Recovering from Saying Something Stupid: Or, How Not to be “The Food Babe”

Vani_Hari_from_Charlotte_Video_ProjectVani Deva Hari, whose blog “The Food Babe” has recently been the target of criticism, provides an example of what not to do when someone points out your mistakes. Handled correctly, a mistake can be an opportunity to improve the trust people place in you.

In a recent Jeremy Clarkson blog post, I used Jeremy Clarkson as an example of how communication can go horribly wrong and talked about how to avoid saying things in emails that will get you into trouble. This column is about what to do when you do get into trouble – and I have another great celebrity example: Vani Hari (whose blog is called “The Food Babe”). Almost everything Ms. Hari has done (or not done) in the wake of saying some foolish things is wrong. Everything.

I have no desire to pile on criticism about Ms. Hari’s mistakes: If you write enough stuff then you’re going to, eventually, say something stupid. Let’s just say that I have enough personal experience at saying foolish things to be able to talk about how to deal with this situation (if you want to see my latest example, read the comments on one of my programming columns. My favorite comment is from the person who first noted my error and said “Every sentence with the word ‘thread’ in it is wrong”).

And mistakes — when others notice them — do matter. As discussed in Learning Tree’s one day course on managing your stakeholders, building a trusting relationship with others is critical to success in any business activity. The good news is that, while making a mistake in public is embarrassing, you can actually use the opportunity to improve the trust relationship you have with the people you communicate with.

Here are the four steps to follow when someone points out that you’ve said something stupid.

Three Steps to Managing your Communication Crisis: Do Nothing – Acknowledge – Engage

First step: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Marc Colwin, in a blog post on managing a PR crisis for the media relationship company Meltwater, describes the first step in a public relations crisis, as “Take a deep breath….the first thing you need to do is: nothing. You need to be calm.” Don’t attack and don’t defend. To put it another way: You’ve made a mistake. Don’t fight with that fact. Instead, live with it so that you can deal with it.

Ms. Hari is an example of what not to do here: In a response to a critique of her blog by Yvette d’Entremont (whose blog is called “The Science Babe”), Ms. Hari published an anonymous letter(that quoted another anonymous source) that attacked Ms. d’Entremont. Note: the anonymous letter did not address the content of Ms. d’Entremont’s criticisms. Instead, the letter attacked Ms. d’Entremont personally. As a result, Ms. Hari positioned herself as the kind of person who publishes unsubstantiated poison pen letters about women while ignoring the issues being raised.

Folks, this is not better than being a person who made a mistake. This is being worse. And it raises an important question about people who trust Ms. Hari: How much trust do you want to place in someone who publishes anonymous, defamatory letters in response to criticism?

Second step: Once you’re calm, your first communication after making a mistake is to acknowledge what’s true: You made a mistake.

Acknowledging your mistakes is never pleasant or fun…but you have no choice: Everyone knows you made a mistake. Attempting to convince people that, somehow, it didn’t happen or wasn’t a mistake will just reduce the trust people place in you. In fact, acknowledging what everyone knows costs you nothing (because everyone already knows it) and helps build trust (“Hey, this person always tells the truth — even when it looks bad”).

Furthermore, you must acknowledge it as a mistake, not as something that “isn’t really” a mistake. You also can’t claim that it’s someone else’s fault that you made a mistake. Attempting to minimize the error or shift blame will just make it look like you’re trying to avoid responsibility and will reduce trust. You are free to acknowledge those parts of whatever you’ve said that were correct. However, again, you can’t appear to be trying to minimize your mistake. Instead, point out that you want to make sure that whatever error you made shouldn’t taint any related items that are, in fact, correct.

Here, again, Ms. Hari provides an unfortunate example. In one blog post, Ms. Hari made some foolish comments about the air in airplanes being pressurized to a level more than you’re normally exposed to (actually, less) and containing more nitrogen than is normal (again, less). When her mistakes were pointed out, Ms. Hari deleted the blog post. Then, when was interviewed in the NY Times about the blog post, Ms. Hari first claimed she didn’t remember the post and then claimed that the post was removed because it was old (and only later acknowledged that the post was removed because of errors).

As a result, Ms. Hari positioned herself as someone who tries to hide her mistakes and, when reminded of them, appears to lie about it. She made herself appear less, rather than more, trustworthy. Again, this isn’t better than being someone who just said something foolish. In addition, Ms. Hari threw away an opportunity to build trust in her site by showing how she is constantly reviewing and improving the quality of her blog by removing incorrect material.

All of which leads to the third step in handling your mistakes.

Building Trust Relationships

Third step: Fix it. And, unlike Ms. Hari, fix it publicly. Do this by reaching out and engaging with whoever pointed out your mistake. Acknowledging a mistake is a form of communication and, as a result, is another opportunity to improve the trust in a relationship (I grant you: not the best opportunity but, still, an opportunity). Begin by thanking whoever spotted your mistake and giving you the chance to provide the correct information (or to retract what you said). Tell them that they’re right — people love being told they’re right. Praise, don’t blame, the messenger.

Again, Ms. Hari provides an example of what not to do: In an interview with the New York Times, she attacked the messengers, calling criticism of her airplane post “a feeble exercise in nit-picking that detracted from her mission.” Rather than building a relationship, Ms. Hari used the opportunity to sever one.

Again, not better than…

Fourth step: Finally, position your mistake as an aberration and a learning opportunity. Feel free to provide the chain of events that led to the problem. Don’t, however, try to use this explanation as an acceptable reason for making the mistake (this takes you back to trying to claim that your mistake “isn’t really” a mistake). Instead, use your explanation to point out where exactly you went wrong. Among other things, this allows you to talk about what you’ve learned from making this mistake, the steps you’re taking to avoid making this mistake again, and what others can learn about avoiding this kind of error. By taking so long to acknowledge her mistake, Ms. Hari made herself look someone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) learn.

Again….

Ms. Hari could be a wonderful person (and for a better example of how to handle criticism, see Ms. Hari’s own post in response to some other critics…though she still doesn’t acknowledge any actual errors). But Ms. Hari does provide a textbook example of how not to handle a public error. Don’t follow her example! Instead, when you do, eventually, communicate something foolish (and you will), take a breath, acknowledge your error, and use your mistake to increase the trust you have with the people you’re communicating with.

Handled correctly, a mistake could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

For more, have a look at Learning Tree’s Communication Skills training curriculum.  Topics covered include Public Speaking, Influence Skills and Business and Report writing.

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