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The Perils of Autopilot Positioning and How to Avoid Them
By: Jason A. Sherman
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The public relations profession is sometimes ridiculed for our (perceived) tendency to over-position or, dare I say, “spin” issues — from how we share news with employees to how and what we share with media.
When done appropriately, the skill to position something in a more positive light is valuable and necessary. We need not apologize for it. On the deeper level, we dig for the facts and weave compelling stories. On the daily level, we position.
Nearly everyone in every profession positions requests, their background, you name it — from job interviews (both sides of the table) to sharing bad news to making our cases for promotions or new assignments. Even outside of work, think about how you approach your children about doing their chores, teaching them a valuable lesson or how you say sorry to your spouse or significant other.
However, there can be a tendency to do what I call “autopilot positioning.” This is an almost instinctual drive to immediately frame an issue a certain way (typically to suit one’s needs) without first giving the necessary thought it deserves.
Be careful. I have worked with people who did this, and it wasn’t pretty. Most vulnerable to this affliction are skilled communicators with big egos, a thirst for control and a belief they are usually correct.
Those who autopilot position often forget: developing good positioning and messaging come from hard work — knowing your client, your audiences, and your communications vehicles.
Lack of knowledge or confidence about your subject can also lead to autopilot positioning, resulting in spinning…and spinning out of control.
To borrow from the well-worn admonition that elder statesmen issue to young, evolving superheroes: “Use your powers wisely and for good.”
When you over- or autopilot-position everything, you risk three things:
  1. Not being strategic;
  2. Losing perspective; and
  3. Losing your credibility.
Instead of autopilot positioning:
Be Strategic:
  • Think through all the components of an issue.
  • Consider the audiences, particularly their concerns and preconceptions.
  • Frame everything against the backdrop of real facts.
  • Ensure you position in a way that is consistent with, supportive of, and in the context of your client’s brand.
Maintain Perspective:
  • Stay closely connected and grounded to the factual core of any story you’re telling.
  • Think like the recipient of your message.
  • Know the difference between crafting a good story/message and embellishing or spinning.
Protect Your Credibility:
  • Early in my career, I was fortunate to be advised that nothing is more valuable than your credibility. No client win, no raise, no placement, no promotion.
  • You maintain your credibility and earn trust by sticking to the facts, being honest and always keeping your eyes on the big picture.
  • You may lose the battle, but by focusing on positioning stories with credibility, you will often win the war.
Being creative, resourceful, and determined are highly prized qualities, especially in our profession. Just remember, whether your blade is sharp or dull, use it wisely!

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About the Author
Jason A. Sherman has helped more than 100 organizations during the last 22 years. He’s run Chicago-based SHERMAN communications and marketing, www.shermancm.com, since 2001 — providing strategic marketing, PR, interactive solutions, content development, public affairs, and business growth services to a wide range of clients.
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