Editor’s Note: This article was written by Marc Slavin, an attorney and communications consultant based in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Internet is forever.
I learned that lesson in an unforgettable way when my on-camera confrontation with a reporter went viral several years ago. No matter what I do in my life, the chances are that most people will always know me by the one public moment I would most like to forget.
The constant need of television news for spectacle, the magnifying effect of the Internet, and my own unfortunate reaction to a charged situation combined to produce enduring images of how not to handle yourself on camera.
What happened? The short answer is I let my frustration get the best of me. In the heat of the moment, I lost sight of the critical fact that my actions were no longer solely personal to me, but needed to reflect the values of numerous others whom I was representing.
Do I regret it? You bet I do.
In those few seconds I managed to lose sight of everything I have learned in 25 years of public relations. Because I reacted as I did, I made a bad situation worse. My boss at the time made the point with understated aplomb. “You could have behaved with greater reserve,” he said.
The fundamental rule I violated is this: It’s never about you. In public relations, as so many P.R. professionals reading this blog will know, you can’t take criticism personally. When you lose your objectivity, your effectiveness goes with it.
But to maintain professional equilibrium in tense circumstances you have to know something about who you are, otherwise you might surprise yourself, as I did, with behavior you hardly knew you were capable of.
Friends have said how unlike me it was to react as I did. But it was me who reacted that way, not anyone else.
My surprise and dismay at my own behavior has led me to do some serious, and helpful, soul searching. For those who may have had a similar experience, or hope to avoid one, I recommend Naomi Quenk’s book about personality types, “Was That Really Me?”
Besides the confrontation on film my experience entailed a confrontation with myself and one with the tenets of my profession. It caused me to look closely at the reasons I care about public communication and to recall that what drew me into the profession to begin with was the vitality of its contribution to social change.
As public relations practitioners, our stock in trade consists of the narratives we fashion from the events of the day. We are workers in story.
Because so much of our ability to shape the world around us depends upon narrative perspective, “framing” as we have come to call it, it helps to be aware of how we frame our own histories and purposes, the assumptions we take for granted about ourselves as we frame the narratives of our own lives simply by living those lives in the way we do from day to day.
The organizational development theorist Margaret Wheatley wrote that communication matters because information exchange is necessary to life. Bodies continually exchange information with their environment to gauge the changes they must make in order to maintain their integrity.
As I have learned, to be effective, we must be exquisitely attuned to our faults as well as our strengths. Paradoxically, changing is the only hope any of us has of being who we are.
Please leave your thoughts about Mr. Slavin’s article in the comments section below. Thank you for reading.