Don’t take yourself so seriously

Here’s advice for really important people, and for the rest of us who think we are: Don’t take yourself so seriously, it will do wonders for your reputation.

When business is tough and work is stressful it’s easy to forget to lighten up. It happens to the best of us. The challenge is to make sure your self-absorption doesn’t become part of the corporate culture and ooze into your public interactions.

Whether it’s a customer complaint or a news story that’s critical of your organization, the way you respond makes all the difference in how you are perceived. The tactics of “disarm” and “charm” can go a long way.

Case in point: a few weeks ago Circuit City found itself in an uncomfortable position. MAD Magazine, which is carried in some Circuit City stores, published a parody of the electronic retailer’s advertisements.

Titled “Sucker City,” the spoof promoted the sale of a Wii gaming system where the fine print said “Guaranteed in stock… if you’re friends with an employee who hid it in the back for you.” And it promoted a flat screen TV which had “33 percent sharper detail than the previous generation, which was featured in last week’s flyer for four hundred bucks more.” Usual fare from a magazine no one takes seriously.

But apparently someone at Circuit City did take it seriously and ordered its employees to destroy every MAD Magazine on all Circuit City shelves. That information leaked out and led Web sites to run headlines such as “Circuit City Can’t Take a Joke” and “Circuit City Get Panties in a Knot Over Parody.”

If Circuit City executives just ignored the spoof, few people would have noticed it. But the company drew more attention to it and earned negative press by being heavy handed.

Thankfully, a savvy corporate communications professional at Circuit City did have a sense of humor and quickly put a stop to the growing criticism.

He apologized and reported that the destroy MAD Magazine order had been rescinded. “Most of us at Circuit City share a rich sense of humor and irony,” he said. “But there are occasional temporary lapses.”

Then he ended by joking that he offered MAD Magazine’s editor “a $20 dollar Circuit City gift card toward the purchase of a Nintendo Wii, if he can find one!”

The result? The Web site published the Circuit City letter calling it a “surprisingly classy message” and the story disappeared the next day.

Next, a similar lesson from TV commentator and former Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley whose quick wit and refreshing candor builds his Teflon coating.

“I read that heavy drinking is bad for your health,” he once said. “I decided I better stop reading.”

Perhaps it’s that self-effacing humor that’s helping him survive recent news that he failed to pay his $400,000 gambling debt. That revelation could have been a serious blow to some public figures. Where were the calls for TNT to fire him from his commentating job? Why didn’t T-Mobile pull his “Fave Five” cell phone commercials?

Silence. Why? Because as Sports Illustrated said, it’s “the Charles standard, reserved for public figures who have the courage to say what they think, the integrity to stand behind it, the humility to freely admit their mistakes, and perhaps most importantly the sense of humor to make it all palatable to the public.”

And while humor is a great tool, I don’t recommend searching joke books for your next business presentation because humor can backfire. What’s funny to you may offend someone else.

I have been asked by CEOs about how best to use humor, and my advice is this: Feel free to make jokes about yourself. No one will be offended and you will appear approachable, humble, yet confident.

In the end, your reputation will be well served by taking your work seriously, just not yourself seriously.

This originally appeared in the “Reputation Management” column of the Phoenix Business Journal

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About Matt Silverman

Matt Silverman is a marketing and communications executive who proactively manages corporate reputations and builds brands. Matt is the Vice President and Managing Director of R&R Partners, a marketing and communications agency ranked among top 50 in U.S. by Adweek. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of R&R Partners. View all posts by Matt Silverman

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