Addressing the Onset of Online Defamation

Internet defamation is on the rise and corporations, nonprofits and individuals should be on alert that if it occurs there are steps to take to remove offensive material and ways to suppress the residue of negative coverage that can tarnish a reputation.

Internet defamation is on the rise and corporations, nonprofits and individuals should be on alert that if it occurs there are steps to take to remove offensive material and ways to suppress the residue of negative coverage that can tarnish a reputation.

 

Online defamation involving false and malicious claims is a growing concern for companies, nonprofits and individuals. It is a good time to learn some karate moves to fight back.

“In the age of digital Darwinism, we are now guilty until proven innocent,” warns Sameer Somal of Blue Ocean Global Technology, who offers online reputation management advice to attorneys and corporate clients. “Internet defamation lawsuits are on the rise.  Even if someone is innocent, they still may appear guilty online. If negative results appear for an attorney or client, their online reputation can quickly damage their offline reputation – and affect their life.”

Social media is a breeding ground for inflammatory statements, often made in the heat of the moment. Some of those statements could equate to online defamation, regardless how the claim is couched. For example, saying “I believe” in front of a statement that someone embezzled money from a company or a man abused a coworker is not a defense if the claim is unfounded.

Media outlets or channels could be on the hook if they fail to remove defamatory statements in the comment threads of their stories. You may intentionally or unintentionally defame someone or some organization in comments you make on social media.

Somal advises that everyone needs to be alert to online defamation, whether it is directed at you or comes from you.

Sameer Somal is the Chief Financial Officer at Blue Ocean Global Technology and Blue Ocean Global Wealth. He is a CFA Charterholder, a CFP® professional, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst and an internet defamation subject matter expert witness. In collaboration with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, he authors and delivers CLE programs on reputation management, search engine optimization and ethics across legal communities nationally.

Sameer Somal is the Chief Financial Officer at Blue Ocean Global Technology and Blue Ocean Global Wealth. He is a CFA Charterholder, a CFP® professional, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst and an internet defamation subject matter expert witness. In collaboration with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, he authors and delivers CLE programs on reputation management, search engine optimization and ethics across legal communities nationally.

Online reputation management is a process involving monitoringbuilding and repairing digital content, Somal explains. “The most agile firms are listening closer, making better resource allocations and investing in stronger relationships with strategic partners and clients.”

Businesses, nonprofits and public agencies should routinely monitor what’s being said about them online – in social media, consumer reviews and news stories. Material inaccuracies, false claims, offensive images and fake reviews should be addressed. The best approach, Somal says, is a direct approach – contact the source of the material and ask to correct or to remove the offending content. Be prepared to show why the content is inaccurate, false or defamatory.

Not everything bad said about you online constitutes defamation. Each case is fact-specific. Failing to respond to negative comments, especially if the comments are erroneous, misleading or defamatory, encourages others to further support or confirm the negative reputation, Somal says. Search engine algorithms, he adds, tend to favor negative reviews and unflattering commentary. Increasingly, snarky articles are promoted by their publishers on social media platforms and aimed at target audiences.

Before declaring content defamatory, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney familiar with libel and slander statutes, which can vary from state to state. If content rises to the level of defamation, you – or your attorney – can threaten to sue, which can be powerful motivation to withdraw online material.

Legal coverage can involve inflammatory statements in filings and courtroom testimony. News reporters are likely to include them in their stories. In this situation, you need to make sure reporters provide balanced coverage and include your side of the story, which requires talking to them to reinforce your own story.

On legal matters that attract continuous news coverage or attention on social media, you should consider a strategy of suppressing negative coverage in Google searches by publishing other, more reputation-friendly stories. Fluff won’t do the trick, but stories about philanthropy, new investments or innovations can earn positive coverage that can fill up the first page or two of Google searches. The content that you hoped would disappear remains buried on subsequent Google search results pages. Critics can still find it and persistent trolls can continue to take their shots, but you are proactively improving your reputation.

Changing the narrative isn’t the same as erasing all memory of an embarrassing incident or awkward legal case. One powerful way to change the narrative is to address head-on the source of controversy and protracted negative commentary. Change the headline by changing the story. Admit wrongdoing. Settle a legal matter. Take responsibility for an incident, even if it isn’t your fault. This form of reputation repair is not always comfortable, but it can yield longer-term relief from the constant headache of criticism.

 

Gold Medalist Shaun White Misses Mountainous Opportunity

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White thrilled his countrymen, including me, with a sparkling final run to win his third Olympic gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe. Unfortunately, he also disappointed many of his countrymen by failing to own responsibility for his sexual misconduct as alleged in 2016 by a female member of his band.

Few American athletes, and certainly even fewer winter Olympians, have scaled as high of a mountain of success and acclaim as White. He is credited with putting skateboarding on the athletic map and turning his particular event into a breathtaking spectacle of big air and jaw-dropping spins.

In the gleaming light of his success on the halfpipe, White shone less brightly in his post-event interview at which he dismissed the sexual misconduct allegations as “gossip.”

Still basking in the limelight, White had a mulligan to get it right the next morning when he was interviewed on NBC’s Today show by Savannah Guthrie. He didn’t get out of the rough. Guthrie gave him a wide lane by asking if he had anything further to say about the allegation. White expressed regret for his “gossip” comment, in what appeared to be a scripted moment. Guthrie pressed him ever so gently to say something about the sexual misconduct allegation itself. All White could muster was that he has changed. No mention of the woman he allegedly harassed.

White undoubtedly had been prepped by his legal counsel. He should have sought advice from a reputation counselor. White will never have a grander moment to apologize. That would have made him not only king of the hill, but also a man willing to admit his fault, even as he is celebrated for his greatness.

You could call it a mountainous missed opportunity.

Unquestionably White’s legacy as an Olympic great will remain. But his reputation as a man could have soared along with that legacy if he bucked the trend of other accused men and owned his misconduct. If White had, the issue would have faded into the shadows instead of continuing to dog him as he contemplates participating in newly authorized 2020 Summer Olympic skateboarding and possibly yet another winter Olympic try in 2022. He apparently failed to call upon any female reporters at his post-victory press conference, which will be hard to sustain going forward.

Preserving a reputation has an Olympic quality of requiring discipline and courage. If it was easy, no one would have a bad reputation, unless like Charlie Sheen you cultivated one. White passed the test of athletic discipline and courage with literally flying colors. Too bad, he crash-landed on a test of his maturity and manhood. White is great. He could have been even greater.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

What Super Bowl Ads Can Teach about Managing Issues

Instead of spending millions to air the movie trailer of Deadpool 2 during the Super Bowl, the film’s producers launched a clever, in-character Twitterstorm mocking itself for being too cheap to run an ad during the big game. The use of Twitter is just one of the lessons that can be drawn for issue managers from this year’s Super Bowl.

Instead of spending millions to air the movie trailer of Deadpool 2 during the Super Bowl, the film’s producers launched a clever, in-character Twitterstorm mocking itself for being too cheap to run an ad during the big game. The use of Twitter is just one of the lessons that can be drawn for issue managers from this year’s Super Bowl.

Issue managers are often late to the party on how to use social media to explain a complex issue or contend with a contentious opponent. Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel has some tips based on this year’s Super Bowl ads.

Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel shared her communication insights on Super Bowl ads, which also apply to issue management.

Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel shared her communication insights on Super Bowl ads, which also apply to issue management.

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, listening and viewing habits have changed, especially among younger adults. Just as important, tactics have evolved to capture people’s wayward attention. In a recent blog for PR Daily, Winchel cites four clever tactics that brands used to capture eyeballs during the Super Bowl. They offer insight into how issue managers might spruce up their communications.

  1. Winchel’s first suggestion is to use Twitter. Unlike other film and TV show producers, 20th Century Fox chose to sit out the Super Bowl commercial game and instead promoted Deadpool 2 with tweets by the franchise’s main character that portrayed the studio as too cheap to buy an ad. It was basically newsjacking on steroids or, in this case, “wrist-deep in cocoa butter.”

    Most issue managers don’t have budgets for ad campaigns, but they can think creatively about filling a niche through social media, and particularly via Twitter through the use of hashtags. Depending on the audience you need to reach, Twitter or Instagram can be perfect channel choices to squeeze out a message in keeping with your brand personality or the context of an issue.

    Humor can be an effective, albeit sometimes dangerous weapon. But audiences like to be entertained, so don’t overlook how humor and wit can play a role in your narrative.
     
  2. Citing Diet Coke’s ad featuring actress Hayley Magnus, Winchel encourages the use of spontaneity. Magnus shot what was intended to be a six-second video, but her infectious dance and narration after taking a sip convinced the soda’s brand managers to convert it into a full-fledged ad. It was captured in one take with mostly impromptu comments.

    Unscripted moments aren’t always the best moments to dramatize an issue, but straight-laced, dull commentaries may not grab anyone’s attention. It never hurts to be spontaneous – or allow yourself to recognize a meaningful, useful impromptu moment. Impromptu is hard to stage, but don’t be blind when you see such a moment that can convey your story.
     
  3. Winchel says early promotion can result in a big payoff. Doritos and Amazon set up audiences for their Super Bowl commercials by providing sneak peaks on social media and even on traditional news media before the game’s first kickoff. Winchel says the “Doritos Blaze vs. Mtn Dew Ice” ad accumulated almost 29 million views before game time.

    Teasing out commercials is akin to leaking tidbits of information. The idea is to generate buzz. The default position for many issue managers is to wait as long as possible to announce a potential project or initiative. That is sound thinking, but there can be exceptions when a slow drip announcement can create interest and enthusiasm, without spilling the beans too soon.
     
  4. Winchel’s last piece of advice should be music to the ears of issue managers. Quoting Mad Men’s Don Draper, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” Winchel says that’s what the Tide commercial accomplished by spoofing other brand commercials. In four spots that ran in each quarter, Tide ad narrator David Harbour basically says if you saw people in other ads, they were really Tide ads because everyone’s clothes were clean.

    The Tide ads have a humorous tone and reference familiar ad memes. They naturally pulled conversation in their direction. Switching the narrative on a serious issue isn’t easy, but Winchel’s advice is a good reminder that it can be done. If issue managers don’t explore this option, they may be overlooking an avenue to pursue for proactive, positive conversation.

Super Bowl ads produced another valuable lesson – think twice before you step across a cultural boundary. Dodge and Ram trucks faced a fury of feedback from their well-intentioned, but short-sighted ad about the benefits of service. The ad is graced with a Martin Luther King voice-over excerpted, with permission, from one of his speeches. Critics questioned the appropriateness of using King’s voice, especially since in another part of his speech he condemned commercial exploitation in advertising.

This is just the latest example of stumbling into a culture war. The use of King’s voice probably was sold by an ad agency as a masterstroke. In reality, it was an unforced error. For example, there are many country music artists who have established foundations to provide disaster relief, care for foster children and housing for families with children battling cancer. Any one of them would have been inspirational and a better match for the occasion – and the demographic of who buys Ram trucks.

 

Think More, Talk Less to Be Heard

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

In communication, less is usually more than enough. Brevity is the soul of wit – and quite possibly the only way to get your point across to audiences addicted to mobile devices and plagued by shrinking attention spans.

Executive coach Greg Salciccioli instructs presenters to deliver “clear, concise and compelling content.” His advice applies to any form of communication, especially media interviews.

A client asked me why a TV reporter totally missed his key message after he gave an in-person interview. I told him he drowned out his message by offering too much information. The reporter needed something quotable; he gave a lecture.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Salciccioli cited research by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, that indicates full-time workers focus on their jobs for only six hours a week – or roughly 15 percent of their time at work. He also notes a 2016 Nielsen report that says US adults spend more than 10 hours per day interacting with electronic media. These two data points are not unrelated. Statistics like that underscore why simplicity and scintillating content are necessary to grab attention.

Simplifying what you say is not the same as dumbing down what you say. Simplification means conveying what you want to say in as few words as possible. Or as Joseph McCormack, author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, advises: “Think and speak in headlines.”

Headlines are basically the same as sound bites – short, catchy phrases that convey a lot of meaning in a few words. Presenters and spokespersons may balk at reducing their brilliance to sound bites, but they do so at the peril of their key messages, like my client. If you want to be heard, you have to do what’s necessary to be heard.

Catering to your audience isn’t an act of surrender. If people are interested in a subject, they will ask for more information. However, pepper-spraying an audience – or a reporter – with a lot of information all at once only serves to push them away. That TV reporter interviewing my client couldn’t wait to beat a hasty retreat.

Contemporary audiences don’t view long orations or debates as entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who participated in seven 3-hour debates with Stephen Douglas, gave his most inspirational and enduring speech at Gettysburg. It lasted only three minutes and consisted of just 272 words, punctuated by the riveting line, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s memorable remarks followed a 2-hour “keynote” speech that has been largely forgotten.

People with a lot to say tend to put up the most stubborn resistance to brevity. But their vanity can’t overcome – and might actually contribute to – the lethargy and apathy of an audience. As humbling as it might be, people listening to a speech or media interview will remember more of what they see than what they hear. How you look and present yourself can make up 80 percent of an audience impression. All the more reason to choose your words carefully to maximize that other 20 percent of retention.

Speaking effectively and efficiently, as Salciccioli recommends, can earn you credibility with an audience or a reporter. Your preparation, organization and succinct delivery makes listening easier. Audience members don’t need to struggle to figure out what you mean to say. A reporter doesn’t have to scramble to find 12 usable seconds of tape, the average length of a quote in TV stories.

Salciccioli titled his LinkedIn blog, “The Power of Getting to the Point.” He is absolutely right that straightforward, brightly expressed commentary puts you in the driver’s seat because you are commanding the narrative. When you wander around and drone on, you muddy and bury the story you mean to tell. You leave it to the audience or a reporter to decipher what you said.

My baffled client told me proudly he gave the TV reporter enough material to fill 30 minutes of air time. Sadly, the reporter only needed 12 seconds of good sound for her story. The 12 seconds she chose wasn’t his key message, which we had worked on for two hours before the interview. My client blamed the reporter. In reality, he had no one to blame but himself.

If you want to make your point, take the time to chisel it into a phrase or sentence that people can hear, comprehend and remember. Think more and talk less.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Protecting a Reputation and the Walk to Redemption

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Most people concerned about their reputation don’t follow Taylor Swift’s example and write songs with titles like “I Did Something Bad.” Instead, most people try to figure out how to scrub social media sites and influence Google searches.

Whitewashing an online reputation has both physical and ethical limitations. Addressing a reputational issue head-on has a more durable and dependable life cycle. You are basically telling your own story, as Ms. Swift has done on her latest studio album titled, appropriately, “Reputation.”

Facing a rumor, allegation or documented exposé may be uncomfortable, but could be more rewarding than wishing the comments and innuendos would go away, which they won’t, even under an online pile of “good” news. A healthier and more reputation-friendly approach is to take charge of your own story.

This is a case of when a bold offense is the best defense. You can let a story drip you to death through court filings or information leaks. Or you can disrupt your opposition’s narrative with proactive communication.

Going on offense doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Bold offense is a strategic, not impulsive move that requires careful coordination with legal, financial or other key advisers. You may have to admit where you were wrong, insensitive, negligent or slow to act. 

Owning your mistake could be a small price to pay to earn the chance to tell your side of the story, earn some credibility and preserve a reputation. The admissions you make may be ones that you will make sooner or later in court or in a regulatory settlement. Waiting does little for your credibility and may further tarnish your reputation.

Telling your story doesn’t get you off the hook. But it will affect the arc of the conversation. You may introduce new facts or perspectives. Your admission may disarm critics. You may recommend something that takes the wind out of the sails of opponents. What’s important is that you make the conversation change course.

Reputation management isn’t a science or, for that matter, an art. Reputation management involves a candid analysis of a situation and identifying a proactive response. In an increasingly cynical and polarized world, protecting your reputation may take a really bold move.

Predictable or expected responses may tone down chirping, but not stop it. Hiding behind old, stale arguments – however justified those arguments may be – just perpetuates the critical chirping you want to escape. Ignoring the chirping is like throwing your hands up in the air. Trying to drown it out with louder chirping is like throwing a Hail Mary pass.

Protecting your reputation takes more than wearing a bullet-proof vest or trying to wave a wand to make bad news go poof. It usually requires a savvy, bold move that seizes the narrative from critics or pundits. Or as Ms. Swift expressed it in her song:

They never see it comin'
What I do next
This is how the world works

Reputations are precious, vulnerable things. People judge, but they also forgive. What they are less likely to do is forget a cover-up or a snow job.

When you do something bad, look for a path to redemption, not a secret passageway. Walking the path of redemption could be the best exercise for your reputation.

Time to Dust Off and Update Your Crisis Plan

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

The start of a new year is a perfect moment to dust off your crisis communications plan – or get busy preparing one.

The essence of a crisis communications plan is to anticipate the unexpected. When a crisis occurs, your ability to control events will go out the window. Your time frame for responding will shrivel. Your judgment will be tested.

One of the most underrated benefits of a crisis communications plan exercise is to identify vulnerabilities that you can eliminate or at least mitigate through proactive steps.

Here are our tips on reviewing your crisis communications plan:

  • Check your contact lists to update current phone numbers and email addresses and add or subtract people.
  • Review your potential crisis scenarios to see if any modifications are needed or new scenarios added because of an emerging vulnerability.
  • Don’t overlook competitive threats as the source of a potential crisis.
  • Ensure designated crisis team leaders, spokespersons and go-to fact-finders are still in place and prepared.
  • Consider a crisis drill to test your organization’s preparedness and revive awareness of the need for a crisis plan.
  • Suggest spokespersons undergo a media training refresher course – or receive media training – to sharpen their key message delivery skills under pressure.
  • Double-check your media monitoring key words and assess whether you are listening in all the right places.
  • Freshen or enhance the content stored away on your ghost website.
  • Search your Twitter followers to ensure you have the media and community contacts you would need in the event of a crisis.

For organizations without a crisis communications plan, our best advice is to put one in place as quickly as you can. Get professional help if possible, but don’t procrastinate. Crises have a bad habit of happening without warning and when you least expect them.

Useful crisis plans start with a candid assessment – what we call an issue audit – of all of the potential vulnerabilities facing an organization. Think about what could happen, what might trigger it and how it might affect your organization. That explanation will be the basis for a crisis scenario.

The next step in crisis plan development is to assess the probability and consequence of various scenarios. A crisis scenario that is highly likely to occur and could pose devastating consequences deserves more attention than an unlikely crisis with inconsequential impact.

The crisis plan is built around those higher probability-consequential crisis scenarios. The plan will have elements that apply to all or most scenarios, such as a crisis team leader, an identified situation room and a rapid decision-making crisis team. Each scenario will identify elements that apply specifically to that crisis such as the go-to fact-finder, background information and community contacts.

A crisis involving financial misconduct should trigger different internal resources and external contacts than an environmental spill that threatens a nearby water source or residential neighborhood.

Grabbing a crisis plan template off the internet can give you a picture of how to structure your crisis plan, but don’t use it as basis framework of your plan because it is too generic and lacks the specificity of real scenarios.

We advise skipping the wordsmithing exercise of holding statements. Unless you are clairvoyant, you won’t know exactly how or where a crisis will break. Anything you could dream up to say in advance will probably be off point or so general as to be useless when an actual crisis occurs. A better approach is get your ducks in a row on how you will field calls, how quickly you can get the facts on what happened and get timely management sign-off on how to address the crisis.

In a crisis, actions speak louder than words. A crisis plan should be built on how to respond, not just on what to say.

One final bit of advice. The guiding star for any crisis plan should be an organization’s mission and values. If you say you put customers or patients first, then let that pledge inform and guide your actions. Protecting your reputation in a crisis depends on the actions you take that reflect the reputation you want to maintain.

Silverman Shows Friendliness Is No Joke

Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her bawdy, no-holds-barred humor, but how she handled a slur by a Twitter troll is turning heads and reminding us of the disarming power of friendliness.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her bawdy, no-holds-barred humor, but how she handled a slur by a Twitter troll is turning heads and reminding us of the disarming power of friendliness.

Unexpected friendliness can be disarming, even for someone who called you a name we can’t print.

Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is known for her bawdy humor, surprised her followers by how she responded to a man’s unprintable one-word tweet. Instead of ripping him in kind, Silverman responded with a friendly, empathetic tweet.

“I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back … sux too. See what happens when u choose love. I see it in you.”

The unexpected sympathy offensive started an exchange that wound up with the man apologizing for his crude comment, confessing he is actually a fan and agreeing to seek out a support group. The man launched a GoFundMe campaign, Silverman encouraged her Twitter followers to contribute and he quickly raised $1,774.

After Silverman offered to pay for his medical treatment, the man said he would dedicate the money he raised for charity. Pretty sweet outcome for an encounter that began with a slur.

Scathing online comments have become an irresistible and possibly irreversible norm. When attacked, we attack back. We dehumanize our critics so we can do our best to humiliate them. We are treated to daily insults from a tweetstorm master who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Based on her style of humor, Silverman is an unlikely disciple of friendly, sympathetic rejoinders. But her actions and continuing engagement with someone who she easily could have dismissed as a sexist troll shows the astonishing power of friendliness.

Silverman took a moment to look beyond a slur to the person’s motivation – and his pain. She displayed empathy after she took the time to scan his online record. She offered encouragement instead of invective. She provided an example more of us should follow.

Issue managers should expand their playbook to consider Silverman’s approach. Getting in shouting matches is never a good strategy, so why not explore how to disarm critics with a little sympathetic listening and a dose of empathy.

If the attacker still foams venom, your calm, mature demeanor can win respect for onlookers. More likely, your genuine effort to understand the source of anger and opposition can convert a heated moment into serious and maybe constructive conversation. Beyond coming across as caring, you might learn something valuable that you can apply to a project and mitigate concerns.

The subtler lesson taught by Silverman is the context for your listening. She capitalized on surprise to change the trajectory of the exchange. Whatever prompted the man’s tweet, Silverman’s response surely took him aback. He probably expected a sharp response, but instead got a sympathetic ear.

Silverman proves that conversations, even on Twitter, don’t have to be vicious and dehumanizing. Before hitting “send,” take a Silverman moment and ask if there isn’t another response. Instead of treating critics as enemies, try listening to them. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results. No joke.

 

Apple Offers Model Response to Aging Battery Crisis

In response to consumer concerns about slowed iPhone performance, Apple gave a model crisis response with a sincere apology, a clear explanation of what it did to extend again battery life, a consumer pledge and an offer to buy replacement batteries at a much cheaper price.

In response to consumer concerns about slowed iPhone performance, Apple gave a model crisis response with a sincere apology, a clear explanation of what it did to extend again battery life, a consumer pledge and an offer to buy replacement batteries at a much cheaper price.

Bad apologies dominated 2017, but near year end Apple provided a better example of a sincere apology accompanied by a clear explanation and a meaningful act of contrition.

When consumer suspicions were confirmed that older iPhones intentionally slowed down, Apple issued a statement on its website confirming the suspicions were true. After apologizing for a lack of transparency, Apple explained the slowdown was designed to extend the battery life of older iPhones, not prod users to buy a new one. And, it said it would reduce the cost of replacement batteries from $79 to $29.

The company’s statement is straightforward, clear and informative. It is a mature response to consumer concerns and a good model for how to respond to a crisis.

Far too many apologies in 2017, especially ones associated with sexual misconduct, were feeble and inadequate. Some were quasi-apologies. Others were defensive or defiant. They contributed to further decay of the reputations of the would-be apologists.

Sincere apologies don’t come easy. They can be uncomfortable. The temptation is to trim the truth. That’s why Apple’s face-the-music statement stands out from the pack.

“We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process. We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”

The statement acknowledges the problem, owns it and apologizes. Then comes an explanation that is neither defensive or fuzzy:

“About a year ago in iOS 10.2.1, we delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone SE. With the update, iOS dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown. While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance.

“Customer response to iOS 10.2.1 was positive, as it successfully reduced the occurrence of unexpected shutdowns. We recently extended the same support for iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in iOS 11.2.”

However, consumer grumbling began last fall about slower iPhone performance, which gave rise to conspiracy theories about Apple’s true intentions. Apple’s statement tackles that head on:

“First and foremost, we have never – and would never – do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.”

That declaration is followed by an understandable explanation of how cell phone batteries age and can cause sudden, unexpected shutdowns.

Apple’s statement ends with a section titled “Addressing customer concerns,” which includes the offer to reduce the price of out-of-warranty batteries to $29. The iPhone maker says in early 2018 it “will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.”

The statement concludes: “At Apple, our customers’ trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it. We are able to do the work we love only because of your faith and support – and we will never forget that or take it for granted.”

Conspiracy theories may still bounce around, but Apple provided consumers – and skeptics – a clear, comprehensive explanation coupled with an apology, a consumer pledge and a compelling offer for users with aging batteries. You can’t ask for or expect more from a credible crisis response.

Structures to Make Stories Familiar, Yet Fresh

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is a proven way to make your point in a memorable way. While we learn to listen to and tell stories as children, many adults forget the basics. Author Christopher Booker has provided a refresher course.

Booker says storytelling boils down to seven basic plots. Master them and you can become a spellbinding storyteller.

Instead of reading his book, The Seven Basic Plots, which veers off topic to denounce soap operas, the metric system and feminism, Quid Corner, a British financial resource blog, has reduced his concepts to a series of easy-to-access infographics.

To be effective, storytelling must be authentic, not the sum total of a formula. However, some basic plot structures can help a stymied storyteller get started.

According to Booker, the seven plots are overcoming a monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, the quest, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. The Quid Corner infographics offer advice on how to use each basic plot to tell a story or make a presentation.

You can think of the infographics as paint-by-the-numbers storytelling and treat them accordingly. But before scoffing them into insignificance, they are useful mini-guides to creating a recognizable story architecture. Many stories fall flat because the audience gets confused, loses track of the plot and misses the point of the story.

In the “rags to riches” plot structure, for example, someone overcomes major obstacles to achieve success. This doesn’t have to be only about Horatio Alger heroes who with fortitude go from impoverished to wealthy. This story line is one we see, in one form or another, a lot. A child is diagnosed with cancer, doctors are stymied, then the child receives an experimental procedure and defeats cancer. A man is fired because he is an alcoholic, his family leaves, he becomes homeless, then he seeks help, sobers up, gets a job and regains his self-respect. These are compelling narratives with a familiar plot.

All of the plot structures Quid Corner illustrates can be used in a similar fashion. You don’t need a real “monster” to trace Booker’s plot line of overcoming one.

The real value of Booker’s synthesis of plot structures – and Quid Corner’s infographics – is to give storytellers an outline of how to tell their story in a way that is at once familiar, yet fresh: What elements to include, a sequence to follow and a tie-in between the rags starting point and the riches finish line.

The structure of the story is critical so you don’t baffle listeners, but instead give them a familiar path to follow to the fresh point you want your story to make.

 

Disciplined Repetition and Relentless Consistency

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

Getting your point across in an interview or controversy takes more than talking louder. It requires disciplined repetition and relentless consistency.

As an issue manager or a crisis spokesperson, you cannot expect people to be sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to hear your key message. Disciplined repetition increases the odds that your key message will actually be heard and remembered.

Relentless consistency helps to guard against message migration, which is what can happen when a message is shared from person to person like in the game called Telephone.

My former boss, Ron Wyden, insisted on repeating his key message at least three times in a press interview, speech or question-and-session session. He contended, with some empirical evidence to back him up, that if you make your point once, only some people will get it. When you mention it a second time, the point gets wider notice because it sounds familiar. On the third mention, most people will have absorbed the point – and many will have stored it away. Alert reporters will get the clear signal this is what the speaker wants to get across.

This is not a reflection on the collective intelligence of audiences or reporters. It is a fact that we retain less of what we hear than what we see. Disciplined repetition recognizes this human fact.

The discipline to repeat key messages involves overcoming the natural sense that you are belaboring your point. You are belaboring your point on purpose so it stands out and sticks.

Disciplined repetition also involves practicing how to say the same thing more than once without seeming to have a script. This is where sound bites play an important role in forming the core of a message that can wrapped up in various ways. Here’s an example:

The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to eliminate net neutrality will mean telecommunication companies can put big guys in the fast lane and shove little guys into the slow lane.

Regardless what the FCC or telecommunications companies say, ending net neutrality may result in different users forced onto different and sometimes slower lanes of the internet.

If net neutrality hadn’t existed, a startup like YouTube may never have been able to compete financially with Google for access to the fast lane of the internet.

Relentless consistency reinforces key messages and avoids confusing audiences. Too much information can bog down audience comprehension, burying a key message under a heap of facts and extraneous material. The desire to share “all the facts” or provide “useful context” only succeeds in overloading your audience and blurring what you really want them to remember.

Sticking to your message over multiple interviews or briefings keeps your message prominent and is a cue of what you view as most important to know. It also reduces the chance that a reporter or stakeholder will leave the room thinking one of your side points was your main point.

The best example of this was my client who, with the best of intentions, refused to stick with a key message, choosing instead to follow the lead – and sometimes take the bait – of reporters. The result were muddy interviews that often didn’t even wind up in the final stories, especially for TV news.

One of the best aids for relentless consistency is a great visual image – an illustration, map or chart. Visual images have more impact than words alone because people see them as you are talking. If the images are well conceived and well designed to reinforce your key message, your chances of making a clear impression are amplified.

You can count the number of times in this blog I used disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to see preaching in practice.

 

Curiosity Can Turbocharge Your Personal Search Engine

Curiosity stimulates the brain, strengthens relationships and unlocks otherwise overlooked insights. Do yourself a favor and reclaim your childhood curiosity. Don’t worry about the cat.

Curiosity stimulates the brain, strengthens relationships and unlocks otherwise overlooked insights. Do yourself a favor and reclaim your childhood curiosity. Don’t worry about the cat.

image002.jpg

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but for everyone else it can do wonders. Curiosity is the strategy to uncover less-than-obvious information and discover overlooked insight.

The practical benefits of curiosity are both personal and professional.

Curiously, curiosity is often in short supply. We are too busy or forget to ask questions. We are too timid to ask. We think we have enough information. We rely on Google for what we need to know. The result: People don’t know what they don’t know.

The knowledge gap from a lack of curiosity may run deeper than you imagine. Curious people tend to attract other curious people. The uncurious are left with their own thoughts – and, of course, their Google results.

Being inquisitive is something we exhibit in childhood, but can leave behind as adults. We shouldn’t. Curiosity is an essential element of engagement, which is increasingly a critical component of effective communications.

A curious person engages people in empathetic conversations, pulling out information or perspectives that people may not otherwise be willing to share. Those nuggets can illuminate a toxic force in a workplace, a viewpoint on a controversial issue or an unmet expectation. Just as important, asking questions can forge a caring relationship.

Research has shown curiosity is a sign of brain health. Engaging with other people stimulates the brain, builds healthier relationships and can be an antidote for anxiety.

All that, plus curiosity can unlock valuable data points. Curiosity is like putting a turbocharger on your Google search engine.

To rediscover your childhood curiosity, stow away your “I already know the answer” attitude. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Ask and find out.

You can rekindle curiosity by intentionally getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new – from what you eat to a useful app. Look for new experiences. Talk to people who aren’t in your tribe. When you hear an unfamiliar word, look it up. If something on the news piques your interest, track down details. Dare to be creative. Let yourself be amazed.

In client situations, be politely relentless in asking questions. Don’t settle for superficial answers. Keep asking so you discover the reasons behind answers. Dig to understand the nuances surrounding a complex issue or to find a fresh angle to explain what’s going on. 

If a client is uncomfortable with your professional curiosity, you should be curious about why. An issue manager or crisis counselor is not an errand boy. When you craft communications, your credibility is on the line as much as the client’s.

Curiosity will make your brain sharper, your relationships stronger and your career more rewarding. Quit worrying about the cat. Regain your enthusiasm.

 

Where Public Apologies for Sexual Misconduct Should Start

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior.  Photo Credit: The New York Times

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior. 

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The still unfolding sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Hollywood, news media and politics also has showcased good, bad and pathetic high-profile public apologies.

Never an easy trick to pull off, even by the sincerest of people, public apologies require a lot more than “I’m sorry” because they usually involve a serious offense or allegation. To begin to repair reputational damage, a public apology must acknowledge wrongdoing, show empathy for victims and point to a path of rehabilitation.

Denying the allegations, even in the face of credible evidence, and denouncing accusers is the path to further reputational damage.

Jacob Sugarman, writing for Alternet, wonders whether there even is such a thing as a good public apology. If you are apologizing in public, he reasons, you have done something – or allegedly done something – pretty offensive. An apology may not be near enough to reach redemption. But it is a beginning,

Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who now faces two accusations of sexual misbehavior, began both of his statements with an apology. Then he said he didn’t remember the incident quite the same way as his first accuser or even remember the incident referenced by his second accuser. You would put Franken’s apology in the sort-of good category. He started with an apology, then offered a faint defense.

Louis C.K. began his apology by admitting he committed the offense of pleasuring himself in front of a captive audience of women. But his apology had the taint of a comic response. Yeah, I did it. Sorry. “I’ve been remorseful,” but get over it. The comic did say he was stepping back to reflect.

Franken directed his apology at his accuser, touted his own political record as a champion of women’s issues and called for a Senate ethics investigation, even though the USO incident for which he apologized occurred before he was in the Senate.

On the other end of Sugarman’s spectrum of apologetica are Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore who both deny accusations against them and stubbornly refuse to apologize for their actions. Weinstein has suggested his couch casting was the norm in Hollywood. Moore refuses to admit he even knew his teenage accusers.

To make matters worse, Weinstein hired Israeli spies to discredit some of his accusers. Moore dispatched his attorney to do the equivalent by demanding verification of Moore’s signature in a high school yearbook of one of his accusers he claims he never met.

Weinstein admitted himself to a sex addiction clinic. Moore refuses to withdraw from a race to win a seat in the US Senate, blaming the whole episode on political dirty tricks.

Somewhere in between was the semi-apology of actor Kevin Spacey. He offered commiseration with his teenage victim, explaining it was the result of “inappropriate drunken behavior.” Then he announced he is a gay man and has been traumatized for years by being in the closet.

The New York Times has published a story that lists the prominent men who have faced sexual misconduct accusations. The list needs almost daily updates. Charlie Rose, late of CBS News, is the latest man to offer an apology after eight women accused him of sexual harassment, groping and lewd behavior. “I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.”

It fell to Rose’s CBS News co-anchor Norah O’Donnell to put the whole issue of sexual misconduct into perspective: “This is a moment that demands a frank and honest assessment about where we stand and more generally the safety of women. Let me be very clear: There is no excuse for this alleged behavior. It is systematic and pervasive.”

The safety of women (and men, too) is at risk. Being seduced on a couch by a Hollywood producer or a business bigwig isn’t all that much different than being molested in an alley. Many women are emerging from the shadows of their memories to disclose what happened to them and the perpetrators who did it or tried to do it. The sheer volume of accusations and the common claim of unwanted kissing and groping and lewd behavior reinforces O’Donnell’s conclusion that “It is systemic and pervasive.”

One accused man accused who admits he’s a cad won’t end the pattern of sexual misconduct, but it’s a start. It also would be a perfect place to begin a real apology.

Reflections and Lessons to Learn About Sexual Misconduct

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is an explosive issue and recent allegations, denials, admissions and equivocations serve as a manual on what to do and not to do. They also are a mirror on how much or how little progress we have made on an issue that evokes raw emotions.

Rumors and charges of sexual misconduct by men in power positions aren’t new. The casting couch has been a longstanding image in Hollywood. But the flood gates of anger and frustration blew open with waves of revelations concerning big-time Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Despite Weinstein’s denials and his self-admission to a sex addiction clinic, he was booted out of his own company and expelled by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s company is considering a name change. His wife is seeking a divorce.

Allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct emboldened other women and men to reveal their long-suppressed horror stories about men who abused their power positions. The list, which is still growing, includes House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, NBC political analyst Mark Halperin, celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, comedian Louis C.K. and even former President George H. W. Bush.

The response to Weinstein’s abuses also provoked sharper, swifter responses to subsequent allegations – Netflix divorced itself from Spacey, Oreskes and Halperin were fired and Richardson was banned from working for Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines. However, critics questioned why Weinstein friends and associates didn’t blow the whistle sooner on his behavior that stretches back years. NPR’s CEO also took heat for not acting sooner when earlier allegations were made.

Many of the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing or said they couldn’t remember. Richardson said everything he did was consensual. Former President Bush cited his physical condition to explain his ass-touching during photo opps. Halperin and Oreskes apologized for their conduct and its impact on news team colleagues. Louis C.K. admitted his behavior was inappropriate and said he was withdrawing to reflect.

Amid the fallout from Weinstein, organizations with ties to alleged abusers quickly disassociated themselves and many issued statements about a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. There have been calls to elevate more women into positions of power.

Then came The Washington Post bombshell last week about Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his thirties and serving as an assistant district attorney. Moore denies the allegations and claims they are a political hit job just weeks before a special election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP officials urged Moore to step aside “if the allegations are true.” McConnell went further this week, saying he believed the allegations and reiterated Moore should exit the race and not imperil Republican chances to hold onto the seat and their precarious Senate majority.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went in a different direction. He blew past Moore’s denials and said Moore’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl appeared “consensual,” even though Alabama law puts the age of consent at 16. Hannity’s defense of Moore prompted Keurig and other companies to pull advertising from Hannity’s show, which in turn led Hannity defenders “to throw their Keurigs out the window.”

Alabama voters quoted in news stories expressed the range of reactions. Some were upset to hear the allegations; others saw the allegations as fake news and dirty politics. One convicted and conflicted Moore supporter said he would rather vote for a pedophile than a Democrat.

There are a lot of things to learn from this still unfolding series of stories:

  • Women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment should be respected for the courage it takes to tell – or in some cases retell – their stories. The sudden release of a spate of stories is a direct reflection of the hopelessness and fear many victims felt at the hands of men with power who they presumed, not incorrectly, would be protected. Questioning the timing of their revelations should be secondary to listening carefully to the content of their revelations.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that men in powerful positions (and a few women, too) have abused their positions to take advantage of people. Whether it involves pressuring women to have sex, forcing women to watch a man pleasuring himself or seducing minors shouldn’t matter. The gradations of abuse aren’t the issue and can’t be part of an explanation or excuse. Sexual abuse is, without any qualification, sexual abuse.
  • Owning the abuse, as Louis C. K. did, is a good start, but not full redemption. The worst toll of sexual abuse befalls the victim, not the abuser. Abusers may have to pay a price and even in some cases go to jail, but victims have to live with the stain of abuse for a long time, often with life-changing consequences. Give your emotional empathy to the victims.
  • While statements of zero tolerance are important and clearly timely, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your work environment hasn’t been turned toxic by sexual harassment or abuse. If you discover instances of it, take action. Don’t let it fester and, most important, don’t force victims to cower in the shadow of your inattention or inaction.
  • There may be a statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults, but there is no final deadline for allegations. If you think sexual abuse can be pushed under the rug or will just go away, think again. When allegations are made, pay attention. It may be time for rug-cleaning.
Gary-Conkling.jpg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Actions Speak Louder Than Words in Post-Truth Era

The post-truth era has created sharper divisions that are deepened by social media and pose new challenges for organizations, individuals and professional communicators who need to send credible messages to audiences that are skeptical and have their own fact set.

The post-truth era has created sharper divisions that are deepened by social media and pose new challenges for organizations, individuals and professional communicators who need to send credible messages to audiences that are skeptical and have their own fact set.

The post-truth era and digital media complicate the best intentions of talking straight and telling the truth. Well-argued facts may be trumped by often repeated opinions.

Reporting the news and communicating to target audiences have become far more challenging because truth is increasingly relative and trusted information sources are suspect.

“Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers,” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine told the BBC. “For every fact, there is a counter-fact and all these counter-facts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.” In reality, facts and counter-facts intermingle almost indiscernibly with opinions posing as facts.

This reality goes beyond concerns over fake news. People view what’s happening around them through the lens of their political, ideological, religious and ethnic viewpoints. Put another way, we’ve become tribal about the information that immerses us and we ingest.

If anything, social media reinforces this tribalism by providing information vacuum chambers that closely resemble small village grapevines with parochial viewpoints. Social media also tends to feed the habit of hearing what you like – and provides the tools to lash out at what and who you dislike.

The non-stop speed of digital media is mind-numbing and outraces many of the mental safeguards people try to erect to weigh information fairly. The apparent collective coping mechanism of society in the digital age is to retreat to what is familiar – what we know or think we know.

For organizations, individuals and professional communicators trying to dispatch credible messages, especially in controversial settings or over contentious issues, the new shape of truth is a serious problem. Where once the challenge was to eliminate self-serving, ambiguous or false statements from communications, the challenge now is to couch messages in terms your intended audience will interpret as credible and not dismiss as fake.

Effective communication, whether written or spoken, has always depended on “knowing your audience.” Now it also means understanding how your audience will regard you and your views before you utter a word.

This is why many professional communicators, including me, emphasize actions before words. Actions are harder to misinterpret, even when the motives for actions are questioned. What you do can transcend tribal views of who you are and what you stand for. Your actions can interrupt the narratives of your opponents, giving you a chance to make a fresh impression divorced from pre-existing opinion.

Acting wisely, responsively and in a timely manner isn’t a magic wand that makes opposition or skepticism disappear. But actions can capture attention and open, if not change, otherwise closed minds. In a crisis environment, it is the best – and possibly only – shot you have to create a path for honest dialogue.

The post-truth era will most severely punish those who stumble into controversies unprepared, assuming they can bluster their way to a successful outcome. Misinformation is a hard beast to defeat and virtually impossible to overcome by chance. In bare-knuckle debates over major projects, housing developments or new policies, parties feel less restrained to stick with the truth as opposed to what sells. The smartest opponents know the importance of solid research and how to use it to arouse and enrage target audiences at your expense.

You can’t assume that traditional ways to group people are a true reflection of an audience. As Pew Research has shown, there are many fissures, for example, in groups we label as “liberal” or “conservative.” Making broad assumptions about an audience can overlook micro-groups and their quite distinct opinions.

Preparation must include research to know your opponent’s best arguments, as well as your own. But the post-truth era demands having a more visceral understanding of your audience, its perspective and its pain points. Facts won’t necessarily carry the day. Actions that take into account the biases and skepticism of an impacted audience have a better chance of leaping across the abyss of fact and fiction.

Gary-Conkling.jpg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Name-Calling: The Worst-Case Scenario

Name-calling may be seen by some as telling like it is, but insults don’t constitute a strategy, build a brand, unify a divided crowd, show maturity or create options. Name-calling may be close to the worst-case scenario.

Name-calling may be seen by some as telling like it is, but insults don’t constitute a strategy, build a brand, unify a divided crowd, show maturity or create options. Name-calling may be close to the worst-case scenario.

The escalating invective between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un serves as a fresh reminder of why name-calling isn’t such a great idea – and certainly not a strategy.

Name-calling is at best a boomerang sport. You call someone a name and they respond by insulting you back – rocket man on a suicide ride fetches mentally deranged dotard. Apart from a fleeting reference to Elton John and a word requiring a dictionary dive, not much is accomplished. And the space to find middle ground is reduced.

At worst, name-calling can exacerbate an already explosive situation. When two nations with nuclear capabilities engage in name-calling, the explosions could be huge. Kim said Trump’s insults amount to a declaration of war, as US warplanes flew closer to the North Korea and Kim threatened to shoot them down. Chances sharply increased for an accidental stumble into actual war.

Trump and Kim aren’t the first to resort to name-calling, but they are egregious examples of the technique taken to an extreme. Professional wrestlers hurl insults to whip up the crowd, but they have scripts. Trump and Kim appear to be trading shots totally off script.

Jimmy Kimmel has generated a lot of buzz by calling Senator Bill Cassidy, co-author of the latest GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, a “liar.” The comedian said Cassidy promised only to support a health care bill that would pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” which meant preserving a requirement in current law that no one can be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Kimmel says the Cassidy-Graham bill fails to pass the test the Louisiana senator promised.

Did Kimmel’s three-night monologue accusing Cassidy of lying turn the tide on the Cassidy-Graham bill? Unlikely. Arizona Senator John McCain, who has declared his opposition, seemed more impressed by the array of health care organizations opposing the bill, the lack of hearings and the failure of the Senate to pursue a bipartisan solution.

Trump reflects another problem with personal invective. He calls people “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco,” but is offended when a journalist calls him a “white supremacist.” You get what you give in the name-calling game. Name-calling has the effect of turning a disagreement into a street fight.

That hasn’t stopped Trump who over the weekend went on a Twitter tirade against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem before games. He dared NFL owners to fire kneeling players, calling them SOBs, but instead more players and some entire teams did the opposite. Another reality of name-calling – it ticks off the people you call names and increases the odds they will defy you. And, name-calling appears to be habit-forming.

Maybe name-calling is just a regressive form of argumentation. It is what young kids do in schoolyards when they are frustrated and don’t know how else to vent. Or what bullies do to their victims to make themselves feel bigger than they really are. But bullies sometimes are upstaged by those they bully – see Teresa Kaepernick’s response.

There certainly is a time for emotional expression. Tragedies. Natural disasters. Shootings. Even then, strong words usually aren’t framed as insults.

Calling people names is viewed by some as a form of branding. Don Rickles insulted people to their face after they bought tickets to see him. But Rickles was a comic and name-calling was his shtick. He made fun of how people looked or dressed, but he didn’t threaten to burn down anyone’s house.

For those tempted to name-call, the unfiltered immediacy of Twitter is a perfect bedside companion. Unlike Rickles who risked getting a drink splashed in his face, a name-caller on Twitter can verbally assault someone in relative isolation, then go brush his teeth. Hurling insults online is a lot like throwing rocks from a glass house – without any glass to shatter when someone throws a rock back at you. But it also can generate a lot more rock throwers.

Calling out people may be a sophisticated, if misplaced tactic to divert and district attention such as a looming major legislative failure or the tightening screws of investigations. Even if the insults manage to distract, they also detract from what else you say or want to say, such as assurances to thousands of people who lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods in two huge hurricanes. Because name-calling is all-consuming, it doesn’t leave much air on the room for anything else.

For anyone who thinks about it, name-calling is a not strategy, brand-builder or effective communications technique. You don’t control the back and forth flow of insults; they control you. Your priorities are buried under the debris of angry, hateful words. Your options shrink. Your goodwill, even among supporters, evaporates.

If someone calls you a name, stop before responding in kind. If your ire is up and you are tempted to name-call, take a breather. You can assuredly come up with a better approach because name-calling is pretty close to the worst-case scenario.

download.jpeg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Pros and Cons of Counterpunching

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching can be an effective strategy when attacked online, on TV or in print. But the counterpunch needs to pack some punch or else it may only serve to give more exposure to the original attack.

There is hardly a better example of an effective counterpunch than Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander’s response to a TV ad by his incumbent opponent claiming he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander, a 35-year-old former Army intelligence officer, produced a 30-second TV spot in which he assembles an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded while explaining his views on guns.

He describes how he rode shotgun while serving in Afghanistan for unarmed convoys, supports the Second Amendment and favors background checks “so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.” The spot ends with Kander saying, “I approved this message, ‘cause I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this” as he places a round in the fully assembled rifle.

Kander didn’t unseat Blunt, who was seeking re-election to the US Senate with strong support from the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t lose because of his views on guns. His ad clearly set the record straight.

Donald Trump rode his impulsive counterpunching prowess through a crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary and ultimately to the White House. As a debate strategy, Trump’s counterpunches kept his adversaries off balance and successfully deflected their criticisms of him.

Debaters often use counterpunching as a technique. But using counterpunching as a strategy in a communications crisis can be trickier because, unlike a debate, there are no formal rules. In the wide-open horizons of social media, a misplaced counterpunch can have the same effect as shooting yourself in the foot.

Like any other kind of strategic communication, a counterpunch needs to be weighed for its positive and potential negative outcomes. One of the most important considerations is context. Typically, gun control advocates don’t defend their views by brandishing automatic weapons. In Kander’s case, it made sense. As one political observer noted, “Militarism sells in Missouri.” The candidate’s ad was a not-so-subtle way to underscore that Kander served in the military and his opponent didn’t, despite his NRA endorsement.

Many of Trump’s campaign counterpunches and his defensive presidential tweets have stirred added controversy and, in more than few cases, fueled entire new controversies. If your strategy is to win the news cycle every day, this works. If you are trying to escape the news cycle, then counterpunching can be counter-effective.

The best use of counterpunching is to respond to a serious false claim about you or your organization. Even then the road can be treacherous.

Consider Tesla’s counterpunch to a 2013 New York Times story about a test drive that ended with a depleted battery and an embarrassing tow. Elon Musk called the story a fake and accused the writer of intentionally staging the bad ending. Musk trotted out graphs and charts based on driving logs that contested key points in the Times article.

The Musk counterpunch had antecedents. Many years before Audi challenged a report about sudden acceleration in its cars and won a retraction. However, Musk never quite earned a retraction, just a long article in the Times’ Public Editor’s Journal. The most telling part of the article was a comment by a reader and Tesla Model S owner who said the reporter should have read the manual about the range of the electric vehicle:


“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that the write ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type).”

But the reader also laid blame on Tesla:

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Not exactly a direct hit for a counterpunch. Instead of attacking the reporter and his integrity, Musk might have chosen another strategy, such as pointing out the need for more charging stations to eliminate problems like this. That would have acknowledged the problem and identified a solution, maybe earning editorial support for the solution by the influential newspaper.

A year later, Tesla appeared to learn this lesson and stayed quiet when the CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes aired a glowing piece about the Tesla, which included an engine growling noise when the car accelerated. Auto junkies jumped on the report, noting that electric cars don’t growl. CBS issued an apology, blaming the engine noise dubbing on an “audio error.” There was no win for Tesla in this drag race, so it wisely stayed in the grandstands.

When you are hit with a false claim, it is tempting to strike back. It can work, but it often doesn’t. Jason Kander produced one of the best ever counterpunching ads – and he still lost. Before counterpunching, think it through before acting on emotion.

download.jpeg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Al Roker Animates Levels of Hurricane Devastation

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

All of us have heard a lot about hurricanes in recent days. NBC weatherman Al Roker showed an animated video this week demonstrating the varying impact of winds ranging from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane. It was devastating to watch.

Roker’s video was also a devastating example of visual explanations. Instead of a verbal description, the video’s animation (approximately 50 seconds in) let viewers clearly see what damage is caused with winds of escalating force – from blowing palm trees to blowing off the roof of a house. Words convey the meaning, but the video packs a punch.

Animated videos are common in weather reports, most frequently to show the storm track of hurricanes. Even though the tracking videos carry a hurricane’s category, those numbers don’t really tell the story of the potential destruction they can wreak. Roker’s animated video put dimension to the numbers.

While animated videos can’t be plucked off the shelf or created in a wink, they also don’t require a major production. Anyone who can show a story would be able to work with a graphic designer, digital specialist or college intern to create an animated video of that story. For the adventurous, there are even tools such as Flipagram, Adobe Spark and Animoto that let you muck around and generate your own animated videos.

You don’t need to be an artist to create animated videos. For example, Flipagram lets users combine photos, video clips and music.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by Cappelli Miles, a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by Cappelli Miles, a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

Whether you hire someone or do it yourself, animated videos are perfect content for social media and websites. People like to look at short animated videos that have eye appeal, are informative and offer entertainment value.

Successful animated videos are more than visual whizbang. They are stories told with moving pictures. Roker’s video about the force of winds in different categories of hurricanes worked because it put a visual stamp on the damage wrought by different wind speeds. The best animated videos simplify the complex and bring to mind the familiar in a refreshing new way.

Some stories can take the form of visual explanations, making a complex story seem simple. OregonSaves produced an animated video that walks viewers through the “whys” and “whats” of the new state-sponsored retirement savings plan.

Infographics can be converted to animated videos. Here are some interesting examples.

Emotions can drive animated videos. Think of all the animated cartoons you watched with your kids as they grew up that left you with a tear in the eye, even though the stories were aimed at 10-year-olds.

The bottom line is that animated videos work, attract clicks and stick in people’s minds. If they aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation or marketing toolkits, then you should go to work to add them.

Televangelist Proves Proverbial Value of Crisis Preparation

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen provided a fresh example of why crisis preparation is essential – and its absence can blow a serious hole in your reputation.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes with no place to go, Osteen offered prayers, but not access to his massive megachurch building, which was formerly where the Houston Rockets played. After a savage social media response, Osteen relented, then offered a string of explanations, none of which quieted the storm of criticism. Twitter users branded Pastor Osteen as a hypocrite.

Osteen already has faced criticism as a pastor-for-pay, with a net worth of more than $50 million, not a humble messenger of God to the downtrodden. His prosperity message of prayer-to-riches was oddly discordant with the equal opportunity ravages of flooding in Houston. His failure to open his church doors to flood victims only amplified that criticism, as well as put him in front of TV cameras, including NBC’s Today show, to explain his actions – or inaction.

Whether Osteen’s explanations hold water or not can’t drown out the reality that he wasn’t thinking ahead of what might happen if a huge hurricane barreled into the city bringing relentless rain in its wake. Osteen said he didn’t have the personnel available to manage a huge crowd inside his church. And he said no one could have anticipated the impact of the hurricane. Both explanations disregard the value of crisis preparation, which includes anticipating and planning for what might happen.

Huge hurricane, lots of rain, flooding, people forced to flee. Really not that hard to anticipate in a city on the Gulf of Mexico susceptible to big storms and with low-lying neighborhoods, some of which are named after bayous (bodies of water in flat, low-lying areas). Details of the building storm over the Gulf that became a Category 4 hurricane at landfall were widely reported days ahead. If there was massive flooding, officials would certainly be looking for some place to shelter them – like large convention centers or arenas that have bathrooms and kitchens. The bells should have started ringing.

Evidently, Osteen’s organization never had talked with Houston officials about storm response and apparently there were no internal conversations either. Not only was that a huge oversight, it also is a huge blown opportunity, as pointed out by Brad Phillips in his blog. “Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen,” Phillips wrote, “it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood [the name of his church] as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.”

In other words, Osteen blew a chance to convert his megachurch into a community refuge.

Osteen is a great speaker. But great speech isn’t always what’s needed in a crisis. TV news reports, social media and YouTube were filled with images of desperate people being rescued and knee-deep neighbors helping neighbors escape their roofs. Nothing provided a better contrast to Osteen’s crisis response than the picture of a long line of Houstonians who queued up to volunteer in rescue and relief efforts.

As the Harris County sheriff put it, the scenes were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. To thousands of flood victims and many others, Osteen’s slow-opening church door simply struck them as heartless.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Role of Reasoning and Integrity in Persuasion

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

Persuasion today means making someone believe something. Originally, persuasion meant making someone believe something through reasoning.

The absence of reasoning in contemporary persuasion may account for why so many people can’t agree on facts, let alone points of view. If you persuade based on half-truths, misleading facts or lies, you are dealing in the art of faulty reasoning and propaganda. Reasoning based on facts is what distinguishes demagogues from persuasive speakers.

Executive coach Greg Salciiccioli published a blog about “The Art of Persuasion” in which he optimistically says, “Persuasion can be a constructive way of finding shared solutions to a common problem.” He adds, “Persuasion, when used honestly, can be used to work toward a joint goal.”

Even though the national dialogue seems hopelessly stuck in a ditch, Salciccioli’s perspective on persuasion can be useful in engaging and possibly even convincing skeptical audiences.

“Persuasion requires a handful of useful skills, including active listening, emotional empathy and generosity.” Salciccioli wrote. “Without these things, people will take our actions and suggestions as that of a manipulator, and rightfully so. We must show that our end goal is to serve the needs of others, even in the case where we hold an opposing viewpoint.”

A hallmark of persuasion, according to Salciccioli, is providing credible proof or a reasonable explanation of your point of view. But persuasive people, he says, also need to be willing to make emotional connections with those they seek to persuade and to practice what they preach. If you can’t relate and be an example of your perspective, you have little chance to be persuasive.

In effect, Salciccioli has amended the definition of persuasion with the addition of the concept of integrity. You may seem to persuade without reason and authenticity, but you won’t be a persuasive person. That requires more than just a blather of words and boasts.

“Be an example, especially in the things you stand up for and publicly teach or claim,” Salciccioli explains. “It can be a hard thing to do as leaders, and while we’re all imperfect, this is probably the most important part of persuasion to get right. Strong positions we hold are easily undermined by hypocrisy. Put the time into practicing what you hope for others to achieve. It will give you a new sense of empathy and understanding that you cannot fabricate if you’re giving people the ‘real deal.”

download.jpeg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Fake Video: Newest Reputation Challenge

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Reputation managers have had to deal with fake news, but soon they also may have to contend with fake videos.

New technology makes it possible to doctor a video of someone speaking and literally put words into their mouth. The results can be quite convincing and put the speaker on the defensive for something he or she never said.

The proof of concept is the Synthesizing Obama project at the University of Washington. Researchers took video of the former President and edited audio from numerous speeches, which they lip-synched to give his speech a totally opposite meaning. Researchers at Stanford are experimenting with technology to modify facial expressions to make fake videos even more convincing. Adobe has software that can alter audio add totally new and fake phrases, mimicking a speaker’s voice.

With tools like that, mischief can’t be far behind.

Combine a malicious tool with the instantaneous combustion of social media and you have a reputation crisis on steroids created on a laptop in someone’s dank basement.

William Comcowich, who leads Glean.info that provides customized media monitoring, encourages companies, PR firms and the news media to “develop ways to detect altered videos.” Easier said than done.

Whitewashing away fake videos isn’t really possible, and would be foolish to try. (The concept of trying to bury bad news online with a spate of good news stories doesn’t have much merit to begin with.)

Short of some technological Sherlock Holmes or a forensic army, the best defense may be vigilance and documenting with video key speeches by principals. If you find a video of the boss on social media that doesn’t sound quite right, the best way to fight back is to produce a raw video of the actual speech, with verification that it is complete and unedited.

Comcowich notes that it is natural for people to trust what they see. However, that trust was undermined when people realized how images can be manipulated with tools such as Photoshop. That may eventually happen to video, but meanwhile fake videos can destroy a reputation and mischaracterize what actually happens at an event.

Think how the violence last weekend in Charlottesville might be reshaped in the hands of a creative video editor with a story to spin. Think how the alternative narrative of the tiki torch march was undone by embedded journalist Elle Reeve who had raw footage from the beginning to the end.

Dismissing fake videos are too difficult to make is burying your head in the sand. Just as sophisticated production boards have been made to fit on laptop keyboards, the tools to create videos will be in the hands of mischief makers sooner than you think. It’s not too soon to modify a crisis plan to account for
the advent of fake videos.

download.jpeg

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.