As a former history teacher, I was fascinated by the Budweiser sponsored teachable moment at the White House. Most teachers don't include beer with their lesson plans but hey, whatever it takes to get through to your students.

Denver public relations pros have been fascinated by some other teachable moments lately. One was the never-ending saga involving Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado. That one involved issues of free speech, tenure, plagiarism, meddling politicians and how not to handle a crisis. Another one involved a surgical tech at Denver's Rose Medical Center who may have exposed thousands of surgical patients to hepatitis C by stealing their pain medication and replacing it with her used, saline filled syringes.

Public relations pros can use situations like these to teach our clients how to manage conflicts, communicate complex, controversial issues to diverse groups of stakeholders, and repair damaged reputations. Whether you are dealing with a conflict that needs resolution or a crisis that needs managing, there are some basic lessons to remember.

Lesson #1: Pipe down. I can't hear you when you are shouting.
Professional mediators know that conflict resolution depends on establishing a safe environment for respectful conversation. Maybe it's a community forum or maybe it's over a beer, but before you can get another group to understand your point of view you need to stop shouting and start listening. Communication is a two-way process. You need to listen before you can have a chance for constructive dialogue.

Lesson #2: You can bury your head in the sand but it won't save your butt.
I was recently called in to help a company handle some negative press. The company felt that the reporter was out to get them, but when the reporter called for a comment the company ignored the call. Then they demanded the paper print a retraction. I proposed that we arrange a meeting with the reporter so the company could express its point of view in a non-confrontational setting but the company was convinced it would not get a fair shake. They used the excuse of protecting the privacy of their investors, but they should have been worried about protecting the reputation of their company. When you say "no comment" it just looks like you have something to hide.

Lesson #3: You can't control the message if you don't take charge of the situation.
The beer summit, CU, Rose and the company facing bad press all have something in common. They let outside forces manipulate the situation, and in the process they lost control of the message. At the White House it was the media and political special interests. At CU it was the Governor and State Legislature. At Rose it was the health department and lawyers. And at the company with bad press it was the attitude of one misguided executive who thought he had all the answers.

In every crisis someone will try to influence the outcome or control the way an organization responds to the situation. Our job is to help our clients communicate their messages quickly, clearly, and openly.

If you are faced with a crisis that can damage your reputation, remember these basic rules. Show compassion and do not speculate. Tell the truth and do not hesitate. Be ready to listen without getting defensive.

If you follow these guidelines you may find that you and your stakeholders actually learn something from your teachable moment. Class dismissed.

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