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Monday
Aug252014

Representing Ferguson, MO

People who dislike confrontation should avoid crisis communication. It is all about confrontation, often with your own client.

Denise Bentele, CEO of Common Ground, the PR firm hired by Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by protests and commentary following the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.

Bentele and her St. Louis-based PR team face a tough job. Michael Brown, the shooting victim, died from six gunshot wounds, two to the head. His bleeding body was left uncovered on the street where he was shot for an uncomfortably long time. The police chief refused at first to disclose the name of the officer who shot Brown. Police responded to protests by brandishing military-style armor and weapons. Businesses in Ferguson were looted. Journalists covering the protests were arrested. Scenes flashed across national TV news broadcasts of bedlam in the streets.

It would be fair to say life in this St. Louis suburb pretty much has changed forever. Scrutiny will be intense in a place that has a black majority, an all-white city council and just a handful of black police officers.

Providing crisis communications to Ferguson would be daunting for anyone. Bentele discovered daunting included negative public and professional reaction to her hiring. In addition to the typical rants about hiring a PR spin machine, Common Ground was assailed for the ethnic makeup of its staff.

Bentele defended her firm's involvement, saying she and her team were brought in to help Ferguson field "the overwhelming number of media inquiries" the city received daily. Bentele also said she recommended Ferguson hire The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to assist on community engagement.

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Monday
Aug182014

Responding to Crisis from the Heart and Head

When facing a crisis, should you respond with your head or your heart? A PR colleague argues for both, and with good reason.

A stiff response or an overly emotional response can erode, not build, trust — which is the critical measure of success in crisis communication. An effective response must combine a caring reaction with a rational set of actions. 

Joan Gladstone, who gives strategic communications counsel to clients from her San Diego base, says people affected by a crisis want more than timely, transparent information. They want to know you care. And they want to know you are doing everything possible to end the crisis and prevent it from recurring. They want assurances you are treating the victims with respect.

This requires a response from both the heart and the head.

Empathy can go a long way toward establishing a bridge between the crisis response messenger and the people paying attention. The absence of empathy sends an even louder message. Failing to express sympathy or remorse can be seen as uncaring, disregard or indifference. A simple phone call to victims or their family members can speak volumes.

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Monday
Aug112014

Amazon Conjures Orwellian Oceania

Amazon seemingly has the pulse of everything, except for the views of George Orwell. Amazon's misquote offers a useful Orwellian lesson in citing authorities accurately.

Locked in a battle with book publisher Hachette and a host of well-known writers, Amazon is appealing to consumers to take its side. Amazon has scratched e-books published by Hachette from its online shelves, claiming it is trying to preserve the best value for its reader-customers. Hachette and members of Authors United counter that Amazon is flexing its muscle to seize more profit from book sales at the expense of booksellers, publishers and authors.

In addition to suggesting talking points for its supportive reader-consumers, Amazon cited Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-four that described a world where people were convicted of thought crimes. The behemoth quoted Orwell as urging publishers to suppress paperbacks.

The quotation may have been more telling than Amazon's writers realized. In the superstate of Oceania, the Ministry of Truth was charged with rewriting past newspaper articles. What Orwell actually said was that the advent of paperback books was a boon for readers, but not so good for publishers. "The cheaper books become," Orwell said, "the less money is spent on books." He added, readers could use the savings to buy two tickets to the movies.

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Monday
Aug042014

Reflections from the Leadership Guru

The distinction between leaders and managers is crisper thanks to Warren Bennis who said, “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Bennis, often called the father of leadership, died last week at age 89 after a life of advising business executives and U.S. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

I often referenced Bennis in my strategic communications course for MBA students at Willamette University, citing his belief that leaders are made, not born. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

Bennis believed leaders embrace failure, using it as motivation for eventual success.

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Monday
Jul282014

Defending Israel's Assault on Gaza

If you wanted a role model for framing issues, you couldn't do better than Ron Dermer, the American-born and educated Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Dermer has his hands full these days as Israel, for all intents and purposes, has invaded Gaza to root out Hamas tunnels and rocket launchers, inflicting significant civilian casualties that have enraged the Muslim world and made Israel's allies cringe.

He defends Israel early and often and without an apologetic tone. He has framed the issue so that Israel, facing a persistent barrage of rocket fire from Gaza, has a right to defend itself. Period. 

He may have cut his teeth on this line of argument, according to a New York Times feature story, when — as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania — Dermer was assigned the task of arguing Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians. Dermer was so passionate, he won the debate. When asked why he argued so fiercely for a point of view he strongly disagreed with, Dermer said, "I lied. Like they do."

If Dermer was merely a passionate blowhard, he wouldn't command the respect he receives. And he receives a lot. The Times noted Dermer has made more than 50 television, radio and print interviews since the Israelis and Hamas began fighting.

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Friday
Jul182014

Managing the Layoff Notice

The announcement by Microsoft this week of massive layoffs brought to mind my own experience at Tektronix when it began paring employees, signaling the start of its downward drift as a major employer. 

Laying off employees — whether it's one or thousands — is no fun. Communicating the layoffs is no fun either, but there are ways to make it less painful — for those losing their jobs and those staying. 

Painful Lesson #1

Let employees and other internal stakeholders (key vendors, consultants, strategic partners) know about layoffs before the general public. Nobody likes to get the news about a layoff their could affect them in a newspaper.

There are always logistical, timing and legal considerations that go into how and when a layoff is announced. But here is the painful truth — there is always, always a negative, sometimes permanent reaction when the layoff announcement is made public before it is made personally. 

Employees are not dumb. They know when layoffs are looming. They may even understand why they are necessary for the greater good of the company or organization. What they can't forget — or maybe forgive — is being the last to know.

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Friday
Jul112014

Learning the Language of Listening

Learning to become a fluent listener is a lot like learning a new language. It takes dedication, practice and keeping off your smartphone to check for email messages.In learning any new language, you have to figure out where to begin. That is also true for learning the language of listening.

If you belong to the "I'm the Smartest Guy in the Room" club or feel obliged to explain why everyone else is wrong, then listening is probably a foreign language to you. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a RosettaStone tape to learn to listen. You have to learn on your own, often cold turkey.

Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Watch Good Listeners 

Just as some people learn a new language by watching TV shows in that language, you can learn a lot about listening by watching good listeners. You may not have to go very far to find them. They may be coworkers or your employees. Put them in charge of a brainstorming session and see how they guide a conversation and listen.

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Monday
Jul072014

Entertaining Your Audience

Public speaking no longer is considered entertainment, but public speakers should know how to be entertaining — or brief.

The people who bring us TED Talks offer some valuable advice on how speakers can attract and keep an audience's attention. Here is some of that advice: 

Effective speakers weave their message into a story that helps listeners understand context and why they should care. 

Timing is everything. TED Talks speakers get 18 minutes to speak, but audiences make up their mind in far less time whether to listen. TED Talks advisers say the sweet spot for a talk is 12 minutes, but don't be fooled, people will tune out in a jiffy unless you are "funny, profound or ingenious." You better say something, and say it in a way that beats the competition of content on a smartphone.

Too many speakers turn into spectators when they use PowerPoint slides. Presentation materials are props and sidekicks, not tele-prompters or speech notes. If you have to read your slides, listeners may wonder whether you know what you're talking about. For all they know, your assistant prepared the slides that you are reading. 

In the excitement of speaking, some people talk in one long run-on sentence. A sentence never ends. There are no pauses. There is no cadence to give verbal cues to listeners about important points. Your speech is an oral blur. Stop. Take a breath. Think about your words. Give your speech some inflection.

TED Talks data indicates that you need to look the part you’re are speaking. You are, in effect, a performer. Playing Hamlet in blue jeans may not work for your audience. Dress appropriately for your talk so your audience doesn't see a buffoon not worth listening to.

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Friday
Jun272014

Quarreling with People Who Buy Ink by the Barrel

For a long time, people in the PR business urged clients to avoid picking fights with "people who buy ink by the barrel." It is another way of saying, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

But Walmart isn't accustomed to taking advice, as evidenced this week by its response to a New York Times column that accused the giant retailer of paying "humiliating wages" to its workers and being a "net drain" on the U.S. economy because its employees rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

David Tovar, Walmart's vice president of corporate communications, decided to apply his red pen to Tim Egan's column, with this note attached: "Tim, Thanks for sharing your first draft. Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published." 

Walmart posted the Tovar editing job on its website, then let the fur fly. The "Fact Check" post quickly attracted media and blogger attention in a way that a press release or ordinary rebuttal would never have achieved. 

So does this mean that the advice about avoiding fights with guys that buy ink by the barrel is no longer valid? Not quite. 

First off, Walmart, which is the frequent target of a wide array of critics, is a special case. When other people routinely use you as a punching bag, you might be entitled now and again to punch back. Especially if you punch with some flair, as Tovar did.

However, for most companies and organizations, staging a public quarrel with the media usually doesn't turn out so well. You appear defensive. And you often don't get the last word. Depending on your ability to project your protest, you might not even get noticed.

There are constructive avenues to express concern or correct facts. Most publications will afford someone the chance to rebut an editorial or respond to a major story aimed at them. A well-reasoned op-ed becomes a valuable PR tool well beyond its publication date. It can be shared with stakeholders and customers, and it can be posted on a website. It even can be the basis for a special-purpose website that tells your side of the story in more detail, with supportive validation.

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Monday
Jun232014

Make Your Apology Faultless

People make mistakes, sometimes really big ones. Owning your mistakes is one path to redemption. Compounding your mistakes is the road to perdition. 

GM is a perfect case in point. After failing to notify GM car owners of faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade, which resulted in numerous deaths, GM compounded the problem by sending belated recall notices to the survivors of victims. Its careless follow-through generated more ire, louder congressional hearings and car buyer doubts.

In the newspaper world, there was a standing order for staff to pay special attention to any correction going into print. You would be surprised how often corrections are muffed, enraging people who already were miffed. Correcting a correction is the work of fools. 

Nothing undermines an apology more than an apology followed by another faux pas. The second flub tells people your apology wasn't sincere, or at least sincere enough to bother to double-check your words. What you intended as remorse comes across as indifference or insensitivity.

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