Take It Easy: Bad Things Happen to Even the Best Prepared Communicators

October 15, 2020

Sometimes it’s hard to take it easy, especially when something you’re responsible for goes off the rails. But it’s critically important that you not be too hard on yourself. You will not grow as a strategic communicator if you live in a mistake. Give yourself a break.

Earlier this month, the highly regarded news anchor Chris Wallace moderated the first, and potentially only, presidential debate. Most observers saw it, and most historians will regard it, as a train wreck, a car crash – insert the transportation metaphor of your choice.

Wallace knew for months that he was going to be the moderator of this debate. It wasn’t his first presidential debate. He’s seen President Trump’s behavior and his campaign style. He had received praise from both sides of the aisle for how he handled a one-on-one interview with Trump earlier this summer. There is no question that he was prepared for the moment. Even with all of that, it didn’t go as he expected.

Reflect, but do not get lost in it.

“I’m just sad with the way last night turned out,” Wallace said the day after the debate. “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did.” He added, “I’m a pro. I’ve never been through anything like this.”

It made me reflect about how we crisis communicators get ready for an event. This could be a high-stakes press conference, a town hall meeting we expect to be contentious, a difficult interview or some other challenging communications environment. No matter how ready we are, it can still go off the rails.

The media can be particularly aggressive. Our CEO is not ready or not performing at their usual level. The messenger gets the message all wrong, or it isn’t being heard above the chaos and cacophony. It just evolves into a bad, bad situation. Our immediate, natural reaction when this happens is to be shocked, mortified, apologetic and wishing for it to be all over.
I encourage you to get past those reactions quickly and take a different approach. Give yourself a break. Take it easy on yourself.

The great American philosophers Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey put it this way:

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand and take it easy

In the moment, recognize that sometimes things just go badly. It’s not out of a failure of planning or preparation. It’s not because you failed as a strategic communicator. Sometimes, mistakes get made or it just goes badly. My advice is, go into the situation recognizing it can go off the rails. If it does, take a step back, manage the situation as it unfolds as best you can, and move forward.

I recall a political campaign years ago where we had written a great speech for our candidate to deliver. We lost the piece of paper it was written on. He had to riff and ad lib on the spot. It didn’t go well. I took responsibility for it – I was the communications lead and the staff person working that event – but I didn’t beat myself up over it. We made a mistake. Let’s not make it again, and let’s just go forward.

So, when this happens to you, give yourself a break. Take it easy. Don’t let the critical voices in your head – the sound of your own wheels – drive you crazy. Shake it off. Fix whatever can be fixed. Take the opportunity to get better and move forward.

Once he returned home, Wallace said he engaged in a bid of soul-searching. “Generally speaking, I did as well as I could, so I don’t have any second thoughts there,” he said. “I’m just disappointed with the results.”

Contrary to the Eagles, I do believe you should “try to understand,” but not immediately. When an event goes off the rails, write a thoughtful, honest post-mortem. Let a little time pass and let the emotions die down first. Then look at what happened to see if there was anything that could have reasonably been done to produce a better result. Learn from that, and move forward.

Bad things sometimes happen to the most prepared, best informed and experienced communicators. When it happens to you, give yourself a break, and take it easy.

Filed under: Crisis Response

Bill Coletti

Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.