“My father taught me many things here. He taught me in this room. He taught me ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’” –Michael Coreleone (Al Pacino), The Godfather Part II
I heard a story many years ago about a disgruntled ex-employee who became a thorn in the side of his former company’s board of directors. So many years have passed since I heard the story that I no longer know the source, nor whether the story was true or apocryphal. Nonetheless, the story’s moral is something we can all learn from.
After every board meeting, the story goes, the ex-employee would write about the board’s proceedings. The board members were confused about how he got the information—the meetings were closed—so they surmised that someone must have been leaking to him. Trouble was, no one could determine who the leaker was, and meeting after meeting, the ex-employee kept posting sensitive details to the Internet.
His postings were somewhat accurate, though not entirely, and he would add his own negative commentary to each of the board’s actions. The company’s current employees eagerly awaited each of his updates, and word of his latest articles spread through the company’s ranks by the next morning’s coffee break.
The standard crisis communications playbook might have sought to discredit the ex-employee, or to post a response that detailed his inaccuracies, or to file some legal action against him, or to take additional security precautions for board meetings.
This board instead chose to do something counterintuitive. They decided to invite the ex-employee to their meetings. They calculated that if the man got to know them, he would realize that their motives weren’t as nefarious as he suspected. They surmised that even if the man continued to print confidential information, at least he would get his facts straight if he heard them firsthand.
As the board suspected, the tone of the ex-employee’s posts softened after they afforded him respect and brought him into the fold. The board wasn’t always happy with his posts, but the articles were less unfavorable than they had been in the past. The board considered its decision a success.
Am I suggesting that you should allow your harshest critics to attend your most sensitive meetings? No, but as with many of the tactics I describe on this blog, I hope you’ll consider this as another tool available to you, another arrow in your PR quiver.
I suspect most of you will never need, nor want, to deploy it, but this story has stuck with me for years, probably because its underlying truth teaches all of us a lesson that may one day come in handy.
Brad Phillips is author of the book The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.