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Seizing Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

The Seattle Seahawks staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL playoff history over the weekend. Then they blew it on Monday.

An over-ventilated person in the Seahawk PR department thought it would be great to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day and commemorate at the same time the team's never-give-up-hope victory. Clever idea. Bad decision.

The football team's Twitter account posted "We shall overcome" along with a picture of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson accompanied by King's famous "Take the first step in faith." Social media reaction was swift and slashing.

One tweet called it blasphemous to equate a football game victory to the civil rights struggle led by King.

The Seahawks responded quickly and smartly by removing the tweet and posting an apology admitting poor judgment. "We apologize for poor judgment shown in a tweet sent earlier. We did not intend to compare football to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King."

The episode is a further reminder than social media is not a parlor game. It is serious business, with serious consequences.

However well intended the Seahawks tweet was, it reflected the kind of poor judgment that usually results from a non-existent vetting system for social media posts. If a group of people had looked at and thought about the proposed post before it was published, a more mature judgment would have prevailed and it would have never seen the light of day.

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Don't Forget Editorial Board Visits

Much energy is devoted to wordsmithing press releases which could be better channeled into thinking more broadly whom to brief in person.

Notwithstanding the decline of newspaper readership and ad space, their editorial columns still have an impact. Editorial writers are worth the time to meet with and tell your story. Remember, the newsroom and the editorial staff aren't marching to the same drummer. In a savvy media relations strategy, you need to sing your song to both. 

While news releases bring attention to facts, events or developments, editorial board visits provide an avenue to express an opinion or to share the context behind the facts, events and developments.

Sharing your views doesn't automatically translate into a favorable editorial. But it does ensure your views are taken into consideration when an editorial is written.

A newspaper's editorial slant is usually obvious, but never should be taken for granted. There are plenty of examples of a pro-business paper writing an editorial lambasting a business.

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A Simple Reputation Management Plan

Managing your reputation can be as simple as identifying the greatest vulnerability within your control to fix – and fixing it.

Reputation management schemes vary in their complexity and cost. But an effective reputation management review boils down to pinpointing the worst problem you could face that you could make go away if you tried. After that, all it takes is the fortitude to make it go away.

Tillamook County Creamery Association undertook a reputation management exercise and fingered rBST, a bovine growth hormone, as the greatest threat to its dairy brands. The Monsanto-manufactured supplement added to Tillamook's productivity, but increasingly the parents who bought its dairy products grew wary of the long-term health effects of rBST.

Tillamook dairy farmers had the choice whether to scrap rBST, which they did. Despite the economic impact, Tillamook earned loyalty as a company that looked out for the well-being of its customers over profit. A step to protect a reputation became a powerful marketing tool. 

For many businesses, the threat that could undo it isn't down the road, but right at hand – a restaurant with lax food security, a medical clinic with loose controls on who can access opioids, a movie production company with a gaping hole in its IT network.

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Crisis Plans and Critical Details

Failure to check out the details can waylay the best laid crisis preparedness plans.

One of the most common practical shortcomings of crisis plans is outdated phone and email lists. Other common problems:

  • Chemical inventories are incomplete or not up to date.

  • The last incident training exercise with local emergency responders was years ago.

  • The war room you identified lacks an Internet connection.

  • The "ghost website" mentioned in your plan was never populated with background materials, B-roll video or other useful information.

  •  The spokespersons you gave media training took new jobs and you didn't designate or train replacements. 

These oversights can be catastrophic if a crisis occurs. An employee can face serious injury unless you can tell firefighters on the spot how to handle his exposure. You can't stay on top of real-time information flows without reliable communication channels. The person standing in front of a battery of microphones with zero experience can botch an answer and tarnish an organization's hard-earned reputation.

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Why Media Training Matters

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

You are standing in front of a bank of microphones and wall of TV cameras. Your words and how you express them will influence how the public, elected officials and employees view your organization. A lot is riding on your performance.

Even though the stakes are large, many spokespersons wing it. They enter the pit without any training and often without a realistic appreciation of the chaos they will encounter. They are entering the lion's den as bait.

Media training is intended to prepare spokespersons — and their bosses — to deal with the news media, cope with the pressures of social and digital media and manage the flow of information to a variety of external and internal audiences.

If crises are opportunities to demonstrate an organization's core values and enhance their reputation, then preparation and continuous practice are essential. Here is what media training should cover:

  • Building rapport with reporters. Spokespersons should understand the news media's role and how they do their job. Respecting deadlines, providing information in a timely manner and avoiding spin are ways that spokespersons build a positive relationship with reporters so they work with you instead of looking for ways to go around you. 
  • Understanding the value of sound bites. Reporters want facts. They also want great quotes. Spokespersons need to deliver both. An interview clip on a TV broadcast frequently lasts 10 seconds, which means there isn't time to offer a lengthy explanation. You need a short, quotable sentence or phrase that conveys your key message. This takes art, but mostly it takes the hard work to identify the most important fact and convert into a sound bite.
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The Complete and Convincing Apology

Many apologies fall short on the sincerity scale. They also are typically incomplete. That wasn't the case for the Ebola-related apology last week by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.

Snyderman is regularly featured on NBC's Today and Nightly News shows. She comes across as knowledgeable, articulate and authoritative. Her opinions, as a result, carry some weight with viewers.

The apology followed her coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which ended when freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo contracted the deadly virus. Snyderman and her team returned to the United States and submitted to a voluntary 21-day self-quarantine.

However, within days, Snyderman was spotted walking outside her house. That prompted New Jersey health officials to press for mandatory quarantines.

She apologized, saying, "I stepped outside the boundaries of what I promised to do and what the public expected of me. And for that, I'm sorry."

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Think Before You Post Online 

If you ever feel the need to sound off, find a secret spot and vent. Don't spew on social media.

The latest reminder of this online truth is Elizabeth Lauten, formerly the communications directors for a Tennessee congressman. After her Facebook bashing of the Obama daughters, Lauten finds herself embarrassed and unemployed. 

The spark that blew up Lauten's career was the sight of Sasha and Malia Obama looking and acting like teenagers when their father, the President, performed the annual ceremony of pardoning a turkey. Most people found this scene silly enough that they didn't watch, let alone let loose a social media mega bomb.

Many people may have shared Lauten's views about the girls' behavior, but only Lauten felt compelled to share her views about the girls – and gratuitously about their parents – with the world on her public Facebook account, and the world responded very quickly.

What did Lauten expect? Even teenagers could have predicted the blow-back she received from her Facebook posts. They've seen it over and over when someone posts an in-your-face screed.

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Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday should serve as a reminder of the importance and value of giving thanks – to colleagues, customers and clients.

Few actions, at any cost, provoke more goodwill and loyalty than a well-timed, heart-felt thank you.

Despite their remarkably high ROI, thank yous are hard for some people to express. They are too consumed with what they are doing to recognize great work, amazing innovation or impressive perseverance by the people around them.

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Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

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Making Something Real by Storytelling

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare and African Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson's One Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

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