Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

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.

How You Begin a Speech Determines When It Ends

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

How a speaker begins determines when his or her speech ends for the audience. A weak or wobbly opening can send your audience to their smartphones in a nanosecond.

First impressions matter – a lot, but strong beginnings to a speech or presentation doesn’t just happen. They must be imagined and created. And, if you really want to make a strong impression, tested and practiced.

Brad Phillips, who specializes in communications training, has written a book titled 101 Ways to Open a Speech that offers suggestions of how to “grab your audience from the start.” He shared five of the 101 ways in his blog.

While some openings will work well, others may not suit your speaking style or fit the occasion. But the real lesson is in finding a strong opening that connects you and the audience and gives them a reason to keep listening.

Tommy Thompson, while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services for President George W. Bush, visited Portland and spoke at the City Club. He began by stepping forward from the podium and recognizing people in the audience who had met with him or led him on tours during his Portland visit. The simple gesture of friendliness created instant rapport. People, including me, noticeably inched forward on their seats to pay attention to what he said in his speech.

Making an instant connection with an audience may be the simplest way for speakers to make a positive, inviting first impression.

Phillips suggests a similar idea that is often tried, but can fall flat or backfire – asking the audience a question and a show of hands response. Some questions seem canned; others come off as patronizing. But compelling questions, Phillips says, arouse interest. His example: “If given a choice, would you rather be blind for the rest of your life or obese?”  That’s probably not a question most people have faced, but the choices are familiar enough to get their minds engaged. The speaker has created a platform to dive into his subject (research showing seven out of 10 women would prefer blindness to obesity, suggesting vanity trumps practicality.)

Disarming an audience can be an effective way to launch a speech. Phillips says that could involve turning good advice on its head, such as don’t overload your speech with too many statistics, an admonition I preach in my media training sessions. He notes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s opening that stacked five statistics on top of one another for a desired effect.

"The numbers tell the story quite clearly. A hundred ninety heads of states, nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent. The numbers have not moved since 2002, and they're going in the wrong direction. Even in the nonprofit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top, 20 percent. We also have another problem, which is that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. A recent study in the U.S. showed that of married senior managers, two-thirds of the married men had children and only one-third of the married women had children."

Perhaps the best idea Phillips shares is also the hardest for most speakers and presenters to achieve – the sound bite. He cites the 1980 presidential campaign pitting President Jimmy Carter against GOP challenger Ronald Reagan, who knew how to stir up a crowd. With the candidates deadlocked at 39 percent each, Reagan began to separate himself from Carter when he offered this definition of the dire economic conditions facing Americans at the time:

"[Carter's] answer to all this misery, he tries to tell us that we are only in a recession, not a depression. As if definitions, words relieve our suffering…If it's a definition he wants, I'll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

You know who won the election.

There is a lot more to a great speech than the beginning, but without a powerful start, the rest may not matter.

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.

Parallels Between Solutions Journalism and Issues Management

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Solutions journalism could make issues management more necessary – and more challenging.

Solutions journalism is a new thrust in journalism schools, including the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, that seeks to apply investigative reporting techniques to identify and explore solutions to vexing community or social problems.

In many ways, solutions journalism parallels issues management. It involves careful listening and casting a broad net for relevant solutions in place or under consideration around the world. Listening posts, quality research and broad awareness of what others in similar situations are doing are the tools of savvy issue managers.

Regina Lawrence, executive director of the UO’s Agora Journalism Center, cited the center’s collaboration with local news organizations to create “solutions-oriented coverage of Portland’s housing crisis.” The one-year project included community engagement to identify issues and gathering personal stories that Lawrence said otherwise would have been missing in local news reporting. The result has been a more engaged community conversation about a range of housing issues, which culminated in legislation at the just concluded Oregon legislative session.

Stretched newsrooms no longer have the luxury of taking time to become absorbed in an issue and undertake “closer listening within a community,” Lawrence says. With funding from the Knight Foundation, she says a platform called “Gather” will be created to provide an online meeting place for journalists and provide “a toolkit of case studies and resources.”

Solutions Journalism Network already has posted a beta site that contains hundreds of news stories on a wide array of topics from agriculture to science. In the category of “Agriculture, Fishing & Forestry,” there are 202 curated stories about: “Management of food systems and their underlying resources. These stories center on ways of maintaining productive, healthy and sustainable systems of agriculture, fishing and forestry. Included also are efforts to establish food security, community food systems and responsible irrigation.”

Many of the stories probably could be discovered through Google searches, but a network devoted to finding solution-oriented stories could save reporters a lot of leg work and lead them down paths they may not have time to discover. It could be a tremendous tool for reporters, editorial writers, bloggers and community journalists.

If Lawrence is right about solution journalism on the rise, it will mean issue managers need to up their game to keep pace. That means finding ways to listen to the rumble in key communities and being aware of related developments and ideas in other places.

The best form of issues management is anticipating significant change and coming up with ideas in advance to cope with it or, better yet, bend that change into an opportunity. That suggests issue managers should applaud and even support the spread of solutions journalism, which could improve the depth and quality of news reporting on complex or multi-sided subjects.

Smart issue managers might even seek out opportunities to interact with solutions journalists in forums aimed at identifying trends, challenges and opportunities.

At a minimum, solutions journalism promises to go beyond breaking news and superficial coverage of sophisticated issues, which could lessen the growing cynicism of news consumers and of constituencies that issue managers must communicate with and convince.

“Solutions remain an under-represented part of the news – particularly given the astonishing changes that have occurred around the world in recent years,” wrote David Bornstein in a New York Times op-ed. “Over the past two or three decades, millions or organizations have sprouted up globally to tackle problems in new ways.” If that spirit animates journalists to seek solutions, it also should animate issue managers.

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.

Science Fiction Helps Imagine Unimagined Solutions

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world. Illustration from Harvard Business Review

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world.

Illustration from Harvard Business Review

Business leaders and issue managers should read science fiction to escape the confines of their own assumptions and engage in freer thinking that can unlock unimagined solutions to intractable problems.

“Exploring fictional futures frees our thinking from false constraints,” advises sci-fi writer Eliot Peper in an article published in Harvard Business Review. “It challenges us to wonder whether we’re even asking the right questions. It forces us to recognize that sometimes imagination is more important than analysis.”

He begins his article by noting the mountainous problem of horse poop facing New York City officials in the late 19th Century. He urban planners brainstormed the problem, but no one could imagine a horseless New York, even though only 14 years later motorized vehicles outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in the city.

Peper is not alone in urging sci-fi reading. Richard MacManus, an author like Peper, said science fiction “extrapolates current technology,” “highlights societal and cultural changes” and, at its best, identifies solutions to big problems. Deploring the wave of apocalyptic science fiction, MacManus said stories such as The Martian shows an “inventive, can-do spirit that makes us optimistic about the future."

He praised Peper’s book Cumulus for showing how “economic inequality and persistent surveillance [can] push the San Francisco Bay Area to the brink of civil war.” Noting inequality and surveillance are subjects commonly sensationalized, he said, “Peper’s novel takes a more thoughtful approach to these topics and ponders what kind of society we might end up with if inequality and surveillance continue on their current trajectory.”

Stephanie Buosi, a self-described latter-day convert to science fiction, says it allows people “to experience what-if scenarios of various novel universes.” Buosi credits science fiction for putting what-if scenarios into human terms (even when they involve aliens). “We read about the protagonist in the what-if scenario, and it becomes easier to imagine our own reactions if the fiction were to occur in our reality.”

Annie Evett, who blogs about writing, put a similar turn on the same point. “Of all forms of literature, science fiction is the only one that deals primarily with change, routinely painting it story against the colorful background of a different society – be it on Mars, post-apocalyptic earth or other planet, or amongst the mythical worlds. Even though there are endless possibilities available to write about, they all have one thing in common; that being that the worlds they describe are like the here and now and that they are on the brink of change.”

William Hertling, also a science fiction writer, offers several reasons to read it. He says it invites exploration and expands the range of what people see as possible.

“When China wondered why their scientists and engineers weren’t as creative as their American counterparts, they set out to study why,” Hertling notes. “Talking to scientists and engineers around the world, they found those with the most imagination and creativity all shared a love of science fiction.”

He also says science fiction makes it easier to understand complex ideas and can reduce hysteria by making unfamiliar things and situations more familiar and even logical.

Practice How You Look, Not Just What You Say

Chances are your audience will remember how you look and your expressions more than what you say. Make sure you devote as much time to practice your body language as you do your speech.

Chances are your audience will remember how you look and your expressions more than what you say. Make sure you devote as much time to practice your body language as you do your speech.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eye roll at the G20 Summit became an instant online sensation. It also is a reminder that how you look can speak volumes and is more likely what people will remember rather than what you say. That’s especially true in crisis situations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expressive eye roll went viral, letting everyone know her exasperation with points being made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expressive eye roll went viral, letting everyone know her exasperation with points being made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Merkel rolled her eyes while Russian President Vladimir Putin was mansplaning some topic with his finger. Merkel’s reaction was absolutely clear without uttering a word. That shows the power of body language.

Communications coaches focus on key messages, elocution and clarity. They also encourage good posture and eye contact to convey confidence. That may not be enough.

Unintended or inappropriate expressions can undo whatever message you intend to deliver. Smiling while announcing job layoffs sends the wrong message. Folding your arms while someone asks a tough question is a sign of defensiveness. Speaking without expression about a damaging environmental spill seems cold and unfeeling.

Well-conceived media training that includes video-taped simulated interviews gives speakers a chance to take a long and often painful look in the mirror. That long look can reveal annoying ticks, slumping shoulders, wandering eye contact and fidgety hands. With training and practice, speakers can cure those faults. However, it’s harder to identify and mediate impromptu expressions.

There is no magic wand or secret alchemy to ensure engaging, respectful and appropriate reactions for every kind of situation. Good speakers recognize the need to train themselves to be ready for the unexpected. Like actors, they understand what their body actions say is as important as the words they speak. Like actors, they train their bodies as well as their voices.

Actors generally don’t have to deal with interruptions, except for an occasional cell phone ring or someone with a loud, persistent cough. Stand-up comics, on the hand, have to deal with hecklers. The best comics learn how to turn heckling into laughs. The late Don Rickles relied on insult humor. Jim Gaffigan uses deadpan expression. In both cases, their body language matched their words, underscoring the comic effect. It’s worth paying attention to comedians to take a few pages from their acts on how to train to respond with the intended effect.

Performing in public, whether as an actor, speaker or spokesperson, demands discipline, practice and confidence. That can mean overriding your natural tendencies and substituting a studied response. Think of a politician being pummeled by angry constituents at a town hall meeting. There is little upside for a politician to show visible frustration or anger. They can’t really deflate the tension with humor, so they have to maintain an engaged, sincere visage and do their best to answer questions and ease anxieties.

Experienced speakers learn how to use facial expressions to underscore a point and sustain rapport with their audience. Sometimes an effusive smile, a wink or a positive gesture can say what words can’t.

The omnipresence of cell phones that can capture unguarded moments ups the ante on solid preparation. When you speak, you are literally on camera, whether you know it or not. Don’t let an eye roll turn into a viral sensation by accident, only by design. Spend as much time practicing how you look giving a speech as the words you will speak. Your expressions, like Merkel’s eye roll, may be all that people remember and share.

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 Reality of Bad Optics, Politically and Otherwise

Bad optics are hard to explain away. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who took his family to a beach even though everyone else was barred from state beaches because of a stalemate over the state budget.

Bad optics are hard to explain away. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who took his family to a beach even though everyone else was barred from state beaches because of a stalemate over the state budget.

“I think have proven over the last eight years that I don’t care about political optics – I care about right or wrong.” That’s how a defiant Governor Chris Christie defended his family outing on a New Jersey beach when public beaches were closed because of a legislative stalemate on a state budget.

Political optics isn’t about right or wrong. Political optics about how what you do looks to the outside world. In Christie’s case, lounging on an empty beach didn’t look good.

It doesn’t matter that Christie is near the end of his tenure as governor of New Jersey. It also doesn’t matter that the beach where he and his family lounged is connected to the governor’s residence or that the budget stalemate suddenly broke in time for public beaches to open on the Fourth of July.   It simply didn’t look good, and no explanation could change that.

Social media predictably exploded with cutouts of Christie in his beach chair superimposed on famous movie beach scenes and in the Oval Office. It was the visual definition of bad optics.

Chris Christie’s day on the beach exploded on social media as satirists mocked him by photo-editing him in his beach chair into famous settings on the beach and elsewhere.

Chris Christie’s day on the beach exploded on social media as satirists mocked him by photo-editing him in his beach chair into famous settings on the beach and elsewhere.

Use of the term “optics” in connection with politics dates back to the 1970s. The ubiquitous “photo op” is a derivation of optics. The idea of a political photo op is to be shown doing something good or likable such as dedicating a new bridge or eating hot dogs with constituents at a Fourth of July celebration. You might call that good optics.

Bad optics is the opposite. Bad optics happen when a politician, business person or civic leader is captured in a photograph or video doing something that is stupid or unlikable. Like calling supporters of your political opponent “deplorables,” strapping your dog in a cage to the roof of your SUV or, as mayor of New York, being photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork.

Some may ridicule the notion of political optics as nothing more than an attempt to be “politically correct.” The best-known exponent of that view is the guy who tweeted a short video of himself taking down a man whose head was the CNN logo just outside a professional wrestling ring. This guy specializes in mocking political correctness as a way to distract attention and stir up his political base, even though it increasingly alienates almost everyone else.

You don’t have to be a president or governor to generate bad optics. In a former time before smartphones and social media, an event that may have caused a mild reaction by eyewitnesses can turn into a viral sensation that is embarrassing and unrelenting as it spreads through social networks.

There is no fool-proof way to avoid bad optics. But just as photo ops take careful planning to execute successfully, the same amount of care and forethought needs to be exercised to sniff out situations that could turn into bad optics. Politicians have staff to advise them. The rest of us have to depend on coworkers, friends and family members. If you don’t trust your own judgment, which is wise, ask those around you if something will look bad and could dent your reputation.

The late William Safire, a columnist and political speechwriter, deplored the use of the word “optics” in a political context. He and others said symbolism has its place, but so does underlying reality, and the two are not the same thing. True. But here is another reality – people are more likely to see the symbolism of an event than encounter the reality of it. Only foolish people believe symbolism doesn’t matter. When we lay wreaths on the graves of fallen warriors on Memorial Day, we show respect. When the governor of New Jersey takes his family to the beach when other residents are barred from doing the same, he displays disrespect. That is the reality of bad optics.

 

Quality, Flexible Content = Cornerstone to Amplify Distribution

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

The ability to publish your own content is liberating, but knowing how to promote your content can be bewildering. There is a lot of advice and a heap of online tools out there, but the simplest advice may be to produce good content and share it in as many forms and forums as you can.

Instead of trying to follow mystifying listicles of tips on promoting your content, focus on a few smart steps. Start with content that is relevant, useful and engaging to your target audience. Next, deconstruct and reconstruct your content into catchy quotes, visual tools (presentations, charts, infographics) and animated videos. Finally, place your content online in your website, a blog and social media posts.

You can optimize that basic approach with social media ads, using content-sharing platforms and reaching out to online influencers, which can amplify distribution of your content.

This may seem like squirting a water gun at a huge crowd, but the characteristics of digital media give you analytics that show what works and what doesn’t, so you can modify your approach to reach your particular audience in their preferred online channels.

Make your content flexible and fungible so it can be dispatched in a variety of forms through varied distribution channels.

Publishing your own content is touted, properly so, as a cost-effective way to deliver marketing messages for a product, issue or political campaign. Self-publishing also can be a strong defensive shield, allowing you to tell your story, unfiltered and in appropriate layered detail. You even can take critics head-on, getting out your side of a messy story.

Simplifying the content publishing process doesn’t make it any easier, but it provides a clearer path to pursue. If you followed all the advice from experts (much of which is very good), you could be distracted from the basics – producing quality content and promoting it in a myriad of ways.

Just focusing on quality content, instead of quantity, is a huge step in the right direction. A great place to start is answering the most frequent questions your audience asks.

As you address frequent questions or pressing concerns, think about all the different ways you can express your answer. For example, data is often more accessible, not to mention impactful, if expressed in a chart or an infographic. Take a page from infomercials and include visual explanations that can be rendered as presentations or videos. Make sure you include some sound-bite worthy language that you can use as pullout quotes or as social media teasers.

Some topics are timely, while others are not. Make sure your mix includes “evergreen” content that isn’t tethered to time, but can be repurposed as events arise or fill a hole in your editorial calendar.

It makes economic sense to dabble in social media advertising. Promoting some of your content can produce surprising results. And it can reveal cracks in your strategy that you can fix.

Investing some energy in discovering key influencers for your target audience can pay huge dividends. You can include their insights in your content or ask them to review and share what you produce, which is painless and inexpensive way to broaden distribution to the people you want to target.

A little chutzpah never hurts when it comes to seeking earned media coverage by asking print or online publishers to use your content, perhaps as an op-ed or a feature story. This requires content written to journalistic style and standards and not brazenly self-promotional. With shrunken staffs and viewers who are less resistant to third-party content, publishers may welcome your submissions, which can include your contact information if not links to your website or blog.

Another low-cost distribution strategy is to monitor social media for posts on similar topics and add a comment with a link to your content.

Once you have gotten your feet on the ground and built a following, you can expand your sights to include some of the tools and channels that can amplify distribution. Keep in mind, there are no magic formulas for spread content far and wide, any more than there are for generating viral videos. The single most important thing you can do is concentrate on quality content that connects with your audience, then turn it into a Swiss-knife of output that you can post in a variety of places.

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.

Infographics Visually Unpack Complex Issues

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

One of the easiest way to torpedo complex legislation or a major project is to call it “too complicated” for legislators or the general public to comprehend. Conversely, the way to advance such bills and projects is to lay them out simply – and visually.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Simplicity does not mean dumbing down dense information. Simplifying complicated material requires hard work to master a subject, focus on key elements and attend to details. It also requires seeing a subject through the eyes of your intended audience and presenting your information in a sequence and hierarchy that makes sense to that audience.

The byproduct of simplifying the complex is often referred to as elegant simplicity. Your audience gets a full view of a complex subject that is accessible, understandable and actionable. You aren’t speaking down to your audience; you are helping your audience look up to grasp a complicated subject.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, which has been made into a mini-series, includes an excellent example of distilling the brilliance of a theoretical physicist into explanations that readers without a scientific background could follow. The ability to synthesize concepts like the theory of relativity is probably why Apple’s Steve Jobs, himself a master of elegant simplicity, gravitated to Isaacson to write his biography.

For most advocacy or public affairs challenges, writing a novel isn’t a practical communications option. However, visual communications is a tool that can work very well in the form of presentations, infographics and videos. How text is packaged, with subheads and links, also can make a huge difference in audience comprehension.

In my days as a state lobbyist, I was hired to negotiate and pass legislation to allow larger commercial customers to select their own electricity provider. The legislation contained many parts and opponents made hay by claiming it was “too complicated.” We came back the next session with a bill including the same provisions, but laid out more clearly and logically and a flip chart. We used the flip chart in meetings with legislators, legislative staff and the media to provide background on the Northwest electrical grid and how our legislation would work. Suddenly, a truly complex subject was made simple to understand. The legislation easily passed.

That flip chart was essentially a presentation-version of what we now call infographics – visual expressions of information presented in context and sequence. 

Infographics have become quite common. Jacqueline Thomas assembled 40 infographic that made complex subjects seem much simpler. They ranged in topics from the lowdown on  carbon budgets to the mysteries of feng shui. Some her examples were more impactful than others, but they all the shared the trait of tackling a tough topic and chopping it down into comprehensible pieces.

Let’s examine one example titled " Why Prolonged Sitting and Standing is Unproductive,” preparedly Anna Vital for the Workers Health & Safety Centre. This infographic illustrates the stress on the human body – from back pain to varicose veins – of sitting or standing for too long. The infographic offers a solution by suggesting standing up 16 times a day for two minutes can do more good than exercising for a half hour. It also offers practical advice on checking your work posture every 20 minutes or so, taking breaks and stretching.

There is nothing revolutionary in this infographic, but it tells a complete story, with informative illustrations. Trying to tell the same story with words would be clumsy. Telling it with video might not be as granular.

All visual communications can be effective. Choosing the right one is an important first step toward success. Include infographics in your visual communications toolbox. Just as illustrated children’s books convey magical concepts to youngsters, well-done infographics can unpack complexity for your audience at a glance. In an age of multiple impressions and shorter attention spans, a glance is all you may get for your message.

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.

Engagement is an Attitude, Not a Box to Check Off

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Public affairs and marketing campaigns share a common trait – and sometimes a common fate. If campaigns fail to connect with their target audiences, they are compost.

Connecting with an audience can take a lot of forms. Ignoring an audience's interests or concerns isn’t one of them.

Public affairs professionals and marketers err by starting off with what they want to say rather than appealing to what their audience wants to hear. To make a connection, you need to acknowledge your audience’s perspective and pain points.

Establishing rapport doesn’t mean trimming your message. It does mean making a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes. Where are they coming from? What concerns them? What would alleviate their anxiety?

For example, the developer of a major housing development might begin his public affairs outreach by meeting one-on-one with some of the nearest neighbors to ask them to share their concerns and wishes if the development occurs. Later, at a neighborhood meeting or public hearing, the developer could begin his presentation by referencing his meetings, what he learned and how he tried allay concerns and accommodate wishes.

In the meantime, smart developers will absorb what they hear and translate it into modifications that respond to concerns and often enhance the development.

There should be no illusions that meeting and making compromises will satisfy all opponents or eliminate pitched opposition. It won’t. It will generate respect and mitigate opposition by some. It might even turn some opponents into proponents.

Community engagement is now an expectation of most public entities that approve land-use and construction plans. Public officials believe engagement can buff off the rough edges of development and provide a vent for frustration about more houses, more traffic and more kids in an already overcrowded school.

Demonstrating an ability to forge community connections also may prove important to convince public officials to allocate the necessary budget resources to review development plans and defend decisions that are appealed. A solid record of community outreach and good faith response in development plans can play a helpful role in winning final approval.

These same principles hold true in other public affairs spheres such as school bonds, major infrastructure projects and crisis response.

The best way to understand what you are up against is to talk with the people you are up against. They may be uncomfortable conversations, but they will be a lot more productive than shouting matches with people who feel, with justification, you have failed to listen to them.

Connecting with audiences is all about showing them you care about them and have their interests in mind. It is not a box to check off. It is an attitude. And if you practice it often and well enough, it can become a reputation.

Complementary Engagement Partners

Barney & Worth and CFM Strategic Communications have provided a range of clients with integrated community engagement and public affairs services to make quality connections that influence project outcomes.

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.

Clarity is the Key to Connecting

Clarity offers the only sure way to cut through complexity and complication in advocacy. You need to know your stuff and then make it perfectly clear to your readers or listeners.

Clarity offers the only sure way to cut through complexity and complication in advocacy. You need to know your stuff and then make it perfectly clear to your readers or listeners.

Public affairs is no different than advertising, storytelling or a sales pitch. Making a positive first impression is paramount. However, because public affairs typically involves complex subjects with complicated or even convoluted story lines, making a positive first impression is not enough. The key to connecting is clarity.

Clarity involves careful choice of words, select use of pictures or charts and, most important, mastery of your subject matter. As an advocate, the greatest skill you can master is how to synthesize a topic so elected officials, important stakeholders or impacted neighbors can understand its critical dimensions – and the point you are advocating.

Less is usually better than more, if for no other reason than your audience has other stuff to worry about. You need to grab attention, pique interest and marshal a logical train of information. Fewer and simpler words, a pertinent anecdote and insightful arguments can pack the most punch by helping the listener or viewer unpack your clear meaning.

You may believe analytical approaches to issues are boring and turn off audiences. They can. Your job is to make your analysis relevant and memorable – and possibly even a little entertaining. The best path is the clear path. Talk, don’t lecture. Show, don’t preach. Illuminate, don’t obfuscate.

In the Bible, Jesus taught via parables – simple stories in a familiar setting that radiated deeper meaning than the superficial details of the story. The parable of the prodigal son helps us reflect on the forgiveness of a father – and the feelings of the son who didn’t stray from the flock.

Achieving clarity through simplicity is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. On the contrary, making your point elegantly is very hard to achieve. It forces you to select the most salient facts and the most compelling arguments, then weave them into a narrative that attracts and holds an audience’s attention.

The challenge is especially intense for lobbyists who reckon they have less than 90 seconds to gain some mind-share of a busy politician who spends all day listening to people pitching points of view. To break through, you must provide clarity on your issue and your proposed solution.

Angry neighbors may come to a community meeting hell bent on shouting you down. You must disarm your would-be critics with your down-to-earth clarity and tell-it-like-it-is language. Make your case so they see it from your side of the table. They may still be angry and in opposition, but before leaving they may come up and shake your hand for talking to them directly and clearly.

Your assignment may be to reach a wider audience through an op-ed or a blog post. Jump into your story and walk your reader through your case. Avoid the weeds, digressions or side issues. Stay on course and clearly lay out your case.

Ernest Hemingway is revered for his straightforward, clear writing style. But Hemingway didn’t just type away final-draft copy. He painstakingly edited his work, much like a sculptor creating the soft curve of his subject’s face. Clarity is rarely a gift any of us get at birth. Clarity is earned, often with the help of gentle readers, test driving your arguments with friends and listening to critics.

If you want to be persuasive, don’t memorize the dictionary. Strive for the kind of clarity that’s only possible when you know your stuff – and the audience you are trying to convince.

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.

Avoiding the Certainty Trap in Crisis PR

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty can be an asset, but not necessarily in PR. Certainty in the PR world breeds overconfidence and swamps skepticism, which should be the animating force for professional communicators.

Statements are false until proven true for PR pros. If you can’t validate a claim, there is not point in claiming it. The court of public opinion has a much lower standard of guilt and a higher standard of proof.

Some of the biggest gaffes in crisis response result from PR pros who drink the Kool-Aid from a charismatic CEO. Failing to suspect spin is like falling down a flight of stairs. Once you start falling, it’s hard to stop.

Another kind of certainty trap is relying too much on how past events unfolded. This trap can be painful if you assume a crisis will blow over because it has before. In actuality, a crisis that went unnoticed previously can be like a slow smoldering fuse to a similar crisis that occurs later.

Crisis situations involve events spinning out of control. Getting facts is a daunting challenge, especially under the clamoring pressure of the news media, affected parties, worried employees and concerned stakeholders. That’s why one of the most important parts of a crisis plan is laying out in advance where you can go and who to seek out to get reliable information.

Many times, this information – such as safety procedures, fail-safe equipment and personnel safeguards – can be traced, documented and positioned on ghost websites, ready for use when needed. You also may be able to line up third-party validation for practices or testimonials from product users. These proactive moves won’t eliminate the confusion in a crisis, but they can provide tools for an effective crisis response.

Another part of smart crisis preparation is put an issue into context. This is not an exercise in excusing the cause of a crisis, but to put an event into some perspective. A train derailment because of an isolated track flaw is serious, but quite different from a series of derailments because of deferred track maintenance. Context can reduce the breathlessness of crisis reporting – or it can breathe more oxygen into a crisis. The key is knowing, not assuming, what you have on your hands.

Claims that turn out to be false or misleading, even if they were made with the best intentions and incomplete data, can damage a reputation far more than the source of the crisis. A crisis can happen to anybody, but a reputation only can be preserved with a credible crisis response, which includes telling the truth, even if it's uncomfortable and hard to find.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you validate a claim with certainty.

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.

CEO Makes Moves to Return United to Friendly Skies

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

Stung by the angry reaction to dragging a bloodied passenger off a plane, United Airlines has finally responded aggressively and adroitly. The air carrier went beyond apologies to announce tangible changes in policy and quietly settle with Dr. David Dao who was forcibly removed from his seat when he refused to surrender it to a United employee.

In full-page newspaper ads and emails to United loyal passengers, CEO Oscar Munoz said the incident involving Dr. Dao occurred because "Our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they knew is right.”

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

After an internal study identified what went wrong and asked “How did this happen?” Munoz said “Fixing the problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us at United and, as CEO, it is my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

Whether Munoz was coached in his response doesn’t matter. He owned the fiasco and took responsibility to fix it. A lot of CEOs lack the courage to do that, preferring to pass the buck or make someone else the scapegoat. Kudos to Munoz for manning up to the crisis United Airlines faced.

Reforms Munoz announced included disallowing police officers to remove passengers for failing to give up their seats, increasing incentives for voluntary rebooking and eliminating red tape for reimbursing passengers whose luggage has been lost. Those commitments and others were posted at https://hub.united.com/united-actions-being-taken-2379920604.html.

Munoz went further:

"While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

"I believe we must go further in redefining what United's corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

"Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, 'I fly United.'"

Munoz admits the proof will be in the pudding. Will the airline and its 87,000 employees have learned the lesson and make flying fun instead of fearful? Only time – and the airline’s marketing department – will tell. 

Telling positive passenger stories is perfectly okay if they are genuine and live up to the words and actions of Munoz. His statement, maturity and actions have given United Airlines a chance to exit a dark space and return to the “friendly skies.”

Regrettably, it took days before United and Munoz came to their senses. If he had acted immediately after the incident, people would have remembered his quick action as much or more than the incident itself. Now, people will be watching with a skeptical eye at United’s performance. At least, after Munoz’ announcement, they have something to look at skeptically.

There Would be a Crisis Without Twitter

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Twitter has become a staple in crisis management plans and crisis response. So what would happen if Twitter disappeared?

Unlike its social media cousins, Twitter has had a hard time making money, giving rise to speculation if just flap into the sunset. Whether that is likely or not, the question about a Twitter-less future is an interesting one to ponder.

It has taken a lot of persuasion to convince a growing number of people that Twitter is the perfect tool for real-time crisis updates. Twitter remains the primary online watercolor where the media hangs out, pitching its own stories and sniffing for new ones to pursue. For public affairs professionals and crisis managers, it is the place to be if you have a fast or slow-breaking story to tell.

Chris Abraham of Gerris digital says alternatives are already starting to creep into use, and more may follow. “Over the last couple of years, mainstream news channels have been using Instagram as a source for soft news,” he writes. But there are more protected user profiles on Instagram than Twitter, which can limit its utility as a real-time news blaster. Facebook, Abraham adds, is a “walled garden,” making it an unpredictable vehicle for crisis updates. Snapchat has a user base skewed to younger people.

YouTube is the other current contender for a role similar to Twitter’s. The challenge is that many people don’t think of checking out YouTube to find out about real-time news. They are more likely to look there for Saturday Night Live or Daily Show news clips.

Abraham isn’t convinced of Twitter’s demise. “Twitter,” he says, “is more alive and vibrant than ever,” even if it has become somewhat less relevant for marketing and advertising. Marketers, Abraham explains, view Twitter as "loose firehose” that is as likely as not to turn a promotional campaign into a crisis. Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump’s use of Twitter is a case study of successful promotion, effective deflection and self-inflicted, loose firehose wounds.

The 140-character limitation on Twitter continues to spook many users or potential users, even though the restriction is actually one of the platform’s strengths. Users are forced to make their point succinctly and succulently to capture attention. For crisis response, that challenge is usually not a problem.

We recommend crisis managers and communicators use Twitter updates:

  • To alert the news media or affected publics to fresh updates;
  • To direct viewers to live streaming or a photo gallery showing remediation efforts in real-time;
  • To cue interested parties on the timing of in-person briefings or upcoming activity; and
  • To send customized content or news releases to targeted reporters or publications.

Other than a group email blast, no other social or digital media platform can do that work as effectively as Twitter. While group emails allow targeted outreach, many people, including reporters and editors, don’t consistently consult their email accounts frequently, especially for news updates. They tend to monitor their Twitter feeds for that.

So, if Twitter disappeared, it would leave a big hole in crisis response. There may be partial substitutes, but not a complete replacement.

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.

 

 

United Airlines, Spicer Define Bad Crisis Response

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

For crisis communications junkies, last week was a fantasy camp. United Airlines dragged a passenger off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his ticketed seat. Sean Spicer forgot Adolph Hitler gassed 6 million Jews.

As bad as their flubs were, their follow-up flubs were even worse.

There have been lots of critical TV interviews and blog posts describing both incidents as case studies of what not do in a communications crisis. You didn’t really have to be a crisis expert to point out the serial gaffes.

United Airlines and Spicer finally got around to apologies, but only after excruciating journeys.

  • UA’s CEO initially praised the airline employees who manhandled a passenger off a plane and into a Chicago hospital, then went silent for a day as social media lit up with the video of the bloodied passenger and finally acknowledged something was wrong with company policy that required an investigation. Meanwhile, United’s stock took a big hit, enraged passenger groups called for a boycott and Chicago aldermen, who are no strangers to crisis, dressed down UA officials.
  • Spicer issued several clarifications of his remark intended to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a worse bad guy than Hitler, but that seemed oblivious that Hitler used chemical weapons to exterminate Jewish people. Adding to the insensitivity, Spicer’s misguided comparison was made on Passover.

It would take several blogs to list all the lessons and takeaways from the United Airlines and Spicer stumbles. Here are just a couple that deserve mention:

It’s on video, Stupid

Dragging passengers off planes and saying ridiculous stuff at a press briefing aren’t the only things that attract video recording. There are two ex-Sacremento police officers because someone pulled out an iPhone and captured them beating up a man in the middle of the street for a minor traffic violation. They were fired in large part because the report they filed failed to mention the beating. Big mistake.

Executives at United Airlines must have looked at the tape of Dr. David Dao hitting his head on an armrest and being pulled off the plane by his arms. If you looked at that tape and thought it was the passenger’s fault, you need some serious media training – and perhaps psychological counseling. Spicer could have replayed his performance and realized he made a bonehead comment. Everybody else in the room or who saw the tape of his press briefing thought so – almost instantly.

Don’t forget people will have the picture of what you do. Look at the picture from the eyes of viewers, not through rose-colored lenses.

Admit you made a mistake, for crying out loud

Here's the deal. Sooner or later you will apologize. Do it sooner, not later.

People by and large judge your reaction to a gaffe more critically than the gaffe itself. That’s why people embrace Steve Harvey after he erroneously announced the winner of a Miss Universe contest. He owned his mistake, made things right immediately, took his lumps, didn’t react like a jerk to social media mockery and now is more popular than ever.

Instead of making excuses or lame clarifications, make fun of yourself. If you are Spicer, call a press conference, shrug your shoulders and admit you acted like a dunce. The mea culpa takes the wind out of the sails of a crisis if it is genuine and complete.

If you do something dumb, do something smart

The best way to atone for stupidity is to do something brilliant. United Airlines belatedly decided to provide a reward for the traumatized passengers who watched Dr. Dao’s ejection. If the airline is smart, it will settle the likely lawsuit filed on behalf of Dr. Dao so it can concentrate on rebuilding customer trust.

This is not a smarmy moment. Make fun of yourself. Come up with a fun game to deal with oversold ticket situations. Give every passenger in the next month a free glass of good wine. (Disclaimer: I will be passenger on a United Airlines flight within the next month. Check your records for my seat number. I like Cabernet Sauvignon.)

If your White House ID card says Sean Spicer, call up Saturday Night Live and offer to do a parody of yourself. Lorne Michaels would be taken aback and could save money by not paying Melissa McCarthy to play you. Then quietly make a contribution to the effort to make sure no one forgets the Holocaust – and what led up to it.

This blog is long enough. Don’t get me started on Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

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.

In Crisis, It’s Not Whether to Respond, But When

When you are in a bind, the default crisis response rule is to communicate quickly and as directly as possible to those most immediately affected. If you have time to pause before responding, use the time wisely to get your facts and then say something notable.

When you are in a bind, the default crisis response rule is to communicate quickly and as directly as possible to those most immediately affected. If you have time to pause before responding, use the time wisely to get your facts and then say something notable.

You can get lots of advice on how to respond in a crisis, but the most frequently asked question is whether to respond. There can be good reasons to respond quickly – and equally good reasons to pause before responding. The trick is knowing when to apply those good reasons to a specific situation.

Let’s examine two categories of situations for contrasting response approaches.

The first category involves an incident such as a hazardous material spill, an airplane crash or an insensitive comment on social media. These are crises with immediate impacts that demand immediate responses. You want to reassure people affected that you are taking charge and addressing the crisis. You need to communicate quickly and often.

The second category involves slowly unfolding activity such as a lawsuit, an allegation of fraud or a high-profile person in failing health. A response is necessary, but you can hit the pause button to frame a measured response. You don’t want to try a lawsuit in the media, but you may want to make a strategic statement to tell your side of the story, perhaps tied to your legal reply to the lawsuit. 

There is an illusory third category of situations. This is the category of crises that organizational leaders imagine will blow over if you just keep your head down. Not responding to such crises has more to do with self-deception than reality. Bad situations don’t go away; they just fester and usually get worse.

The general rule of crisis response is to respond quickly when people face imminent impacts. Responses, as close to real-time as possible, need to center on actions being taken to address those impacts and include, where appropriate, an apology. The strategy is to communicate directly to people immediately affected and as broadly as you can to the public at large.

When a situation merits a pause before responding, you need to use the time to get your facts in a row and then respond authoritatively – and accurately – to charges, claims or inquiries. Consider the delay strategic and act strategically.

Keep in mind, no crisis response rule is fixed in stone. No two situations are identical. A story about a single priest molesting a child is different than a pattern of priests molesting children. Social media has jumbled the rules of crisis response, making even the most modest transgressions fodder for trending topics. You should never assume you have the luxury of time to respond.

Hitting the pause button before responding isn’t the same as not responding. The pause button doesn’t open the door to an escape hatch. If you have the luxury of time before responding to the news media, angry neighbors or frustrated stakeholders, use it wisely. Slowly unfolding crises have a nasty habit of speeding up without notice. The FBI decides to investigate the fraud allegation. That high-profile person dies. More people file similar lawsuits and social media blows up.

Despite what you may think about the news media, there is always the chance someone somewhere will pick up on your crisis situation. News staffs at traditional media may be thinner, but any good reporter can hone in on a story with clickability – and you could be at the center of their narrative. So can an aggressive blogger or a website with a point of view.

So, instead of thinking of whether or not to respond to a crisis situation, think about when you will respond. The default option should be an immediate response, even if it is a limited response to buy time until you have more information to pass along. If you can pause before responding, make the wait worthwhile and say something notable as soon as you can. 

One final thought. You don’t get to decide what is a crisis; others do that for you. Ask Pepsi after a Twitter explosion forced the soda maker to pull its ad featuring Kendall Jenner at what appears to be a protest march. Someone thought it was a clever ad. A lot of people thought it was tasteless. Everyone can agree it was a communications crisis.

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.

Some Thoughts Before You Blame the Media

The news media is an easy target, especially when you are the target of relentless coverage, But before you blame the media, check out your own bias, own your crisis and take actions that earn respect and better media coverage

The news media is an easy target, especially when you are the target of relentless coverage, But before you blame the media, check out your own bias, own your crisis and take actions that earn respect and better media coverage

Pointing accusing fingers at the news media is fashionable, and not just the tweeter-in-chief. But before you take aim, take a moment to consider who in the media you are blaming and for what.

Christina Nicholson, a former TV reporter and anchor who now operates her own PR shop, says it helps to understand how the media works before criticizing how it works.

First off, Nicholson says, the term “media” covers a wide range of people – TV meteorologists, newspaper lifestyle reporters, copyeditors, bloggers, columnists, high-profile TV talk show hosts and editorial writers, to name a few. They work for everything from small rural weekly newspapers to conspiracy theory-spinning websites to cable TV networks, and more. There is Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow who espouse points of view, and then there are thousands of everyday journalists trying to do their jobs.

Suggesting the news media is all in cahoots is like saying all cowboys smoke Marlboros. It’s the kind of generalization that insults the individuality of reporters, editors and cowboys.

Nicholson points out most credible news organizations start their day by surveying what is going on and assessing how they will cover it. Based on her own experience, she says phrases such as “Let’s spin this more liberally” or “Make sure it has a conservative feel” aren’t typically heard in these editorial meetings. More often than not, the goal is “Make sure you get both sides.” Or, at least try to get both sides.

Judging a publication’s or broadcaster’s slant based on what stories gets air time is fair, but it is also a lot like reacting to controversial foul calls in a basketball or football game. What you see reflects what you want to see, not necessarily bias by reporters or referees,

“I’ve come to realize,” Nicholson observes, “that people think their opinions are facts. People will describe a news story and create a bias on the own. If you look hard enough, you’ll find it – regardless if it’s really there or not.”

Nicholson describes a story she covered about families standing in line to receive presents from the Salvation Army. When the reporter and cameramen showed up, everyone in line happened to be Hispanic. When the story was filed, the TV station news manager asked for other footage showing non-Hispanics. When the piece aired showing just Hispanics in line, calls predictably flooded in about biased coverage. Some said it was gig on Latinos. Others said it proved Hispanics were looking for handouts. The actual coverage made no such claims. It was tarred and feathered by the biases of viewers.

One of the main sources of complaints about fairness are storylines that drag on through multiple news cycles – or even longer. 

President Trump complains about the daily drip of relentless coverage regarding his team’s ties to Russian interests. Hillary Clinton bemoaned the constant references to her private email server and, later, to the strategically timed leaks of embarrassing emails jut before the 2016 election. It is hard to fault the news media when a former Trump lieutenant with ties to Russia asks for immunity to tell his story or when the director of the FBI writes to Congress about a new batch of emails found on the home computer of a top Clinton aide.

Neither Trump nor Clinton should point the finger at the media. They should look at themselves in the mirror and realize they failed to deal head on with a story sure to breed infectious media contagion. Instead of pointing fingers, they should have raised their hands to clear the air, as best they could.

Best practice crisis advice calls on organizations and individuals to own their crisis, take steps to redress it, pledge ways to avoid its recurrence and to make it right with victims. There is no room in that sequence for blaming the news media.

Maybe the media isn’t treating you absolutely fairly. Then it’s your job to win their respect with actions, not epithets.

As Nicholson advises, visit a TV newsroom, shadow a reporter and watch how the news is crunched into 90-second nuggets. “I guarantee you will be disappointed, at not only the lack of glamor, but the lack of agenda. The truth is, we don’t even have time to create and agenda, and if we found extra time, we’d eat.”

Trump Budget Targets Fight Back with PR

Arts, science and nutrition facing severe federal spending cuts under the proposed Trump budget are fighting back with a combination of old-fashioned and newfangled public relations, from seeding news stories to Capitol events to Twitter chats – and even a special song.

Arts, science and nutrition facing severe federal spending cuts under the proposed Trump budget are fighting back with a combination of old-fashioned and newfangled public relations, from seeding news stories to Capitol events to Twitter chats – and even a special song.

Arts, science and nutrition organizations that find themselves in the crosshairs of President Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts are turning to bedrock public relations strategies to fight back.

Unlike corporations, many nonprofit organizations are barred from direct lobbying, so they have to make their case indirectly through news stories, social media, events, email, petitions, videos and newsletters that inform and galvanize supporters.

Chris Daniels, writing for PR Week, quotes Joanne Carney, director of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), “We’re not a lobbying organization, but we are informing our members of what is happening. We are providing resources on how they can reach their members of Congress and speak out using effective communications tools.”

Those tools include making the organization’s CEO and key analysts available for media interviews and engaging members on digital and social media, including Facebook Live.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are also on the Trump budget hit list. NEA's response has been to “educate and speak up publicly for the we do and arts in general,” says Victoria Hutter, assistant director for public affairs at NEA. “We’re not making a case for our survival, but for the value NEA provides to the people it has engaged.”

Much of that soft advocacy has come in the form of feeding the media. “The media wants data and stories,” explains Hutter. “They need data to illustrate the stories, and stories to bring life to the data.” The blending of storytelling and data shows up in NEA and NEH infographics and fact sheets, which serve the dual purpose of being shareable online.

NEH has launched a weekly newsletter that spotlights its grantees. The newsletter is sent to the NEH email list and cross-promoted on the organization’s social media platforms, which Daniels reports include Medium and Snapchat. Thelma DeBose, NEH group director of communications, says a video is under production “showing grantees immersed in humanities work to show the public what the humanities look like."

Support groups, such as the Americans for the Arts (AFA), are running full-page ads in publications such as The Hill, Roll Call and Politico with large readerships on Capitol Hill. National Arts Advocacy Day, cosponsored by almost 90 national arts service organizations, was held this week, bringing 700 arts advocate to the Capitol and White House.

Inga Vitols, AFA’s press and media relations manager, is overseeing outreach to 350,000 citizen activists asking them to voice support for the arts and humanities in communications with House and Senate members. Activists also are being asked to sign a petition to Trump. So far, Vitols says 110,000 emails have been sent through its Voter Voice tool.

Daniels quotes Vitols as citing the importance of “a robust research database of facts related to the economy, jobs and other practical reasons for support of the NEA.”

Funding for AFA’s efforts have come, Daniels says, from a gospel version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” performed by Broadway stars.

The Food Research and Action Center, which supports federal food and nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is rallying anti-hunger advocates, holding Twitter chats with sympathetic organizations and conducted research. The group is seeking targeted press coverage in districts of congressional members on key committees that will influence the budget.

Telling the Truth So People Believe It’s True

Dr. Jason Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but there is nothing fake about his advice on the need to the tell the truth – and to tell it effectively.

Dr. Jason Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but there is nothing fake about his advice on the need to the tell the truth – and to tell it effectively.

It is not enough to tell the truth; you have to tell the truth effectively.   – Dr. Jason Bull

Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but his point about truth is well taken. In an age of fake news, you need more than truth or the ring of truth. You need truth well told and, better yet, truth well showed.

Consider climate change. There is a scientific consensus that climate change exists and is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Yet many still deny climate change is occurring and carbon emissions are a culprit. Accepted truth is not enough.

Most issues are not as polarized as climate change. Yet, Bull’s admonition holds. As Bull says, if you want to persuade, you need to make your truth convincing. You need to tell the truth effectively.

One of the best ways to tell the truth effectively is to show the truth. Here are some ways to show the truth:

Fact-checking is an excellent example of showing what someone actually said. If someone denies making a statement, you can produce a video, email or tweet that contains the statement. By catching someone in a verifiable lie, you show that truth effectively. You also can fact-check the truth. If someone says you are wrong or making misleading arguments, you can show your facts that substantiate your claims.

Credible evidence is a way to show the truth. Evidence by itself may not be enough to convince the hard-core skeptic. You need validation by sources that skeptics trust. Even that may not be enough to change the most obdurate minds. You also need to demonstrate the validity of your claim in a manner that makes it hard for skeptics to refute. Simplicity is your best friend. Physicist Sean Carroll, for example, sums up global warming this way: Greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels trap heat and warm up earth’s oceans, which store heat. 

Documentation of your truth can be invaluable. We think of documentation in terms of data, which can be convincing – if people can understand it, which isn’t always the case. Documentation also can mean showing what you are actually doing.  Shooting video or live streaming can be a convincing, even real-time way to show a company is undertaking a clean-up of an environmental spill.

Letting people see for themselves is a great strategy to overcome fear of the unknown. Something as simple as an open house can let people see what’s happening in a building with no windows. The perfect open house includes examples of how whatever is manufactured in the building is incorporated into products that visitors will recognize and perhaps use themselves. Cookies and punch underscore an atmosphere of openness.

Compelling content can inform the brain and touch the heart. People's emotional reactions often overrun what they think or believe they know. This is at the core of Dr. Bull’s admonition of telling the truth effectively. Put your truth in context. Show how your truth impacts people’s lives. To the greatest extent possible, project your truth from the lens of those you are trying to convince.

Tell your truth with confidence. Spencer Tracy described good acting as looking into the faces of other actors and telling the truth. If you animate your truth with confidence, people will be more inclined to believe you.

Use truth to inform, not deceive. Interestingly, advice on how to lie effectively involves telling the truth as much as possible. The best lie is the one that is mostly true. Another axiom for effective lying is to keep it simple and efficient, much like effective truth-telling. This is what makes fake news and deceptive speech so alarming – it is close to the truth or at least to plausible truth. As one lie-telling expert explained, “A lie should be like a bridge between truths.”  [By the way, there is a lot more available advice on how to lie and get away with it than there is on how to tell the truth effectively.]

Check your own facts.  When you become too comfortable that you are right, you can get lazy about your facts. Be rigorous on fact-checking yourself and be open to learning new information and confronting opposing points of view that may expose holes in your logic. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Don’t become an inadvertent fibber or a conveyor of half truth. Know your stuff. Be truthful with yourself.

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.

In a Crisis, Look Up, Not Down

A crisis can be all-consuming, but it pays to look up to see where you need to go instead of down where you are stuck in the mud. Your reputation will be glad you lifted your eyes.

A crisis can be all-consuming, but it pays to look up to see where you need to go instead of down where you are stuck in the mud. Your reputation will be glad you lifted your eyes.

On a crisp weekend night with a big, brilliant full moon, I told my dog to look up and quit sniffing the ground. As I thought about it, that would be good advice for organizations steeped in crisis.

A major event is by its nature disruptive. A crisis by its nature means you have little control over the disruption. But life goes on. And so do the everyday functions of organizations. So instead of being tangled in the weeds of a crisis, look up and see some sunlight.

This is not to say you can ignore a crisis. On the contrary, looking beyond the crisis can give you the perspective to see where you want to go, which can provide the motivation for doing what’s necessary to get there.

A crisis can become all-consuming. You can ignore daily operations, You can isolate yourself from employees and customers. You can lose track of your brand reputation.

The best crisis response is one that seeks to enhance a brand reputation, not jeopardize it by focusing on the burning tree instead of the lush forest. So here is some friendly advice if you are facing or may face a crisis:

  • Do your best to normalize the daily operations of your enterprise that are not directly involved in the crisis. Let your employees, customers and stakeholders know what you are doing to address the crisis, but encourage everyone to do their job as they normally would. Getting back to normal helps to ease anxiety of employees and customers – and your anxiety, too. You can stop worrying about the entire operation going down the drain while your attention is focused on coping with crisis.
  • Let your brand reputation, which should be the same as your brand promise, guide your crisis response. Act based on the values you embrace as an organization. This will simplify decision-making and lend credibility, externally and internally, to your actions. But beware, walking your talk has to be genuine. A halfhearted or fake value-driven response is easily sniffed out, and then you will face the crisis of a coverup or whitewash, which could do more repetitional damage than the crisis itself.
  • Keep your employees and key stakeholders apprised of what you plan to do. Don’t let them read about it in the newspaper or see it on TV. Your employees and key stakeholders must be treated as partners in quelling the crisis, which will build greater loyalty and trust. Employees often are the most trusted sources of information about the internal workings of an organization. If they say you did what you said you would do, that counts for a lot.
  • Direct your crisis response to the people, neighborhoods, communities or consumers most impacted by the crisis. If there is an explosion that sends a cloud of toxic gas over a neighborhood, focus first on communicating with that neighborhood, then make broader pronouncements. Avoid scapegoating. Own the crisis, even if you didn’t cause it. People will remember what you did and said longer than who or what caused the crisis.
  • As quickly as you can, look for a solution that prevents a recurrence of whatever caused the crisis. Don’t set your sights too low. Johnson & Johnson came up with tamper-proof bottles six weeks after cyanide-laced Tylenol killed six people in Chicago. In just six weeks, the pharmaceutical company came up with an idea that revolutionize over-the-counter drug sales and markedly improved public safety. Your idea may not be as big or revolutionary, but it still can be a game-changer and loyalty-builder.

Don’t be like my dog and only smell the bushes. Look up and see the sky. That will improve your odds of putting your crisis into perspective and seeing the way to deal with it effectively and enhanced your reputation in the process.

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.

Speech Tips to 'Win the Day'

You don’t have to be a gifted speaker to make a great speech.  A great speech requires a compelling story, carefully chosen words, the art of brevity and genuine emotion. The applause you hear at the end will be genuine.

You don’t have to be a gifted speaker to make a great speech.  A great speech requires a compelling story, carefully chosen words, the art of brevity and genuine emotion. The applause you hear at the end will be genuine.

People can agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s policies, but no one can dispute how well the man can write and speak. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin predicts Obama will go down in the history books as “one of the best writers and orators in the presidency.”

While Obama is unquestionably skilled at communications, he had help. Jon Favreau started speechwriting for Obama in 2005 and served as President Obama’s director of speechwriting from 2009 to 2013. As a founder of Fenway Strategies, Favreau frequently shares tips on how to make speeches or presentations memorable. Here are some of them:

  1. Words have power – Choose and array your words carefully so they clearly and concisely convey your message. Be aware of the nuanced meaning of different words. “Destination” and “last stop” mean roughly the same thing, but each can convey a very different message. 
  2. Use words to tell a story – People absorb and retain information better in the form of stories. From the earliest age, people learn from stories. Our brains are wired to listen to stories and draw out meaning. Stories connect with deeper parts of our consciousness. They communicate complexity through simplicity.
  3. The best speeches are short – You may have a lot to say, but your audience may not be patient or interested enough to hear it all. If not, they can mentally check out – or more often check in with their smartphone. Shorter speeches are harder to write than long ones, but they work better because the speechwriter has congealed his or her thoughts, translated them into a story and employed powerful words to tell the story.
  4. Support your main point – Generalizations or unsupported claims tend to leave audiences wanting and even confused. Rambling sows the seeds of doubt. So, marshal your facts and employ logic to support what you have to say. Leave no doubt in your audience's collective mind of your point of view and the credible evidence that supports it.
  5. Emotion inspires – If the speaker doesn’t display an emotional connection to his or her subject, it is unlikely the audience will either. There is a line you can cross when a speech becomes a rant, too full of emotion and too lacking of a meaningful message. But if your goal Is to motivate or persuade, you will need to inspire your audience with some emotional content.
  6. Empathy Matters – Effective speakers do more than know their audience; they put themselves in the shoes of their audience. They use language and anecdotes that resonate. They talk less from a podium than a chair facing audience members. Establishing empathy is important at the outset of any speech. You can sense a bond of empathy has formed when audience members appear to lean forward to hear your words.

Here’s one more secret. You don’t need to be a gifted speaker to make a great speech. Starting with a story to tell, telling it with carefully chosen words and phrases, keeping it short, marshaling your facts, infusing your talk with heart-felt emotion and relating to your audience can produce an inspiring speech. You can change minds, open eyes and uplift spirits.

The applause you receive will be genuine, not just polite. In the words of a well known football coach, you will have won the day.