The oldest communications skill of all?

No, not the one you’re thinking of.

The side-step, back-track and no comment I think represent the oldest communication skill of all.

Most familiar from the political world, the strategic side-step, the tactical tap-dance around a problem, crisis, product recall, launch delay, all have equally familiar counterparts in the commercial sector.

Managing these tactics should not be seen as a cynical ploy. Instead, they should be regarded as part of a structured response mechanism in an uncertain and unpredictable world in which plenty of outsiders seek to divert organizations from their course, or worse.

The choice of tactic is driven by your commitment to authenticity. Again, having a plan to manage the process is not a cynical response.

In The Standard Table of Influence, there are plays to consider that will help you to admit the mistake, sidestep the problem, or slow down or divert those who are after you. Here are some options to consider.

The PAUSE, in which the implicated party takes a breath. There is nothing wrong in buying time, especially if you’re genuinely caught off-guard about a problem that’s sprung on you out of the blue. What follows, though, is important: either the admission of fault, or the strong defence against the claim.

The DEFLECT, in which you seek to literally deflect those who are asking the questions. The PAUSE by definition has a finite life. The DEFLECT buys you more time, or can be considered as a stronger line of defence by opening up a new topic. Note, though, that those asking the questions start to get annoyed about now.

The RED HERRING is where you change the game. An example is last week’s political debacle in Australia over funding of political parties. The timing of the legislation can be regarded as a RED HERRING to divert attention from other government woes, except of course that it back-fired because the back-benches on both sides countermanded the directives of the two main parties’ leaders. As we saw last week, RED HERRINGS are often deployed by embattled politicians.

The FILTER, the filtering of a story or a problem, the playmaker’s version of events. The FILTER play edits and omits, to frame the story and circumstances to the playmaker’s advantage. Again, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s response to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s withdrawal of support for the new political funding is an example.

The RECAST reorders and re-frames how the story-line should go. It can be a rewriting of history, or it can be the creation of a new context for the next phase of the debate. Again, in the Australian political world, the lack of surplus and the reasons for it are the classic recent RECASTs.

The DISCO. Exhausted of options, the playmaker (and usually its lawyers) succumb to the ‘dreaded’ Disco. Except it should not be regarded with dread: it’s the play they should have run from the start. Concede the mistake, beg forgiveness, preferably outline the changes or improvements probably already under consideration, and move on.

And consider the relative merits of running through the sequence of plays from PAUSE to RECAST versus the single play of DISCO, in reputation, resources, time and effort.

As noted earlier, the options within a systematic communications methodology such as the Playmaker’s Standard Table of Influence are there to consider and choose. But the choice is yours.

This blog post is influenced by and derived from that of Alan Kelly, CEO of Playmaker Systems, in the Huffington Post at

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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