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.

The Role of Anger in Public Discourse

Anger has a place in the public arena when it is the appropriate emotional response to horrific events.

Anger has a place in the public arena when it is the appropriate emotional response to horrific events.

Donald Trump’s campaign speeches were often filled with fury in contrast to the muted, almost professorial pronouncements by Barack Obama. Trump vents through tweets. Obama has Luther, a comic “anger translator.”

Michael Grunwald, a senior writer for Politico Magazine, says the “cool-headed” Obama’s biggest failure during his presidency was not being angrier. The price, Grunwald suggests, was the election of the “ultimate anti-Obama” – an almost always angry Donald Trump.

Grunwald’s article lays out numerous examples of how Obama responded calmly to provocations, from ISIS beheadings to congressional obduracy to conduct a hearing on his Supreme Court nominee. The “hyper-rational” Obama,” Grunwald wrote, :is not comfortable fulminating of tweet-ranting or shaking his fists for the cameras. His rhetorical weapons of choice against Democratic critics as well as Republican opponents have been logic, dry sarcasm and persistent whining.”

And, Grunwald adds, it didn’t work.

The larger point is that emotions need to match circumstances. When dealing with a crisis, people expect an appropriate emotional response. If you a spokesperson announcing layoffs, people don’t want to see you smirk.

This suggests there can be a role in public discourse for anger. As Grunwald observes, “Trump obviously enjoys starting verbal brawls that fire up his base.” The president-elect may not be the role model others should emulate. That might fall to some of the targets of Trump’s tweets who responded vigorously and emotionally to his criticism. Their anger seemed justified and apropos.

Police chiefs often convey constrained anger when issuing statements in the wake of horrific crimes. We applaud their pledge to bring perpetrators to justice. We empathize with victims of accidents who express anger over the loss of loved ones or the belongings it took them a lifetime to accumulate. We understand the strong feelings of men or women who have been wronged through theft, deception or discrimination.

These anger points can become sparks that ignite legal, regulatory or legislative actions. They can inspire fundraising for victims or acts of kindness and care. They can raise awareness of an issue that has been hidden in the shadows and galvanize activists to pursue a solution.

Anger translates well into satirical comedy. Minority stand-up comedians have channeled the simmering anger of their core audiences by making fun of the stereotypes that make them angry.  All in the Family and the Colbert Report spoofed what angered many Americans, providing a cathartic release and a knowing eye.

Using anger constructively is not always easy.  And an angry response can misfire or backfire. Sometimes in the face of ridicule, it is best to be able the fray and turn the other cheek. But not always.

Anger has a place in public discourse. Trump has demonstrated how to cultivate public anger. Others have profited by doing the same thing. But unleashing anger can result in uncontrollable circumstances.

One lesson to take from Obama is the value of an anger translator. Keegan-Michael Key served that role for Obama. He translated the President’s typically understated defense of the free press at a DC event into a rant about the media over-hyping the Ebola outbreak and Congress ignoring climate change while throwing snowballs. For a moment, Obama broke into an angry screed. “Whoa,” Luther interjected. “Have you ever seen Obama look or sound that angry?”

Reserve your public anger for when it is the gunpowder you need to deliver your point, especially to an audience that is mad and wants to know the cause of their anger makes your blood boil, too.

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.

Mistletoe, Jimmy Stewart and Spelling

Anybody can misspell or misuse a word, but smart people take the time to learn about the words and phrases they use, which can yield some surprising stuff  – and avoid some personal embarrassment.

Anybody can misspell or misuse a word, but smart people take the time to learn about the words and phrases they use, which can yield some surprising stuff  – and avoid some personal embarrassment.

Nothing befits the eve of a new year than a few classics like mistletoe, "It’s a Wonderful Life" and bad spelling.

You can get kissed under mistletoe, cry while watching Jimmy Stewart and wince when you look at all your misspellings in the past year. Especially since most of them had red lines under them.

Let’s be honest, anyone can misspell a word, sometimes with the overzealous help of AutoCorrect. But don’t let excuses obscure the truth – a lot of people don’t know how to spell and don’t seem to care. Big mistake.

Even if many people let misspelling slide by their eye, there are still those who don’t. Pity you if that minority includes a boss, a client, a dear friend – or a target audience.

My Waterloo moment with spelling came in the 5th grade with Ms. Schmidt. Actually spelling a word correctly wasn’t enough for her. You also had to spell the word phonetically, identify whether it was a verb or noun and give a definition. On her most wicked days, Ms. Schmidt demanded that we look up the word’s etymology. That meant you had to know your spelling words forwards and backwards. Some students hated it. I fell in love with words.

Who knew the power of words to convey meaning, to reflect history, to preserve culture. When you went inside words, you uncovered mysteries you never knew existed. You saw their ability to create a unified perception of things and thoughts. You recognized their DNA through the layers of time and conquest. You saw them as the building blocks for ideas.

You get the drift. I think words are pretty important. So when someone butchers how a word is spelled or uses the wrong word, it pains me like watching someone beat a dog.

Just this week, members of my staff confused “compliment” for “complement."  My daughter wrote a blog and used “soul” when she meant “sole.” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted “unpresidented” instead of “unprecedented” in calling out the Chinese. I routinely see names misspelled, words misused and grammar that would have earned an “F” in my grade school language arts class.

Step up, people. Language is a gift. Words bring us closer as people by revealing our reflections, big thoughts and funny jokes, not to mention everyday parts of life, such as “Hey, breakfast is ready." Have you ever thought how unfunny a stand-up comic would be without words?

I’m a hard sell on the idea that spelling doesn’t matter anymore. That’s the same as telling me the Constitution doesn’t matter anymore. If spelling doesn’t matter to you, it’s most likely because you never bothered to understand spelling. Why is a word spelled the way it is? Where did the word come from? How has its usage changed over the years? Why do words with similar meaning convey nuanced differences? How did we get so many words in the English language?

The answers to those questions are freighted with significance. Just tackle one with some curiosity and find out.

Meanwhile, think about this: Words and language are constantly evolving. The evolution of words marks seminal change in our society. Our words mirror, in many ways, who we are and who we are becoming.

So, get out of your own way, take words and spelling seriously. If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. If you aren’t sure how a word is spelled, find out. If you are curious about where a word or phrase came from, take the time to track it down.

Your curiosity will pay dividends. Your spelling almost certainly will improve. Impress your boss, avoid embarrassment and take pity on those of us who cringe when words are mangled. 

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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.

Tale of Two Tweets

New Oregon Ducks football coach Willie Taggart wasted no time hitting the recruiting trail and going online to show that the Ducks plan to make recruiting as aggressive and innovative as the team’s on-field play calling.

New Oregon Ducks football coach Willie Taggart wasted no time hitting the recruiting trail and going online to show that the Ducks plan to make recruiting as aggressive and innovative as the team’s on-field play calling.

Donald Trump arguably won the presidency by tweeting and Mark Helfrich may have been fired as head coach of the Oregon Ducks football team for not tweeting. There is a lesson here.

Trump’s tweets commanded constant attention and served as an unfiltered way to talk directly to the American public. The absence of tweeting by Helfrich and his coaching assistants created a barrier from reaching young recruits where they hang out online.

The Oregonian’s Andrew Nemec offered a commentary on how the modern recruiting game passed by the Oregon Ducks under Helfrich. Nemec's premise is that the game on the field is often determined these days by how well you play online. His commentary could just as well apply to comfortable executives in a lot of organizations.

While Washington Husky Coach Chris Petersen tweets “Woof” when a new recruit pledges to his team and Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh puts pictures on social media of him climbing trees and hosting sleepovers, the Ducks coaching staff rested on its laurels. The bad news: Most Millennials don’t know how to spell laurels.

Nemec quotes a national scout who says top recruits pay attention to how many Twitter followers they get4 when a major university offers them a scholarship, which could swing their decision of what football program to join. “I’ve had kids straight-up tell me a school made a top five because they added more followers. If you aren’t doing that, you are going to find yourself on the outside looking it. You are going to get lapped.”

For many organizations, social media, especially Twitter, is a quagmire, hassle or mystery. Self-satisfied leaders tell themselves they don’t new newfangled tools to communicate with long-time customers, donors or stakeholders.

As Nemec notes, times change and anyone can be eclipsed. “For a program that celebrated and self-congratulated its own innovation,” Nemec wrote, “it’s jarring that the downfall came from failing to grasp new school recruiting tactics.” Jarring indeed.

However confounding digital media may seem, it is worth the effort to learn about it and interact with it. You may never become a tweet master like Trump, but at least you won’t be a twit without a tweet. As the Helfrich example demonstrates, learning new tricks can keep you relevant – and employed.

As if to underscore the point, Willie Taggart made his debut as new coach of the Oregon Ducks by flying off to Hawaii to recruit Tua Tagovailoa, who is ranked as the top dual-threat quarterback in the nation and attended the same high school as his idol Marcus Mariota. Tagovailoa committed to Alabama after he sensed Oregon lost interest in him. Taggart may not succeed in flipping him, but there he was on Twitter with a picture of Tagovailoa and him for all those young recruits to see.

A few days later, Darrian McNeal from Florida flipped his commitment from Arizona to Oregon. McNeal had wanted to go to Oregon all along, but his attempts to reach the former coaching staff on social media failed. “I didn’t think this day was gonna come,” he said on social media. It happened because Taggart was paying attention online.

Football games are won or lost on football fields or in public arenas. The ability to win football games – or a contest of ideas – is often determined by who has the best team. Increasingly, the best team is the one that wins online.

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.

Recognizing Miracle Workers All Around Us

A Chinese man dedicates his weekends to saving people about to commit suicide. He serves as a reminder there are men, women and children around us doing equally powerful things to change their and our world.

A Chinese man dedicates his weekends to saving people about to commit suicide. He serves as a reminder there are men, women and children around us doing equally powerful things to change their and our world.

A number of people on LinkedIn flagged a story about a Chinese man who has dedicated his weekends to saving people from committing suicide by jumping off the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, which is the number one suicide venue in the world. In 13 years, Chen Si has talked 321 people back from the brink.

Chen’s sacrifice should remind us that we have volunteer heroes all around us. Like Chen, they change people’s lives and ask for nothing in return. We at least should make a point of celebrating these heroic people when we learn of their feats.

Given the divisions in the nation and raw feelings after a rough-and-tumble presidential campaign, some inspiration would do all of us some good.

Recognizing good works by staff members can be a moral booster. Recognizing good works by customers or stakeholders can deepen rapport.

The recognition doesn’t have to be showy, just genuine. Some miracle-working volunteers prefer anonymity, which should be respected. But some stories are just too rich to keep covered up. TV stations, in particular, are on the lookout for inspirational or human interest stories because they have strong appeal to viewers and somewhat balance out the often gloomy news of the day.

One of the best forms of recognition is to lend meaningful and useful support to the volunteer’s cause. Maybe more hands are needed on deck. Perhaps there is a need for special equipment. Perhaps just exposure is enough to shine a light on a problem that has been too long in the shadows.

There is no better time to put out feelers on your staff or in your community asking about quiet volunteers whose works speak volumes.  When you discover these human gems, don’t try to surprise them with praise. Instead do them the honor of asking about their work and finding out what, if anything, they need to support their work.

Chen rents a 2-bedroom flat near the Yangtze River Bridge where people he saves can spend a night or two. Two-thirds of the rent is paid by donors who appreciate Chen’s commitment. He pays the rest out of his meager salary.

Publicity about his quest to prevent suicides hopefully has increased donations and perhaps inspired others to stand watch on weekdays when Chen is working. It wouldn’t hurt to share how Chen convinces people to climb down from the railing of the bridge and go on with their lives.

We should exhibit the same respect and curiosity for men, women and children in our orbit of life who see it as their personal mission to serve others, rescue animals or save the planet. What they do is a powerful message we need to hear.

Know Your Eggs in a Crisis

Comedian Jimmy Fallon does a bit where he and guests play Russian egg roulette. Losers wind up with egg on their face. Don’t be like Jimmy Fallon and manage a crisis so you get egg on your face.

Comedian Jimmy Fallon does a bit where he and guests play Russian egg roulette. Losers wind up with egg on their face. Don’t be like Jimmy Fallon and manage a crisis so you get egg on your face.

There is an old saying, “if you don’t want egg on your face, don’t crack an egg on your forehead.” That’s actually pretty good crisis communications advice.

Mistakes happen. They may be your fault or maybe you’re just the fall guy. But if it falls to you to respond, don’t crack an egg on your forehead.

Don’t try to low-key a big-deal crisis. Soft-selling a hard crisis is an invitation for trouble and a loss of trust. Before you tell people you have the crisis under control, be sure you really do have it under control. If you aren’t sure how severe or dispersed the crisis is, focus on telling people what you are doing to find out. Don’t compound a crisis by creating another one centered on your inability to manage a confidence-building crisis response.

Own the crisis.  You can own up to a crisis, even if you don’t accept full liability for causing it. You build trust by being the person that deals squarely with the crisis, regardless of fault. Pointing fingers instead of pointing to a solution can raise suspicions and erode trust.

Prioritize your response. Many crises have victims or neighbors who are impacted. Take special care to communicate with them on how you are addressing the crisis that is intruding on their lives or livelihoods. Do what you can to personalize outreach to those most directly affected. Don’t rely on media reports to do the job for you.

Step up your communications. Waiting for the media to find out about your crisis before you say anything can be the wrong approach. It also is less likely in our digital age where everyone has a cell phone and can generate news-making video with the push of a finger and a click on Facebook. Holding a press conference is no longer enough. Crisis managers use tools such as Twitter to provide real-time updates and live feeds to show work in progress to address a crisis situation. Instead of viewing social media as a threat, embrace it as a place to discover and address what you might not know in a crisis.

Don’t wing it. Crises call for quick responses, but not reckless ones. Get your facts, corroborate them and craft a message that is clear, crisp and true. Crisis spokespersons should be trained to shape and deliver a key message – and to stay on message. What you don’t say can be just as important as what you do say. The key is saying the right thing to reassure people you are top of the crisis and are addressing the concerns of those directly impacted by the crisis. The best spokespersons practice just like an actor so they deliver their lines powerfully and don’t ad lib.

Jimmy Fallon has a running gag game on the Tonight Show where he and his guests have to choose eggs and crack them on their foreheads. Some the eggs are hard-boiled. Others are fresh. It’s funny to watch grown people smash eggs on their foreheads and see yokes dripping down their face. It’s no so funny to watch crisis managers do the same thing in serious circumstances.

Know your eggs before you get in front of a microphone. You are less likely to come away with egg on your face and an even bigger crisis on your hands.

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.

Greater Achievement Through ‘Deliberate Practice'

Michael Jordan had talent, but didn’t become arguably the best basketball player without hours of hard work, deliberately practicing the skills that made him great.

Michael Jordan had talent, but didn’t become arguably the best basketball player without hours of hard work, deliberately practicing the skills that made him great.

Experience can be overrated. Talent can be irrelevant. Mindless repetition is a waste of time. Deliberate practice Is the key to improvement and, ultimately, real achievement.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson contends anyone can improve their performance by practicing and mastering specific skills, preferably with expert coaching. He has become known worldwide for his theory that requires people to step outside their comfort zone to master new skills. Ericsson calls it the “New Science of Expertise."

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell embraced Ericsson’s concept with his 10,000 hours of practice rule.

Ericsson says there is nothing magic about 10,000 hours of practice. It’s more important, he says, to identify areas that need improvement and practice specific skills that lead to mastery. Think of a NBA player enhancing his offensive skill set by mastering a 3-point jump shot.

Deliberate practice has a wide span of applicability – from musicians to medical doctors. And, yes, to the world of public affairs, too.

An obvious application in public affairs is the use of social and digital media. Old-time practitioners still rely on their previous experience, much of which they accumulated before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Their previous experience isn’t invalid; it just may be dated.

Social and digital media will continue to be strange, newfangled things unless public affairs practitioners get out of their own way and learn how online engagement works. Social and digital media aren’t always the solution to a public affairs challenge, but they often are a key element in a public affairs strategy.

The coaching a public affairs pro may need is not from another grizzled veteran, but from a kid – maybe a grandkid. Younger people have grown up with this technology and use it fluently, if at times fatuously.

New tricks don’t always mean new technology. In a world where people are bombarded by media, personal contact has taken on new, richer meaning. You are developing a new residential community or building a new water plant and neighbors are fearful and, in some cases, outright hostile. All the Facebook posts and gleaming fact sheets you could spin up wouldn’t make as much difference to those upset neighbors as going to their house or community center to talk with them directly.

Remote control outreach is easier and involves fewer bruises to the ego. In the long run, making direct contact may take longer, but can wind up being a lot cheaper. As people learn the facts and you make concessions to address the most pressing and legitimate concerns, fears fall away. There are fewer obstacles to moving forward. Some opponents might even become advocates.

Learning to play the violin or become a chess champion takes a modicum of talent, Ericsson concedes. But mostly it takes intentional practice. Michael Jordan had talent, but he became one of the best basketball players in history by relentlessly honing his skills. You could say Jordan worked his way to greatness.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson argues anyone can improve by deliberately practicing skills that enhance their performance.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson argues anyone can improve by deliberately practicing skills that enhance their performance.

The notion of continuous improvement connects well with Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice. You don’t just through the motions; you break through barriers that allow you to reach a higher level of achievement. If Michael Jordan can deliberately practice his way to greatness, the rest of us can reach our own level of greatness following his example. And that includes professionals working in the public affairs space.

Clients should appreciate professionals with experience, but they may want to hire experienced professionals who are still learning their craft by deliberately practicing new skills..

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.