They know how to consistently provide useful, well-targeted information that is enjoyable to read, builds trust, engages customers and enhances the brand—without coming across as disguised advertisements.

If used strategically, PR will give your agency a real competitive edge—particularly in new business initiatives—because it provides an unparalleled way of gaining awareness and credibility; enables your agency to communicate effectively with clients, prospects and influencers; and assists in building your brand and reputation in the marketplace.

photo credit: Cloudberry Communications via photopin cc

Why PR Is Best Suited to Lead Social Media Initiatives

Marketing, advertising, new business, customer service, human resources and others have important business reasons for using social media. But when it comes to mapping agency or corporate strategy, I believe that public relations is the discipline best equipped for leading the social media charge.

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Here’s why PR is naturally suited for this role:

  • PR people are storytellers who create content that is targeted, relevant and valuable
  • They are trained to converse with a variety of audiences
  • They are responsible for managing an organization’s image
  • They help an organization speak with one voice through clear and consistent communication
  • They know how to engage audiences and talk with (not at) them

The hallmark of good public relations has always been two-way communication, which is vital for social media success.

Social media allows us to start or participate in conversations with individuals we might otherwise not reach. We can communicate directly with our marketplace and answer questions, solve problems, have constructive debates and gain a better understanding of issues and concerns from the other person’s perspective.

  • But beware: a post from any department in an organization is seen as representing the entire organization.

Unfortunately, some entities operate in aimless social media silos instead of having a synergistic plan for search engine optimization, reputation management and business impact.

As a result, there is no unified message or purpose, and “Likes” and “Shares” are considered barometers of success rather than attracting and cultivating targeted leads and converting them into sales.

The real strength of social media is its interactive nature, which enables us to build relationships and enhance trust in ways that other mediums can’t match. Social media gives agencies, businesses and nonprofits unparalleled ways of communicating one-on-one with customers, donors, prospects, influencers and other interested parties.

It’s what PR professionals do every day.

photo credit: MySign AG Social Media via photopin (license)

Why the In-N-Out Boycott Came and Went

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but after a spectacular backfire California Democratic party chairman Eric Bauman has no doubt been pondering in recent days “what was I thinking?” in trying to stir up a boycott of the wildly popular In-N-Out Burger chain.

Just days after sending a tweet saying “it’s time to #BoycottInNOut,” Mr. Bauman abruptly reversed course and now claims “There is no boycott.”

In-N-Out’s offense? The company made donations to the California Republican Party. Gasp. For its part, In-N-Out clarified that the company made equal contributions to both Democratic and Republican PACs in California.

Having lived in Southern California for seven years, I can personally attest to the huge fan base In-N-Out has in the state. It’s a California icon, and there’s no other fast-food chain quite like it. In-N-Out was a favorite stop for my family and me (the milkshakes are fabulous), and now fans are rallying to the restaurant chain’s defense, just as fans of Chick-fil-A responded to a similar ill-conceived boycott there several years ago.
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Mike Huckabee, who came up with the record-setting Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day when the chain was targeted for a boycott, called for a “buy-cott” of In-N-Out, describing it as a “wonderful company” and asking a very reasonable question: “Why can’t a business express itself?”

I avoid doing business with organizations that I know support causes I don’t agree with, as do many people of all political and religious persuasions. But for a state party leader to call publicly for a boycott for giving contributions to the opposition party is really quite amazing, especially since In-N-Out gave money to both parties.

Boycotts can be tricky and risky. To avert a PR disaster that blows up in one’s face, it’s worth asking some important questions before encouraging people to avoid buying products or services from a company, such as:

  1. Is this an issue worthy of a boycott? A boycott can do more harm than good—especially in terms of perceptions—when it backfires like this one did. It’s hard to get people worked up over equal donations to opposing political parties.
  2. What will be the public perception of the boycott? It’s also difficult to get massive participation in a boycott that most people think is ridiculous. Generally speaking, people don’t like to see companies like In-N-Out attacked and dragged into a controversy when they’ve done nothing wrong
  3. What is the desired outcome of the boycott? Did Mr. Bauman really expect to bully In-N-Out into giving all its donations to one party? If that was the endgame, his effort was doomed from the start. Is it feasible to refer to In-N-Out as “those creeps,” as Mr. Bauman did in his tweet, and win the hearts and minds of the Californians? I don’t think so.
  4. Can the boycott be sustained long term? It usually takes a while for a boycott to affect a company’s bottom line, so there need to be sufficient resources, energy and passion to keep the boycott in front of the public. Even Californians who agree with Mr. Bauma may find those burgers, fries and shakes irresistible for more than a few weeks.
  5. If successful, what precedent will the boycott set? Do we really want to punish companies like In-N-Out for giving money to political parties? Republicans could, in turn, call for boycotts of well-known liberal companies like Starbucks because it gives money to Democrats. Where would this end? Or Republicans could call for a boycott of In-N-Out because it gives money to Democratic PACS in California. Between the two parties, successful boycotts could put the chain out of business for the absurd reason of making donations to both parties.

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A far better approach, in my opinion, is to support freedom of expression for everyone and make buying decisions based on one’s conscience and preferences rather than the recommendations of someone like Mr. Bauman, who heads a state party that routinely lectures us about the importance of tolerance and diversity. Why listen to someone who doesn’t practice what his party preaches?