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Feet on hot coals / Donna AldridgeBy Steve Piacente, Executive Communication Coach

If you’re famous and ask people to storm across hot coals, odds are you could end up with burnt toes. And some bad publicity. Even a national news story or two. 

So it was the other day in Dallas for motivational speaker Tony Robbins, whose “Unleash the Power Within” seminars include the “fire walk,” intended to teach folks how to “turn fear into power.”

For those unfamiliar with Robbins, he is a best-selling self-help author with 2.81 million Twitter followers. More than 17 million have watched his TED talk, “Why We Do What We Do.” So, as with any celebrity, well-known CEO, or government official, when things go awry, TV trucks appear fast as ambulances.

Here’s how the principal and Team Robbins quickly cooled the crisis coals and ensured one hot night in Dallas didn’t turn into a multi-day story.

1 - They responded quickly, and set the record straight with confidence. Robbins’ organization told media outlets like CBS News, “In Dallas tonight, someone not familiar with the fire walk observed the event and called 911, erroneously reporting hundreds of people requiring medical attention for severe burns.”

2 - They doused fiery headlines by citing a single stat that put things in perspective. “Only five of 7,000 participants requested any examination beyond what was readily available on site.” (CNN, citing a Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman, said that of the more than 7,000 participants, at least 30 suffered minor foot burns. Five were hospitalized.)

3 - They stayed on message, citing pleasure at completing “another successful fire walk for 7,000 guests.” The walk has apparently been part of Robbins’ shtick for 35 years.

4 - They were prepared, both at the event, and for any negative PR. That is, trained medical personnel were on hand at the site just in case. And, Robbins spokeswoman Jennifer Connelly was ready afterwards with the company line.

"It is always the goal to have no guests with any discomfort afterwards, but it's not uncommon to have fewer than 1 percent of participants experience 'hot spots,' which is similar to a sunburn that can be treated with aloe," Connelly told CNN.

5 – Robbins leveraged third party allies on social media, at one point retweeting a column on Inc. that called the incident a “false alarm.”

Without getting into the wisdom of walking on hot coals – or its symbolic value – Robbins’ response demonstrated for anyone in the public eye the importance of being prepared, getting in front of a crisis, and delivering key messages with precision and clarity. Nothing turns a fire into ashes faster.

Any other thoughts on the Robbins rapid response team?





Suppose you didn’t know who won the Miss USA pageant last weekend.

And suppose you were asked to pick the winner and runner-up from a photo of the five finalists shot moments before the grand announcement. Odds are you’d select the two who struck the “Wonder Woman” pose.

All five seem confident. Each boasts a radiant smile. So much poise in one lineup! But those two carving out space with their elbows – a description you might find in a story about the NBA finals – look as though they’ve already had a peek inside the envelope.

And indeed they were the winners. Miss District of Columbia Deshauna Barber walked off with the crown, while Miss Hawaii Chelsea Hardin was runner-up. Second runner-up Miss Georgia held her hands by her sides, while Miss Alabama and Miss California opted for a “red carpet” pose, with right hand on hip and left arm straight down.

Now, no one is suggesting Barber and Hardin finished one-two because they assumed the pose immortalized by Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and highlighted in behavioral psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Barber is a U.S. Army logistics commander and has served in the military since age 17. There is nothing artificial about her power pose.

Still, the photo reinforces what we all know, that our bodies speak volumes even when our mouths are shut. Pageants aside, everyone who appears before an audience – even if the audience is one person or a small staff meeting - should remember to:

  • Make sure your body language sends upbeat, positive signals. Avoid gestures that suggest nervousness, insecurity or defensiveness, like crossing your arms, locking your fingers or clutching the lectern.


  • Be mindful of your face. All of us were taught not to judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what we do. Research shows our faces can express emotion sooner than people verbalize or even realize their feelings. A pleasant expression will serve you well.


  • Lighten up and toss in a smile. Smiling is associated with everything from confidence to lower blood pressure. It makes you appear more likeable and more competent. Can you overdo it? Sure, so save it for the right moments, like openings and good news.


  • Make eye contact with members of your audience. Notice the five finalists. They aren’t looking down, away or at some imaginary spot in the distance. They’re looking at their audience. Which suggests confidence, trustworthiness and the very real possibility that any of them might be the next Miss USA.


Need more evidence? Think of the opposite of the Miss USA lineup – the police lineup, where the suspected and accused use their bodies any way they can to shrink back and draw as little attention as possible.

One more note about power posing. Pageant contestants, actors and comedians can get away with it in public. The rest of us should do it in private, as a means to shoo the butterflies and get positive energy flowing. 

Walk into your performance review like Wonder Woman and you’ll see what I mean.

Has your body ever sent signals that got you in trouble? Please share a story. 


Photo credit: 




A child falls 15 feet into the moat of a zoo’s gorilla exhibit. Onlookers, including the boy’s mother, look on horrified as a 450-pound silverback grabs the child and begins dragging him through the water. The zoo makes a quick decision: kill the gorilla to save the boy.

Considerable outrage followed the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s decision to shoot 17-year-old gorilla Harambe. Why wasn’t there another way? Why kill the gorilla for something that wasn’t his fault? Zoo Director Thane Maynard’s response – to reporters and via social media – offer instructive lessons on how to act in a digital age crisis scenario.

Here are seven steps the zoo took to keep a bad situation from getting worse:

1. Officials were clear, concise and fast. Maynard did not waver, telling the press soon after the incident, “That child’s life was in danger. People who question that don’t understand you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla … Looking back, we’d make the same decision. The child is safe.”

2. The zoo anticipated the hard questions and provided detailed answers. A step-by-step explanation on Facebook made clear that the first response was to call the gorillas out of the exhibit. Two went, but not Harambe. Tranquilizers were risky because they take too long and the boy was in immediate danger. Plus, a dart was likely to rile up the gorilla.

3. The communications team used social media to get the story out from the zoo’s point of view. Two tweets pointed to “details on sad incident at Cincinnati Zoo,” and noted the zoo community was “devastated by death of beloved gorilla.”

4. Understanding that people needed to vent, officials permitted posts on its own Facebook page that were extremely critical of the zoo. Said one, “Boycott Cincinnati Zoo for this ridiculous slaughter of this majestic animal.”

5. Maynard remained calm and refused to cast blame as many on social media were faulting the mother for not being more careful. “I’m not a big finger pointer,” Maynard said. “Politicians and pundits point fingers.”

6. The zoo also provided important context and perspective. Its “Gorilla World” is nearly four decades old, and this was the first breach. The exhibit is inspected regularly by the appropriate agencies, and adheres to all safety guidelines.

7. And seventh, the zoo made sure to reinforce its core message. Said Maynard, “The safety of our visitors and our animals is our number one priority. The barrier that we have in place has been effective for 38 years.”

The failure to acknowledge that improvements are nonetheless possible would have been a grievous error. But Maynard didn’t fall into the trap, promising careful study “as we work toward continuous improvement for the safety of our visitors and animals.”

Did you spot anything else the zoo did right or wrong in its communication strategy?

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