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Just Say No (When to Steer Clear of a Client)

By David Gallagher and David Schleicher

Kayak on the Brazos River

As any fan of courtroom TV drama knows, the accused are entitled to professional legal counsel, no matter how heinous the charge. In the court of public opinion, the rules are a little less established but arguably similar: everyone should have access to advice, and a spotty reputation is not by itself a sufficient reason to be turned away by image consultants.

But as the recent resignation of White House press secretary Sean Spicer underscores, it’s well worth advisors of all types considering in advance when to walk away from an opportunity, and when to run. We’ve compiled these suggestions:

(1) It was once a given, but we feel compelled to say it: don’t do anything illegal. Don’t help anyone else do anything illegal. Don’t attempt to mask the illegal acts of others, or obstruct the law from investigating potentially illegal acts.

(2) Consider the ethics. “It’s legal” does not equal “it’s right.” This is a greyer area than the law, but professional bodies in communications and other areas of business advice have ethical frameworks to clarify ambiguities. Things like disclosing who you represent or are advising, sticking to facts and avoiding deliberate misrepresentation of the truth.

(3) Be pragmatic. Will a new assignment alienate others you work with already? Can your colleagues support the assignment in good conscience and to the best of their abilities? And if you do not own your business, will your shareholders be happy to be associated with the new project? Will your family be embarrassed by your work?

(4) Be realistic. Do you have the skills, experience and in, some cases, the stamina to do what’s required? Is the client willing to change the story by changing their behaviour, or simply demanding a change in the way they are portrayed?

(5) Think about the future. You may feel fully justified in what you’re doing and for whom you’re serving, but if it requires you to burn bridges with others you may need in the future – say, journalists, or the judiciary – you may want to pause before striking the match.

Your client who is ostracised today may with the hindsight of history become the hero (think Martin Luther King). At the other end of the spectrum, no professional wants their dying realization to be that they did such a good job at promoting the shunned that they will be recalled as the next Leni Riefenstahl.

(6) Finally, to thine own self be true. If you’re asked to advise on issues that don’t square with your own gut feeling of what’s right, regardless of the legal or practical circumstances, you’re unlikely to do the job as well as someone who’s truly on board. That’s unfair to the client and compromises your own integrity.

We can only assume in the case of Mr. Spicer and others advising the president that the lure of fame, the proximity to power, or a sincere belief that in some cases the ends justify the means (however unsavoury) is enough to endure the daily humiliations, questionable requests and vicious undercutting to which they are publicly and privately subjected.

This may be good enough for them, but we wouldn’t recommend it for others.

David Gallagher is London-based, where he is president, Growth Development, International, for Omnicom Public Relations Group. David Schleicher, of the Schleicher Law Firm, PLLC, represents U.S. government employees and businesses.

Oreo Cookies, Cash, and a Gun

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by David Schleicher

A friend who did work overseas for the government explained to me how she would deal with those days when she had to venture into the middle of a conflict zone. “I’d take a box of Oreos, a wad of cash, and a gun.” She found there were many times the cash was needed and more than one time when the tension level was eased with the cookies. As a result, the gun stayed in its holster.

All too often, we encounter–or see in ourselves–someone who carries nothing but cookies, or only cash, or goes to the gun as step one.

Few question that being a jerk can be damaging and–at the top–even deadly to an organization.  The platitude that “one person can make a difference” often has proven itself true as a narcissist drives a country or a company into the ground.   Today’s question is a more difficult one: when does your niceness become dysfunctional? All cookies all the time?

The amiable-looking fellow above, Neville Chamberlain, is as good a starting place as any.  A British Prime Minister, he reached a 1938 agreement with Adolf Hitler that made some concessions in an effort to quench the dictator’s thirst for territory.  What Chamberlain got in return was not peace, but his photo in the dictionary under the word “appeasement.”

Attempting to buy peace (whether with cookies, cash, or by looking away at territorial grabs) with a megalomaniac merely delays a war, in the process deluding an organization into believing it need not be preparing for one. Likewise, if you’re viewed as someone who can be easily rolled because your highest goal is keeping the peace, those who most seek you out will not be prospective clients and business partners, but bullies. (The same applies to your personal life.)

Treat people how you want to be treated is a rule as old as time and a precept that is the universal to the major religions. As few of us enjoy being bullied, it makes sense to start with collegiality and kindness (the Oreos). Sometimes it takes another level of negotiation to get things accomplished (equivalent to the cash). If all else fails, don’t forget that you came prepared with your metaphorical gun.

Figuring out who you are dealing with is half the battle:  someone who views you with hostility but is open to change? A gatekeeper who needs lunch money before letting you in? Or a narcissist who will exploit every opening?

Next time you are dropped into hostile territory, don’t go it alone…pack all three.

 

 

(c) 2017 David Schleicher. Permission granted to share in entirety with attribution.

 

 

 

Disobedience As A Business Strategy

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By David Schleicher and David Gallagher

Watching the rise of President Donald Trump, we ask if it’s time to dump or delete all those books by the experts on how to succeed in business or politics. Love or loathe him, all can agree he doesn’t play by the usual rules. He nonetheless defeated some 20 other major-party candidates on his path to the White House, also gaining a historic number of Republican primary votes and collecting wall-to-wall media attention.

Do the world’s leading experts need to recalculate their advice or is it only a matter of time before the usual rules bring Trump to defeat? His willingness to violate norms leaves some fearing doom of the American experiment in democracy. But it is that very eagerness to implode existing structures that makes his fans adore him. They take the resistance he encounters as proof he’s fighting the good fight against an out-of-touch and corrupt establishment.

Consider this common wisdom from business and political canons of the past:

  • If bad news is coming, get out in front of it.
  • To get legislation passed, be a consistent and credible source of expertise.
  • When you have greatly erred, admit it publicly and outline steps to prevent future occurrences.
  • Humility helps prevent disastrous decision-making.
  • Unnecessarily antagonizing a reporter will backfire on you.
  • Independent voters in the middle decide elections, so politicians should focus on them.

Trump, without embarrassment or hesitation, disregards all these tenets. Consider the drip-drip of bad news out of the White House, widely varied messages to Congress, the refusal to apologize for refusing to apologize, omnipresent boasting, declaring media the “enemy of the people” and a laser-like focus on pleasing his base. The combination is not coincidental.

But as much as one may “love winning,” the reality is that his legislative priorities remain stuck on the runway: repealing Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure funding. Even with Republicans holding the White House, both houses of Congress and more often than not prevailing at the U.S. Supreme Court, his list of accomplishments is surprisingly diminutive.

Gallup polling labels Trump’s approval ratings “unusually low, unusually early.” They have reached record lows for a president’s first year in office and sit within 15 points of Nixon’s numbers at his resignation. On the other hand, Newsweek recently asserted that the “people who loved Donald Trump in November largely still love him in July.” Visit the right neighborhood in the right part of the United States and it’s not difficult to find Trump campaign signs still displayed proudly.

True, leaders who question assumptions and toss outdated norms can improve their success rate. Trump, by example, demonstrated that some who voted for Barack Obama could be converted to Trump voters and — equally valuable to him — others who turned out for Obama could readily be persuaded to stay home in spite of Obama’s strong endorsement of Hillary Clinton. We nonetheless decline to cease advising leaders to attend to core values such as empathy, clarity and purpose.

If Trump does succeed, it will not be at being “presidential.” Instead he offers a destination so different from the present that he will have gotten there because of, not in spite of, flouting the advice of experts, ignoring well-established customs, and traits and behavior previously deemed repugnant. This may be his goal; the prerequisite question for other leaders is what they hope for.

If it is to win within the current system and eliminate the dinosaurs among the competition, new methods and questioning assumptions are entirely appropriate. If you instead want to demolish an existing marketplace or political system, then feel free to start by tossing out the entirety of the wisdom of the ages and advising your experts to jog on.

Just keep in mind that when burning down a building from the inside, you are not guaranteed an escape route. If an approval rating in the 30 percent range is tolerable for you or your business, then by all means please feel free to give it a try. Someone has to star in future case studies.

       David Schleicher is an attorney representing U.S. government employees and a former DC lobbyist. David Gallagher is President, Growth Development, International, for Omnicom Public Relations Group. This originally appeared in the July 19, 2017 Waco Tribune-Herald.

Don’t Read This! Or Else!

However much you may have enjoyed being a child, chances are you don’t like being treated like one now. And that you feel like you are being treated as a child when someone gives you an order about how to behave. Such as ordering you not to read a particular blog post.

When you feel like someone is treating you like you are a child, it is natural to respond like a child. Whatever you may say out loud, your inner two-year old is yelling, “NO!” Like a child, when someone orders that you don’t do “X”, your desire to do “X” is suddenly increased. “Reactance” is what psychologists call that urge you feel to do the opposite of what you are ordered to do, as your mind resists what it perceives as a threat to its freedom.

You probably would agree that direct orders and threats rarely motivate you to do your best. Having served on a school board for six years, I found that someone in a conflict with the district who threatened to sue or to make sure a particular board member lost their next election rarely motivated my fellow board members in the intended direction.

In my years as a lobbyist and in my later practice of law, many times I have seen those threatened take their eyes off of the problem to be solved and instead focus on fighting the threat-maker. We know threats don’t work on us, yet it is one of the first things we try on others when we are not getting our way.

Clients sometimes will ask me why I didn’t raise more hell with the lawyer on the other side of the case. The reason is that when an attorney on the other side from me starts yelling and making loud demands, I begin to think that what I have been doing for my client has been effective enough to get under their skin. In other words, it tells me I might just be winning. I also cut off negotiations until the lawyer can get back some self-control and I may document the details of the conversation in an email or a letter.

Lawyers on the other side of cases have told me that they appreciate that I argue the law and the facts, rather than pounding my shoe on the table. Some of those same lawyers have come to me when they got in legal trouble or referred friends. Shoe pounding does make some clients feel better, but it does not serve their interests.

As challenging as it is not to make threats the first arrow in our quill, it is hard work training ourselves when threatened to stay focused on what is in our interests versus on the urge to squash the threat-maker. It may be, for example, that a settlement would be in your interest even though the threat you just heard makes you want to fight to your last dollar. A truly devious opponent may threaten you simply to make you act irrationally in response.

There are rare occasions when a threat is necessary and even rarer instances when it is productive. If you are going to have to impose a very severe consequence on someone–such as firing them or invading their country–then it is rational to give advance warning that “if you do ‘X’, then I will do ‘Y’.” It also may be needed so that those watching realize that the severe option also was your last option. But even in these situations, the threat (such as to another country’s leader) often results in a reaction that is the adult or national equivalent of “nanny, nanny, boo, boo…”

If you must threaten, make sure that the threat can be carried out successfully. If not, the next threat you make make be answered not with anger, but derision. The better approach is to set out the facts as you see them and let your subordinate or opponent come to see the threat on their own.

For example, rather than telling a sales team, “Every one increase sales by 20% this quarter or I’ll fire you,” try explaining that you have $1 million less in revenue than expenses and hope you can count on the sales team to help the workforce survive these challenging times. Set a date on everyone’s calendar three months from then to jointly review the sales results.

Rather than threatening an opponent with litigation that you say will embarrass them for their evil deeds, consider suggesting to them you would like to explore options for reaching an agreed resolution that would avoid the headaches of litigation for all involved. Just today, I observed someone attempt to persuade a group to change course by telling them that they would become irrelevant if they did not, adding that some of their concerns were absurd. The reaction was not a change of mind but anger over the perceived presumptiveness.

Just as you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar, facts may persuade, but threats almost never do. If someone is pointing a gun at you and telling you to hand over your money, you may comply. The boss that leaves employees feeling they had a gun pointed at them, on the other hand, will leave those employees looking for excuses to undermine her for the other 39 hours and fifty-five minutes of that week.

The fundamental rule is this: what doesn’t work to persuade you, probably doesn’t persuade others either.