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PR Lessons From Jian's Failed Attempt at Spinning His Story

11/04/2014 05:44 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

Shortly after being terminated from the CBC, Jian Ghomeshi posted a comprehensive and personal message on his Facebook account. "As friends and family of mine, you are owed the truth", he wrote. He suggested that the CBC had unjustly fired him for his sexual preferences and he painted himself as a victim whose only recourse was to file a $55 million lawsuit for breach of confidence and defamation.

It was initially a great PR move for the former host of Q. Over the next 24 hours there was an outpouring of support from prominent friends and more generally the Canadian public. This reaction wasn't surprising -- his narrative summoned up feelings of empathy (for the death of his father), sympathy (over the loss of his employment) and even indignation (for being seemingly persecuted for his personal sexual preferences).

Two weeks later those feelings have been replaced for many by feelings of shock, disbelief and anger at Ghomeshi for his alleged treatment of women -- and for his ham-fisted attempts to spin the narrative of his dismissal. His PR agency and publicity firm have both cut him, and his friends and allies have distanced themselves. With a police investigation launched, it is fair to say that he would have been better off to have never written anything at all.

At The Humphrey Group, we work with leaders who wish to influence and inspire their employees and external stakeholders. Our guidance is to never "spin" stories by presenting half-truths or untenable positions; instead we believe that leaders must find a way to speak with honesty and integrity, even in the face of difficult situations. Jian Ghomeshi's PR blunder is a cautionary tale for anyone who pursues spin, with a number of meaningful lessons.

Lesson 1. If you can't speak authentically it is better to not speak at all.

Mr. Ghomeshi built his career through a personable and open communication style. He was able to connect with audiences and was willing to make himself vulnerable (as he did when he gave a talk in Stratford ON last July, when he opened up about his anxiety disorder). Such authenticity allowed him to forge a meaningful connection with guests he interviewed and the thousands who listened to him and his show. Ghomeshi played up his authenticity in his Facebook post, emphasizing that, "I have always operated on the principle of doing my best to maintain a dignity and a commitment to openness and truth, both on and off the air... I've never been anything but honest."

When he wrote his Facebook posting that track record of honesty earned him immediate sympathy and many public pronouncements of support. But as allegations began emerging that starkly contrasted his narrative, those who supported or felt for Ghomeshi ended up feeling betrayed. In an instant, all the past trust in his integrity was called into question or evaporated entirely.

Leaders know that authenticity can only be built over time but can be frittered away in a moment.

Lesson 2. Keep to the high ground.

In his initial letter Ghomeshi drew battle lines -- him on one side, and the not-in-step-with-the-times bureaucratic employer who terminated him for his sexual preferences and the "jilted ex-girlfriend and... freelance writer" who were out to get him.

When attacked, individuals often feel compelled to defend themselves. Thus it was unsurprising that women began emerging -- first anonymously and then publicly -- to put forth their own stories to refute the "jilted ex" story advanced by Mr. Ghomeshi. Would they have felt as strongly about the need to do so had he not written the Facebook posting? While we can't be sure, his decision to fire the first shot undoubtedly encouraged people to speak out and come forward.

Leaders know that you stay to the high ground or polarizing a situation.

Lesson 3. If you start a conversation be prepared to keep talking.

When he published his ill-fated post, Mr. Ghomeshi did not seem to think about the long-term PR campaign he would have to wage. In writing his comprehensive post he signalled that he was committed to "telling this story to you so the truth is heard." Yet just four days later he posted again, saying, "I intend to meet these allegations directly... I don't intend to discuss this matter any further with the media."

This abrupt about face looked terrible because his retreat stood in stark contrast to his initial proactive "openness." Had he only made the second post, he would have come across as someone seeking to present his story through the appropriate channels. Yet the contrast with his first post made him appear as someone who was fleeing accusations he could not refute.

Leaders know that when they begin a dialogue with an audience they must commit to continuing that dialogue or risk paying a greater price than had they never started in the first place.

Lesson 4. Anticipate objections before you speak.

Yet perhaps the most shocking communications blunder Mr. Ghomeshi made is that he seemingly failed to consider objectives and alternate narratives that his spin would provoke.

The only thing worse than allowing someone else to shape the story about you is to have them discredit the story you put forward. The indignation brought on by Mr. Ghomeshi's demonizing and victimization inspired others to come after him. And with seemingly no desire or ability to address their objections, the former Q host found himself in a rare position -- having to go quiet.

Leaders know that to speak with integrity they must be able to take questions and objections head on and deliver meaningful answers.

Mr. Ghomeshi's blunder serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who wishes to speak as a leader. Those who cannot speak with authenticity and integrity do so would be better served -- as Mr. Ghomeshi would have been -- by never speaking at all.

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