Political Polling, News Coverage and Accurate Results

If you want to know how the 2016 presidential election is shaping up, be wary of polling results reported by the media. They may not be wrong, but they may be newsier more than they are right.

If you want to know how the 2016 presidential election is shaping up, be wary of polling results reported by the media. They may not be wrong, but they may be newsier more than they are right.

Politicians may tout polls that cast their candidacy in its brightest light. TV stations have a tendency to report on polls they view as newsy, even if they aren’t necessarily accurate.

The Washington Post compared polling and reporting results from the 2008 presidential campaign and found TV newscasts tended to report polls that showed a tight race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, even though the average results of all polls reflected Obama was clearly ahead.

“On average,” according to the Post story, “viewers likely heard more about polls that portrayed the race as close than polls that more accurately showed Obama in the lead.”

TV news gave more air time to jumps in poll results, which gave the race that worn on for months spark of “breaking news," even if the actual poll changes were mere aberrations.

The researchers who prepared the Post report conducted an exhaustive search of all the polls that TV reporters could have cited. They found time after time polls showing Obama gaining or holding the lead were bypassed in favor of polls that showed the race as very tight.

Polling can be slippery enough in revealing the actual mindset of the electorate without any help from people trying to put their finger on the scale. Pollsters use different samples and apply different techniques. The timing of when a poll is conducted can be before or after a significant event in a campaign. How questions are framed can shade the results, too. With all that built-in variation, selecting what you might call outlier polls makes the reporting even more suspect.

As Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, has said, looking at the averages of all credible polls provides a more reliable picture of where a race stands and what voters are thinking. Even the average of all the polls can be wrong, Silver admits, so the takeaway is don’t take polls too seriously, especially when they are still weeks to go before the election.

Looking at the 2016 presidential election, polls have played a large part in both the campaigns and the reporting of the race. GOP nominee Donald Trump routinely bragged about his lead in the polls during the primary season and has complained that poll results showing him trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton are media fictions. Trump’s campaign manager, who is a pollster, says Trump is actually ahead, but his secret supporters are unwilling to tell pollsters they plan to vote for him.

The media, especially TV news, gave a lot of coverage to the post-convention polling bumps that both Trump and Clinton received. And, there has been nonstop media discussion about GOP fears that a slumping Trump presidential campaign will have negative effects on down-ballot Republican candidates, especially in a handful of tight Senate races that could decide which party is in control in the next Congress. And TV networks have begun reporting on what CBS News calls a “poll of polls” to avoid cherrypicking results.

Coverage of the 2016 race has drilled down into the demographics of the race. The simplest narrative is that Trump appeals to white, older, non-college-educated men while Clinton appeals strongly to women, minorities and people with college degrees. This narrative fits neatly into the tight time frames for TV news coverage and may be this campaign season’s newsy fixation, even if it is over-simplified and nearly stereotypical.

Skepticism of political polling remains a smart move, as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney learned when he headed into election day thinking, based on polls, he was about to be elected president. Believing in polls is a little bit like believing your own press releases. Believe at your own risk.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Need a case example of how lying can cost you dearly? Look no further than Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte whose fabricated story about an armed robbery in Rio led to the loss of four prime endorsements by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, skin care firm Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker airweave.

Lochte reportedly earned $2.3 million annually from his Olympic swimming sponsorships leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Washington Post. One expert estimates Lochte's lifetime lost earnings from the four dropped sponsorships could be as much as $20 million.

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Lochte took responsibility for the incident involving three other U.S. Olympians following a night of reverie that took a pit stop at a Rio gas station. Lochte admitted he was intoxicated and damaged a bathroom door. He was less definitive about other damage in the bathroom.

Lochte, who returned his hair to its normal shade of brown, also admitted “over-exaggerating” his encounter with a security guard who pulled his gun and pointed it at him. Lochte initially said he and his fellow swimmers were yanked from a cab and robbed at gunpoint. Now, he says, the guard confronted them after hearing loud noises in the bathroom and drew his weapon after Lochte acted aggressively. Lochte claims he was still drunk when he spun his robbery story.

While Lochte managed an apology to Brazil for not telling the truth, Brazilian authorities and news media are understandably not satisfied. Lochte’s untruthful tale touched a nerve in a country highly sensitive about its chronic crime rate. They correctly note Lochte only confessed to lying after surveillance camera video showed what really happened – or didn’t happen.

Intermixed in his apology, Lochte said some of the right things. But probably not enough of them. For one, he failed to say how it would make the situation right. That would require more than paying to repair the damage. It might take an act of attrition or a contribution to a cause dear to the heart of Brazilians. (Speedo said the company is donating $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children, which will direct the money to add Brazilian children.}

Ralph Lauren removed Lochte's image from its website congratulating U.S. Olympians it sponsored. The company said Lochte’s deal was for the 2016 Olympics and wouldn’t be renewed.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has warned that punishments may lie ahead for Lochte.

At age 32, Lochte’s Olympic career is probably over anyway. His actions, which he described as “immature,” have put a serious dent in his reputation as well as his pocketbook. In the trade, he would be called “damaged goods.” Self-inflicted damaged goods.

Lochte may recover his reputation, and we sincerely hope he does take steps to do that. But his actions and prevarications are a stark reminder that reputation matters – and take only a few seconds to blow up.

Actions Speak Louder Than Reputations

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

Your reputation should shadow your reality, not precede it. When reputation gets out in front of reality, you are courting scrutiny to see whether the two match up – and scorn when they don’t.

Remember, actions speak louder than reputations. Actions guided by solid values enhance reputations.

It is all about the difference of earning a reputation versus projecting a reputation. There are tangible dimensions to an earned reputation as opposed to the airy lightness of a projected reputation.

A useful exercise is to measure the gap between your reputation and your reality. This gap analysis can affirm an earned reputation or expose a hot-air projected reputation. If the perceived gap between reputation and reality is significant, you have a credibility problem.

“Effectively managing reputational risk begins with recognizing that reputation is a matter of perception,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. “When the reputation of a company is more positive than its underlying reality, this gap poses a substantial risk. Eventually, the failure of a firm to live up to its billing will be revealed and its reputation will decline until it more closely matches the reality.”

“To bridge reputation-reality gaps, a company must either improve its ability to meet expectations or reduce expectations by promising less,” the HBR article continues. Some companies panic and resort to financial tricks, sleight of hand or outright fraud to mask the gap, which can result in an even greater fall. Think Enron.

Because your reputation is your most valuable asset, managing your reputation should be a top priority. Reputation management should be based on actions, not promises. Actions to build or defend your reputation should center on actions that align with your core values and who you want to be.

When clients ask me about how to respond to a crisis situation, I advise to start by thinking about the organization's core values and let them be the guide for action. If you say your customers come first, then act like it when responding a crisis that may put customers at risk. If you say you want to be a good neighbor, then act like a good neighbor.

A brand promise – such as healthy, locally sourced fresh food – is only as good as the actions to fulfill that promise. Chipotle discovered the hard way that a brand promise rings hollow unless you ensure that locally sourced fresh food is also healthy food.

One of the best ways to earn a reputation is by solving other people’s problems. Another reputation-burnishing effort is to undertake steps that eliminate problems down the road, as Tillamook Cheese did when it chose to eliminate use the growth hormone rBst in its dairy herds.

The 2016 presidential election has highlighted reputations and realities that are out of sync. Jeb Bush was deemed the GOP frontrunner before winning a single primary. He raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions on the basis of his reputation, but when the voting started, his reputation imploded. He became the proverbial hollow suit.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has campaigned as highly competent, but she has been tagged for her handling of classified emails on her private server as extremely careless. GOP nominee Donald Trump touts himself as a winning businessman despite a record of bankruptcies, failures and a continuing lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University. Not surprisingly, a majority of voters view both Clinton and Trump as either untrustworthy or unfit.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio offer some sterling examples of men and women who have paid the price and earned their glory in the pool, on the track and in other venues. Some Olympic stars have to live up to their reputations, while most Olympians earn their own reputations based on their performance. Some win medals. Others compete and never get to the award podium. Still others are indelibly imprinted on our memories because of their actions.

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Abbey D’Agostino, a 24-year-old Dartmouth graduate, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin were total strangers before running the 5,000-meter race in Rio. Twenty minutes into the race, their legs crossed and both fell to the track. Instead of worrying about their medal chances, the two women helped each other to their feet and hobbled to complete the race, finishing far behind other competitors. In an instant, they showed their true mettle by reflecting the traditional Olympic spirit of good sportsmanship.

Two days earlier, in the men’s 10,000-meter race, Mo Farah fell after his feet and got tangled with Galen Rupp’s. Perhaps sacrificing his own medal chances, Rupp slowed down to be sure Farah, his friend and long-time training partner, was okay. Farah gave him a thumbs up and went on to win his second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event. Rupp put his values and his actions ahead of his reputation, and by doing so he ended up enhancing his reputation.

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.

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.

Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.

Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:

Anticipation

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.

Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.

Surprise

Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.

Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.

Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.

First Impression

First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.

Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.

When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.

Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.

Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.

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.

Failure, Messy Innovation and Success

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

Trying is the first step toward failure, says Homer Simpson. In our society, failure is a four-letter word. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

The TED Radio Hour last weekend focused on failure. The show included an interview and TED Talk excerpts from entrepreneur Astro Teller who said he rewards colleagues at his moonshot factory for failing. Calling innovation “messy,” Teller said the ability to recognize and acknowledge failure allows people to stop heading in the wrong direction and start fresh looking for a productive direction.

The secret to success, Teller says, “is learning how to kill projects” so they can be reborn.

Economist Tim Harford, who wrote Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, says trial and error is a tried-and-true method to solve problems. Brilliant Eureka moments may occur sometimes, but Harford says it is better to embrace failure and constantly adapt, “to work from the bottom up rather than the top down.”

Casey Gerald, who founded MBAxAmerica, espouses the “Gospel of Doubt.” Gerald said core beliefs have let him down in life, helping him to learn that “clear-eyed doubt can sometimes be better than belief.” Innovation doesn’t start with certainty, just curiosity and resolve.

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch, who collaborated with Ken Kesey on a collective novel project at the University of Oregon, said early career failures fueled her efforts to “find worth” in herself as a writer.

The theme of the show, hosted by Guy Raz, was “failure as an option.” Far too often, failure is seen as an end point, not a launch pad; as a sign of defeat rather than a signpost to move in another direction.

Many communications projects are scrapped because they initially don’t succeed or underperform. Sponsors or the communicators themselves give up without trying to fix what is failing.

Excellent communications strategies and tactics are frequently the product of trial, error, testing and restarting. If at first you don’t succeed doesn’t mean you can’t ultimately succeed.

Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest choreographers with roots in Seattle’s ballet company, received highly critical reviews of her dance musical Movin’ Out set to the music of Bill Joel. Instead of closing it down, Tharp methodically ironed out each criticism of the show, and from there the show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations.

Tharp wrote a book called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, in which she describes the habit of realizing you are in a rut. Ruts, Tharp says, are like false starts. The only way to get out of a rut, according to Tharp, is to admit you’re in one, climb out and look for fresh inspiration or untried approaches.

That’s good advice. Failure is not a permanent condition. It’s just the first step on a longer journey to eventual success.

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.