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.

Restoring Public Trust in DEQ

Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is in trouble. The agency was slow to identify and respond to warnings of high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods. Its respected director has resigned. Knowledgeable observers say DEQ has a shortage of scientific and technical personnel and may face difficulty recruiting the talent it needs.

That would be a lot to handle any time, but it’s an especially heavy load in an election year when Oregonians vote on a new governor. Chances are good DEQ will take its licks on the campaign stump as candidates try to make hay out of the agency’s shortcomings.

In recent times, DEQ has operated below the public and political radar. Some critics say that’s because DEQ has been timid in pushing environmental goals and willing to bend to compromise with industry.

While current concerns center on DEQ’s role in maintaining air quality, the agency also is in charge of water quality, waste management, hazardous material use reduction, vehicle exhaust inspections, spill clean-up and sustainability. DEQ is involved in issues as far-ranging as odor suppression and evaluating the environmental impact of coal exports. It also is engaged in the climate change conversation.

The immediate controversy has angered neighborhoods, school officials and candidates for offices in Portland and Multnomah County. The loss of Dick Pedersen, who has been as DEQ since 1996, raises questions about the future leadership of the agency. Before long, questions may arise about DEQ’s performance and competency in other ares of its responsibility.

Given all this uncertainty, what steps would you recommend DEQ take to regain public confidence? Governor Brown and the Environmental Quality Commission will select a replacement for Pedersen. What actions would you advise the new DEQ director to take to rebuild trust and the agency’s credibility?

Share your ideas and recommendations with us at garyc@cfmpdx.com. We will report on what you share with us, plus an idea or two of our own, in the Oregon Insider blog next week. If you prefer to share your ideas without attribution, we will honor that request.

Please send us your best thoughts by next Wednesday (March 9). We look forward to your comments on what DEQ and its new director should do.

Secretaries of the Future

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

Kurt Vonnegut wondered why U.S. Presidents have secretaries of state, interior, defense, treasury, labor, education, veterans affairs and health and human services, but not a secretary for the future.

His question speaks volumes about a lot of organizations that busy themselves with today’s entanglements without casting an eye to future challenges and opportunities.

Many organizations have created departments devoted to sustainability to guide longer term decision making. A few have hired futurists to predict what lies ahead. And then there are visionary CEOs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson who are committed to speeding up the future.

Considerable energy is given to long-range planning, which often resembles what we would like to see happen as opposed to what is likely to happen. Case in point: Land-use regulations designed to prevent sprawl, but that also limit housing supply, which affects housing affordability.

No one exactly knows what Vonnegut had in mind when he suggested a Secretary of the Future, but you could imagine he meant an office dedicated to looking forward, identifying choices that need to be made and providing a framework to vet those choices.

The Vonnegut Secretary of the Future wouldn’t run hospitals, count money or stage bombing raids. It would be in the idea business. When you look around, you can see plenty of problems that call out for fresh ideas.

Take, for example, how to combat widening income inequality. Or the educational system America needs to remain competitive. Or steps to halt climate change.

A secretary of the future isn’t just needed for the federal government. Most organizations would do well to look up from today’s headaches to see what the future might look like and how they could influence or capitalize on that future. Peering beyond the horizon can open your eyes to breakthrough ideas or new paradigms. You literally see things in a new light. 

Companies that manufacture things from sports apparel to mining machines might contemplate how to navigate in a world where the motivation to chase cheaper labor is offset by punitive trade and tax policies in their home country.

Land developers who must win local voter approval for annexations may want to recast how they approach development and how they sell it to local residents.

Technology companies should search for ways that protect user privacy without creating dark holes for terrorists to operate.

Small business owners facing larger, multi-national competitors could search for unique ways to add value to cement customer loyalty. 

The pressures of today will always dominate our thinking. Vonnegut reminds us that those pressures shouldn’t totally block out thinking about the future. You don’t really need a secretary of the future to guide you.

The Value of Local PR Advice

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Companies and organizations ask for trouble when they fail to recognize the obstacles that can occur in communications between different cultures and geographies.

What is transparency in one culture may be completely foreign in another. The kind of language and quality of explanation that works in one part of the country may fall flat in the ears of consumers who live somewhere else.

The most fundamental obstacle is not knowing the local turf. Our colleague Ruud Bijl, who provides crisis counsel to clients from his home base in Amsterdam, wrote, "When a crisis occurs, corporate guidelines and cultural differences often cause an international company headaches.”

In his blog, Bijl cited the example of a Chinese toy company that was baffled by a West European company representative who recommended issuing an apology and recalling a defective video game. Toy company officials refused to do either and instructed their representative to respond only to complaints, even if that risked a long-term dent in the brand’s reputation. 

Encountering these kinds of obstacles doesn't require crossing international boundaries. They can occur anywhere. Cultural barriers can exist in the same city.

For example, a company with social service operations across America and a headquarters in the Midwest may feel like a fish out of water trying to communicate to stakeholders in a place like Oregon. The politics and sensitivities around the social services could be very different. And the company PR team may not have any existing relationships with key reporters or local influencers. Their attempt to deliver a complex message may be thwarted by not getting a reporter of a key publication to call them back on the phone.

Crisis response and media relations, like politics, is all local. You need to know the lay of the land and who to call. You should understand the local context for a problem or issue. Experience dealing with crises or touchy issues is valuable, but so is the good sense to seek some local assistance. 

Bijl advises that crisis communications plans take into account cultural differences and geographical distances so a crisis response team isn’t bogged down trying to identify and cope with those obstacles. The same counsel applies to a media relations or marketing program. Know your audience, understand how it gets trusted information and build rapport with those influencers before you roll out a campaign or respond to a crisis.

For large, complex and multi-location organizations, that may not be possible without competent local assistance. The cost of hiring and following the advice of a savvy local PR team is well worth it if you can avoid running into a communication brick wall.

Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

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.

Trump: Accomplished Ringmaster of the Communication Circus

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump has turned the presidential race, political correctness and polite discourse on their head. So, is he exemplifying the traits of a good or bad communicator? That probably is a matter influenced by your political persuasion, but a fair analysis suggests he has both good and bad communication traits.

In what one voter called the “post-pragmatic” period in American history, Trump offers passion over policy. He insults instead of ingratiates. He emotes rather than explains.

The Donald’s mix of provocative statements, nonstop tweets and 24/7 media availability has managed to smother the campaign fires of his opponents. He calls a Fox News analyst a bimbo and gets more coverage than a candidate who unveils a 10-point plan on a vital issue.

Critics say Trump is playing on fears, inflaming biases and inciting anger. Supporters say he is merely channeling pent-up political reaction to government rigor mortis.

Regardless of whether Trump continues to fly high in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, there are some lessons to learn from how he campaigns. Writing for ragan.com, Clare Lane lists some of Trump's best takeaways:

•  He has a core message that he repeats over and over.

•  He taps into the emotional “truth” of his audience.

•  He speaks in language his audience understands.

•  He knows how to reframe questions and issues.

•  He is intentionally different than his opponents.

Trump tells big crowds at his rallies that he is running for president to “make America great again.” He has turned a tagline into a mantra, a phrase into a brand.

Perhaps ironically as a billionaire, Trump empathizes with people who feel downtrodden. He knows their hot buttons and he isn’t hesitant to push them.

It’s no accident that Trump has made racist and sexist remarks and dismissed political correctness as a liberal conspiracy. They are calculated comments to connect with deep-seated feelings and fears in the voters he seeks to attract.

Trump is a master at turning around questions. He pivots to make his points, without worrying whether he answers a question. Even when pressed, Trump shifts the topic.

From his cartoonish hair to his braggadocio behavior to his testy tweets, Trump is unparalleled. There is no one like him. In a field of dozens, being so distinctive has made him the center of attention, which he maintains by consistently “surprising” everyone. He even got a full news cycle’s worth of coverage for staying overnight once in Iowa instead of flying back to his New York penthouse.

If those are his good traits, what are his bad ones? It is pretty much the same list.

Trump barks his key message because he doesn’t have – or doesn’t want to share – many details of what he would do if elected president. Yes, we know he would tear up some executive orders, but how would he build that huge wall between the United States and Mexico, how would he deal with Chinese leaders, how would he increase the wages of average Americans? And what exactly about America’s past does he view as so great to warrant its revival?

Trump is long on passion, but short on persuasion. Sooner or later, when emotions cool, you want some real answers.

Speaking the language of those you seek to reach is critical, but not all-encompassing. Sometimes leadership requires speaking above the crowd, raising its sights. You can summon the “better angels” of ourselves with familiar phrases used in powerful ways.

People who conduct media training teach how to bridge from awkward questions back to key messages. Sometimes, however, the most provocative thing to do is actually answer that awkward question.

Being different is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing. Building trust, showing emotional intelligence and displaying grace under pressure count, too.

There should be no argument that Trump is an accomplished ringmaster in the communication circus. What may seem like indulgence may, in fact, be a disciplined, if highly irregular, approach to gaining and retaining notice.

Consider Trump’s decision not to participate in the final GOP presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Was it really meant to snub Megyn Kelly because of her questioning in an earlier debate? Or was it a shrewd maneuver to thwart the plans of his Republican rivals to gang up on him during the debate?

Like him or not, Trump is a study in how to communicate. Some good, some not so good. He definitely is not a loser, though, even if you view him as a lousy candidate.