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Comfortable with controversy

According to research by the Economist Intelligence Unit, CEOs say reputation is their organisation’s most prized asset. But they also say it is the most vulnerable and hardest to get right.

It is the capriciousness of reputation that makes CEOs wary of engaging when their organisation is criticised in public. When you’re not certain of the outcome, conflict feels risky.

That’s why CEOs love marketing exercises. They’re like hosting a party where you’re too drunk to know or care if everyone else is having fun.

Handling public controversy is not fun. So CEOs make excuses for not engaging. They argue that they don’t want to add fuel to the fire, the issue will go away, or that nothing they say can help.

These arguments are nonsensical. They wouldn’t be accepted for problems emerging inside an organisation. They shouldn’t be accepted for problems emerging outside the organisation.

Consider what these arguments would mean in your personal life: if you arrive home later than expected, do you remain silent to queries from your partner?

Driven by fear of engagement, organisations give in to those driving the controversy. To make it go away they apologise and do the things demanded of them – even if it is contrary to their business strategy, values or customer interests.

There’s three reasons why organisations must say something in public when controversy strikes:

  1. Communication is necessary. Almost everything you know has come about because people communicated with you, directly and indirectly. To inform other people, you must also communicate.

  2. Not communicating makes things worse. When you don’t contribute, people use other sources of information to make judgements. Worse, they’re likely to judge your silence as evidence against you.

  3. You can win. You can’t necessarily make everyone happy, and you’ll tie yourself in knots trying. But you can persuade most customers and staff and even most of the mainstream public to ignore the controversy, by saying and doing clear unequivocal things that appeal to their interests.

Next time you find yourself arguing that your company shouldn’t answer criticism in public, it will be fear that drives you, not logic. Concentrate instead on what you should say and do to persuade those who matter to your organisation’s success.

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