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Scott McKenzie Discusses the Perils of a Positive Mindset

Like a lot of men my age I love a sporting metaphor. My colleagues get bored with my tennis analogies and general sports geekery.

However when I recently had to explain to an elderly relative what I do for a living I found myself making a comparison with a football team. And it kind of worked.

I would say that comms practitioners are often required to be creative – promoting their organisation, or brand – much like an attacker in football. On the other hand we must also sense reputational risk like the very best defenders. Of course the most strategic among us can flex between these two states – much like a midfield playmaker…

Before I stretch the analogy too far it did make me reflect on the different mindsets comms people need to have in different situations.

Much of my work centres around business transformation, or corporate issues and crisis. Now there are many positive elements around changing a business but it probably makes sense to start with a defensive mindset – what could go wrong? Have we identified all the threats? Have we mitigated all the risks?

I’m sure that the comms people around Oscar Munoz the CEO of United Airlines thought they were doing that when he sent that fateful internal email to all staff describing a passenger (who had clearly been seriously assaulted) as “belligerent” and “disruptive”.

Yet somehow the comms people had not anticipated that this memo would create the ensuing firestorm. Indeed this piece of – frankly shameful – communications made an already appalling situation so much worse!

So what happened? Did they not sense the danger in an internal email – thinking their 80,000 loyal staff would not leak it? This seems unlikely. Were they so unconnected to the wider sentiment the incident had caused that they felt comfortable sending out something that seemed so tone deaf? Possibly but surely they were listening to the commentary via their social media monitoring?

Of course, it could be the comms people provided Mr Munoz with great advice and it was simply ignored.

That’s certainly possible. But I have an alternative theory. I think the issue was with their mindset. Up until that incident United Airlines had been lauded for their communications. Mr Munoz even won communicator of last year from PR Week US.

So could that have bred some complacency? Believing their own publicity? Maybe.

But I wonder if it simply meant that both CEO and comms team had too positive a mindset to recognise the danger.

In his wonderful (and bitingly funny) book – Stand Firm – the Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann talks about the modern world being dominated by an “accelerating culture”. Where a positive mindset based on unrealistic aims around personal growth and career progression trumps seeing the world as it really is – which is sometimes pretty challenging, and frankly often quite negative.

In Brinkmann’s view we have sanctified an optimistic and positive mindset at the expense of being able to tell it like it is.

In other words we can sometimes behave like a striker trying to score a goal, when we simply need to clear the ball from danger. Like a good old-fashioned centre half.

Perhaps if the good people at United Airlines had that defensive mindset they would have understood the dangers they were facing. The beleaguered Mr Munoz is now seeking from his Board what every football manager dreads: a vote of confidence.

This article is part of our Spring 2017 newsletter