Most of What You Learned in Econ 101 Is Wrong


Harvard's Greg Mankiw, author of the most popular college introductory economics textbook, is often regarded as America's econ teacher. He famously refers to his "Principles of Economics" as "my favorite textbook," and I must admit that it's also my favorite. It's written in a clear, explanatory style and covers the basics of most important theories in modern economics. 

But Mankiw's book, like every introductory econ textbook I know of, has a big problem. Most of what's in it is probably wrong. 

In the last three decades, the economics profession has undergone a profound shift. The rise of information technology and new statistical methods has dramatically increased the importance of data and empirics. This means that many professional economists are no longer, as empirical pioneer David Card put it, "mathematical philosophers." Instead, they are more like scientists, digging through mountains of evidence to find precious grains of truth. 

And what they have found has often been revolutionary. The simple theories we teach in Econ 101 classes work once in a while, but in many important cases they fail. 

For example, Econ 101 theory tells us that minimum wage policies should have a harmful impact on employment. Basic supply and demand analysis says that in a free market, wages adjust so that everyone who wants a job has a job -- supply matches demand. Less productive workers earn less, but they are still employed. If you set a price floor -- a lower limit on what employers are allowed to pay -- then it will suddenly become un-economical for companies to retain all the workers whose productivity is lower than that price floor. In other words, minimum wage hikes should quickly put a bunch of low-wage workers out of a job. 

That's theory. Reality, it turns out, is very different. In the last two decades, empirical economists have looked at a large number of minimum wage hikes, and concluded that in most cases, the immediate effect on employment is very small. It's only in the long run that minimum wages might start to make a big difference. 

That doesn't mean the theory is wrong, of course. It probably only describes a small piece of what is really going on in the labor market. In reality, employment probably depends on a lot more than just today's wage level -- it depends on predictions of future wages, on long-standing employment relationships and on a host of other things too complicated to fit into the tidy little world of Econ 101. 

For academic economists, that's no problem. If existing theories explain only a sliver of reality, they simply roll up their sleeves and get to work. Many labor economists are now working on complex theories that model the process of employees looking for work and employers looking for people to hire. For professional theorists, empirical failures simply mean more work to do. 

But for Econ 101 classes, explaining only a small slice of reality isn't good enough. If economics majors leave their classes thinking that the theories they learned are mostly correct, they will make bad decisions in both business and politics. We shouldn't train tomorrow's business elite to have faith in theories that have only a small amount of empirical success. 

Another example is welfare. Econ 101 theory tells us that welfare gives people an incentive not to work. If you subsidize leisure, simple theory says you will get more of it. 

But recent empirical studies have shown that such effects are usually very small. Occasionally, welfare programs even make people work more. For example, a study in Uganda found that grants for poor people looking to improve their skills resulted in people working much more than before. 

This has big political implications. If we train tomorrow's business elites to think that welfare encourages laziness, they may block support for policies that really improve the lives of the poor -- and the economic productivity of the whole nation. But this is precisely what Econ 101 is now doing. 

So what's the solution? Complex theories sometimes do a better job of explaining reality than simple ones, but these theories are way beyond the mathematical skill of most undergrad econ majors. A better alternative is to start teaching empirics in 101. 

Current textbooks, including Mankiw's, almost all play down the role of data and evidence. They sometimes refer to the results of empirical studies, but they don't give students an in-depth understanding of how those studies worked. Yet this wouldn't be very hard to do. The kind of empirical analysis now taking over the econ profession -- often called the "quasi-experimental" approach -- isn't that hard to understand. Simple examples could even be done in the classroom, or as homework assignments. 

In other words, the economics profession has gotten real, and it's time for Econ 101 to do the same. We now have an academic economics profession focused on examining evidence and an Econ 101 curriculum that focuses on telling pleasant but often useless fables. Econ education needs to get with the times. 

The Seven Deadly Sins for PR Pros Working with the Media

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

When you sit behind a reporter's desk, you see the good, the bad and everything in between from public relations professionals. Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, here is some advice on how to take your best shot at smoothly working with reporters.

Think of these as the seven deadly sins of PR. Avoid committing them, and you should be just fine.

1 Not taking controversy seriously: Controversy drives the news business. No matter how small the issue, always, always, always take a serious approach in responding to a reporter’s questions about any potential problem.

A few years ago as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I exposed an embarrassing oversight in the search for a new chief for the city’s troubled police department. It turns out one of the four finalists for the job had fabricated his academic credentials, listing on his resume two degrees from a diploma mill in Louisiana that the FBI had busted several years earlier. The man dropped his candidacy the morning we broke the news.

But the story only became more embarrassing for the city when I inquired about how the situation arose in the first place. Spokane has a history of rooting out public officials with degrees from diploma mills. So, why hadn’t anyone caught the phony degrees before we’d gotten to that point?

The best explanation the city’s spokeswoman could offer: “These things happen.” The city hadn’t done a background check yet, and the whole thing was no big deal, she said. Well, it actually was a pretty big deal to the public and the media. 

That quote was fair game, so I ran with it in print. And so did one of our most popular columnists, who ridiculed the city’s response at length in the paper. He even went so far as to make and distribute pins sporting the quote.

All that embarrassment could have been avoided if the city had taken the situation more seriously. We’re all human, and it’s better to admit to a mistake than to diminish the legitimacy of a controversy.    

2 Incessant follow-ups: This happens all the time. A reporter doesn’t respond to your press release, so you send another email, and then a third. Finally, you’ve lost your patience and decide to call and ask if the reporter received the press release and what he plans to do with it.

One email will do just fine. If the reporter hasn’t contacted you for more information, he’s probably not interested in the story or he may just not have time to pursue it yet.

We live in a time of shrinking newsrooms. Keep that in mind, and remember that as staffs continue to dwindle, reporters have less time to respond to every email and phone call. That trend means there is an ever-increasing need to write more engaging press releases. 

3 Getting mad: Whatever you do, never lose your temper in an interview. Nothing will make you look worse on camera, and unless you and the reporter have already agreed to keep your conversation off the record, it could end up in a story.

Unfortunately, reporters sometimes ask insensitive or uninformed questions. Sometimes, they run a little too far with rumors or misinformation. And sometimes, they can be invasive or exploitative, especially in times of loss or personal crisis.

But when it comes to dealing with a reporter in a difficult situation, getting angry is the last thing you want to do. Take a breath, if necessary. Pause to collect yourself, and then carry on with the interview.   

4 Knowing nothing about the reporter, the organization or the coverage area: Every day, reporters receive numerous press releases sent out in email blasts to all sorts of news organizations. These become problematic when it’s clear that the sender knows nothing about the reporter or the coverage area.

“Dear _____:” Believe it or not, empty fill-in-the-blank press releases that start just like this make their way to reporters all the time. And there’s no faster way to turn a journalist off to your big announcement.

Before sending out a press release, take some time to get to know the receiver. What is the reporter’s name? What’s the coverage area? Would the news organization be interested in this? If so, how can you tailor it in a way that makes it more likely to get coverage? 

5 Burying the lead: If you’re wondering why you never got a call back about that press release you sent out a couple days ago, maybe this was your mistake.

Reporters have less and less time to spend on any given story in today’s fast-evolving newsroom. That also means they have less time to read press releases.

Stick to the basic rules of newswriting when reaching out to the media. Remember the inverted pyramid, the fundamental structure of a simple news story: the most important information should go at the top of your press release. As you wind down to the bottom of the page, your paragraphs should become less and less essential.

Place the heart of your message – the biggest news you have to announce – in the first paragraph of your press release. That way, you’re guaranteed to grab the reporter’s attention. 

6 Ignoring the media: Unfortunately, reporters won’t just disappear if you close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist. They keep calling or writing. And if you continue ignoring them, they’ll publish the most dreaded words imaginable: so and so declined to comment.

I can’t count how many times I’ve written that phrase, but it never reflected well on the people who decided not to say anything. When in doubt, almost any response is better than silence. Ignoring the media only makes the public suspect you have something to hide.

Instead, prepare a well-thought-out statement or simply agree to an interview. Planning ahead pays off, so try to anticipate what questions the reporter might ask and think about your responses beforehand. Try not to sound rehearsed, of course, but keep your main points in mind throughout the interview. 

7 Using jargon: Reporters tend not be experts in, well, just about anything. They specialize in distilling complex issues into simple explanations communicated to the masses. So, it’s best to avoid using industry-specific jargon in a press release.

Otherwise, you stand the risk of confusing a reporter. In that case, a reporter is likely to make an error in the story, which can be embarrassing for both journalists and PR pros alike. 

While a reporter might not let you proofread a story before it’s published, there is nothing wrong with asking to double check the facts first. It may sound pesky, but there’s nothing reporters hate more than having to write a correction to a story.  

Headlines Reinforce Crisis Response Reality

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

Fresh front-page headlines tell an old story – how you respond to crisis affects your reputation as much or more than the crisis itself.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was pressured to resign after his indifferent response to on-campus racial incidents, including snubbing a group of protestors who surrounded his car demanding an opportunity to talk face-to-face.

Chipotle faces a sharp business drop-off after the trendy burrito chain cavalierly responded to more than 40 of its customers in Oregon and Washington coming down with E. coli food poisoning. The company’s sluggish response to the crisis will put a dent in its "food with integrity" slogan that has attracted a loyal following, and it will give fuel to its critics who have mocked the restaurant’s high-calorie menu in the Chubby Chipotle campaign.

Then there’s GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has drawn rebukes from his Republican rivals and even more investigative intensity in the past week. Carson found himself under the microscope after complaining about excessive scrutiny following press reports that questioned the accuracy of his statements about a scholarship to West Point and a violent past as a teenager.

Looking overseas, the initial response by Egyptian and Russian officials to the downed Metrojet passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in retrospect looks like an effort to avoid rocking the tourist boat. While the plea not to rush to judgment made sense, the quick dismissal of a terrorist act contradicted their own words. It took action by British Prime Minister David Cameron – who suspended British carrier flights to Sharm el-Sheikh – to bring to light the very real prospect of a bomb that brought down the plane. Now, the Russian government has suspended flights as it tries to find a way to bring home more than 25,000 Russian tourists.

In this situation, the Russians are displaying the same head-in-the-sand reaction to a damaging international report about state-sponsored doping by the country's track and field athletes.

If you are Russia, maybe you don't care what other people think. But for most of us, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Preserving that reputation in a crisis situation is a priority.

While no two situations are alike, there are universal crisis response fundamentals that apply to all of these situations. Chief among them is responding proactively by acknowledging the crisis and its repercussions, accepting responsibility and taking demonstrable action to address the cause of the crisis.

If Wolfe had acknowledged and denounced the inexcusable racial incidents that occurred on the University of Missouri campus, he would have placed himself on the same side as those who were deeply offended. In light of the racial tensions sparked by events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, it is incredible that Wolfe could be so tone deaf.

Wolfe's resignation – spurred in part by the Missouri football team refusing to play this weekend – belatedly reflected empathy for the situation when he urged his departure to be the start of a healing process. Better late than never, but a proactive crisis response is always best.

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.

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.

Being Gracious Instead of Pugnacious

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

Hard-chargers are often chosen to be the face and voice of a campaign involving a contentious public policy issue. That can be a mistake if they come across as pugnacious rather than gracious.

Issue managers would love to believe that facts and firmness move the needle of public opinion, and they can. But personalities often are a bigger influence by establishing a bond of trust.

For example, the tenor of a public forum can turn on a presenter’s conduct. Being gracious can be a big help in quieting and even swaying a rowdy crowd. Civic conversation has grown coarser, or at least it seems so, as people feel unburdened by civility in the comments they make and questions they ask. A successful influencer doesn't take the bait. He or she receives comments or questions with equanimity, then thanks them for the challenge and answers calmly. Grace under fire flusters and disarms opponents.

A gracious person can disagree without being disagreeable. They see disagreement as a chance to make the case with convincing facts and logic, not trash someone else's point of view. They recognize this is the path to earn grudging nods of approval.

A gracious demeanor conveys humility, respect of others and a sense of self-confidence. You don't talk down to an audience or try to snow them with your superior knowledge. Being gracious means staying positive and paying attention when others speak. It also means saying thank you and acknowledging when someone else makes a strong point. Graciousness requires knowing what not to say as much as what to say. 

So tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, politer you when you face a hostile crowd. Use graciousness as a weapon of choice.

The Benefits of Brevity

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

William Shakespeare called brevity the soul of wit, and Dorothy Parker referred to it as the soul of lingerie. In public affairs, brevity is a source of successful speechmaking.

The benefits of brevity are not a secret or a new insight. President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated." 

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book." 

And humorist George Burns quipped, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible."

Despite such sage advice, speakers continue to drone on, inducing drowsiness in their audience. Worse than that, longwinded speakers frustrate their audiences, drowning out what might have been a powerful, useful message.

Resonating with an audience demands several things, but chief among them is brevity. You need something worthwhile to say. You must organize your thoughts so an audience can trace your train of logic. You should illustrate your key point in memorable ways. And you need to get the job done while people are still paying attention, otherwise the point is lost in a wave of inattention.

Speech coaches properly concentrate on ways to establish immediate rapport, use vivid language and end on an up-note. But sometimes they forget about the health of the heart of the speech, the part about economizing what you say so your words and thoughts stick out.

Louise Brooks, the actress known for popularizing the "bob" hairstyle, offered this advice, 'Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination." Her point is well taken. When writing a speech, don't think of everything you can say; think of everything you can leave out.

It is not just an issue of shortened attention spans; it is a case of limited space in people's brains to absorb and store information. Making your point and being brief is one way to claim space in the mental warehouse of your audience.

In the public affairs world, too many people want to share "all the facts." Unfortunately, audiences and news reporters can be quickly overwhelmed. The result is you lose their attention and they wind up not remembering any of your facts.

A better approach is to select the most salient points. Talk about those. Show why they matter. Explain how they work. Then stop. The discipline of being brief usually brings about increased clarity to your message. You are forced to be specific, to focus, to stick to your main point.

The best compliment a speaker can receive is, "I could have listened to that person all night." Just remember, that's a compliment, not a stage direction.

Really Owning a Crisis

Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Crisis response gurus offer plenty of advice about owning a crisis, but there are too few high-profile examples of people following that advice. General Motors CEO Mary Barra has provided a great example.

"People were hurt and died in our cars," Barra told GM employees, as reported by The Detroit News.  "We didn't do our job, and as part of our apology to the victims, we promise to take responsibility for our actions."

Check. Check. Check.

This is the CEO of a major U.S. corporation speaking, not a PR flunky or a third vice president.

Barra makes a simple, candid declaration about corporate failure that caused people to lose their lives.

She offers an apology tied to tangible restitution to the victims of that corporate failure.

Yes, GM just reached a $900 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to end a criminal investigation. However, that doesn't detract from her statement. It might even enhance it.

GM is admitting its wrong, agreeing to make it right with those most impacted and taking actions to prevent such neglect and customer indifference from occurring again. Barra previously had fired 15 GM employees and disciplined five others for "incompetence and neglect." Under Barra, the automaker has attempted to change its internal culture regarding safety. In the settlement, the company agreed to an independent monitor of GM's safety procedures.

This isn't the first time Barra has expressed contrition for the ignition defect that has been linked to 124 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. But it perhaps is the clearest, most resonant statement she has made – and one that serves as an excellent example of what it means to own a crisis.

Ethics and Crisis

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis is an unwelcome way to prove your mettle and test your ethics.

The chaos of crisis will challenge your calm, creating an opportunity to perform under pressure amid events out of your control. But crisis also will tempt you to cut corners, blame scapegoats and bend the truth. Your core values may take a backseat to expediency. Your ethics is one of the best tools to carry around in a crisis. 

Acting ethically in crisis, while hard, is the right thing to do. Ethical behavior is the path to a burnished reputation.

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the tainted Tylenol incident is the perfect example of a crisis response based on values. James E. Burke, CEO of J&J, challenged all his employees to put "Patients First," the company's brand promise. Pulling Tylenol from shelves, meeting with thousands of care providers and patients and developing the tamper-proof container were the fruits of following that core value.

Your ethics will be on the line when you are called on to stand in front of microphone, admit a mistake and take responsibility for a mess. Your reputation can take a hit if you hide out, shift responsibility and blame others.

People know stuff happens. They tend to judge based on what you do after stuff happens. Sluggish responses, fingerprinting and denial often leads to a cascading drop in credibility.

Here are four tips on how to integrate ethics into your crisis response:

Look in the Mirror
Before doing anything else, take stock of your reputation, your brand promise, what you stand for. Let that be your guide as you lead efforts to clean up a spill, stabilize a faltering operation or condemn a bad practice. Deputize everyone involved in the crisis response to follow the same guideline. Make an enhanced reputation your goal.

Be Proactive
Don't let events beyond your control define your response. Take charge of fixing what's wrong. Find a long-term solution. Communicate with your own employees and those who are impacted. Use tools such as Twitter that allow real-time communications.

Seek Advice
Owning a crisis doesn't mean dealing with it alone. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to seek expert opinions, consult your own employees and ask those caught in the crisis what they think should be done. Be curious and empathetic, not cavalier and impulsive. You may get conflicting advice, but you also will get invaluable suggestions.

See Your Actions in a Newspaper Headline
A simple test to assess your actions is to write the most slanted story and headline to describe them. If the result disturbs you, then reconsider what you do. Pursue actions that are unmistakably sound and reflections of your ethics, actions will are likely to produce headlines you would want your family and friends to read the next day.

The Power of a Picture

The picture of a limp 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned at sea struck a worldwide chord, melted hearts and galvanized humanitarian action.

The picture of a limp 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned at sea struck a worldwide chord, melted hearts and galvanized humanitarian action.

The immense power of imagery was reinforced last week when the face-down photo of a dead infant on a beach sparked worldwide outrage and political change.

The infant was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Aegean Sea along his older brother and his mother as his family sought to escape war-torn Syria. The family hoped to reach Canada and start a new life.

The stark picture, which received millions of views on social, online and traditional media, touched a nerve and underscored the vulnerability of refugees. It would not be overly dramatic to say the picture changed many people's hearts.

The lapping waves washing over Aylan's tiny, limp body made the flight from hellish conditions more personal. It was easy to imagine your own child or grandchild lying dead on a beach. It was also easier to understand a more human response than erecting a razor-wire fence or denying people access to trains or railing again immigrants.

The boy's father, Abdullah Kurdi, recounted the tragedy of how a wave flipped over the 16-foot dinghy, forcing passengers, including his family, to hold on for life. First one son died, then a second and finally his wife. Kurdi said the lifejackets they wore were fake. His story may never have been heard if not for a picture.

And there was a response. German removed its quotas for Syrian refugees. Hungarians sent buses to transport refugees it early rebuffed to Austria, where Austrians welcomed them with food, water and blankets. Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron said Aylan's picture moved him to expand his country's welcome mat.

Those responses may not be adequate to deal with the tide of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries ravaged by violence and sectarian terrorism, but the responses may not have occurred at all but for a single picture.

Every picture doesn't have the potential to sway viewpoints or change minds. However, pictures can reach places in our minds and hearts that words never visit. Pictures can reduce a complex subject to its essential simplicity. They can convey emotion. They can deliver a message at a glance.

The concept of information design is not about substituting pictures for words. Information design is all about finding the best way to show what you mean. Words can be powerful tools. So can numbers arrayed in charts. Sometimes a picture can tell the story in a unique and stirring way that is without peer.

The voice of a great picture is clear, unmistakable and hard to forget.

Clinton and Bungled Crisis Response

60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

The continuing saga of Hillary Clinton and her private email server serves as a fresh reminder that how you respond to a crisis is what influences public opinion.

Lanny Davis, former counsel to President Clinton and a Hillary Clinton supporter, shared a telling observation from his recent visit to Iowa:

"I was attending the Iowa Cubs (AAA minor-league team) baseball game. Interestingly, out of dozens of people I sought out and talked to about [Hillary] Clinton, their focus was not concern about her use of emails or housing them on her own secure server, but rather, what they thought was her absence of immediate transparency and explanation as to what happened and why."

In a piece written for "The Hill," Davis attributes Clinton's precipitous 13 percent fall in the latest Des Moines Register poll to her mishandling of the email server issue. He bolsters that conclusion by noting the poll shows Clinton still enjoys high favorability ratings (seven out of 10 Democrats hold a favorable impression) and 60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious.

What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue. Her death-by-a-thousand-cuts response has allowed the issue to fester in public and opened the door to questions about her trustworthiness, a nagging worry that has some history with the Clintons.

What's most evident and disappointing is that Clinton has missed an opportunity to enhance her political reputation by showing she can be trusted. Instead, Clinton treated the issue initially as insignificant and later made light of her decision to use private email while secretary of state. She turned over emails only after pressure built to do so. She failed to see the potential danger in this issue and, therefore, didn't take bold steps to own it and see that it was vetted fully as soon as possible.

Clinton is hardly alone in missing opportunities to build trust through a crisis. Often times it is the smartest person in the room who makes the dumbest mistake when it comes to crisis response.

Whether the email episode will derail Clinton's trip to the Democratic presidential nomination and ultimately the White House remains to be seen. But without question, Clinton has made the journey harder by how she mishandled this crisis and missed a chance to make it easier.

First Call in a Crisis

If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

"If there's something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
                               – Ray Parker

That works for the movie, but if your organization finds itself in the midst of a crisis, the first people to let know are your own employees.

Too often, employee communication in a crisis is an afterthought. They are left finding out what's going on by reading news accounts or following someone else's tweets.

This is a badly missed opportunity because employees can be a trusted conduit for reliable information about a crisis. If employees aren't clued in, they can inadvertently become a conduit for inaccurate or confusing information through their iPhone pictures and social media chatter.

Many crisis preparation plans include excruciating detail on how and when to communicate with external audiences such as the news media, but glance over the value of timely internal communications. Few plans call for telling employees about a crisis first.

How a company deals with a crisis can enhance or tarnish its reputation. That is especially true for the company's workforce. If employees are left in the dark, their estimation of management can drop. Morale can sag as employees conclude they really aren't strategic partners in the enterprise.

Employees briefed on a crisis can do more than tell the company's story. They can help shape what the company does, offering practical advice about maintaining operations that could easily be overlooked in the chaos that dominates crisis situations.

Overloaded crisis communicators may think there isn't time to talk to employees when reporters or angry neighbors are calling every minute. But this really isn't a job that should be delegated anyway. The organization's top dog should seize the opportunity to share what is happening, explain the response and ask for constructive ideas.

There is a lot of confusion during a crisis. Don't be confused about who ya gonna call first.

Half-Truth Closer to a Lie Than Truth

Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Fair and balanced reporting means telling both sides of a story. However, telling both sides of the story can allow one side to traffic in misinformation and get equal or better coverage than a truth-teller.

One of the dirty little secrets in today's public affairs world is that too often the misinformation is intentional. Misinformation doesn't have to be a big lie, just enough indirection to mislead or distort the facts. 

Contentious issues get the adrenalin going, which can lead spokesmen to exaggerate, hype certain facts or even make false claims to win support. This misinformation gets reported without analysis or fact-checking as the "other side of the story," With no barriers on what to say or how to say it, misinformation can be cast in bombastic visual events, which have the habit of sticking in the public's mind more so than good old-fashioned facts.

Even diligent readers are left to sift through the two sides, without any objective guide to discern facts from convenient fictions.

This phenomenon has become a commonplace dimension of public debates. and, as such, has become a nightmare for issue managers who have a job description that requires sticking to the facts.

Admittedly, some misinformation is simply sloppy fact-gathering. Someone misinterpreted data or relied on a flawed source. Other times, misinformation is the heart of a strategy – to advance an agenda or block a project. Such as questionable intelligence data about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or repeated references to a propane export terminal's "blast zone."

Blatant distortions incite rage and social media rants. They can be the perfect fuses for protests, which in turn earn more news coverage, creating an impression of broad opposition.

Sound familiar? It should because misinformation is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in civic discourse. It's okay to fudge the truth, advocates reassure themselves, because ends justify the means. They have taken Mark Twain's sly comment as a license to lie – "get your facts first, then distort them all you please."

The hyperventilation of public debates tends to lower the bar of what is acceptable. Before long, both sides are stretching the truth. Passions may be aroused, but the real legacy of this kind of discourse are cloudy memories and deepening cynicism. 

Public relations professionals have witnessed this erosion of public conversation, and sometimes contributed to its demise with less than truthful assertions. Now the chickens have come home to roost. With thinner media news staffs and more channels for rogue fact-telling that can be retweeted mindlessly, it has become harder for the public to know what to believe. As a result, they find something better to do than pay attention.

There is no magic elixir to wash away this problem. It is here to stay and, if anything, getting worse. The best approach under the circumstances is to produce credible third-party validation for claims you make, then be unrelenting in pressing those claims and their validation in public venues.

This is painstaking work that involves creativity, discipline and grit. It requires getting out your side of the story first. It may require confronting opponents who deal in slippery arguments and dubious facts. It definitely will require spending patient time working with reporters and editors to tell your story, provide your facts and validate your claims.

And one counterintuitive suggestion: Be able to tell your opponent's story better than your opponent. It's not your job to tell the other side's story, but if you can tell it fairly and accurately, you earn credibility – and a greater chance that people listen to your story and trust it is the truth.

The News Advisory Versus the Press Release

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

There is no right way to pitch a story to the news media, but some ways work far better than others. One of the weakest media relations tools is the venerable press release.

For starters, reporters, editors and producers don't like them. They smack, in their view, of attempts to spoon feed the press. As a result, press releases – despite all the energy to wordsmith every last sentence – gets wadded up and tossed in the newsroom.

Press releases have their places, which we will get to later. But a better approach to pitching a story is the news advisory.

News advisories focus on the main story hook. In a sentence or two, an effective news advisory provides the reason a reporter, editor or producer should care abut your story and its critical details. Most important, the news advisory contains links or visual assets that allow the reporter, editor or producer to scout out the story on their own.

One of the links can be to a press release that you've posted on your organization's online newsroom, so the press release is used as back-up material, not the wedge to sell the story.

The self-discovery strategy has another key quality – it leads to quicker interaction between the PR pro and the reporter. If the story hook perks interest, the reporter may want to ask quickly about other resources or contacts. Story development becomes more of a collaborative endeavor – and more likely to produce something you will feel good about.

Maybe the underlying value of news advisories is the need to zero in on the story hook – what makes whatever you are pitching news, at least in the eyes of the reporters, editors and producers you are pitching. They may like your hook or see a promising variation. Either way, you are ahead of the game.

In certain circumstances, a news advisory can prompt an invitation to write a "story" or an op-ed. This offers a chance to find out what the reporter, editor or producer wants before you start writing. You can customize the story to fit what the media wants while still incorporating your "news" message. This is way to give one media outlet something exclusive, instead of the same press release that has been sprayed around to other media.

This advice applies to online influencers. Bloggers, many of whom are former journalists, aren't more prone to wade through a pile of press releases. News advisories appeal to them for all the same reasons. You give them a chance to work with you on a story one-on-one.

Another convenience to news advisories – they can fit into the 140-character channel of Twitter. Pitching stories on Twitter has become commonplace, especially for people who take the time to sharpen their story hook and share it cleverly.

News advisories aren't revolutionary. People and organizations that get their stories out have always used more personalized outreach strategies. The digital age just allows you to be personal with more people at the same time.

The next time the boss says to write a press release with dubious news value, suggest a news advisory that you send after spending time on the story hook, not the quote that never will see the light of day.

Click here to download a copy of one of our recent media advisories.

Affirmations First, Then Explanations

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Affirmations work better than explanations in crisis situations. Affected audiences want to hear that you have fixed the problem, not necessarily how.

For knowledgeable people, this can be a challenge. Their instinct is to explain the cause of the problem and explain the solution. Those details are important, but in a real-time environment they serve best as secondary messages, not primary ones. People want reassurance you are on top of the problem. That requires declarative language, not jargon.

For example: "We deeply regret the incident, but we are fixing it and will take steps to prevent it from ever happening again. We also will make things right with those who have been impacted."

Simple words, but a powerful message that conveys the key elements of an effective crisis response – remorse, resolve, reform and restitution. Just as important, it qualifies as a sound bite with a chance to be seen on TV, heard on radio or viewed in a newspaper or online.

Following a strong, assertive statement, you can fill in the details – in priority order. In some crises, the priority is to make things right with those affected, such as airline passengers stranded on a runway for hours. In other cases, the priority may be on describing the fix.

The same rule applies to details – use direct, plainspoken language. If you are describing safe drinking water from the Willamette River, paint a picture of what happens. "We know how to treat water to make it safe to drink. We test water from any source coming into the treatment plant so we know what we have to treat. Then we test the water before it leaves the treatment plant to make sure we made it safe to drink."

That may seem sparse to technical ears, but it is train of events that average people can grasp. And it mentions "safe to drink"  – a bottomline message – twice in just 50 words.

The point of an interview is to get your point across to viewers or readers. Like any interaction, you have to be mindful of what audience will tolerate and be willing to absorb. In a crisis, people want to hear some empathy and hear about some action. The English language contains a lot of words. For this purpose, simpler ones are most appropriate.

If you want to be understood, skip the explain and stick with the affirmation.

Talking to Optimists and Pessimists

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

Should you focus on what's wrong or what's right? Are you pessimistic or optimistic? Do you project gloom or hope? Which is likely to attract wider support?

Sadly, there is no easy answer. But there are clues.

You could argue Ronald Reagan ("city on the hill") defeated Jimmy Carter ("crisis of confidence") in the 1980 presidential election because optimism triumphed over pessimism.

Then again, few dispute H.L. Mencken's sardonic observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public."

Pessimism and optimism may be polar opposites, but inseparable. They may be the devil and the angel that perch on our shoulders and whisper constantly in our ears.

Winston Churchill said, "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Harry Truman put it similarly, but differently, "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."

With exceptions, most of us qualify as part-time pessimists and part-time optimists. We are influenced by what's going on in our personal lives and what's happening around us. If you had a wonderful family, a good job and a beautiful community, but lived in the shadow of a nuclear conflict, you would have cause for both optimism and pessimism.

The duality and ineluctability of optimism and pessimism forms a significant challenge for communicators. Do you appeal to the dark side or light side of an issue? Do you play on people's fears or try to lift their hopes? Do you describe what's wrong or point to how to make it right?

Helen Keller may have the best advice of how to approach such questions. "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Optimism, in the face of all reason, is part of the American personality.

The best way to combat fear is to shine light on hope.

Americans may seem like reluctant optimists, when their confidence sags as consumers or their faith in government wanes or their anxiety over foreign conflicts surges. But without question, Americans gravitate to voices of optimism and people with ideas.

That's why crisis responders need to accept responsibility, but acknowledge the need to move forward. That's why issue managers must recognize valid concerns, but repeat a project's or proposal's benefits.

For a while, cynicism may seem to be winning. But it is hard to sustain the downbeat. The optimist in all of us grows weary at constant doomsday talk. That's why an upbeat argument can win attention – and maybe win the day, too.

One thing that unites people who see the glass half empty and those who see the glass half full is they both want to see the glass full.

"An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight. The truly wise person is colorblind."  – Albert Schweitzer.

Relevant link: We Need Optimists, New York Times

The Public Affairs Rugby Match

Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

The Republican Party has a problem not dissimilar from a lot of organizations – a voice that tends to drown out almost everyone else.

Donald Trump, a master of provocative improvisation, is surging in the GOP primary polls because of his outspoken style, blunt speech and repeated insults. Alienating the political elite has become his calling card.

Media coverage of Trump has sucked the air of the room for the other 15 declared GOP presidential candidates. Other than condemnations of Trump, little of what they say on the stump gets reported.

The party's predicament could reach a crescendo at the first candidate debate August 6, which will be limited to only 10 of the current 16 hopefuls. Trump would be hard to keep off the stage, even though his brash political rhetoric could commandeer the show.

Many organizations find themselves lost in the fog of blowhards who hijack the dialogue, often with misinformation or fear mongering. Scaring people has a lot more emotional impact than a tightly worded, factual explanation.

You can wring your hands or you can, as the saying goes, fight fire with fire. Without deserting principled advocacy and substantiated facts, you can create your own firepower by concentrating on the best argument you have that resonates with the audience you are trying to reach and disarms the opposition.

This is not an argument for a shouting match or sloganeering. But you can't show up at a gun fight with a butter knife. Opponents these days have grown more sophisticated. They rely on polling to pick the argument that works. They use inexpensive social media to spread their word. They caricature your worst vulnerability. Responding with reams of data and long, involved talking points will leave you overmatched.

As Trump's opponents will discover, presumably sooner than later, they need to sharpen their own messaging to grab voter and media attention. These people are running for President of the United States, so tell people why and how you would make a unique difference. Turn Trump into a clever bridging line back to your own key message.

The same advice holds for issue managers. Sharpen your verbal sword. Don't wander into the fray; jump in with your best argument, phrased in a way that people will listen and remember. Take the opposition argument on by plainly saying why it is misplaced, misinformed or wrong.

What have you got to lose? The bloviators will win unless you join the fight, using your best argument, the smartest communications tools and your strongest convictions.

Remember, public affairs is not a spectator sport. It is more like rugby. Gear up accordingly.

When Too Much Is Too Little

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

When you give a 3-minute answer to a television reporter's question, you have said too much and too little at the same time.

It's a question of too much information burying your core, essential message.

If you give a reporter three minutes worth of verbiage, you allow the reporter to decide what's important. If you give a crisp, clear response, you leave no doubt what's important. You have given the TV reporter a gift – good air for a 12-second clip to weave into his or her story.

In the issues management space, there is too often a belief that a windy, fact-filled explanation will win the day. If people don't get it the first time through, then just keep feeding them more facts. This is the equivalent of talking louder when an audience seems deaf to what you are saying.

Length and volume are no substitutes for clarity and brevity. You can sneer at sound bites, but don't forget to use them. They work. Sound bites are built to be heard.

What do you need to say? What is the important message to convey? What is the best way to communicate that message? Answering these questions should lead to a simplified statement that makes your point.

There is a time and place for background, context and more detail. We call them fact sheets, special topic websites and explanatory video. Let them do the deep dive while you provide the sharp edge of what a topic means and why it is important.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between being too glib and too wordy. Sometimes glibness comes across as patronizing or dismissive. Caution needs to be taken to ensure sound bites inform, not insult.

However, your energy is better spent on trimming excess words and non-essential information so you focus on phrasing the key message so people hear and remember it. Saying less is much harder than adding a bullet point or citing another fact. Saying less does your audience a favor. They don't have to sift through mounds of material to figure out what you are really saying.

There is a reason they don't sell encyclopedias on the doorstep any more. People can go online to find out what need to know. When you speak, you need to concentrate on saying something worth hearing.

Media Training: Screen Tests for Spokespersons

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Dealing with the news media is not a spectator sport. It takes discipline and practice not unlike an actor learning to play a part and deliver lines in character.

Actors don't show up on stage unprepared, and neither should spokespersons. Media training is a must.

For people with media backgrounds, with lots of actual experience or who have taken media training before, media training can be an invaluable refresher course. You can always perform better.

Media training tutorials can cover a wide landscape of communications realities and challenges. But effective media training sessions always include exercises that put your speaking and thinking-on-your-feet skills to the test. We call them stress tests.

We have found the most effective stress tests require trainees to identify what they need to say, develop a key message and refine that message into something approaching a sound bite. We ask trainees to anticipate issues and questions they will face in an interview – maybe even an ambush interview – with an aggressive print or broadcast media reporter.

The interviews are digitally recorded so trainees can see themselves perform. They usually are their own harshest critics, noticing distracting twitches, slouchy posture or roving eyes.

Our media training sessions preferably include two stress tests. That way trainees get a second chance to clean up mistakes they made in the first interview.

When time allows, we like to preface the stress tests with an exercise aimed at helping people find their own voice. This usually involves asking a trainee to compose a short story about a subject near and dear to their heart and then relate it orally without notes. This low-stress experience gives trainees a chance to concentrate on a power position and eye contact without having to think too much about tricky subject matter or questions hurled from left field.

The tutorial section of the training offers some background on the changing face of the news media, new technologies that have accelerated the pace of news cycles and reporting ethics and responsibilities. We also cover social media, including the emergence of Twitter as a terrific real-time way to update the news media, employees and key stakeholders in a crisis.

But the heart of the media training is the role-playing experience in front of a camera. A key first step is to overcome the aversion of practicing to perform. CEOs can be the worst. They typically became CEOs because of their abilities to speak well and think on their feet. But as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner proved with his comment about "beautiful women not being funny," you aren't as prepared as you think you are.

Success in front of the camera starts with careful preparation, often in a compressed time frame. Very few people are capable of matching a moment on the spot with the right comment and emotional empathy. It is why actors do their homework before they play a part. They have to assimilate their role and make the script their own.

The purpose of media training is to give spokespersons the perspective, the tools and the tips to write an effective key message and deliver it in perfect pitch.

Media training stress tests are like screen tests for actors. They show your potential and what you need to work on to play your part. 

If you are or may be a spokesperson, arm yourself with media training. It's a smarter option than winging it.

CFM provides customized media trainings for a wide variety of clients. Contact CFM today to learn more. 

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.