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.

Managing the Issue of Your Corporate Culture

A blog by a company engineer that went viral forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to face the troubling reality of abusive behavior by one of his managers. The health of corporate culture has suddenly become a very hot topic that merits serious issue management.

A blog by a company engineer that went viral forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to face the troubling reality of abusive behavior by one of his managers. The health of corporate culture has suddenly become a very hot topic that merits serious issue management.

'Managing issues' usually refers to an external problem or threat. Increasingly, it is becoming an internal matter centering on corporate culture.

Sexist, patronizing and predatory management behavior isn’t new, but it is suddenly making news headlines – and not in a good way. A telling marker of the new significance of corporate culture is that CEOs of publicly traded companies are being asked routinely about it in earnings calls with analysts. That reflects a concern by investors who view shaky corporate cultures as a financial risk.

There has long been grumbling – around the water cooler and in the ladies room – about inappropriate and unfair management practices. There have been movies such as “9 to 5” and “Norma Jean.” However, the buzz was mostly in the wind until social media emerged as the great equalizer. Suddenly bad boy behavior can and has become the talk of the town.

When Susan Fowler wrote a blog about her unsettling experiences as an engineer with Uber, it went far and wide on Twitter and Facebook. The ride-sharing company couldn’t make a clean getaway and was forced to face up to its corporate cultural history and begin to install stronger personnel policies. It needs to recast its corporate culture.

This isn’t just a problem for big-guy corporations. It can infect a company of any size.  And it definitely is not an issue that can be papered over with some whitewashing PR.

The trend instead is for companies to talk up their internal policies of zero tolerance for unacceptable actions. However, if you decide to talk the talk, be ready to walk the talk. You need to police your own ranks, take seriously any complaints and act when you find abuse by punishing the abuser, not the abused.

There may have been a revolution of sorts against political correctness, but don’t confuse that with relaxed sensitivities by employees or by customers to workplace wrongs. Research suggests customer loyalty can be squandered by bad treatment of employees. You could say bad behavior equals bad business.

Even if your business is on a roll, don’t assume everything is okay. Keep your eyes open and watch for signs of a toxic workplace environment. A smart issues management approach is for business leaders to lead by example. The best way to prevent a corporate crisis is to send a clear message you are paying attention and won’t tolerate demeaning or predatory acts by any one, any time.
 

Be Careful of Charging 'Fake News'

The phrase “fake news” is thrown around loosely in political discourse, but using it to describe a story you dislike or an editorial you oppose could wind up exposing you to a libel suit as the news media begins to push back against such charges.

The phrase “fake news” is thrown around loosely in political discourse, but using it to describe a story you dislike or an editorial you oppose could wind up exposing you to a libel suit as the news media begins to push back against such charges.

It has become common to call out reporting as “fake news.” It soon may become common to face libel charges for making the claim falsely.

The publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel is preparing a libel action against a Republican Colorado state senator, whom the newspaper has endorsed, for calling the local newspaper “fake news” on Twitter and Facebook.

The state senator, who represents Grand Junction and was a regional field director in the Donald Trump campaign, made the charge after the newspaper published an editorial urging him to move a bill in the committee he chairs updating Colorado’s Open Records Act.  The editorial came after the state senator cancelled a hearing on the bill, which prompted the social media posts:

“The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill. They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 [known] as the CORA bill. They haven’t contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed but choose to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill. You may have a barrel of ink, but it just splashed in your face.”

The publisher, who previously was a litigator, said, “What I consider actionable is the attack on the Sentinel as fake news. I can take criticism that we’re too far right, or we’re too far left, or our reporter was sloppy, or our editorial misunderstands the issue, that I can handle. What I can’t abide is an attack on the essence of what we do.”

Regardless of who is right or wrong or whether a libel action is filed or not, this story, recounted in Columbia Journalism Review, illustrates the perils of flinging around the charge of “fake news.”

There are certainly examples of fake news in the form of fabricated events or data, which can be posted on social media and gain wide circulation, including in more traditional media. Disinformation appears to be a more prominent political tactic employed in the United States, and not just by one side of the political spectrum. First Lady Melania Trump has filed a libel suit involving a factually inaccurate story about her.

Charging “fake news” has emerged as a sharper-edged shortcut for saying you disagree with a story or a point of view. But it could be a dangerous shortcut.

A standard definition of “fake news” is publication of material that is intended to fool readers deliberately to boost subscriptions, viewership or web traffic and, consequently, generate ad revenue. Credible publications correct or retract stories when material facts are wrong. On their opinion pages, they provide space in op-eds and letters to the editor for dissenting points of view to their editorials.

“This industry has taken it and taken it and taken it over the last several years,” the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher says. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do. And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The publisher may not be alone in pushing back on charges of fake news. As communications counselors, we advise clients to notify reporters and editors when their stories contain factual errors of consequence and ask for a correction. But that’s not calling out the media for publishing or broadcasting fake news.

You should be wary of using that phrase unless you really have the goods on why a story or editorial is intentionally falsified, not just a story you dislike or a position you oppose.

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.

Social Media and Puppy Tough Love

 If you need more convincing on the value of social media engagement, Richmond's puppy tough love should do the trick.

 If you need more convincing on the value of social media engagement, Richmond's puppy tough love should do the trick.

If an organization needs a reason or an example why it should become active on social media, look no further than the Richmond Animal Care and Control Department. It has experienced the highs and lows of social media – all in the name of protecting puppies and dogs.

Like a lot of government-operated animal shelters, Richmond faced the constant prospect of euthanizing dogs and cats to make room for a new wave of abandoned or battered pets. Department Director Christie Chipps Peters decided that was untenable, so she turned to social media to effect change.

Now when more pets are rounded up, Peters goes on social media with pictures and stories about dogs ready for immediate adoption. Instead of waiting for kind souls to show up at the shelter, Richmond dispatched an open invitation to anyone paying attention online.

Peters told NPR in an interview that the shelter’s euthanasia rate has been cut by 40 percent. She says 90 percent of the dogs at the shelter leave via adoption instead of a body bag, and she gives the credit to social media.

The authenticity of the shelter’s Facebook posts make the difference. An example: “We’ve taken in 40 animals, we need to find loving homes for 40 dogs that are in house. Can you lease help?”

Of course, authenticity is a two-way street. The slater gets online blowback for the 10 percent of the animals it does put to sleep, often because the animals have bitten their owners, become unmanageable and are too dangerous to introduce to a new family. 

“In the past, animal control agencies have put a cloak over the unpleasant side of our jobs,” Peters explains in her NPR interview. "And while that is, unfortunately, a very real part of our job, the reality is if you’re able to share your story and tell the truth and allow the public to see completely your operations and how you’re doing things, and ask for help, the response has been incredible.”

Instead of a negative, Peters sees the interaction with skeptics as a positive. “It gives up an opportunity to explain the truth of the matter.”

For CEOs fearful of having their organizations engage on social media, remember that your critics are already there. The only voice missing is yours. Takes it from Peters, it is simply a fact of puppy tough love.

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.

Survey Bears Out Growing Use of Visual Content

Visual content – photographs, video, charts, illustrations and graphics – are proven ways to get eyeballs on your message, and the use of visual content to support messaging is growing.

Visual content – photographs, video, charts, illustrations and graphics – are proven ways to get eyeballs on your message, and the use of visual content to support messaging is growing.

For anyone paying attention, the use of visual content in strategic communications and marketing has sharply increased. A survey conducted by Venngage of 300 online marketers provides statistical proof.

More than 50 percent of marketers said that nearly all of their articles and posts in 2016 included visual content. More than 80 percent indicated that the vast majority of their work included visuals.

The most prevalent visual content was stock photography and original graphics, such as infographic or illustrations. Video and presentations rendered in SlideShare also were common.

Marketers in the survey said original graphics packed the most punch, Charts, videos and presentations were the next most effective content. Stock photography, GIFs and memes performed least well.

One of the biggest complaints about using visual content is how much time it takes to create. According to the Venngage survey, more than 70 percent of marketers say they spend less than five hours a week on designing visual content. Eleven percent said they spend 15 hours or more per week.

Regardless of time, marketers said one of the biggest challenges is coming up with a consistent flow of visual content. Marketers also said they struggled to make well-designed visuals and finding ways to reach a wider audience for their visual content. Only 10 percent said it was hard to find sources of reliable and interesting data to convert into a visual format.

Looking forward, nearly 61 percent of marketers believe visual content is an absolutely essential element in their marketing strategies. Another 31 percent called visual content very important. Less than 2 percent dismissed visual content as unimportant.

Venngage helps clients “tell your stories and present your data with infographics."

'Alternative Facts' Versus Reframing an Issue

You can keep your conversation out of the ditch better by reframing an issue toward some good news instead of resorting to alternative facts that are easily disputed and prolong a bad news narrative.

You can keep your conversation out of the ditch better by reframing an issue toward some good news instead of resorting to alternative facts that are easily disputed and prolong a bad news narrative.

It is important for crisis counselors to understand the difference between alternative facts and reframing an issue. Alternative facts are attempts at spin control. Reframing an issue is a constructive way to show a different perspective.

Last weekend’s brouhaha over the size of the audience witnessing President Trump’s inauguration is the perfect example of the difference.

Trump’s surrogates disputed visual evidence that the crowd on the Washington Mall was smaller than the audience who came to the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. They blamed the news media for using distorted photography and intentionally lying about crowd size. 

In the process, Trump special adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts.” However, the alternative facts failed to convince very many people, but they did generate a storyline that managed to obscure what Trump actually said in his inaugural address.

The Trump team might have been wise to reframe the issue, instead of pick a fight. For example, data indicated the online audience watching the inauguration was the largest in history. This wasn’t an alternative fact, but a way to reframe the discussion to highlight that audiences are migrating to new virtual viewing stands.

Trump’s people could say, with validity, that it didn't matter where people watched. They also could have said the larger online audience suggests that younger people tuned in. Both would have been good and far less contentious messages.

If the President – or the CEO – is hung up on some issues, whether it is the size of a crowd or last month’s sales figures, lying won’t produce the desired positive press. It paradoxically is more likely to keep the bad news you tried to hide in the headlines.

Looking for a way to reframe bad news doesn’t involve lying about it. Reframing requires looking for silver linings, the good news lurking below the bad. Reframing won’t be successful if you are just making stuff up. You need to redirect attention at credible other information, trends or outcomes. You need to give your audience something worthwhile to consider amid the bad news.

Another lesson to learn is to pick your spots. While Trump may be obsessed with the size of things, most Americans could care less how big the crowd was at his inauguration. Putting that issue front and center was disproportionate to its importance and not so subtly underscored the narrative of the new president as a congenital narcissist who proclaimed a policy of “America First,” but acted like “Trump First.”

His special day and the weekend that followed could have been so much different if Trump and his team simply reframed what was significant and what was not and shifted the conversation in that direction.

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.

Saying Nothing Often Is The Right Thing to Do

Sometimes it is smarter to look the other way when verbally attacked to avoid unleashing more criticism, prolonging a negative narrative and diverting attention from your own agenda.

Sometimes it is smarter to look the other way when verbally attacked to avoid unleashing more criticism, prolonging a negative narrative and diverting attention from your own agenda.

When should someone or an organization respond when verbally attacked? It is a classic question asked of crisis counselors. It is a question without a simple answer. My best advice: Be slow to respond and know how to use your delete key.

On a weekend political news show, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, an iconic figure in the civil and voting rights movements, questioned the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election as president because of Russian interference.

Trump fired back in tweets that Lewis should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart…rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”

You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.

— Winston Churchill

Trump’s comeback sparked a tweet storm. Critics chastised him for lacking presidential restraint and criticizing Lewis on the eve of Martin Luther King Day. One tweet said, “You are decades of public service away from having the standing to say 1 word about John Lewis, a genuine civil rights hero.”

The issue here isn’t whether Lewis was right or wrong to make his claim; the issue is Trump's wisdom (or lack of wisdom) of taking the bait and responding.

In light of The Trump-Lewis confrontation, here are some thoughts to consider when faced with an attack online, in print or on air:

  • Whatever immediate visceral satisfaction you might get from firing back at a critic can be overwhelmed by the forces you unleash with your response. Trump is just days away from his inauguration. He is going to President of the United States, regardless how Lewis feels about it. Why muddy the pre-inaugural waters by getting into a public spat that only served to divert attention from the bigger issues he wants to put front and center and prolong discussion of his legitimacy.
  • John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, asked Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday why the president-elect couldn’t just let Lewis’ comment slide by. Pence said it was another case of “Trump being Trump.” But organizational leaders and people in the spotlight should realize they have larger roles to play than just being themselves. In this case, there was nothing to gain for Trump by lashing out at Lewis, only more division to sow.  Savvy leaders know when to pick their spots. Attacking a civil rights icon who marched and bled with Martin Luther King  was a no-win situation and should have been a no-brainer to avoid.
  • Even brands and people with aggressive personalities should know when it is time to play a different tune. It’s hardly a secret that the nation is deeply divided on a wide range of issues, so why use insults when you need to encourage unity. If he couldn’t resist responding, Trump might have tried a more disarming response, such as inviting Lewis to work with him on issues related to social justice. Some may have scoffed at the offer, but no one could have accused Trump of being vindictive or “just being Trump.” They might have seen it as a sign of Trump acting presidential.
  • Saying nothing when someone attacks you is hard to do, but often is the right thing to do. Lewis expressed an opinion about Trump’s election. A disciplined leader would grit his or her teeth, remain quiet and avoid turning a comment into a multi-day storyline. If Lewis had misstated a fact, such as accusing Trump of intentional collusion with Russian operatives, there would be a cause for a rebuttal, but not on Twitter and probably not directly by Trump. Experienced hands understand how the media works, including social media. They also appreciate that a finessed response can pack a punch more powerful than an actual punch.
  • Taking into account your own history is another important element in determining whether to respond and how. In this case, Trump for years challenged the legitimacy of President Obama to sit in the Oval Office based on birther allegations he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Trump also tweeted in 2012 that Obama’s re-election wasn't legitimate. Given that high-profile background, Trump had plenty of reasons to avoid a cage fight over this issue, with Lewis or anyone else.
  • Many voters cast ballots for Trump because of his blunt speech. But that isn’t license to engage in erratic speech. Getting elected and governing require different skills. You can still be blunt while also being intentional. Harry Truman, who hardly held back his opinions or colorful language to express them, is an example o making a point, not just enemies.

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.