How To Kill Relationships With A Slap In The Face

January 7th, 2011 | Shonali Burke | 32 Comments

Tell me when

Last April, I was approached to speak at a PR conference targeted to health care professionals by a former vendor.

Since it’s taking place in DC, in April of this year, I said yes.

Put it in my calendar and everything (because if I don’t, I tend to overbook myself).

Tell me not

Yesterday, I did a courtesy check-in with the dude, and was told that it was no longer on the table because the event had gotten “filled up.”

Image: pimpexposure via Flickr, CC 2.0

Really?

“Filled up”?

When he approached me in April of last year because it was “not too early for the planning stages”?

(And yes, these are all direct quotes from the emails.)

You have got to be kidding me.

Not only was I told that I was no longer worthy enough to speak at this event – because that’s essentially what it comes down to – but I was offered the wooden spoon of perhaps being on a “Twitter panel” via teleseminar.

Oh, that just makes me feel great, thank you so much.

When I pointed out to the dude (usually I’d say “gentleman” but IMHO he is anything but) that this was “kinda weird,” he responded by saying that he could recommend speakers but didn’t “have the final say.”

Fair enough.

But why not tell me that IN APRIL 2010?!

So that I didn’t block off dates?

So that I didn’t turn down other engagements that conflicted with it?

This was my (email) response.

“That’s not how you positioned it to me, <name>. You specifically asked me if I was available a year ahead of time, without specifying that there was an approval process to go through. If you had, then I wouldn’t have taken it amiss. But you didn’t.

“Instead, you tried to flatter me when I wanted to make sure I would provide value [which I did, I wanted to make sure it would be useful to a bunch of health care suits] by saying, and I quote from your earlier email, ‘my sense just from seeing all your activity in all the social media forums is that you would have a lot to offer!!’.

“And what you said just now was that the panel ‘got filled up,’ without any explanation as to the process… which you should have explained to me in April last year. Then I wouldn’t have assumed that we were good to go.

“I am fully cognizant that I am not as well-known as other speakers who have, no doubt, ‘filled up’ your panel, but I am better known and received than a lot of other speakers as well.

“I know this because of feedback from events, the speaking requests I receive on a regular basis, and the fees that I typically command.

“So to be asked to hold the dates – which I did in good faith and as a courtesy to you – and then basically receive a slap in the face is, in my opinion, bad form.”

Ego or Ergo?

I have a healthy enough ego – if we’re honest with ourselves, we all do. I like it when people say nice things about me, and I like it when I’m asked to speak.

But I am well aware that I am not regarded in the same light as, say, Shel Holtz or Ann Wylie, as speakers for our industry.

That is completely fine.

They have been doing this for far longer than I have, paid their dues time and again, and I have much to learn from folks like them.

I’d have been perfectly willing to accept the turn down if it had been communicated to me earlier.

But it wasn’t.

And it took my checking in with Rude Dude to receive the afore-mentioned slap in the face.

Almost as good bad as a Bollywood slap in the face.

Many levels

Yes, on one level, this is about my being pissed off that I was spurned.

But on another, it is about something much bigger than you, me, or anyone who’s ever been miffed at being slighted: it’s about honesty and the willingness to acknowledge when you’re at fault.

It is about having the guts to say, “I’m sorry.” Without any qualifiers or “wardrobe malfunction” disclaimers.

Honest acknowledgment is what it takes to build, and maintain, relationships, which is at the core of our work.

Many years ago, a volunteer for a non-profit client had an “in” with a hot band. Very hot at the time. OK, it was Third Eye Blind.

(Perhaps “hot” in a different way today…)

Image: Leon Ferri via Flickr, CC 2.0

She came up with an idea for a birthday fundraiser for Stephan Jenkins that would benefit the client.

It was forwarded to me from the in-house PR department. I thought it was a great idea, and we rolled with it.

At about the same time, a new Director of Development had started with the organization. So in the spirit of keeping everyone in the loop, I emailed her about this lovely idea, etc. etc.

I was stunned when I got a frosty email back, basically telling me that it was not within my purview to approve such ideas and, in the future, such stuff had to be run by her in advance.

OUCH!!!

I went, bemused to my boss, who looked at me kindly and commiserated.

I was at the client’s offices a few days later, when I bumped into said DoD.

Without even thinking, I said, “I’m SO sorry [that X happened]. I didn’t mean to disrespect you, I was just excited by the opportunity [for you guys].”

And you know what happened?

She melted. We became good friends. The fundraiser was a success.

And now, years after we have both moved on, we are still in touch.

As far as Rude Dude goes

I will not be recommending him, his company or facilitating introductions for him any time soon.

If ever.

Not because he turned me down for a speaking gig that would probably have stressed me out any way.

But because, in the way he turned me down, he made it clear that he doesn’t respect our relationship.

And if he doesn’t respect our relationship – when I have had contact with him over the last five years or so – how on earth will he treat the “new” people who come his way?

I don’t care how famous you are. I don’t care how powerful you are… or think you might be. I don’t care which boards you sit on.

If you don’t know how to respect and nurture relationships, you should get out of the public relations field.

Right.

Now.

Because you do not have a good name.

And everything – everything – rests on that.

What do you think? Did I overreact? Or would you have done the same? Has having the courage and decency to say “I’m sorry” helped you in your career? Please share via a comment.

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Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
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Shonali Burke
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29 comments
PamWiley
PamWiley

Three hardest words in the English language "I was wrong".

mdbarber
mdbarber

I think we'll all agree saying sorry can be difficult but this individual definitely needs to say he/she is sorry. That's how relationships are mended/maintained and the longer he/she waits the less opportunity anything is left to salvage.

In addition, there's an organization involved here. That organization also bears some responsibility for what happened yet they may not even be aware of what happened because it would be a volunteer who handled this without staff involved. That relationship needs to be considered as well.

Relationships are so fragile. We need to do all we can to keep them healthy.

Davina K. Brewer
Davina K. Brewer

Shonali, I agree with your post, the comments, YOU didn't need to apologize or justify your speaking, etc.; and "Rude Dude" would sound great in your accent. And yet, as someone with only one speaking gig to her name, I wonder:

How much did you assume and/or make clear to Rude Dude? I get that you professionally followed up, accepted his offer and made it CLEAR you were confirming his dates and would be turning down other offers.

Did HE get that? Did HE follow up? Because the lack of such would have been a red flag to me. A year is a long time. Was there any interaction in between, even a courtesy "hello, looking forward to April" kinda thing? Don't misunderstand me, HE is wrong and YOU are right. HE should have been proactive, been clear from the get go that this was tentative and when YOU confirmed you'd be turning down offers, he should have said.. "No if they come in, let's discuss and see where we are." It's just that I temper my optimism with caution, having been burned in other situations.

You're DEAD ON about it being the WAY it was done now. YOU reached out again and he casually dismissed you. The second he knew it was a no-go, he should have contacted you, APOLOGIZED, made concessions and offers to make it up, all of that. It is very unprofessional and I'm sorry this happened. FWIW.

Farida Harianawala
Farida Harianawala

Shonali, I think you have a right to be super annoyed. The guy did not respect you, your time and your speaking commitment - all of which are valuable. The least he could have done is apologized and informed you about it early on.

On a lighter note, being a Bollywood buff, I enjoyed that 'slap in the face' video! FYI, my favorite Bollywood 'thappad' scene is from this old movie, Karma: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGFujEtM4w4)

Rebecca Ames
Rebecca Ames

I had a similar situation once, with a different ending. I was asked to speak on a panel of art organization execs, had that happy feeling of being asked, said yes, got the speaker's packet and later showed up at the appointed place and time.

However, I was not on the speaker's list. There were three speaker recruiters, and mine had never bothered to check in with the rest of the hosting organization. She then went on vacation.

Thankfully, the other coordinators there were consummately gracious and professional and quickly made me a placard, nabbed my bio and voila! I was a panel speaker.

It definitely gave me an ego bruise, then scorn for their professionalism, followed by respect for how the gaffe was handled. Never did see my original recruiter there again though...I've since done my best to contact at least two staff members for every org I work with.

Bettina Bennett
Bettina Bennett

Shonali, I'm with you :-)

Both in addressing the issue with the "Dude" (and in agreement with Liz that you don't have to explain yourself ...) and in regards to "saying sorry".

Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with a business associate just a few days ago about exactly that subject. We both had noticed that there seems to be a trend that more and more people find it un-neccessary to apologize, say they're sorry, or take responsibility ... That may work short term, but I believe that in our hyper connected world - where relationships drive even more of our decisions than ever before - this will ultimately have an effect on how successful we are, both personal and professional.
In contrast to "Love Story" I don't believe that being in love (or just plain having a relationship with anybody) means "never to have to say you're sorry" ...

Rachael Seda
Rachael Seda

Wow. First of all I love that you call him dude, I can only imagine how much better this would sound in your pretty accent! But back to the point...if this happened to you, you cannot be the only one. Unfortunately for them, this is just bad PR on their part. I completely agree that relationships and honesty is everything. It is something that takes forever to build and maintain and a split second moment to ruin.

What I find even more alarming is that people don't seem to realize the ramifications it will carry with them throughout their career. Treating one person disrespectfully will cost you at some point in your life.

I remember my junior year of college...I was in a video editing course that was really intense and we had to work in teams constantly. We were writing scripts, filming and editing our own video stories. Of course you always have people that don't want to do the work, that's life right? But this one thing stuck with me...

My professor told us to look at the people next to us, behind us and in front of us. "One of these people will either help you land a job or will be the person at your interview that tells their boss you never completed the work etc. and that's all it takes...the job will be given to someone else. So as you continue through the semester and throughout your life remember that...it takes one person to make or break an opportunity for you"

It seems so simple...but it's true. Never burn a bridge...we all make mistakes sure, but be big enough and care enough to admit them...it will go a long way.

Heather Thomas
Heather Thomas

Hooray for you Shonali! Each of us can use this as a reminder to remain courteous to others and admit when we screw up. An "I'm sorry" goes a long way (provided it's heartfelt and sincere). Agree with Liz as well...don't sell yourself short. You were a fantastic speaker at PRSA and that's why I am now a fan/cyber stalker of yours :-)

Matt LaCasse
Matt LaCasse

Dead on Shonali. When someone essentially views you as "hired help", which is what this guy did, they no longer deserve your time, effort, help, or respect.

I think you handled the situation exactly as it should have been. I will say that while Rude Dude is no longer in the running for your services, letting him know what he's missing out on is never a bad idea. I think up-selling yourself, even if a relationship is dead, is always a smart thing to do.

Great post!

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron

Life is all about relationships and it's obvious this guy does not get it at all. I understand your reaction and hope you can now fill your April calendar with a much better opportunity!

Sanjiva Persad
Sanjiva Persad

Whoops, that should say: "It sounds like not ONLY a lack of professionalism, but also a lack of common courtesy"

Sanjiva Persad
Sanjiva Persad

It sounds like Rude Dude is living a (I'm so sorry) "semi-charmed kind of life..."

Seriously though, it sounds less like a lack of professionalism, and more like a lack of common courtesy. I don't think you overreacted at all, and I wouldn't be surprised if you got a phone call in mid-March begging you to join the conference table again.

Liz Scherer
Liz Scherer

Shonali. You are in the right, 100%. However, I don't think you need to explain yourself to the rude dude; by stating that you weren't as well known in the space but well received, you are selling yourself to a buyer who's removed himself from the market. If he doesn't recognize that, well screw him and move on. He's not worth your wrath or your self doubt.

Lorne Pike
Lorne Pike

I think you're spot on with your response to this, Shonali. You're right in noting that the fact that you got bumped was unfortunate and unprofessional. But you're also right in noting that we all make mistakes, and the whole matter could have been forgiven if a sincere apology had been offered. Admitting we blew it will always serve us better than trying to gloss over an error.

BTW, for what it's worth, they're missing out on one great speaker. I feel sorry for them!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@LFJeremy You and me neither. The thing is, once it's out, it's such a relief, don't you think @PamWiley ?

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@mdbarber You're so right, Mary. Someone from the organization did reach out to me to do just that - "say sorry" - late yesterday afternoon. I will be writing more about that and the person who was influential enough to get them to do so. :)

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@3HatsComm I know, I'm LOVING @livefyre !

I'm very, very careful about verbal agreements. Nothing is set until it's set in writing and money has changed hands.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@Shonali Exactly (and cool on the Livefyre BTW). I've had other projects fall out like this, verbal and email agreements of this campaign or this project that get cancelled a month or two before they were to start. Clients then feign ignorance, don't understand the concept of "holding or blocking time" for this work -- that per our discussion of the scope of the project X hours would be involved. And that I turned down or didn't aggressively pursue other work b/c I thought I'd be busy. And yes it's the way it was done making it much, much worse.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

D, that's a good question. Since the communication and acceptance were all done by email, my understanding, from the fact that he did not demur or reply with any qualifiers after I responded saying that I was in, would hold the dates and look forward to more details down the road, was that he understood that. I've been doing this for about 5 years now, and this is the first time such a thing has happened to me.

But that's a very good point. What I've started doing this year is making sure all my gigs are now agreed to in writing, with a formal contract, as well as with an advance (for those gigs that pay). I make it clear that nothing is set in stone until I receive the executed agreement AND the advance, and there is a cancellation policy as well.

More than anything, what bothered me was the way it was done. The irony of it is that normally this is not an event I would submit a speaker proposal for; it's a little too tangential for me. But since he asked, it was in DC... I thought, sure. So I'm not really *devastated* by losing the gig as such - I'm just really irritated at the way he handled it.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Thanks, Farida! I thought the video was hilarious - I totally didn't recognize that it was from Karma. Man, I've been out of India too long...

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Rebecca, that sounds like terrible organization on their part. I wonder what happened to the original recruiter and if she's still working there? Kudos to them for stepping into the breach and to you for being gracious about it.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

I know! What IS it with people not being able to simply say "sorry"? Man, it's so easy. I think people feel they are demeaning themselves in some way if they acknowledge fault, or they are putting themselves in a weaker position. I think it actually shows character and puts them in a much BETTER position.

As far as "Love Story" goes, that was a great line, but oh boy - how untrue. Being able to say sorry has helped immensely not just in my marriage but in so many places...!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Rachael, I love that story! And I loved your post about it - thank you for sharing more on that with us.

That's a really good point; if this happened to me, I agree that I can't be the only one. Which makes the potential impact on that organization very sad.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

That is very nice of you to say, Heather (re: PRSA) - I really appreciate it. Of course, now I have to keep finding ways to do better and better each time. Oh, the pressure, LOL...

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Thanks, pal!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Actually, Ayelet, looks like that might be happening - something much nicer, in a cool location that I've not yet been to... fingers crossed. So it really is an ill wind that blows no good, eh?!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

LOL. Thanks, Sanjiva. He can come begging all he wants. I'm not doing anything with/for this guy again, unless he buys me my own private island. :)

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

That's a good point, Liz. I will try to do better on the explanation/self-doubt front!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

That's very nice of you to say, Lorne. I've never understood why people find it so hard to say "I'm sorry" in the most simple of ways. It goes a long way.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] I told you last week of Rude Dude and and the whole I-did-I-didn’t-invite-you-to-speak brouhaha. [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shonali Burke, Shonali Burke and Shonali Burke, Rebecca Ames. Rebecca Ames said: Thanks for the link! Had a similar situation – will post it in the comments. :) RT @shonali: http://bit.ly/fbl4pK -my post on speaking thing [...]

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