The Disarming Genius of Crowdsourcing Questions

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler exemplified his engaging leadership style by crowdsourcing questions to ask finalists for the position of executive director of the Portland Development Commission. One fresh question could make all the difference.

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler exemplified his engaging leadership style by crowdsourcing questions to ask finalists for the position of executive director of the Portland Development Commission. One fresh question could make all the difference.

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler showcased his leadership style by asking his Twitter followers for questions to pose to the three finalists to become the next executive director for the Portland Development Commission.

Crowdsourcing questions for candidates for public office – or other high-profile subjects – can be a disarming tactic that ultimately helps validate the final choice. It also demonstrates an open mind and a willingness to listen to a wide range of concerns.

Wheeler asked Mayor Charlie Hales to let the next mayor select the head of the PDC, but Hales pushed ahead anyway. Then, when Wheeler won the mayor’s race outright in the May primary, Hales agreed to involve him in the decision-making process.

The field has been narrowed to three people – two with ties to the PDC and a third who manages a Detroit development group. Kicking off the conversation, Wheeler tweeted, “If you were interviewing candidates for PDC head, what questions would you ask?”

Open-ended invitations like this typically fetch a mix of serious and not-so-serious responses. But asking for questions creates a dialogue that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and it flushes out questions or concerns that might have gone unasked or unnoticed.

There is also another advantage to crowdsourcing questions: you have someone else to blame for a loaded or tough question. Some people are good at asking confrontational questions, but most of us aren’t. For a position like this, tough questions are necessary and shouldn’t be avoided because of sheer awkwardness.

When a final decision is made, those who hired him or her can say that final interviews explored questions that people wanted asked and answered. Some of those answers can be cited as the reason the person was selected.

Some leaders feel they are smart enough to frame their own questions. That can be both true and lame at the same time. Asking constituents, stakeholders or the general public for questions, comments and ideas isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence, though. It is simply a sign of openness and a reflection of self-confidence.

Suggested questions may track exactly with what a leader had in mind anyway. Nice to know. But the possibility of discovering a line of inquiry you hadn’t thought of makes the exercise invaluable. Tapping into mass intelligence also can make you look brilliant for just asking.

Instead of thinking you are the smartest person the room, you may actually be the best informed person in the room.

#SpeakerSelfie Tells a Different Story Than He Intended

Speaker Paul Ryan’s happy selfie showing him with more than 100 white GOP interns turned into a self-inflicted wound online as one commentator said he had to don sunglasses to look at the photo. (Photo Credit: Speaker Ryan's Instagram Account)

Speaker Paul Ryan’s happy selfie showing him with more than 100 white GOP interns turned into a self-inflicted wound online as one commentator said he had to don sunglasses to look at the photo. (Photo Credit: Speaker Ryan's Instagram Account)

House Speaker Paul Ryan managed this week to turn a selfie into a self-inflicted wound when he posted a picture of himself in front of a sea of GOP interns that one commentator cracked was “so white that I had to put on sunglasses.”

To Ryan’s chagrin, his happy Instagram photo turned into a viral parody of GOP diversity. The online ridicule was widespread and intense.

Someone described Ryan’s selfie as an “unforced political error.” But that misses the point. The selfie was fine. What it depicted, not so much. One online critic accused Ryan of being “racially clueless.” Others were even less charitable: “Crayola is officially changing the name of its white crayons to Ryan Selfie."

It’s possible Ryan wanted to convey the message embedded in his selfie. More likely, it never occurred to him how a general audience might react to seeing more than 100 all-white interns in one picture. Under the hashtag #SpeakerSelfie, Ryan tweeted, “I think this sets a record for the most number of #CapitolHill interns in a single selfie.” “And the award for the least diverse selfie in history goes to @SpeakerRyan,” responded Matthew Cherry.

When you are already in the spotlight – or might soon be thrust into that position – it pays to be aware of your surroundings. You can try to excuse the fuss over a single picture, but it is hard to dismiss the more profound story the picture tells.

We lecture young people to exercise caution about what they post on social media. The same admonition applies to older adults. Think before you hit the “post” button. You might know what you want to say, but do your words, images and video convey that or something else?

In the realm of social media, mulligans don't exist. Once you post something, you are stuck with it. So think first. You may post something controversial to provoke sharp reactions. Fine. But don’t post something that boomerangs and express surprise at the response when a happy photo morphs into a hapless shot in your own foot.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Tesla and Tips on Talking Like a Visionary

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors. (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors. (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Few people would dispute Elon Musk is a visionary. But when he talks about Tesla, “he always talks about what it’s like to drive in the car, what it’s like to look at the car and how the doors work.” His words paint pictures. His vision is cast in the present tense.

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Noah Zandan, cofounder of Quantified Communications and a leading exponent of using big data and analytics to improve communications, says visionary leaders are surprisingly grounded in how they speak.

After assessing “hundreds of transcripts of visionary leaders,” Zandan came away with three surprising key takeaways:

  • “We thought visionaries would talk a lot about the future, but in fact they talked about the present.”
  • “We thought visionaries would really be complex thinkers, but in fact what they’re really concerned with is making things simple and breaking it down into steps.”
  • “We thought the visionaries would be really concerned with their own vision, but in fact they’re more concerned with getting their vision into the minds of their audience.”

In practical terms, Zandan says that means speech using a lot of “perceptual language, talking about look, touch and feel” that “brings the audience into the experience with you.”

Too much talk about the future, Zandan says, diminishes a speaker’s credibility with an audience. “People aren’t going to believe you as much.”

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Great speakers have a knack or have learned how to draw an audience close to them when they begin and keep them absorbed during their talk. They rely heavily on real-time crowd feedback. Zandan’s techniques augment the native feel of speakers with hard data on audience reactions. That can be of great value to a speaker who has something important to say but isn’t as attuned to audience cues.

The takeaways Zandan extrapolates from his data and analytics are not surprising nor that much different from the advice of experienced speech coaches. The data reinforces the need to make speech tangible, accessible and understandable. Make a topic relatable and show the audience a path to your desired destination.

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

While data can improve the word choices speakers make, you can’t divorce speech from the speaker and how she or he looks, projects and sounds. Media training is a great example of showing speakers how they look, project and sound while giving an interview that is captured on video. Ticks, awkward gestures and contorted expressions suddenly stand out, almost drowning out the words spoken, when you see yourself on screen. That’s natural because what we see often sticks around in our brain longer than what we hear. And if what we see is discordant or uncoordinated with what we hear, we tend to dismiss what we hear.

Zandan admits there is more to great speech than data analysis. He underscores the importance of authenticity. “There is obviously authenticity to the way you deliver the message, and there are words that are considered authentic.…The data can lead you down a path of replication. We don’t want to do that because so much of what you communicate is your personality.”

Listening to Elon Musk fawn over Tesla’s doors is perfectly authentic. It makes us want to open and close them, too.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Power of Perception Over Reality

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Perception and reality are not automatically the same. And often perception packs more punch than reality, as the presumptive presidential candidates learned in recent days.

Former President Bill Clinton trots across an airport tarmac to chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch who is on the threshold of deciding whether to indict Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, already suspected of sympathies with white supremacists, sends a tweet bearing an image viewed by many as anti-Semitic.

Bill Clinton said he just exchanged pleasantries with Lynch. Trump denied being anti-Semitic, noting his son-in-law is Jewish. Both claims may be true, but neither is very believable. Perceptions overrule reality.

There is a shortage of trust in American politics today, so perceptions of wrongdoing or tone deaf behavior have fertile soil to sprout regardless of reality.

Perceptions don’t just pertain to incidental behavior. Hillary Clinton suffers from long-term suspicion that she has played fast and loose with the rules, including use of a private email account and server while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey’s statement excusing Clinton from a criminal charge, but accusing her for carelessly handling classified material only added to long-held perceptions about her.

The power of perception to cloud a reputation or tarnish a good act cannot be denied. Yet, leaders plod along without thinking of how their actions might be perceived as opposed to how they are intended. Pleading ignorance or lamely saying you were misunderstood doesn’t cut you much slack. In fact, it may  deepen perceptions you are a lunkhead.

Wishing people who hold negative perceptions could know the “truth” is much like pinning your hopes on miracles or the tooth fairy.

The advent of social media has raised the stakes of thoughtless or clueless behavior. What might have eluded the traditional media rarely escapes the ever-peering eye of social media, as PBS discovered when it failed to note it was inserting footage from previous Fourth of July fireworks displays into its broadcast of this year’s Capitol celebration that occurred under ominous clouds. No big deal, but it still produced a news cycle full of stories about the “deception."

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know perceptions can crowd out reality in people’s minds. Perceptions have a habit of becoming their own reality. Chronic perceptions ossify into major barriers for making a fresh impression. Think of how hard it will be to convince people that Congress can be productive.

Building trust is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by leaving behind perceptions that undermine trustworthiness. You may never have a chance to climb out of the hole you dig for yourself.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Online Newsroom in the Public Square

Your online newsroom can inform more than news reporters by serving as a well-packaged hub of relevant and useful information that you would want to share with anyone.

Your online newsroom can inform more than news reporters by serving as a well-packaged hub of relevant and useful information that you would want to share with anyone.

Building a website is no longer a daunting, bank account-busting undertaking. Creating online newsrooms can be even easier still.

An online newsroom is a website, but without all the bells and whistles that many websites need to have. Online newsrooms economically package online content much like a media operation would for easy viewer access.

Online newsrooms were originally conceived as convenient outlets to share content with the news media. As time went on, they morphed into neatly packaged online tools to share content with anybody.

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

In the public affairs space, online newsrooms typically serve as hubs for useful background materials and news updates on big-time policy issues or large public projects. They become case exhibits for transparency, making relevant information, links, presentations, pictures, videos, blogs, a Twitter feed and news updates readily accessible.

Unlike websites, which can require group decision-making and some coding expertise to change, online newsrooms are posted using off-the-shelf platforms that are easy and inexpensive to update or modify.

What you can put on an online newsroom is only limited by your imagination. But the key is the same as for websites – understanding and delivering what your likely viewers want to see.

Building a quality online newsroom involves the same process of assessing the interests and information needs of your anticipated or desired viewer persona. In the case of public affairs, the viewer isn’t a customer, but a reporter, supporter, opponent or influencer.

The homepage for ocgcannexation.com, an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The homepage for ocgcannexation.com, an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The questions to answer include: What would be of use to news reporters? What would proponents of an issue or project want? What would address concerns or questions by opponents? What would be useful for an influencer to know and how can that information be validated?

The simplicity and nimbleness of online newsrooms make it easy to adjust to unanticipated support or opposition or capitalize on an event that sheds light on your issue or project.

Like anything described with the word “newsroom,” online newsrooms need to adhere to basic journalistic integrity. They should be written in AP Style, like news articles. They should provide information with a point of view, without being in-your-face opinionated. They should reason not rant. They should contain content that is useful and possibly even a little entertaining rather than dull, boring soapbox speeches.

One of the great benefits of digital media is its shareability. Online newsrooms act like publishing houses and broadcast outlets in allowing you to share information focused on a specific issue or project and curated specifically for the audiences interested in them.

When you think about it, the information you share with the news media is the information you would like your audiences to know. Online newsrooms are an efficient, cost-effective way to speak to everyone in one place while earning respect from supporters and detractors alike.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

When a crisis hits, it pays to know what to do – and what not to do. So we’ve created a simple chart to serve as a guide for the Do’s and Don’ts of crisis response.

At the top of our list of “Do’s” is drawing on the core values of your organization to navigate your response. A crisis can be a calamity, but it also can be a crystallizing moment to show your organization’s true mettle, especially if you act out the values you profess.

Another key item on our Do’s list is empowering a crisis team leader to take command and be a focal point for assessing the situation, gathering verifiable facts and directing actions and communications. Preferably, organizations have developed crisis plans, which identify potential crisis scenarios and designate someone as the crisis team leader. This is not a role suited for on-the-job training or random selection. You want someone in charge who has prepared and knows how to proceed.

There is no generic crisis. Each one is unique and can affect an organization differently. That’s why our Do’s list includes an impact analysis and verifying key facts.

What isn’t unique to a particular crisis is the need to monitor traditional and digital media, inform staff and stakeholders and let your actions “do the talking.” Twitter has become the go-to social network for crisis communications, so it pays to get comfortable with it before crisis strikes. It also is important to make sure that crisis communications are outwardly focused, not just inward-looking. How does the crisis affect key constituents or customers and what are you doing to address the cause of the crisis and prevent it from recurring?

The Don’t list is equally important to keep in mind. Don’t dissemble, lie or try to shift blame – even if the crisis may not be your fault. A crisis isn’t a time for speculation or jokes. To the greatest extent possible, you need to talk, not deny. And don’t let the lawyer make all the decisions. Sometimes the court of public opinion is just as important as a courtroom.

The first minutes and hours after a crisis strikes – or you become aware of a crisis situation – are crucial. Our Do’s and Don’t list can be a valuable reminder in the chaos of what it takes to do the right thing, protect your reputation and live your core values. 

Gary Conkling is President and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

Jim Lukaszewski, who bills himself as “America’s crisis guru,” says crises breed “mindless commentary” by the media and often other PR professionals. “They didn’t act fast enough.” “They didn’t have a crisis plan capable of responding to something of this magnitude.” “The response should have been executed much more cleanly with fewer hiccups.”

“Total nonsense,” Lukaszewski says. “Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding.”

His point: Forget the criticism, which is inevitable, and focus on reacting fast and communicating. Make what you say rise above “bloviation,” focus on victims and share the truth.

Some of the most tempting bait for crisis response ridicule is how long it takes for remedial action. Lukaszewski pointed to the 120 days it took BP to shut off its Gulf of Mexico oil leak, which invited criticism from the highest levels. In the absence of credible and frank crisis response, news agencies hired their own underwater teams to capture images of the leak.

Wishing it would take less time isn’t an effective crisis response. Explaining as honestly as possible what and how long remediation will take would have been the most appropriate approach, even if it still courted criticism. Better yet, perhaps BP should have hired the underwater crew to monitor its response, missteps and all.

The most immediate response that matters, according to Lukaszewski, is caring for victims. You can earn a lot of goodwill for sensitively addressing crisis impacts on neighbors, employees or customers. These are actions you can show with real-time tweets, video and live streaming that counter negative imagery arising from the crisis. There are almost the only actions you can control in a crisis.

Lukaszewski warns against going silent when a crisis hits.  “Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice,” he says. “There is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage,” even if the crisis response is “splendid."

The Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier serves as a good local example of what Lukaszewski calls "bungled crisis communication.” A UP spokesman issued a timely statement that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the derailment, which resulted in burning overturned railcars and an oil spill into the Columbia River.

The word “inconvenience” appended to an apology seemed woefully inadequate. UP failed to mention damage to Mosier’s water and sewer systems. Sewers were shut off and the water system was dry. UP also failed to acknowledge the disruption to the community, which was scary for a nearby school and costly for local merchants.

There was no way UP could escape scathing criticism for the derailment and subsequent oil leaks. But it could have gained some respect by an early acknowledgement of the damage that had been done and its commitment to make things right. Instead, UP’s actions seemed more intent on clearing the track to resume train traffic.

A good strategy would have been to have people with UP jackets or vests omnipresent in Mosier, listening, monitoring teams assessing damage and doing whatever possible to demonstrate regret for the accident, not just the inconvenience caused by the accident.

A glance at UP’s Twitter feed revealed no tweets about the derailment or Mosier cleanup efforts. Instead there were tweets about UP’s online Railroad Trivia, including who was president of the railroad in 1906.

As Lukaszewski says, it is hard to plan for a major crisis. They always stumble in unexpected directions. But what you can plan for is dealing with the crisis as honestly, quickly and with as much care as possible. That doesn't take training or a crisis play, just guts and determination. 

Turn Your Voice into Thought Leadership

Freakonomics Radio is a great example of employing a podcast to extend a brand into new channels. Podcasts can also be a great way to give voice to thought leadership.

Freakonomics Radio is a great example of employing a podcast to extend a brand into new channels. Podcasts can also be a great way to give voice to thought leadership.

Podcasts represent a proven path to express thought leadership, expand a brand and create a loyal following. But don’t be fooled by their seeming simplicity, podcasts require mastery of the format, relentless discipline and creative spark to succeed.

Freakonomics Radio is a popular podcast that extends the franchise of zany, offbeat economics that started with an improbable bestselling book about “cheating teachers, bizarre baby names and crack-selling mama’s boys.” Reluctantly started by a wary journalist and an equally wary economist, Freakonomics has morphed into a series of books, lectures, documentaries, guest appearances and a radio show.

There also is the Freakonomics “Question of the Day Podcast” that features shorter audio discussions tackling issues such as “Why Do People Believe Compliments, But Not Criticism?” and “Would You Ever Eat Bargain Sushi?”

Freakonomics creators Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt are busy guys. They bother with podcasts because it complements and augments their brand in another channel. It is hard to read a book or view a video while driving, jogging or walking, but you can listen to the radio or an iPod. Podcasts are an avenue to reach your audience in a very direct, personal communication channel.

That avenue can have a lot of potholes and side streets to navigate. Producing a podcast of 30 to 60 minutes requires more than a tape recorder, a few scattered ideas and a soft drink. You need good recording equipment, a script and topics people want to hear about. 

Podcasts can be valuable content, but also hollow efforts unless they are promoted through social media or an email list and posted on an easily navigable website or online newsroom.

The voice or voices are everything in a podcast. There are no visual attractions or sight cues. The audience depends on what it hears. The better the quality, the more likely they are to keep listening.

There are technical twists, too. Quality sound is essential. You need to produce different audio files such as MP3 and WAV to accommodate a range of listeners and their devices. If you are going to integrate music or background sound, you will need someone with the skill to mix your podcast. You also need someone to ensure your final product is clean and to maintain a content management system.

The good news is that producing high-fidelity sound is a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be. But it isn’t necessarily easy.

The result can be worth the effort. The effort starts with ideas that are several notches away from stuffy, but still useful and relevant to your listeners. Your voice talent needs to practice, and perhaps take some voice coaching. He or she may never sound like Morgan Freeman, but you certainly don’t want to sound like a bad version of Gilbert Gottfried or Roseanne Barr. Your team needs to be equipped for the job so you produce top-notch sound to convey your messages.

Podcasts can be an entertaining way to charm and communicate to customers. It’s up to you to provide the entertainment and charm. 

Customize Your Crisis Plan with Risk Scenarios

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

A fast food restaurant, an industrial helicopter company and a nonprofit child welfare agency don’t share the same vulnerabilities, so why should they have the same crisis plan? They need unique crisis plans built around risk scenarios each might actually face.

A fast food restaurant should prepare for a food safety crisis response, not one involving a helicopter crash or child abuse. That sounds obvious, but in practice many organizations settle for a crisis plan based on a template they plucked up somewhere online. Scenario-based crisis plans may or may not look like the crisis plan templates you can find online. This is a case where function is more important than form.

There are common elements in crisis plans, such as up-to-date phone lists, a designated crisis team leader and protocols on how to field press calls. While not unimportant, those are not the defining characteristics of a savvy, effective crisis response.

Here are some of critical characteristics of scenario-based crisis plans that you won’t get from a template:

Conduct an Issue Audit

A scenario-based crisis plan begins with an issue audit where key staff members and stakeholders meet to identify the spectrum of vulnerabilities facing their organization. Candor is critical so you don’t leave off a sensitive issue everyone would prefer  to ignore. The issue audit should cover the waterfront of potential operational, financial, legal, competitive and reputational risks.

Assess Probability and Potential Consequence of Risks

After a range of risks have been identified, they need to be assessed to determine how likely each is to occur and, if it does occur, how seriously it could hurt the organization. This is what risk managers and insurers do, but many organizations don’t have anyone to manage risk or the wherewithal to insure against risk. The key deliverable from a risk assessment is to create a hierarchy of risks in which those with the highest likelihood to occur and the largest potential impact are put on top.

Measure Your Perception Gap

Conducting perception gap research is essential to understand reputational risks. You may think your reputation is spiffy, but stakeholders or customers may disagree. Knowing there is a perception gap and why that gap exists is valuable information that can inform crisis scenario planning and an actual crisis response. The cost of perception gap analysis can be spread because its findings are also worthwhile for organizational branding, management decision-making and employee training and recruitment.

Determine What Risks You Can Control

An often overlooked aspect of crisis preparation is crisis avoidance. Look at your list of potential risks and assess which ones have factors that you can control. Are there ways you can improve safety in your operation? Can you install more reliable safeguards for your processes? Is there a way to diversify your revenue stream? How can you differentiate yourself from competitors in a way that will build goodwill with customers? The answers to questions like these about your list of vulnerabilities should generate a management action plan that at once increases organizational viability and lessens or eliminates a potential crippling organizational vulnerability.

Write a Crisis Plan Based on Highest Risk Scenarios

Craft crisis scenarios that are likely to occur, could wreak the most damage and over which you have little control. You should add scenarios that you could eliminate or mediate, but haven’t. Each crisis scenario should anticipate how and by whom it might be triggered, which can a valuable guide on where to look for the cause of a crisis and what steps to take to address it.

Get Specific in Crisis-Scenario Responses

Because you have identified high-likelihood, high-impact risks, it makes sense to be as specific as possible on how to respond. Where will you go to get the facts and how will you vet them? Who needs to be alerted about the crisis? What resources will you call on to assist with your crisis response? How will you organize internally to address the crisis? Who will be your spokesperson? What process will you use to ensure timely, accurate and trust-building crisis updates? Is there useful background information you can prepare in advance to release to the public when a Crisis scenario occurs?

Include Crisis Plan Checklist

Don’t forget to add basics such as internal and external contact information, designating a crisis team leader and media training for spokespersons and key fact-finders. Fact-finders may not be the persons you want in front of reporters and TV cameras, but they will understand their role better if they have experienced the pressure of responding on deadline to harsh questioning.

Evaluate Whether Your Crisis Plan Aligns with Your Values

A crisis will only become an opportunity if an organization’s response aligns faithfully to its professed values. The most memorable crisis responses are ones that closely correspond to an organization’s values. Are the actions outlined in step with those values? Will you do everything expected based on your values? Can you point to specific responses that demonstrate your commitment to your values? 

Run a Crisis Plan Fire Drill

A crisis plan isn’t an abstract manual; it is a realistic how-to-guide. Your organization won’t be fully prepared until you test your crisis plan, find out our kinks exist and iron them out. The best way to do that is to conduct an organizational fire drill involving a high-risk, high-impact scenario.

Keep the Crisis Plan Fresh

Crisis plans don’t have unlimited shelf life. Build in a timeline to review the plan, asking questions about newly emerging crisis scenarios and whether your media-training spokespersons are still available. Make sure to update contact lists regularly. Think continuously about ways to prepare background information in advance that can be stored on a ghost website for when you need it. Visual explanations and videos take time to produce, so don’t wait until a crisis strikes to get into the director’s chair.

Follow these steps and you will be as ready as possible for a crisis that could affect your organization. A disciplined crisis planning process is beneficial even if a crisis scenario occurs out of the blue. Your organization will have developed the mentality and muscle tone to respond as a unit with speed, accuracy and commitment.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Live Streaming Crisis Response on Twitter

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter has become the recognized social media platform for crisis response, and its greatest potential may lie in the expanding capabilities for live streaming video through tools such as Periscope and twitcam.

This capability, which has been used so far for marketing purposes and video selfies, has the potential to give crisis response teams their own Tweetcasting channel where they can show how they are responding, assessing impacts or alerting people to dangers. Twitcam and Periscope are also coupled with a chat function to allow interaction with viewers.

Twitter recently announced plans to shut down twitcam on June 7, but don’t interpret that as a shift away from streaming tools. In fact, it comes at a time when the company is enhancing Periscope’s integration with smartphones and tablets on the Android system, the fastest-growing mobile platform in the world. Twitter announced the same plan for Apple's operating system in January.

The underlying value of Twitter is as a real-time communications platform that can be managed through the use of hashtags. The news media already hangs out on Twitter, where they promote their own stories and look for leads. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has demonstrated how tweets can “trump” the rest of the news and dominate a news cycle.

Periscope launched just last year, promising to become a popular tool among journalists with an eye on expanding live coverage of major events, press conferences and disasters. A recent University of Washington study on how people use Periscope in crisis responses shows the tool’s central role in the exchange of information surrounding three national stories from 2015.  

“Qualitative and quantitative analyses of tweets relating to the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, Baltimore protests after Freddie Grey’s death, and Hurricane Joaquin flooding in South Carolina reveal that this recently deployed application is being used by both citizens and journalists for information sharing, crisis coverage and commentary,” the researchers found. “The accessibility and immediacy of live video directly from crisis situations, and the embedded chats which overlay on top of a video feed, extend the possibilities of real-time interaction between remote crowds and those on the ground in a crisis.”

Honing in on one reporter’s coverage of the Freddie Grey riots, the study showed Twitter users are especially attracted to live video updates from the scene.  

“Paul Lewis, a Guardian correspondent, made particularly heavy use of Periscope to cover the event, authoring 26 Periscope tweets, including 10…that contained active streams,” the report reads. “His tweets were retweeted 296 times, and he was mentioned in 166 other tweets.”

Live streaming of content adds another dimension to real-time communication. It effectively puts viewers at the scene, allowing them to see events unfold and hear from direct witnesses, which conveys authenticity and can create positive impressions of crisis response.

Twitcam assigns live streaming videos with their own URLs, which make them easily discoverable when they are posted on a crisis response website or online newsroom. The thread of real-time Twitter updates will be greatly enhanced by corresponding video records.

Live streaming on Twitter could be useful for issue managers as well. Live streaming can generate content that acts like B-Roll video, providing interviews, visual explanations or on-the-scene coverage that can be shared in real time, then stored online for later use. This gives journalists – especially TV reporters – something else to flash on screen during their stories other than protesters with placards, costumes and over-the-top props. Well done live streamed videos may even change the arc of the story.

Of course, live streaming has all the intrinsic pitfalls of a live broadcast. You can’t control every variable in a crisis, so you won’t be able to anticipate every problem in your live streaming video. Successful live streaming takes foresight. You need someone who can be the director, someone skilled enough to shoot the video you want and a team that views live streaming video as a valuable asset, not a risky gimmick.

The future of live streaming looks bright for the business sector. A number of business-oriented apps are already available for live streaming video. But here’s something everyone should keep in mind: You don’t want a crisis to be the first time you’ve used a live streaming service. Take some time to become familiar with the technology. Practice live streaming and work through the kinks before you find yourself on the spot responding to a real crisis.

The good news is that technology has made shooting quality video a lot easier and much cheaper with digital cameras, including that tiny one on your tablet or smartphone. The cinema vérité appearance of what is shot can evoke immediacy and authenticity and is mostly a plus, not a minus. 

Journalistic ethics can’t be ditched. This isn’t a movie where you can take license with the truth. You need to provide a fair view of what’s happening and how you are responding.

For organizations still muddling around on whether they need a crisis plan, live streaming may seem like a reach. But that doesn’t need to be so.  Coming at crisis preparation with a fresh perspective may make it easier to embrace concepts such as live streaming video and serve as an enticement to get that all important crisis plan done.

Ghost Bloggers and Thought Leaders

Ghost writers have their place, but they aren’t substitutes for thought leadership. If you’re the thought leader, you need to convey your thoughts.

Ghost writers have their place, but they aren’t substitutes for thought leadership. If you’re the thought leader, you need to convey your thoughts.

Ghost writers have existed for a long time and often go unrecognized for their works, which carry someone else’s byline. But passing off a ghost writer’s work as your own doesn’t equate to thought leadership.

Yes, chief executives are busy and don’t have time or the expertise to write every speech they are required to give. Drawing on staff resources to organize material and even craft the language is perfectly legitimate. But it isn’t thought leadership. 

Sometimes a leader has an idea for a book and seeks help to write it. John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, even though Ted Sorenson many years later confessed that he “did a first draft of most chapters” and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences.” Kennedy accepted credit for the book, but paid Sorenson for his work. Great idea for a book, but the actual book may not represent thought leadership by the book’s “author.” 

Perhaps one of the most famous ghost writers in American history is James Madison. Often dismissed as Little Jimmy to the vaulting Thomas Jefferson, it is widely known Madison “helped” George Washington write his inaugural addresses and shape some of the formative traditions of a new nation. Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton, also wrote under pen names most of the Federalist Papers defending the new Constitution, which they helped write. Through history, the ghost written words of Madison and Hamilton have exerted enormous thought leadership.

The point is that ghost writing – and its offshoot, ghost blogging – is not intrinsically bad or deceptive. It is necessary. But not being bad or deceptive and being necessary doesn’t make ghost-written work thought leadership. 

“You cannot be a thought leader,” writes Gini Dietrich, leader blogger for SpinSucks, “if the thoughts are not your own.”

Speeches and blogs have other purposes aside from thought leadership. They can share information or tell inspiring stories. Thought leadership is demonstrating special knowledge, unique insight or keen talent. Thought leaders don’t shout; they attract people to them by the power of their ideas and the elegance of their expression.

You can have the potential to be a thought leader without knowing it – or appreciating the value of being viewed as a thought later. This is where staff and even ghost writers have a role. They can assess an executive’s ideas from informal conversations, interviews and presentations and identify “thoughts” that could be molded into thought leadership.

Since thought leadership isn’t synonymous with great communications skills, ghost writers can help executives organize their thoughts and energize them with prose and visuals. They also can suggest staging and channels to promote thought leadership. You might call this assistance with packaging. But it still would be thought leadership if at its core were the insights of the executive who is portrayed as the thought leader. 

Another litmus test for thought leadership, according to Dietrich, who is the founder of a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, is whether the thought leader engages with the audience he or she attracts. 

‘One thing shouldn’t be outsourced is having someone else respond to readers,” she says, “If the piece is produced by a named human being he or she alone should answer comments, engage in discussion and spend time on the social networks where those readers hang out.”

The bottom line is that using ghost writers to generate content is perfectly fine. Just don’t pass it off as thought leadership. That’s something you have to do largely by yourself. 

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Storytelling with the Showmanship of Charts

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts are an undervalued storytelling device. The problem with most charts is that they are designed by number nerds, not storytellers.

With apologies to Excel users, showing a bunch of numbers doesn’t equal a good story. Explaining what the numbers mean is the storyline that is missing.

There are many ways charts can tell stories powerfully. Here are some:

Simple Charts

Southwest Airlines introduced itself with large ads that featured a single chart comparing its fares from Portland to several destinations with other airlines. The simplicity of the chart made it impossible to miss the message – Southwest Airlines was the low-cost alternative.

The airline reprised that original chart recently with a similar simple chart illustrating the baggage and other fees that Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge. Not fancy, but effective.

Annotated Charts

Portland-based economist Bill Conerly produces the Businomics Newsletter that contains a lot of data rendered in charts. Conerly annotates the charts with what amounts to a key message that puts the data into a meaningful context.

Complex Charts

Visual communications guru Edward Tufte deplores PowerPoint because of its reductionist character. He advocates sharing complex data in comprehensible packages. His favorite example is a chart depicting Napolean’s ill-fated march to Moscow. Created by Charles Joseph Minard, the graphic plots the demise of Napoleon’s dancing and retreating army to temperature and time scales. The story of what happened is inescapable despite the detail.

Entertaining Charts

Playing off the idea of a pie chart, the graphic  below serves as a teaching tool for effective writing. It puts a lot of information on the plate in an easy-to-grasp, viewer-friendly fashion.

Explanatory Chart

Charts can act as visual explanations, as does this graphic in explaining the appropriate volume for voices for children from the classroom to playground.

This graphic uses a cat motif to explain the essence of various social media sites.

Shareable Chart

Charts in the shape of infographics can be highly informative and suitable for sharing. They are effectively scrollable stories.

Teachable Moment Charts

Charts can depict the dangers to virtue or use data to warn of drowning in too much data.

The bottom line is that charts can tell stories, but it takes more than 3D pie charts and data points. It takes a little imagination to picture how your data can show a story.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Risk of Socially Responsible Marketing

Old Navy tweeted this photo of a multiracial family wearing Old Navy clothes last month, sparking a racist backlash online. The situation highlights the risk involved in socially responsible marketing. Even seemingly harmless ads can ignite a storm of criticism. 

Old Navy tweeted this photo of a multiracial family wearing Old Navy clothes last month, sparking a racist backlash online. The situation highlights the risk involved in socially responsible marketing. Even seemingly harmless ads can ignite a storm of criticism. 

Making a political statement is risky business for just about any company. Well, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Fearing the consequences of alienating clientele with a divisive political message has traditionally pushed many business leaders to the sidelines of our political discourse over the years. But as major shifts in demographics and consumer values are quickly reshaping the modern marketplace, sitting out of the discussion might actually do a company more harm than good, argues Hadas Streit from Allison+Partners PR.

“By making the decision not to take a stand on issues and not participate in the conversations that are core to their audience, companies risk having their brand become less relevant in today’s society and culture, which will ultimately hurt their bottom line,” Streit said last week in a post on the firm’s blog.

The greater emphasis on social responsibility in marketing is largely tied to the rise of Millennials, who recently overtook Baby Boomers as the largest generational group in the United States. Survey after survey show Millennials and the younger Generation Z heavily buy into brands that share their values.   

Streit honed in on the rising backlash to a recent string of controversial legislation surrounding LGBT communities in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina. In all, there are actually more than 100 active bills in 22 states addressing a range of LGBT issues – anything from which public restrooms transgender people can use to whether business owners can refuse to serve same-sex couples, citing religious beliefs.

So far the business community has been anything but silent on the bills, and for good reason. In a Pew Research Center study from 2015, 70 percent of Millennials said they supported same-sex marriage.    

“More than 60 leading CEOs and business leaders from companies like Dropbox, Hilton Worldwide, Facebook, Apple, Salesforce, REI and Yelp signed an open letter calling on Mississippi’s Governor to repeal the ‘Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,’” Streit said. “The economic impact of businesses backing out of these states has already been felt and will only grow.”

Based on what we know about where Millennials stand on same-sex marriage, speaking out against Mississippi’s Religious Liberty Accommodations Act is a low risk for business leaders. But here’s the truth: For any business interested in socially responsible marketing, even making what seems to be a relatively harmless political statement can still backfire.

Before making a decision to jump into a controversial arena, businesses should evaluate the risks and advantages. They also should weigh their motives and consider whether their engagement fits into a larger corporate strategy. Being intentional before acting is the best preparation for the praise and brickbats that will follow, regardless whether you jump or hang back.

With that in mind, here are a two examples of socially responsible marketing campaigns that have largely been well received and two others that have sparked a mixed bag of reactions from consumers and the business community.

Starbucks – Socially responsible marketing is a cornerstone of the Starbucks brand, and you could go on and on about the company’s successes and flops in that arena. One of Starbucks most praised efforts is its move toward using only “ethically sourced and sustainably produced coffee.” At its annual shareholders meeting in 2015, the company announced 99 percent of its coffee would fall under that category. What that means is nearly all of Starbucks coffee goes through a rigorous third-party verification process to ensure economic, environmental and social standards are met for the farmers who produce Starbucks coffee beans.

Ben & Jerry’s – Last year, the popular ice cream maker used its platform to raise awareness about climate change, releasing a new flavor called “Save Our Swirled.” The company promoted the flavor on its website and social networks. Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry’s worked with an activist group to encourage its customers to sign a petition calling for bold action on climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.  

Target – Weighing in on where transgender people can go to the bathroom, the retailer recently announced that transgender customers are welcome to use whichever toilet they choose at Target. Now, conservative groups like the American Family Association are fighting back against Target. Petitioners are encouraging the consumers to boycott the store, and in an interesting new protest tactic, non-transgender male protesters have taken to using Target’s women’s restrooms.    

Old Navy – At the end of April, the clothing retailer tweeted a picture of a happy multi-racial family wearing Old Navy clothes in a promotion of a customer appreciation sale. Though it sounded harmless to many consumers, the picture sparked a racist uproar on Twitter, leading to yet another retailer boycott. That said, the majority of consumers and many in the business community have come out in support of Old Navy’s ad.  

Online News Startups Feeling Ad Dollar Pinch

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

The story of newspapers struggling to escape an industrywide die-off amid an explosion of digital alternatives is nothing new.   

But you might be surprised to hear that the rising startups of the online news world aren’t exactly raking in the profits either. In fact, as John Herrman of The New York Times wrote last week, some of the biggest brands in online news are already being forced to tighten their belts.

“This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people,” Herrman said. “Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue – but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.”

BuzzFeed appeared to be doing fine until The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the company fell $80 million short of its $250 million revenue goal for 2015. Building upon the dismal picture, BuzzFeed lowered expectations for the near future, slicing revenue projections for 2016 in half from $500 million to $250 million.

The news was a stunning development for an online world that has come to look to BuzzFeed as a content strategy leader. BuzzFeed has become a trend setter over the past several years with the popularity of its punchy listicles and quirky quizzes. Impressed with BuzzFeed’s ability to draw a massive online audience, struggling newspapers looked to the site as a model for how to get clicks. Building on that early success, BuzzFeed later expanded from a news and entertainment aggregator into providing its own news coverage. Fast-forward several years to today, BuzzFeed now fields a formidable investigative political reporting team, which has broken numerous stories about the 2016 presidential candidates.

But altogether, the revenue struggles of BuzzFeed, Mashable and Salon indicate it’s a dangerous time for publishers and a tricky time for advertising, both on the web and in print as neither sector appears to have found a stable business model for the digital age.

“The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold,” Herrman said. “The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling – a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.”

Numerous financial challenges have emerged for online publishers in the past several years, Herrman said. That includes anything from ad-blocking tools and automated advertising to the growing trend of readers gathering their news from stories posted on Facebook and other social networks.

“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages,” Herrman said. “As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites.”

Of course, advertisers have taken notice of the metrics, leading them to invest heavily in ads on Facebook (and Google) than with online news startups like BuzzFeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said.  

Posing further challenges on other fronts, Facebook just unveiled a big 10-year expansion plan that looks to give people fewer reasons to navigate away from Facebook. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke of Facebook’s ambitions to launch “TV-style live video.” Some like BuzzFeed and Vox are racing for their own video production deals with sights set on TV and film, and others like Mashable are investing more heavily in expanding their presence on Facebook.   

“Other companies are looking to focus more on branded content like videos, sponsored stories and full-fledged campaigns,” Herrman said. “But publishers have quickly learned that those efforts are labor-intensive and put them in direct competition with advertising agencies.”

The bottom line is if you thought the online startups had it all figured out, well, not just yet at least. The future of the news industry is still just as unclear as ever before. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

Attack Readers with Your Best Fact First

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” may be the best opening line of a novel in English literature. It should be a reminder of the importance of getting your best fact first in what you write.

The opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for the sharp contrasts that make the story compelling. It reinforces and adds dimension to the book title. The reader has a major cue for what to expect.

Many contemporary writers, including ones who write white papers, blogs and op-eds, don’t follow Dickens’ example. They loop into their main theme, sometimes waiting to spring it on the hapless reader until the fourth or fifth paragraph. In an age of short attention spans, exasperated readers often give up and move on.

Journalism students are taught – or at least they used to be taught – to spit out your best fact at the front-end of your first sentence. You want to attack your reader with your best fact, for the same reason you want to make a grand entrance or a great first impression. A wishy-washy beginning to a piece meant to persuade is the equivalent of a limp handshake.

People can disagree on the “best fact.” But it’s indisputable in today’s overloaded marketplace of information and messages, the best fact is usually what attracts readers’ attention and causes them to keep reading.

Placing the best fact first isn’t as easy as it sounds. After identifying what the best fact is, you need to conceive how best to say it. A blandly worded best fact is almost as bad as a buried best fact. 

Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities works because it is succinct, has a natural cadence and is easy to remember. These are the same qualities that produce great sound bites. The best opening lines are, in effect, written sound bites.

Here are four made-up public affairs examples to illustrate the point:

• A majority of white Millennials believe they suffer as much discrimination as minorities, according to a recent poll.

• Data shows only 2 percent of all U.S. tax dollars go to educate children in public schools, suggesting public education is no longer the national priority it once was.

• Immigrants to the United States pay more in fees and taxes than they receive in public services and health care. That’s the finding from a recent economic study examining the financial impact of immigration.

• Rising housing prices in a community reflect demand outstripping supply and reinforce the need to increase the supply of housing units, especially ones that match the unmet market.

There are lots of excuses to avoid putting the best fact first. None of them hold much water. If your goal is readership, follow the eyeballs of readers. Give them your best and entice them to read more.

It’s worth noting that Dickens didn’t always follow the example he set in A Tale of Two Cities. Other works of his began with murkier opening lines. But one good example is all you need to remember the benefit of the best-fact-first strategy. A Tale of Two Cities actually offers two excellent examples – the opening line and the closing line. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Write like that and you will get read.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Power of 'Deep Canvassing' to Change Minds

A new study confirms a serious conversation on a doorstep can change minds, even on controversial issues such as transgender rights, which should be a message for issue managers who face entrenched opponents.

A new study confirms a serious conversation on a doorstep can change minds, even on controversial issues such as transgender rights, which should be a message for issue managers who face entrenched opponents.

A big part of an issue manager’s job is to change people’s minds. Recent studies by political science researchers indicate face-to-face contact, preferably initiated by people most impacted by a policy decision, can change minds.

The studies examined political attitudes before and after political canvassers went door-to-door to talk about same-sex marriage and transgender rights. The most recent study concluded that gay and transgender canvassers were the most effective in personalizing the issue and persuading people.

Called “deep canvassing,” this intense form of political campaigning has broader applications. It is commonly acknowledged that state legislative candidates who devote a lot of time to knocking on doors, introducing themselves and engaging in front-porch politics are usually the victors. As one campaign consultant preaches, “Voters like to see and touch the flesh of the candidates they support.”

The concept of deep canvassing goes beyond retail politicking. It involves sharing your story and experiences, not just explaining an issue and asking for political support. The shared personal experience is what cultivates a political attachment.

If canvassers go door-to-door in favor of a bond measure to renovate or build a school in a neighborhood, they may get polite support. If parents or children canvass, the bond measure seems more personal because you see people who are impacted.

However, talking about a school bond measure is a cake walk compared to trying to convince someone to switch their views on unisex bathrooms or anti-discrimination measures for transgender people. The study, which tracked transgender canvassers in Dade County, Florida, showed deep canvassing techniques had a durable effect on voter attitudes. 

The county had passed an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect transgender people and opponents promised a challenge to repeal the ordinance. The Los Angeles LGBT Center dispatched more than 50 canvassers to employ deep canvassing, as researchers tracked results using a series of surveys sent to people three days, three weeks, six weeks and three months after the canvass. Survey results showed that one in 10 people canvassed showed a marked shift in favor of equal rights.

Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times a 10 percent shift in opinion may not seem like a big change. “Any presidential candidate would welcome that kind of effect from a doorstep conversation.” Small shifts in attitude change the pivot point of other conversations conducted over the back fence, at a community center or in a book club. There is an ongoing ripple effect.

The shifts noted in Dade County parallel how views began to change on same-sex marriage after its advocates launched an effort to remind people they had gay family members, coworkers and friends. Personalizing the issue made it easier to sell policy that says the government shouldn’t decide “who you should love.”

Most contentious policies don’t involve culture wars. They more typically center on a housing development, shopping mall or road improvement near a neighborhood. The issues are disruption, safety and change. Attitudes can be just as entrenched as someone’s views on gay rights. 

The scope of some projects may seem too large to allow for deep canvassing, but that may not be the case. Communications options exist to expand the reach of actual canvassing, such as capturing doorstep exchanges on video (with permission, of course) and sharing them on a website and through social media. Live streaming a small-group interaction in someone’s front room could be another way to share the process beyond the doorstep.

The biggest takeaway is that personal contact is a must to change attitudes or roll back opposition. This isn’t easy or quick. There is no absolute guarantee it will work. But the personal touch has a much higher chance of success than slick, superficial presentations or just plunging ahead and hoping for the best.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

People Like to See Things as They Happen

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

Streaming media may have started with elevator music in the 1930s, but today it has expanded to live streaming of events over the Internet. News organizations are trying to tap larger online audiences by live streaming newsworthy events. Their experiences may embolden public affairs managers to join the parade.

CFM’s most recent Under the Dome blog post reported how CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets provided real-time coverage of the March 28 Capitol shooter incident by live streaming video shot with smartphones by people trapped in the building. Other news organizations are experimenting with live streaming the news in a less ad hoc manner.

Poynter.org’s Benjamin Mullin shared the experiences of four different news outlets that are experimenting with live streaming via Facebook Live, a two-month-old channel that gets a news feed preference in the social media site’s algorithm. The early trials are pretty impressive and suggest live streaming news will become more prevalent.

Here are excerpts from Mullin’s piece about NPR, The Verge, BuzzFeed and KXLY-TV in Spokane:

NPR

The public radio network live streamed its political coverage of the so-called “Mega Tuesday” election results on Facebook Live after producing a video that it posted on Facebook after Super Tuesday voting. Lori Todd, an NPR social media editor, told Mullin that the live streamed coverage drew “thousands more comments and seven times the view duration.” The Mega Tuesday feed lasted 34 minutes.

Todd said live streaming allowed NPR to reach highly engaged fans as questions from the Facebook Live audience were used in the broadcast. “Facebook has built the tool to be accessible to the most people possible – all you need is your phone and the Facebook app,” she added.

The Verge

The Verge – a Vox-owned American tech news and culture network – has applied live streaming with Facebook Live to product release announcements for the Galaxy S7 and iPhone SE and in-office question and answer sessions. It has used the technique to demonstrate the security risks of New York Wi-Fi hotspots and test new Oreo flavors. Vox reports its live streaming experiments have attracted a “large video audience” with only a “small time investment from producers and writers.” It also has boosted Facebook page reach, Vox says.

BuzzFeed

Through its multiple Facebook pages, BuzzFeed has conducted 70 live streaming videos, including its Tasty’s Fondue Party that Mullin said “racked up 5.2 million views and thousands of comments.” Encouraged by early results, BuzzFeed is doing its homework “to learn more about live – what type of content our audience enjoys live, how we can use live in new and different ways, how we can interact more with our audience by creating live content.”

KXLY-TV

An ABC affiliate in the smaller Spokane news market, KXLY-TV has toyed with live streaming to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at its newscast, conduct a live Q&A with its sports director and cover a press conference “about a man who shot a pastor.” Station officials received positive feedback from viewers who appreciated hearing firsthand what was said by law enforcement spokesmen about the troubling incident.

Melissa Luck, executive producer and director of social strategy for the TV station, told Mullin, “It has given viewers a chance to interact directly with our reporters and anchors and it has benefitted both sides of that video stream interaction. People like watching things as they happen."

The relative simplicity and low technology threshold posed by live streaming creates intriguing opportunities for issue managers and crisis counselors. A video production showing how a complex process works may be less believable than watching a spontaneous live-streamed demonstration. Video from the scene of an environmental spill that is placed on Twitter provides a timely update, but live coverage of spill remediation may be more reassuring and less suspect.

Some of the live streaming pioneers report squeamishness about events “being suddenly broadcast for the world to see.” While understandable, “live streaming” is already out of the bottle as people with smartphones become reporting genies on the spot. Mastering these emerging tools is just another way to keep up with the competition of sharing news – and telling your story. 

Familiar Phrases as Mental Cues

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Garrison Keillor has a comedy bit in which he uses a string of familiar phrases matched with sound effects by his wingman, Fred Newman. The bit works because the phrases trigger familiar images in our minds.

Familiar phrases can be persuasive mental cues that convey complex information in a few words.

Phrases such as “the buck stops here,” “take the bull by the horns,” “don’t put all your eggs in one basket" and “throw caution to the wind” are freighted in meaning that extends beyond the definition of the words they contain. They tell a mini-story. They paint a clear picture. They quickly and deftly draw on what we already know in order to tell us something we don’t know.

Some phrases suffer from over-use and have become tired clichés. Other phrases derive from idioms, which have become like a foreign language in the ears of younger generations. But that doesn’t diminish the value of a freshly framed familiar phrase to explain an issue, answer a question or score a point.

•  The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company said, “Innovation needs to be the goal of U.S. health care reform – not its victim.”

•  The owner of an upscale grocery store, faced with allegations of selling contaminated products, snapped, “The only thing spoiled here is our customers.”

•  Maryon Pearson, the wife of a British prime minister, quipped, “Behind every successful man is a surprised woman."

Rick Steves, the famed travel writer, interviewed Miles Unger about his book tracing the life of Michelangelo. Unger peppered his replies with phrases of familiarity. Noting the famous artist never married, Unger said, “Michelangelo’s art was his wife and his works were his children.” He described Michelangelo’s struggle for regard as an artist as opposed to a craftsman for hire by saying, “He refused to paint Madonnas by the square foot.” Unger said Michelangelo’s masterpieces, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, were “art with an agenda” that brimmed with the humanism of the Renaissance.

Unger employed word plays that struck a familiar chord with listeners. Art as a wife and artworks as children is not a unique expression, but it is an effective one to underscore Michelangelo’s single-minded dedication to his artistry. He conjoined two familiar images with his reference to painting fine art by the square foot. His quip about art with an agenda was a crisp, economical way to say there was deeper purpose to what Michelangelo created.

We live in a time when we are constantly bombarded by information, which has had the perverse effect of shrinking our attention spans – or at least our patience. Sound bites have become necessary to pique interest, hold attention and convey meaning. Familiar phrases can be a sound bite savior by stretching the impact of just a handful of words.

Sound bites, like good melodies, keep echoing in your ear and are hard to get out of your mind. They are clever enough to repeat. Most importantly, they give listeners a verbal cue card of what you think is really significant. Think of them as verbal underlining.

The experienced speaker or speechwriter learns the tricks of using or twisting familiar phrases to “cut to the chase” of connecting with an audience. What you say may be new, but it will stick better if it is fastened to what your audience already knows.

If you need a familiar-phrase tutor, consult Will Rogers: “A fool and his money are soon elected.” “Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.” “An economist’s guess is liable to be as good as anyone else’s.”  

Heed George Bernard Shaw’s advice to avoid confusion over the “power of conversation” and the “power of speech.” Most conversations are forgettable. A great line can live on for a long time.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Claiming the Early-Start Advantage

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

An early start is the main advantage project opponents enjoy, but they can squander that advantage by trying to perfect their plan, push through a project or rely on the element of surprise.

Those who launch big projects or campaigns have one advantage – an early start. After that, the advantage slides over to opponents, who have become more organized, clever and dedicated. 

Starting early allows project proponents to listen and adapt their project to counter, eliminate or minimize opposition claims. It also allows proponents to create the first, positive impression of a project.

One of the key rules of marketing is being first to market. That principle holds true in public affairs, as well. Telling your story first is better than trying to tell your story through a tangled opposition narrative.

Despite the obvious advantage of starting early, many proponents dilly dally, usually to perfect “their plan.” However, rolling out a “perfect plan” is often the wrong strategy because it says you have the answers, regardless of the questions. 

People like to be heard, even if their comments don’t result in massive changes in already engineered plans. Many times, though, citizen questions and concerns – and even sharp barbs by opponents – can expose weaknesses or oversights in a plan. The worst kind of oversight is a small adjustment or addition that could accomplish a longstanding community goal, which would be a large selling point.

Instead of concentrating on your project plan, devote energy first to project benefits. Speaking in terms of benefits sends a different vibe than listing all the marvelous features contained in the plan. It signals the community you have considered their needs and interests. The actual plan may not be much different, but community members will have the chance to see the project through a different, bigger lens.

Engaging neighbors, community leaders and opponents takes time, so an early start is essential to carrying out an engagement process. Careful, active listening is required to hear concerns and tease out opportunities for common ground, then translate that common ground into a revised plan that neutralizes the main core of opposition. 

The fear that community engagement would slow down a project is understandable, but it overlooks the delays that can occur later when angry people look for and find procedural means to waylay a project, disrupting time-sensitive schedules, frequently with protracted legal action.

The most sensitive community engagement can’t guarantee to rout all opposition or prevent barricades to project progress. But it can invest a project with goodwill, brighter ideas and, if done imaginatively, unexpected allies.

A late start on community engagement, likewise, doesn’t guarantee failure or rancor. However, it usually sets up a win-lose scenario, rather than a win-win possibility.

BuzzFeed Delivers Downers to Political Candidates

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

The digital age has become a heyday for opponents. You can bring down a dictator or a local ballot measure with a laptop computer and cell phone. You can embarrass a political candidate by digging up obscure speeches, photographs and video stored on the Web.

Lately, nobody has been better at humbling the mighty than BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed launched nine years ago to track and share “contagious news.” By 2011, BuzzFeed graduated from a social media and entertainment Internet company into a full-fledged news operation that retained its “clickbait headlines."

Based in New York City, BuzzFeed produces content daily from its staff reporters, regular contributors, syndicated cartoonists and its community of readers. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, which seems like it has gone on forever, BuzzFeed has become the journalistic equivalent of what political pros call “oppo research.”

Andrew Kaczynski, 26, is in charge of BuzzFeed’s 4-person political research unit, called the K-File. He is referred to as the unit’s “old man."

Kaczynski is a journalist who earned his spurs by posting clips on YouTube that contradicted what politicians said on the stump. BuzzFeed hired him in 2011 and his reputation has continued to grow. One admirer called Kaczynski the “Oppenheimer of archival video research.” He was called the most influential opposition researcher in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where he posted footage of Mitt Romney running for governor of Massachusetts as a “progressive.” It was Kaczynski who exposed Rand Paul for plagiarizing lines from the movie Stand and Deliver for a Senate floor speech about immigration.

BuzzFeed has vexed most of the candidates in this cycle by finding material from their shadowy pasts that causes them present-day heartburn. A piece this week by NPR credited BuzzFeed for discovering the video in which Ben Carson said the pyramids of Egypt were built as grain silos and the records showing Hillary Clinton’s claim was false that all four of her grandparents were immigrants.

It was BuzzFeed that found the C-SPAN clip from 1996 when Clinton referred to some children as “superpredators” and the dusty 1985 video of Bernie Sanders speaking admiringly about the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. It also was BuzzFeed that produced audio indicating Donald Trump wasn’t opposed to invading Iraq from the beginning after all.

Having potent material on BuzzFeed’s popular channels would be bad enough for candidates, but its posts are now routinely picked up by more traditional news organizations. It was CNN that pinned down Clinton on her “superpredator” remark and got her apology. 

The BuzzFeed model conforms perfectly to digital media. It relies on deep dives into long forgotten data pools. It thrives on shareable, attention-grabbing content. It produces contagious news that spreads virally through and beyond social channels.

The cautionary tale of BuzzFeed is that all it takes to be good at opposition research is the patience to keep searching for contradictions, misstatements and hypocrisies. The caution in the tale extends beyond running for political office to any kind of public statement, proclamation or claim. Make sure what you say is true and consistent with what you have said. If you’ve changed your view, own it. If you have dirt swept under the rug, be prepared to deal with it. 

Andrew Kaczynski isn't a digital one-off. His clone may be your next-door neighbor.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.