Resisting the Urge to Respond to Personal Attacks

When people blow smoke at you, don't fan the flames. Stay calm, ignore the bait and stick with the facts and principled arguments.

When people blow smoke at you, don't fan the flames. Stay calm, ignore the bait and stick with the facts and principled arguments.

When opponents resort to ad hominem attacks, you may imagine you are winning. Don't be so sure. But be sure to keep basing your arguments on principle, not pride.

Personal attacks have become common in political and public policy debates. They can be extremely annoying tactics to forbear. You receive scolding emails, your Facebook page is tagged and protestors with placards block the entrance to your building or your home driveway.

In-your-face opposition, especially if it persists past a news cycle, can make your blood boil. You want to strike back. However, that is what your antagonists want to turn their tactic into a media talking point.

Best just to smile and go about your business. You can take some solace in that your opponents are exerting energy and combusting goodwill by attacking you, not the policy or project you are associated with. You also should be consoled to know that these personal tactics often turn off people, especially people who are undecided on an issue.

Most important, don't overreact. The attacks speak for themselves. The audience who relishes the attacks isn't your audience anyway. Everyone else will contrast the attack with your calm non-response. That's true even if the tactics manage to secure media coverage.

When you don't rise to the bait, your opponents may ratchet up the noise level of their provocations or pursue more outrageous tactics aimed at "killing" or shaming the messenger. Use earplugs if need be, but just ignore the shenanigans.

Grassroots campaigns can be powerful tools to influence public viewpoints. But to work, they need a great cause or a huge villain. Don't become a huge villain by doing something foolish when provoked. Be confident of your position or your project. Stick with the facts. Most people will be able to tell the difference. 

The Almost Apology

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Brian Williams has done soul-searching, but still hasn't found the voice to spit out his apology and explanation.

Williams, the almost beloved former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will return to the airwaves, but in a lesser role on a cable affiliate of NBC's. It's a demotion, but still a job. All the more reason, Williams should just be plainspoken about why he inflated stories that he covered.

His interview with an obviously sympathetic Matt Lauer on the Today show wasn't crisp, even after more than four months to prepare for it. Williams said his exaggeration of facts or circumstances "came from a bad place' it came from a sloppy choice of words."

Placing yourself in a helicopter involved in a frontline firefight when you weren't at the frontline is something other than a "sloppy choice of words." It is an invented reality.

With some nudging by Lauer, Williams wound up admitting his inflations were "clear ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in." Telling tall tales is what fishermen do, not news anchors.

It would have been far better for Williams to say, "Look, there was no excuse for inflating my role in some stories. I let me ego get in front of my judgment. I was wrong then. I was wrong later when I repeated my untruths. I was definitely wrong for not owning what I did."

Now that is an apology that someone with Williams' style and eloquence could make. It is shame he didn't.

Williams did recognize he will be scrutinized carefully going forward, and he appeared to welcome that scurrility. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. I expect to be held to a different standard.”

Meaning no disrespect to Lester Holt who is expected to replace Williams as the nightly news anchor, Williams is really good as a news broadcaster. Listening to him is like listening to a good friend explain to you what happened during the day. 

Williams' good body of work and his talent entitle him to membership in "The Second Chance Club." But his failure to spit out a solid apology and explanation don't qualify him to be, as he suggested, the club's leading spokesman. Instead, Williams is a symbol of how hard it is to apologize convincingly, even when you have been caught red-handed and concede you are wrong.

Good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as an effective apology. People who need to apologize should keep that in mind.

Give Readers What's Useful, Not Useless Words

James Michener, who gave the world classics such as "Hawaii" and "Centennial," described himself as a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter.

James Michener, who gave the world classics such as "Hawaii" and "Centennial," described himself as a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter.

If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what are 1,000 words worth? Too often, not much.

We are taught in school to show off with words. The more the better. If a professor assigns a 5-page essay, we write until will fill up five pages. What dolt would write just a single paragraph? It's not how you say it; it's how long it takes to say it.

In the real world, people aren't impressed by verbosity. They value brevity and clarity. They want you to spit it out. Sadly, many writers are unprepared for the task. All they know is the lesson of a 5-page essay.

WordRake, which has been spearing fat phrasing for three years, provided illustrative examples of how a simple, lean sentence can be bloated into a plumper one that says the same thing. Here is one example:

The 8-word sentence "Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister named Jane" is transformed into the 18-word heavyweight "It is common knowledge that Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister who went by the name of Jane." More words, but no more meaning.

Ten words here, 10 words there and pretty seen you've filled up a page, email, memo, white paper or website with a lot of useless words. You will have, however, conveyed some unintended messages. You are pompous. You are boring. You are too lazy to edit your own work so it sizzles instead of drizzles.

Editing your writing requires discipline and effort. You have to care, especially for your reader. Give them a break and tell them what they need to do as simply as possible.

A good place to start is writing your headline or subject line first. This will remind you as you write of what you are trying to say.

Next, write a synopsis in the 140-character straightjacket format of Twitter. This will force you to include what's essential and eliminate everything else.

Use active verbs and write in a painterly voice with colorful words and metaphors that show what you mean.

Don't believe what your high school or college teachers told you about how wonderful your writing is. It probably isn't wonderful. James Michener, who wrote more than 40 books, said he was a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter. Don't be a literary litterer.

Attack your sentences like weeds in a garden. Save the blooms, pull the rest.

Give readers what's useful, not a bunch of useless words.

Explanations Versus Impressions

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Ben Vereen went from one of the hottest entertainers in America to someone who couldn't get his calls returned, even from friends, after making an unintended bad impression in a high-profile setting. What happened to Vereen is a classic case of how an impression outshines an explanation.

Vereen was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural celebration. He chose to pay homage to popular black minstrel star Bert Williams. Vereen performed in black face, as Williams was forced to do when he entertained white audiences.

The response to Vereen's act in blackface was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative. One critic called him a "disgrace to his race." Vereen's attempts to explain his teachable moment fell on deaf ears. People only remembered what they saw, not what he said.

While what you say is important, it is equally important to anticipate how people will hear or see it. If Vereen had anticipated the reaction, which in light of the times and the occasion should not have been unexpected, he might have adapted his performance. Vereen might have entertained as Williams would have, then ended with a provocative note that Williams was forced to perform the same act in blackface. That would have left a strong impression, requiring little explanation.

We live in a world where the impression you make is a key to whether anyone will pay attention to your explanation. Trying to explain your way through a tough issue is a lot like bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Issue managers need to suppress the urge to explain and focus on how to impress. Believing that "if people could just hear the facts, we'd do fine" is regrettably a dangerous fallacy, especially when you are dueling with opponents who color across the lines when they give the "facts."

There is nothing unprincipled about stating your case accurately, fairly and with some oomph. Marketers follow this principle because they know people can only absorb so much information, so you need to claim a toehold of their mind with an indelible impression.

With a toehold in your audience's brain, you create the opportunity to provide some explanation. Without that toehold, your explanations have little chance to penetrate, let alone influence.

Ethical Slips and Spoiled Reputations

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

The FIFA bribery scandal serves as a stark reminder that corruption is a fact of life. How you respond can color your reputation permanently. Failing to consider what is and isn't ethical can be a reputation spoiler.

The Portland Business Journal reported that one alleged kickback scheme in the FIFA scandal involved a footwear and apparel deal signed by Brazil's national soccer team in 1996. That was the same year Nike signed a major contract with Brazil, which solidified its status as a "major player in the global soccer market."

Nike issued a statement saying none of its employees were aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback schemes cited in indictments against FIFA officials. The company said it "strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery."

A former City of Portland employee is in jail after admitting he took money and free trips worth more than $200,000 to steer parking meter contracts to two businesses.

Corruption can occur when an official has decision-making power on a significant policy or lucrative contract. The corruption can be by the official with the leverage or a company or organization seeking to exploit that leverage.

Corruption is an addictive slippery slope. A small favor here, bending the rules a little there serves as an invitation to ask for bigger favors and more bent rules. It becomes harder to say no. Even if you try to say no, earlier transgressions become reverse leverage that forces you to descend deeper into corruption. It becomes easier to rationalize that a little grease is needed to make the wheel go round.

The stakes for how you respond to a "tempting offer" can be huge. Failure to gain a permit. Loss of a contract. Dissolution of a business relationship. Dismissal from a job. Corruption is serious business.

Whistleblowers risk a lot when they point out misbehavior or unmask cultures of corruption. Many whistleblowers are called snitches and shunned. Some lose their jobs and, incredibly, their reputations. You can understand why many people who see wrongdoing just turn and walk away.

However, there is no excuse for closing your ideas to potential corrosive practices. Taking stock of your own ethical standards and sharing those principles with your team members can erase gray areas or fuzziness in behavior. Letting employees know they won't be punished for behaving ethically, even if it means losing a contract or a policy debate, can have a powerful influence on morale and company culture.

Your assignment may be to manage an issue. But your overall objective should always be to manage your reputation. 

Showing Rather Than Explaining

Showing what you mean is often the better strategy than trying to explain what you mean. Visuals grab attention and are more likely to be shared than narrative explanations.

Showing what you mean is often the better strategy than trying to explain what you mean. Visuals grab attention and are more likely to be shared than narrative explanations.

In the battle to win over public opinion, showing is a better strategy than explaining.

For the vast majority of people, public issues are often too puzzling to take the time to understand, let alone take sides. If you want them on your side, you need to reduce the issue to comprehensible size and give them a reason to pay attention. Only then will you have a chance to turn them from disinterested bystanders to supporters.

Getting people's attention demands simplifying what you share to essentials and focusing on what will interest your intended audience, even if it isn't your narrative. Showing your audience what you mean and why they should care may open the door down the line for them to listen to your longer explanation.

Visualization is one of the strongest ways to show what you mean. An image can show perspective. An infographic can give a visual description of a process. A chart can demonstrate critical contrasts.  An illustration can compress a lot of meaningful detail into an easy-to-grasp picture. Good design can guide the eyes of viewers to key information or the sequence of data that you present.

Shareability is a serendipitous byproduct of well-done visual explanations. Some people share stories with friends; a lot more people share cool pictures and infographics with friends.

Shareability is a great test for audience-centric communication because a "share" reflects whether a visualization conveys something important to the sender. 

Sending a message is important, but your message will never be received if you don't aim at the heart strings of viewers, which is a core difference between showing and explaining. You want to explain, but your audience wants to be shown.

Designing your information to show what you mean in an interesting, compelling, disarming or entertaining way is a more effective way to attract attention and sway opinion. Save your explanations for later.

Big-Minded Vs. Small-Minded

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Solving a problem is greatly aided by a big-minded approach instead of a small-minded one. Small minds tend to focus on obstacles to overcome. Big minds see opportunities that leap over obstacles.

Small-minded people go with what they know. Big-minded people survey a wider universe to find a smart idea.

To be sure, all of us can be big-minded and small-minded in different circumstances. But the lubrication that enables someone to move beyond a constricted view is curiosity.

I made this point while giving an informational interview to a soon-to-graduate marketing major from Portland State University. She asked simply how my firm, which is celebrating its 25th year in business, has adapted.

After noting we never created a brochure and that we start every client pitch from scratch, I said our fundamental adaptation was believing we had a lot to learn. We try to make Big-Mindness a business operating principle.

When my 21-year-old captive audience asked how to learn Big-Mindedness, my answer is to let experience be your teacher. Read outside your comfort zone. Volunteer in community organizations to see other people in their space. Work on a political campaign to listen to people and see the evolution of viewpoints. Travel. And pay attention to what's happening.

Even the seemingly most remote news events can be eye-opening. The two examples I gave my interviewee were the window into the expanding universe provided by the Hubble telescope and the experimentation of researches to verify the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and chickens.

Seeing the vast expanse of what we call outer space should open our minds to life somewhere else beside earth. A similar discovery many years ago that showed the earth revolves around the sun opened new vistas for small-mindedness. It allowed science to shed light on the world without the shadow of dogma.

The seemingly pointless research project that indicates chickens can regress and have something more like a prehistoric snout instead of a beak offers a cellular-level notion of how life functions and evolves. We aren't destined to be what we are; we have adapted to become what we are.

The practical value of such knowledge is that the universe of answers is wider than our own solar system of information and that we can effect change if we understand what factors account for change. Both have broad utility in the field of marketing, which at its core is a quest to find what works.

Problems may seem insoluble. And, if you only consider the options in your small mind, they may be. But when your thoughts to cross over to the big mind, more options materialize. The path to success may not be clear, but it certainly isn't closed.

News and Yesterday's News

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

In comedy, a badly timed punchline ruins the joke. It's the same in news. Deliver it on time, it's news. Deliver it late and it's yesterday's news.

Nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response. But sluggish media relations can be just as harmful. The most serious casualty is a lost opportunity to tell your story when a key audience may be listening or watching.

Here are some of the most common, albeit lame reasons for tardy media engagement:

  • Arthritic approval structures in organizations, especially large ones.
  • Obsessive word-smithing over language in a press release that will never see the light of day.
  • A reticence to share some facts until all facts are known.
  • A forlorn belief that the story will blow over.
  • Worries about legal exposure.
  • Waiting for the right moment.
  • Not wanting to look pushy.

Organizations that understand the value of media relations in this media-rich digital age overcome those obstacles to timely news delivery. They streamline how news releases are written and approved. They focus on key messages, not press releases. They know opportunities come and go, but some stories don't fade away. They pay attention to legal counsel, but don't enslave themselves to it. They understand that if they don't tell their story, somebody else will.

Most important, smart organizations see effective media relations as a critical strategy. Direct communication with your target audience is vital, but that audience also pays attention to third-party coverage and commentary to provide context and validation.

In a world of profiling communications channels, media relations has gotten tougher. But one thing remains the same. News is news. Old news isn't news, just like a mangled punchline isn't funny.

Slow-Walking a Fast-Breaking Crisis

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the hare, after a fast start, loses the race to the slow-moving, but steady tortoise. In the real word of crisis response, the tortoise almost never wins.

We live in a real-time world where crises can erupt or be inflamed by an iPhone video. Trying to respond by telegraph just doesn't cut it. If you can't keep up, reporters will look for and find news sources who will, with or without all the facts.

Smart crisis response involves gathering your facts, crafting your message and telling your story. A slow-walking response to a fast-breaking crisis can bury your facts, message and storytelling in the blur. Worse yet, a slow-moving response can become another trigger that propels news velocity.

Large organizations that haven't anticipated cruising in the crisis fast lane struggle to approve key statements or proactive steps. Legal considerations often play an outsized role in bogging down a crisis response that can play a significant role in the court of public opinion.

Complex corporate structures and attorneys, however, don't have to be obstacles, and they shouldn't be excuses. The solution requires open-eyed crisis preparation, starting with an acknowledgement that a crisis can and probably will happen and the response must be in the same time zone.

Crisis preparation should include specific ways to speed fact-finding, conduct legal reviews and approve actions and statements. One or more officials must be identified to take the lead in the event of a crisis and undergo stress-testing before they show up in front of microphones.

Stress testing and incident exercises based on likely crisis scenarios go well beyond basic media training. They teach how to stay cool while walking on hot media coals, often with only shreds of verified information and sometimes after being ambushed by reporters. Being out front on a cascading crisis requires mental quickness that eclipses the sedentary pace of sitting down for a one-on-one media interview or chatting up financial analysts.

Ordinary question-and-answer prep doesn't prepare a spokesperson for answering a question in the form of a video shot by an eye-witness to the crisis event.

Many corporate leaders don't want to be embarrassed by "failing" their stress tests with their top lieutenants looking on. But failure in this kind of media training is the first step toward success. Moreover, it is much better to fail in front of a few people you know than to fall flat in front of a bank of reporters.

If the thought arises that a slow-walked response could allow time to pass so the crisis goes away, think again. There are too many media incentives and too many communications channels for any crisis of note to disappear.

You wouldn't saunter to safety in the face of a swelling wave ready to pound the beach. You shouldn't saunter on crisis response, either.

Add GPS to Your Communication Channel

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

Self-publishing your content gives you control over your communications channel, but doesn't equate to access to it by your target audience.

There is great value in self-publishing. It puts your content out there. But your website exists in an ocean of other websites and won't be discovered without help. You need a GPS system to go along with your communication channel.

Guiding people to your website requires strategy on how to reach your target audience. That strategy should be supported by solid research indicating where your target audience looks for information and who they trust as a guide.

Strategies can range from paid media – Google ads, promoted Facebook and Twitter posts, billboards – to earned media through clever events, engaging interviews and story pitches.  Employees can be communications channel ambassadors, giving your content visibility from a reliable source. The key is keeping your website URL forward so people know it exists and give it a click. Don’t forget your own digital channels. Weather it’s an email blast or a tweet, know where your customers are following you and use those channels to connect with them. 

This is especially critical for issue managers who increasingly find themselves combatting inaccurate information spread by opponents. You need well documented content that people can find as they try to make up their mind about the issue. But they won't see your content unless you show them the way and provide assurances the trip will be worth it.

A lot of time and energy is spent on creating the right content, but too little time is devoted to getting the right people to see that content. This is a form of media amnesia, in which people revel in Marshall McLuhan's famous maxim "The medium is the message." It does not discount the value of your own medium to insist that it be coupled with effective outreach to your intended audience.

Issue managers can be drowned in a cascading news story. One of their most important lifelines is a well designed, well packaged website with credible information. Once you prepare that content, the real challenge is to make sure it is seen. That's when a GPS system that leads your audience to your content becomes as important as the content itself.

Don Tuite, editor of Electronic Design, said it best in an article about his looming retirement: "In the end, the channel is irrelevant without a transmitter (me) and a receiver to direct its content to (that’s you), and nothing I write has any meaning unless it reaches you and reduces your personal entropy on the topic I’m writing about."

Looking Forward Key to Putting Crisis in Past

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

Looking forward while dealing with a crisis is like showing how you're going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. 

The goal of crisis response is to get beyond the crisis. That requires looking forward, not just talking about how you are responding to what happened.

This is the equivalent of showing how you are going to rebuild the house that is burning down in a fire behind you. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

The key to looking forward is to show empathy for those impacted by the crisis. Putting their interests forward gives you a platform to talk about the future.

Care must be taken not to appear as if you are sloughing off the crisis at hand. You have to address it. The point is you can do more and help move the focus from the fire to reconstruction.

It is impossible to fake empathy, and your concern must come from a genuine place. Otherwise, you will do more harm than good. If a retaining wall collapses on a large construction project, raising questions about the engineering and contractor, a good step would be to pay one-on-one visits to adjoining residents or businesses. That creates an opportunity to explain what happened and how you will fix the problem, but also to ask about the project and how it can be leveraged to improve the neighborhood or solve a community issue. You might be surprised at what you find out.

Thoughtful crisis response involves much more than PR spin, which comes across as superficial and, sometimes, uncaring. Talking to people, even if you aren't able to quell all their concerns, builds rapport and ultimately some level of trust, especially if you follow through on what you promise.

This grassroots form of crisis response becomes the foundation for moving past the problem to longer term improvements, like mining the good from of the bad.

Actions always animate successful crisis responses. Forward-looking actions are the first steps to putting the crisis in the past tense.

Clickable News

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

Much has been said about the economics of publishing newspapers in the digital age. Less has been said about the effect of the digital age on the economics of covering the news.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable. Reporters have an incentive to write stories that create online clicks as much or more than front-page bylines. Some stories and their associated video and links may attract substantial viewership online and yet never appear in print.

Some cynics will say that news departments have always looked for ways to sensationalize the news to "sell newspapers." In truth, reporters and editors are more motivated by presenting news that people will read, whether they subscribe or pick up the newspaper on a park bench.

Today's environment is subtly, but significantly different. Reporters and editors are looking for news that people will read – and talk about. The conversation can occur online through "shares" and retweets, as well as around the family kitchen table and whatever has replaced the workplace water cooler. That's really what clickable news is all about. It is news you want to share.

As a consequence, government process stories have been replaced by harder hitting pieces about questionable government activities or policies. The measurement of newsworthiness has shifted from "news of record" to news that can cascade.

Cascading news can be as benign as the viral spread of the Ice Bucket Challenge to the continuing investigative coverage of the influence-peddling scandal engulfing former Governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancé Cylvia Hayes. These are stories that just keep rolling.

Once a story starts to cascade, it will attract more attention – and more reporters. A story at flood stage will have reporters digging to find new story angles to add to the swell.

The clickable news environment makes news-gathering techniques such as the ambush interview and siege stakeouts more mainstream. It also makes it harder to stop a story once it begins to cascade. It raises the stakes on crisis response.

Online connectivity is the floodplain for cascading stories. Online connectivity means you can share a story or your thoughts about a story with an entire community, not just with a few buddies over coffee.

Clickable news is here to stay, at least until the next big thing unfolds. You don't have to like all its implications, but it pays to learn how to cope with and conquer them. Media training provides a great opportunity to prepare and prep for the current reporting environment.

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

The Ambush Interview

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

You agree to an interview, but when the reporter shows up, he suddenly switches to a surprise and controversial topic. You have been ambushed.

You also can be ambushed when a reporter and a cameraman jump you en route to a meeting, asking uncomfortable questions in an equally uncomfortable setting.

The ambush interview is a newsgathering technique reporters employ to get a scoop. They may have new, explosive information or a hunch they will encounter reticence in a news source.

Like any ambush, the ambush interview can be painful. Like any communication crisis, the ambush interview can be a moment of truth where you can shine.

The nature of ambushes makes them hard to anticipate. But corporate leaders, spokespeople, political figures and public agency directors would be wise to prepare. Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid appearing defensive. Don't stomp off from the interview. An iPhone picture of your back can look like a guilty verdict. Take command, face your interviewer and say you aren't prepared to talk about the subject. Turn the tables and invite them to come back later when you are ready.
  • Be aware of ambush points. You may not anticipate when an ambush might occur, but you can anticipate the kind of material that might lead to an ambush. Identify those issues and have a prepared answer in your pocket if you are ambushed. Even a short answer is better than no answer or fumbling for an answer. If you can't provide an answer, clearly state why.
  • Remain calm. Your demeanor is probably the strongest message you can deliver. If you stay calm, you tell the reporter, "I can handle your pressure." Keeping calm provides space for you to negotiate – rescheduling an interview, moving the interview to a more appropriate setting or offering some context on the issue.
  • Don't get sucker-punched. If you successfully defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat with the reporter, don't let him sucker punch you with "Well then, let's talk off the record." This is just another, close-range ambush. A simple response: "Let's talk when I'm prepared" or "Let's talk when the facts are in" is a graceful exit from the reporter's trap.

Maintaining good media relations habits is one way to avert ambush interviews. Return calls from reporters so they don't feel the need to ambush you. Establish rapport with the reporters that routinely cover your company, nonprofit or agency, so you have a reservoir of trust. Be straight with reporters. Be willing to talk about the good and the bad, so you build credibility.

The digital age has made virtually anyone a "reporter." While the ambush interview is a challenge, the ambush by someone with a smartphone who records what you thought was a private moment poses a much greater challenge.

If you are someone with any degree of public profile, the best advice is to believe you are in a perpetual ambush zone. Don't let down your guard. Be prudent and thoughtful in what you say and do. Don't be surprised by an ambush.

Starbucks, Race and "Corporate" Anthropology

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Some issues are so touchy that even talking about them generates controversy, as Starbucks discovered with its initiative to have baristas engage coffee drinkers with ad lib comments on their cups about race.

The "Race Together" initiative was another effort by CEO Howard Schultz to stir things up. It certainly created a lot of buzz, both pro and con. And, by all accounts, it has provoked some conversations that may never have occurred.

Just getting the initiative out there has sparked conversation, however awkward, about a subject that is often cast, quite literally, in black and white terms.

Recent events, including an aggressive arrest of a black University of Virginia undergraduate this week,  have added even a sharper edge to racial relations. More people are protesting, but fewer people may be talking, at least to each over the racial divide.

A lot of brands see it in their own self-interest to keep their heads bowed to the grindstone. Focus on the product and service. Make sales, not waves.

Starbucks is a corporate phenomenon of a different stripe.  At least as Schultz has steered his ship, Starbucks doesn't just serve coffee; it creates a community to engage over coffee. This same philosophy may not work for, say, a company that makes power tools. But it may be a path other brands might consider, especially those that want to be viewed as contemporary and transparent.

What Starbucks is doing to spur conversations about race can be seen as in line with a broader movement to embrace culture anthropology as an avenue to gain insight into customer preferences. Instead of sifting through big data, anthropologists observe customer behavior, just as they might observe tribal habits in a remote Pacific Island.

What they learn can be startling and often at odds with conventional thinking. For example, customers of a line of sports apparel may be less interested in gaining a competitive edge than in staying healthy. That insight can lead to a vastly different tagline and advertising. You see your customer less through your own preconceptions and more in their natural element.

In many ways, that's what the Starbucks campaign is doing. The company can withstand a snarky tweet about not wanting a sermon on a coffee cup in return for percolating authentic, if at times awkward, conversations about a subject most people avoid.

You don't need to be a cultural anthropologist to know talking is better than shouting on a subject like race. And if you are in the business of creating communities, then you should be prepared for conversations about subjects that really matter.

Links

Turning Bright Spots into Your Sweet Spot

Looking for bright spots can help you find your sweet spot.

Looking for bright spots can help you find your sweet spot.

Boston has groaned under the weight of 104.1 inches of snow this winter, yet Bostonians are rooting for two more inches before the season ends. "It would be shame to have gone through all this and not break the record," said one upbeat Boston resident leaning on his well-worn snow shovel.

This attitude is known as looking for a bright spot. It is often the source of great success.

In their book "Switch," Chip and Dan Heath write about Jerry Sternin who went to Vietnam on behalf of Save the Children with the assignment of making a dent in widespread child malnutrition. He had virtually no money. Vietnamese officials gave Sternin six months to make something worthwhile happen.

Sternin didn't have time or resources to conduct an exhaustive study of why children were malnourished, so he went to villages to see what he could learn. He found children who were getting proper nourishment, and he took  time to find out how and why.

What Sternin did was look for bright spots. What he found were actions that could be copied in every Vietnamese village. He turned bright spots into shining examples of what could be done to make a difference.

Later, Sternin was responsible for setting up leadership training that looked for what he called "positive deviance," which is just another way of describing bright spot.

Far too often, we look for what's wrong, not what's right. Often, cultivating and nurturing what's right is a straighter path to success than trying to fix what's wrong. Copying success may be quicker, cheaper and smarter than coping with failure.

Looking for bright spots is not an excuse for neglecting to solve problems. But trying to solve problems isn't always the way to make breakthroughs. Dan Heath describes a company with a sales force with two stars, two plodders and two non-producers. A problem-solver may focus his or her attention on the plodders and non-producers. Someone looking for bright spots would spend his or her time finding out what made the sales team stars successful.

In the realm of issues management, the value of quality research is to look for bright spots – the message that makes a difference with the audience you need to convince.

Outreach efforts should stick to that effective message, rather than trying to "improve" other, less convincing messages.

Assessing community reaction to your messages should center on seeing who is impressed and asking them why. Is it the message, the messenger or something else? Finding the bright spot can become your sweet spot.

That can make all the difference in winning the day or finding yourself under an avalanche of opposition. 

Links:    

The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Being Prepared for the Q/A

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Too many CEOs and senior executives turn into wingmen when they approach question and answer sessions. They wing their answers and go down in flames, along with an opportunity to build trust. 

It takes a great deal of self-confidence to manage an organization, regardless of its size. But self-confidence isn't enough to prepare for a Q/A session with a key audience, especially an audience with an attitude and some tough questions. The only way to be ready for Q/A is to prepare – a lot.

Smart executives go to great pains to prepare for Q/A sessions. They make sure they are grilled with the toughest and widest range of questions and get help on framing solid, effective responses.

Depending on the significance of the Q/A, practice sessions can last for a day or more. Some executives may say they don't have that much time to devote to preparation. They fail to realize they could be spending a whole lot more time on damage control if they bomb in their Q/A performance.

Here are the most frequent problems: 

1. Caught off guard by a question.

The question may come from left field, but so what. Left field is still in the ballpark. Good prep work will identify even the most outlandish questions, so you have thought about them and have an answer at the ready.

 2. Don't have the information readily at hand.

If you are stumped by a question, it is better to admit it than try to bungle through an answer. However, if a question is fairly obvious – say, it's about the safety features of a proposed facility, the audience will expect you to have an answer. Failing to answer is tantamount to appearing evasive or, worse, uninformed. The people who prep you should have the license to remind you what you should know, which is usually why you are the one standing up giving the answers at a Q/A. 

3. Give inarticulate or incomprehensible answers.

Answering a question effectively includes giving an answer the audience can understand. Muddled facts, cloudy descriptions or cryptic references don't cut it. The purpose of an answer to a question is to satisfy the person who asked the question. Your answer may not always make them pleased, but it should never leave them confused. That's why you practice polishing your answers in a prep session.

4. Don't tell the truth.

Believing your own opinions can be dangerous when you are speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people. They don't hold many Q/A sessions in country clubs, so executives need to prepare for a different kind of social engagement. The best advice is to tell the truth – and to make sure of your facts when you prepare for the Q/A. 

5. Striking a patronizing tone.

When you know a lot and the audience may be a lot less informed, the temptation arises to give patronizing answers to questions. Unfortunately, audiences have the collective ability to topple you off your smarty-pants pedestal. Good preparation involves converting complex information or nuanced points into clear language.

6. Coming across as untrustworthy.

Just like any good speaker, you need to build rapport and trust with your audience. In a Q/A, that often involves bridging into your answer with some kind of empathetic comment. It can be as simple as "That's a great question" to "You raise a very discerning point." Framing answers in human terms helps to establish rapport because you demonstrate you have taken the time to think about the issue in more than a rote way. Thoughtful answers breed trust, even if they don't always generate agreement.

Newspapers May be Dying, But Newsrooms Aren't Morgues

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Columbia Journalism Review usefully reminds us that spunky local news media are still capable of exposing wrongdoing in their own backyards, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian did in the unfolding scandal involving former Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes.

The narrative that print media is dying a slow death may still be valid, but that doesn't necessarily translate into newsrooms as morgues. Reporters may face different challenges and incentives to post stories quickly online, but the basic journalistic motivation of digging up the truth remains.

It is true that many local newspapers are reluctant to take on stories that can involve scandal and public embarrassment. But that was true before the advent of digital media. If anything, the digital era has upped the ante for reporters and their editors to find and follow stories that attract attention.

CJR, one of the most respected voices in American journalism, credited "aggressive accountability reporting by local media" for toppling Oregon's popular governor who had just won an unprecedented fourth term in office. The CJR article noted, Kitzhaber blamed the news media for a rush to judgment on allegations he and his fiancée engaged in improper influence peddling.

The article and the episode should be big hints that media relations remain a critical element in effective strategic communications, especially in a crisis. Hoping that bad news will escape the media's attention or blow over after a one-day negative story doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. It is more like lighting a match near an open gas tank.

News media can fairly be judged on whether they make a robust effort to cover the news. But don't assume that sleeping dogs never wake up or that a friendly looking pooch may not have a little pit bull in him.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption.