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What to Say When Things Get Tough: Business Communication Strategies for Winning People Over When They're Angry, Worried and Suspicious of Everything You Say

What to Say When Things Get Tough: Business Communication Strategies for Winning People Over When They're Angry, Worried and Suspicious of Everything You Say

by Leonard S. Greenberger


Leonard S. Greenberger is a partner at one of today's most successful public relations firms. In What to Say When Things Get Tough, this seasoned expert offers verbal and nonverbal skills for handling communication crises in any public forum.

"This book is one of the



Leonard S. Greenberger is a partner at one of today's most successful public relations firms. In What to Say When Things Get Tough, this seasoned expert offers verbal and nonverbal skills for handling communication crises in any public forum.

"This book is one of the best guidebooks on the practice of public relations that I have seen." -- Jim Owen, Executive Director, Member Relations, Edison Electric Institute

"If you want to learn why PowerPoint is a very poor way to present, why empathy works wonders, how positive messages, eye contact, and the right facial expressions can add up to make you overwhelmingly effective--or not--then this book is for you." -- Ari Weinzweig, cofounder and founding partner, Zingerman's, and author of
Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service and Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading

"Every business professional should have a copy on the shelf and pull it down whenever a tough situation presents itself." -- Win Porter, President, Waste Policy Center, former Assistant Administrator for
Solid Waste and Emergency Response, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
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The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Leonard S. Greenberger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-180644-2



The Science Behind the Art

To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.

—Edward R. Murrow, American Broadcast Journalist

Implementing the strategies you'll need to win over angry, worried, and suspicious people involves a mixture of art and science. In this book, we're going to focus mostly on the art: how to tell a story; how to weave your messages into responses to difficult questions; how to use verbal and nonverbal cues to build trust and credibility; how to avoid traps and escape from them if you fall in. One of the messages I hope to drive home is that communicating in tough situations is in large part a performance, similar to what a singer does on stage or an athlete does on a playing field. No professional performer would appear publicly without weeks, months, and even years of practice, preparation, and rehearsal. Nor should you.

Still, the strategies, skills, and techniques we're going to cover in this book are based on real laboratory and field research, and I find that it's helpful for my clients to understand a little about the science—and history—behind the art of winning over people in tough situations. Some experts trace the science all the way back to the emergence of modern governments in Western Europe and the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution. We're not going to go back quite that far.

For our purposes, we only need to return to where we were in this book's Introduction: the 1960s. As the erosion of trust and credibility took hold following that turbulent decade, average people began to demand a bigger role in making decisions. New laws, beginning with the landmark Clean Air Act of 1963, provided for citizen lawsuits for the first time. Over time, the public increasingly flexed its new muscles, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, a considerable amount of power had shifted demonstrably from people in positions of authority to people generally.

Let me illustrate the point with a real-life example. My firm recently worked with a utility that wanted to build a new high-voltage power line. In the 1960s, our client would have spent a lot of time preparing detailed engineering and economic studies designed to convince state regulators that the line was needed and that they had outlined the most economical route. They would have exerted very little, if any, effort to persuade people who lived in the communities where the line would run that they should be allowed to build it. And why would they? The chances that anyone would complain or oppose the new line were practically nonexistent 50 years ago. And even if someone tried to stop it, the chances of success were essentially nil. If utility and government experts agreed that the line needed to be built, who were everyday citizens to question their judgment?

That's not the way it works today. The United States became prosperous enough that many people could afford to be concerned about issues other than economics. The most efficient and economic path for a power line wasn't persuasive if it ran through a park, or wetland, or picturesque countryside, or—later, because of fears associated with exposure to electric and magnetic fields (EMF)—near a school or through a residential neighborhood. Health and safety issues, environmental protection, even aesthetics had to be considered, and so did public opinion. A proposed new facility doesn't even have to be "dangerous" in the traditional sense to generate opposition. In this era of ultra-NIMBYism (where NIMBY is shorthand for "not in my backyard"), trying to build new parks or day care centers can become contentious. Right now, my own neighborhood is up in arms over a developer's plans to build a new apartment building on a piece of property that has been vacant for decades. Nor does it have to be about building something. Even removing facilities can be controversial. I recently attended a meeting where a dam safety expert expressed surprise at the tenacity with which a local community fought his company's plans to demolish an old, crumbling, essentially worthless dam.

Companies can't ignore people, nor can they expect people to simply accept their word for anything. Our utility client had to spend as much time engaging and communicating with people in communities all along the proposed 200-mile line as they did with state regulators. My firm facilitated more than a dozen public meetings, developed a whole family of materials to describe and explain the project, and set up a website dedicated to informing and educating local residents and providing them with multiple opportunities to participate in the process and express their views. For the utility to get permission to build the line, breaking through and winning over people who lived and worked near the proposed route was just as important as convincing regulators that the line was necessary from an economic standpoint. And I can tell you that many of those people were plenty angry, worried, and suspicious. I'll finish this story, and reveal whether the line got built, in the next chapter.

The Rise of Risk Communication

By the 1980s, people in positions of authority within government and industry began to realize that the old way of doing business wasn't working anymore. They needed new communication strategies, skills, and techniques to succeed in a world where they could no longer simply tell people what they were about to do—where, instead, they had to address people's concerns and fears in order to win them over.

Partially in response to this need, researchers developed a new field of study known as "risk communication," a whole new science now taught in colleges across the country and featured in lectures, conferences, and peer-reviewed journals. Many definitions of risk communication exist, but I particularly like one published in a Joint United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Commission report, because it's short and succinct: "Risk communication is the exchange of information and opinions concerning risk and risk-related factors among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers and other interested parties."

Simply put, risk communication provides rules and guidelines that allow experts or those in positions of authority to help people assess, understand, and properly respond to threats both real and perceived. The strategies we're going to cover in this book are rooted in those rules and guidelines.

Risk communication traces its roots back to the progressive movement of the early twentieth century, when public-health professionals first began to define health risks associated with sanitation and food safety and to educate people about how to reduce those risks. The Second World War accelerated this "professionalization of risk" as policy makers incorporated risk assessment and analysis into military decision making. By the 1960s, experts understood enough about risk analysis and management to incorporate the concepts into laws and regulations. Indeed, the landmark legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that first empowered people with a voice in environmental policy depended on those concepts. Communication experts picked up on this new understanding of risk assessment and analysis and began to develop new ways to communicate with people newly empowered to question and oppose those in positions of authority. So in a sense, the trends that emerged during the 1960s both created the need for new communication strategies, skills, and techniques and gave rise to the science that ultimately provided them.

Today, we have a very strong understanding of how people perceive and assess risk when they're angry, worried, and suspicious; what factors influence those perceptions and assessments; when and how emotional thinking trumps rational thinking; and how all of that plays into whether people consider a specific source of information to be trustworthy and credible. We'll explore all of these issues in Chapter 4.

As the science of risk communication has evolved based on new research findings, so has the way people in positions of authority have applied the rules and guidelines rooted in it. In Solutions to an Environment in Peril, edited by Anthony Wolbarst and originally published in 2001, experts Vincent Covello and Peter Sandman describe three stages that government and industry leaders have passed through as they have sought to apply the principles of risk communication (the labels for each stage are mine):

1. Ignore

2. Explain

3. Engage

Let's take a closer look at each stage.


Before 1985, Covello and Sandman argue, most leaders simply chose to disregard the emerging principles of risk communication and continued to avoid communicating about risk. This always had worked before, when everyone assumed experts knew best, people had little recourse to challenge them, and leaders were slow to understand that the context in which they were attempting to communicate had changed. Some significant events during the early 1980s, including the cancellation of several major infrastructure projects in the United States due to citizen opposition and the whole world's outraged reaction to the Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal, India (which killed thousands), made it increasingly clear that ignoring risk communication principles was no longer an option.

It's important to note that, while government and industry leaders may not have been communicating effectively with the public, their lack of communication doesn't mean they ignored risks associated with their actions. They still took seriously the need to protect public health and the environment. They just didn't think they had to, nor did they know how to, communicate about it.


Once it became clear that willful ignorance didn't work anymore, many government and industry leaders tried to explain risk better. Under the theory that if people only understood the nature of a given risk, they would accept it (and by implication, leave the experts alone to do as they pleased), they began to share risk data with the public more often. A better understanding of the factors that influence risk, including benefits, fairness, and control, allowed those in positions of authority to persuade people to accept risks that they greatly feared but that represented very minimal threats.

The mantra then was to "educate" the public. Just give people the facts, and that will win them over. Many government agencies and virtually every industry spent a lot of effort and money on educating—rolling out numbers and studies and facts in every form imaginable. It was definitely better than ignoring the public, but not by enough to really make a difference. Simply sharing facts and information didn't win people over. The public still rarely fell in line.


While Covello and Sandman believe many government and industry leaders remain stuck at the "explain" stage, they also believe others have moved on. What began as no communication and then moved on to one-way communication has become two-way interaction. Leaders began trying to engage members of the public, even those who were very angry, worried, and suspicious. These leaders accepted Sandman's belief that people perceive risk as a function of "hazard" (danger) and "outrage" (fear). To be effective, experts not only had to explain the danger but also reduce the fear. To do so, they had to give members of the public an opportunity to share their concerns and be heard, and, most of all, they had to address not just the facts but also the emotions the audience is feeling.

This stage incorporated the recognition that when people are angry, worried, and suspicious, they tend to think with the emotional areas of their brains. Throwing a bunch of data and information at them won't work, because the rational areas of their brains are turned off. In fact, it usually only makes them angrier and more worried and suspicious. To win people over, communicators must accept and deal with emotions before they can break through and inform, educate, and persuade with facts.

Covello and Sandman identify the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication" as a seminal moment in the shift to third-stage application of risk communication principles. The EPA's adoption of these rules was the first time that a government agency acknowledged that experts and the general public perceive and assess risk differently, and that the best way to communicate with people when they're angry, worried, and suspicious is to engage them. Here are the EPA's cardinal rules:

* Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner.

* Listen to the audience.

* Be honest, frank, and open.

* Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources.

* Meet the needs of the media.

* Speak clearly and with compassion.

* Plan carefully and evaluate performance.

Though originally published almost 25 years ago, these cardinal rules remain relevant in the second decade of the third millennium and will appear again and again throughout this book.

Beyond Traditional Applications

Over the past quarter century, many government and industry leaders have applied the rules and principles of risk communication in public-health and environmental arenas. That's where policy makers first began to incorporate risk into policy and decision making, as well as where the general public first had the opportunity to assert its power to question and oppose. Certainly my firm applies those rules and principles in those arenas, with the utility trying to build a new power line being a good example.

We've also expanded their application to entirely new arenas, including just about any tough situation in which you may find yourself as a communicator. We've learned that the strategies, skills, and tactics needed to win people over when they're angry, worried, and suspicious of everything you say are necessary and effective not only when you're trying to site a controversial facility or explain an environmental spill or disaster but also in much more common circumstances. Examples that we'll explore include reprimanding or terminating an employee, defending yourself against inaccurate allegations, testifying before a congressional hearing, conducting media interviews, rebranding your company or organization, and sharing information about a chief executive officer's financial impropriety with employees and other audiences.

While the strategies, skills, and techniques involved in breaking through and winning people over are based on sound science, the science itself won't help when you find yourself trying to communicate in a tough situation. What matters most is the proper application of the right strategies, skills, and tactics—in other words, the art that makes the science come alive.

Learning the science is relatively straightforward; mastering the art requires focused practice and application. So let's get started by laying a foundation on which we can begin to build the strategies, skills, and techniques you'll need when the going gets tough and you need to win people over when they're angry, worried, and suspicious of everything you say.


Laying the Foundation

Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.

—Michael Jordan Basketball Player

Many of my firm's clients have been with us for a long time. Our history with one goes back more than 10 years, and virtually from the beginning, this particular organization talked about developing a new name, logo, and tagline. It's a professional membership society, so its mission is to serve that profession by providing certification, education, and networking opportunities. The profession it represents had changed dramatically over time, and the organization's existing brand no longer reflected the reality of its membership. Younger people—emerging professionals—were becoming less likely to join. When we surveyed the membership, the message came through loud and clear: it's time for a change.

Members of professional societies, particularly those who have belonged for many years, often develop very strong attachments and loyalties. They tend to resist change, and because they don't have much experience in the field of communication, they can get bogged down in details and minutiae. It's not a criticism; it's just the reality. Change is hard for just about everyone, especially when it involves something people care about very deeply.

The process of coming up with a new name, logo, and tagline for this group dragged on for months. On several occasions, we thought we had consensus, only to see it evaporate time and time again. Our client was very nervous about how the members would react to a very big change. After a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people, my firm presented our proposed branding concept to the group's board of directors at its annual meeting. The directors' response was overwhelmingly positive and very gratifying; they couldn't help but lodge a few minor complaints, of course, but in general, they loved it.

In fact, they loved it so much that they decided to present it to the organization's top 200 leaders at that very meeting—just three days after we presented it to the board. We hadn't expected that, and we didn't have much time to prepare for a gathering that could very well develop into a tough situation. Though the board's uniformly positive reaction to the concept was encouraging, we had no way of knowing how the broader membership would react.

We applied every strategy, skill, and technique for breaking through and winning people over that we had at our disposal. Express care and empathy. Tell stories. Stay positive. Dress appropriately. Send the right nonverbal signals. Cite independent data. Bridge to messages. Avoid traps that can erode trust and credibility. Practice and rehearse. And we did all of this in the course of a few days.

I'm pleased to report that our application of these strategies, skills, and techniques paid off. Though we faced a few hostile questions during the presentation of the new brand concept, and certainly a handful of people left the room unhappy, the situation never got tough. We successfully overcame a big hurdle that allowed us to move forward with implementation of the revitalized brand.

Excerpted from WHAT TO SAY WHEN THINGS GET TOUGH by LEONARD S. GREENBERGER. Copyright © 2013 by Leonard S. Greenberger. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Leonard S. Greenberger is a partner at Potomac Communications Group (PCG) in Washington, D.C., an independently owned public relations firm that specializes in helping clients communicate difficult, complex subjects to laypeople in many industries.

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