Putting your hand up and getting ahead of the story

marketing direction[Image courtesy of Chris & Karen Highland at Flickr Creative Commons]

Two things happened this week that made me think about how we handle adversity – and the stories we tell ourselves and our clients. 

The first was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who runs a recruitment agency. A candidate of his had left his job after just a few months, causing consternation at his client’s offices.

What had they done wrong? Why did they not see it coming? Would they be able to recover from this, both reputationally (he’d been dealing with their clients) and financially (they’d forked out a hefty fee, which was non-refundable after an agreed period – which had passed). 

Now my friend has been in the game long enough to know that these things happen. He’d thoroughly vetted the candidate, and the client had conducted multiple interviews. Due diligence had been done, but despite best efforts on all sides – my friend, his client, and the candidate – it simply hadn’t worked out. 

So the first thing my friend did was to reassure his client that they weren’t at fault. He also pointed out it was better that the candidate left sooner rather than later, as his departure would have done much more damage to their business. 

And lastly, he told them that he’d either give them a free replacement candidate, or a full refund. He was under no obligation to offer either, but he felt duty-bound to do so.

Because the simple fact of the matter is that people make mistakes all the time, and companies do too.

Crises flare up, and when they do, what matters more than the nature of the crisis is the way you deal it. 

And my friend dealt with it gracefully and with consummate professionalism. He could have simply said it was tough, and walked away from the problem. Or offered a replacement rather than a refund, so he didn’t lose any money on the deal. 

But he values his client and his own reputation, and he knows that it’s not worth compromising either for the sake of a placement fee. 

The stories we tell ourselves

Another friend of mine who’s a management consultant has recently undergone training in a new coaching technique with an unusual approach. It involves looking at the stories we tell ourselves, and seeing how they stop us from advancing.

And if you’re wondering whether this is the corporate equivalent of the concept of self-limiting beliefs, you’re right. The idea is that by simply recasting the story (flipping I’m not management material or I’m not a risk-taker into something more positive) you change your reality, and increase your chances of success.

And my recruitment friend was retelling the client’s story, the candidate’s story and his own. 

Analyse this

The other big news story of the week is the one broken by The Guardian and the New York Times about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of 50m Facebook profiles to manipulate the US presidential election. Facebook’s reaction to the growing scandal seems to me to be the opposite of my recruitment friend’s. 

They’ve apparently already denied they were aware that profile data was obtained illegally, though the paper trail kept by Canadian whistleblower Chris Wylie seems to show that they did.

It’s difficult to see how Facebook execs are going to explain away that one, and already the vultures on Wall Street are circling, with FB shares losing almost 7% on Monday, following the weekend’s revelations. 

From a PR point of view, they’re simply not getting ahead of the story, and managing the message. It doesn’t help when there are headlines like Where’s Zuck? Facebook CEO silent as data harvesting scandal unfolds. Even when he did finally emerge, many found his performance less than convincing.

Hiding in a bunker isn’t a sustainable strategy, but it’s easy to see why that might seem the best option at the time – because we’ve all been in a similar position.

Something goes wrong, and you don’t mention it. Then something else happens, and you still keep quiet. Eventually, you’re forced to confront the situation, and it’s much more difficult to deal with downstream in the fast-flowing river of controversy than in the relative calm of the upstream shallows.

So it’s best to take control early, admit your mistakes, and be seen to be doing the right thing.

My friend’s relationship with his client has come through unscathed and their trust has been restored.

They’ve declined the the offer of up-front cash, and are going instead with the replacement-candidate option. They’ve stopped beating themselves up over their failure to spot a candidate who wasn’t going to work out, and are focused on finding one who will.

It could have gone either way, but my friend made sure it went the way he wanted. It remains to be seen how Zuck and Co. will fare, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal gathers pace and shows no signs of letting up.

Something tells me they’re in for a bumpy ride.