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The Hand of Truth

By Tim Hayes

Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to control every aspect of the reality affecting your life?  To simply brush away the tough stuff, the uncomfortable moments, the annoying people and obligations?

Yep, it sure would be nice.  If only it were even a tiny bit possible or feasible or sustainable.  But it is not.  Never was.  Never will be.  We’re witnessing some of this now, on a grandest stage in the world.  It’s only a matter of time before the situation implodes, explodes, whatever.  The hand of truth always rises.  You simply cannot wish – or fire – away nagging problems and personalities forever.

I know, because I got caught in the web of someone who tried it once, and who got slammed up against the cold hard concrete of reality for his troubles.

It was one of those times when every member of an in-house public relations staff had to really be on his or her game.  The company had made some bad mistakes, investors began getting restless, regulators smelled blood, and the media wasn’t about to let up.

My role in coping with this particular house afire was to develop a series of media questions-and-answers for executives to use during press conferences and telephone interviews with reporters – a standard tool meant to limit any ad-libbing under pressure and to ensure a consistency of message emanating from the company.

The Q&As developed for the executive team pulled no punches.  Every potential “gotcha” question made it into the document, along with verifiable and forthright responses.  Having been a reporter earlier in my career, I wanted our guys to be ready for anything the media could throw at them.  They were in for some uncomfortable give-and-take with the press, so realistic preparation remained paramount and prudent.

We sent the materials upstairs for review, and what came back to me from one of the denizens of the plush top-floor C-suite still blows my mind.  He had slashed in angry red marker across the entire first page: CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!

My first reaction?  Stunned silence.  My second?  Nervous laughter quickly spinning into raucous guffaws that drew the attention of my compatriots in the Corporate Communications Department.  My third?  An icy numbness down the center of my cerebellum as I realized the CFO wasn’t kidding.

Change the questions.  Change…the questions!  I read his furiously scribbled nonsensical command over and over, the lunacy shimmering brighter with each read.  Change the questions.  Good grief.

So instead of manning up and properly preparing for the media firestorm minutes away, he decided that adopting an alternate reality where nobody asked unpleasant questions about touchy subjects made for a better, smarter, more winning strategy.  Ridiculous didn’t begin to describe the situation.

Since the Q&A was my responsibility, it fell to me to go into his office and explain that we couldn’t actually tell the reporters to rephrase their questions, no matter how prickly or unnerving they may sound to us.  His pushback came strong and forceful, as expected.  I held my ground as a realist trying to help this senior-level scaredy-cat survive with his dignity intact.  He remained just as convinced that changing the questions in an internal preparatory briefing document would provide greater value in the real-world parry and thrust he would be entering within the hour.

So eventually we compromised, although I don’t think he realized it.  I reworked the Q&A document just enough that the questions, slightly rephrased, covered the exact same topics and led to the exact same answers.

When the press conference got underway, though, the questions pounded him high and hard – pretty much in the way they’d been phrased in the original brief prepared for him.  He blanched at a few of them, but generally recovered and made it through with minimal damage.  He got lucky.

In the end, good preparation always will help an organization deal with crises, even if you have to assuage egos a little along the way.  This particular executive dealt with his blossoming, ripening anxiety by making a ludicrous demand.  By altering the “means” and humoring him a tad, the organization reached its desired “end” – media coverage that kept our overall message fairly clear, credible, and consistent.

But the fact remains, you can’t alter reality to fit your comfort zone.  The world has never, ever worked that way.  You can push people around, get rid of those who get too close to uncomfortable truths, and convince supporters to back you for a while.

There comes a time, however, when the firm, unyielding, unstoppable, undeniable hand of truth rises to claim its rightful place again.  That day always arrives.  It may take a while, but it always arrives.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes