Golden Rule Dialogue in the Media Age

We all make mistakes. It’s a human truth that, when we are torturing ourselves over one thing or another, some kindhearted person will offer as consolation.

Every single one of us has said something dumb. We’ve all blundered in our work, frozen when we should have acted, or spoken when we should have remained silent. Corporations (and government leaders) have rolled out policies poorly or misinterpreted public reaction to the words and images they use.

Unfortunately, in a media-driven society, mistakes like these are no longer temporary concerns. Just ask Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PwC, whose backstage astonishment at this week’s Oscar ceremony led to a prolonged and embarrassing Best Picture award presentation. Or KellyAnne Conway, whose attempt to get a good photo of some dignitaries resulted in (gasp!) an unfortunate pose and some shoes on an Oval Office sofa.

Even more alarming is our sudden outrage over the models used in clothing advertisements or fashion shows (body-shaming! lack of diversity!), or our heretofore unmentioned disgust at corporate hiring practices, fast food ingredients, or executive political contributions.

As a PR professional and a human being, I come at these issues from two separate but related perspectives.

Stephanie as Human Being

We have become a society so delighted with our own ability to be outraged that we seek it everywhere. Each and every human error becomes evidence of incompetence and/or ill will. We no longer look for the best in people and organizations, preferring instead to anticipate ways in which we can be offended.

Don’t get me wrong—there are bad actors out there. But I tend to think there are fewer of them than our Facebook feeds would suggest. As a society, I suggest we need to rethink the things we consider “scandalous” and presume that most everyone we encounter acts out of good intentions, doing the best they can with the information and circumstances they possess.

Think of the dumbest thing you’ve ever said or done. Now imagine there was someone standing across the room with a cell phone camera, videotaping that moment. Within seconds, that videotape is online and bingo! You’re being publicly shamed for your mistake. Heck, your obituary will probably mention it (e.g., “Stephanie Van Koevering, whom you might remember from the time she was caught on tape loudly disciplining her two-year-old in a Bloomingdale’s restroom, died today…” or “Stephanie Van Koevering, who once told Bill O’Reilly his voice put her to sleep almost instantly, departed to her eternal rest—without his aid—this week…”, etc.)

In my work, I have never seen a ceremony or event go off 100% perfectly. I have never seen a policy rollout without some glitches here and there. My experience has never shown me an effective leader who always says and does absolutely the right thing every single time (and if a leader ever does, I’ll be immediately suspicious).

But until recently, I’ve also never seen anyone have the expectation that these miracles should not just happen, but be the norm. Are we that advanced as a society, that nobody can ever make a mistake anymore?

We need to stop expecting perfection. Life is messy. People screw up. It’s our job to understand, learn and prevent future mistakes from happening as best we can.

Stephanie as PR Professional

Mercy is good (see above). But our society no longer extends it. That affects how every individual and organization must operate—and communicate—to Americans in the 21st century. To wit, as your personal PR advisor, I suggest:

·         The instant you leave your house in the morning, assume you are on camera. If CBS’ Person of Interest show is to be believed, you probably are anyway.  Unless you are desperately ill, don’t allow your wardrobe choices to peg you as one of the “people of Wal-Mart.” Conduct yourself with as much dignity and grace as you can muster, and watch what you say lest you be forever pegged as a disgrace to yourself and the people you work with.

·         Don’t put anything in writing that you don’t want to see on the front page of your local paper with your picture next to it. Enough said.

·         Plan for contingencies—and then practice. This is especially true if you are preparing for a rollout or event. It may seem boring or time-consuming, but merely taking time to rehearse and discuss what you’re about to do can make all the difference. Imagine, for instance, that PwC actually rehearsed the “wrong envelope” scenario in advance. Nobody would have frozen in place, they would have simply gone into action naturally.

It’s even better if you can put an unbiased third party in the room with you to play devil’s advocate and really put you through your paces. This is where PR firms really add value—we can come in as external eyes and ears to help you hone your messaging and presentation particulars.

Golden Rule Dialogue—How It Works

As communicators and as members of American society, we have a clear way forward in a culture that delights in shaming. We must do our best to communicate clearly and effectively, practicing scenarios and ensuring we’re ready for anything.

But we also need to be prepared to understand and forgive, just as we want to be forgiven for our own mistakes. Let’s stick up for each other, rather than sticking it TO each other. Our public discourse doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s golden rule dialogue in the media age, and it makes perfect sense. Do unto others as you would have done to you.

It’s that simple. Get started today.