Name-Calling: The Worst-Case Scenario

Name-calling may be seen by some as telling like it is, but insults don’t constitute a strategy, build a brand, unify a divided crowd, show maturity or create options. Name-calling may be close to the worst-case scenario.

Name-calling may be seen by some as telling like it is, but insults don’t constitute a strategy, build a brand, unify a divided crowd, show maturity or create options. Name-calling may be close to the worst-case scenario.

The escalating invective between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un serves as a fresh reminder of why name-calling isn’t such a great idea – and certainly not a strategy.

Name-calling is at best a boomerang sport. You call someone a name and they respond by insulting you back – rocket man on a suicide ride fetches mentally deranged dotard. Apart from a fleeting reference to Elton John and a word requiring a dictionary dive, not much is accomplished. And the space to find middle ground is reduced.

At worst, name-calling can exacerbate an already explosive situation. When two nations with nuclear capabilities engage in name-calling, the explosions could be huge. Kim said Trump’s insults amount to a declaration of war, as US warplanes flew closer to the North Korea and Kim threatened to shoot them down. Chances sharply increased for an accidental stumble into actual war.

Trump and Kim aren’t the first to resort to name-calling, but they are egregious examples of the technique taken to an extreme. Professional wrestlers hurl insults to whip up the crowd, but they have scripts. Trump and Kim appear to be trading shots totally off script.

Jimmy Kimmel has generated a lot of buzz by calling Senator Bill Cassidy, co-author of the latest GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, a “liar.” The comedian said Cassidy promised only to support a health care bill that would pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” which meant preserving a requirement in current law that no one can be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Kimmel says the Cassidy-Graham bill fails to pass the test the Louisiana senator promised.

Did Kimmel’s three-night monologue accusing Cassidy of lying turn the tide on the Cassidy-Graham bill? Unlikely. Arizona Senator John McCain, who has declared his opposition, seemed more impressed by the array of health care organizations opposing the bill, the lack of hearings and the failure of the Senate to pursue a bipartisan solution.

Trump reflects another problem with personal invective. He calls people “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco,” but is offended when a journalist calls him a “white supremacist.” You get what you give in the name-calling game. Name-calling has the effect of turning a disagreement into a street fight.

That hasn’t stopped Trump who over the weekend went on a Twitter tirade against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem before games. He dared NFL owners to fire kneeling players, calling them SOBs, but instead more players and some entire teams did the opposite. Another reality of name-calling – it ticks off the people you call names and increases the odds they will defy you. And, name-calling appears to be habit-forming.

Maybe name-calling is just a regressive form of argumentation. It is what young kids do in schoolyards when they are frustrated and don’t know how else to vent. Or what bullies do to their victims to make themselves feel bigger than they really are. But bullies sometimes are upstaged by those they bully – see Teresa Kaepernick’s response.

There certainly is a time for emotional expression. Tragedies. Natural disasters. Shootings. Even then, strong words usually aren’t framed as insults.

Calling people names is viewed by some as a form of branding. Don Rickles insulted people to their face after they bought tickets to see him. But Rickles was a comic and name-calling was his shtick. He made fun of how people looked or dressed, but he didn’t threaten to burn down anyone’s house.

For those tempted to name-call, the unfiltered immediacy of Twitter is a perfect bedside companion. Unlike Rickles who risked getting a drink splashed in his face, a name-caller on Twitter can verbally assault someone in relative isolation, then go brush his teeth. Hurling insults online is a lot like throwing rocks from a glass house – without any glass to shatter when someone throws a rock back at you. But it also can generate a lot more rock throwers.

Calling out people may be a sophisticated, if misplaced tactic to divert and district attention such as a looming major legislative failure or the tightening screws of investigations. Even if the insults manage to distract, they also detract from what else you say or want to say, such as assurances to thousands of people who lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods in two huge hurricanes. Because name-calling is all-consuming, it doesn’t leave much air on the room for anything else.

For anyone who thinks about it, name-calling is a not strategy, brand-builder or effective communications technique. You don’t control the back and forth flow of insults; they control you. Your priorities are buried under the debris of angry, hateful words. Your options shrink. Your goodwill, even among supporters, evaporates.

If someone calls you a name, stop before responding in kind. If your ire is up and you are tempted to name-call, take a breather. You can assuredly come up with a better approach because name-calling is pretty close to the worst-case scenario.

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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 Pros and Cons of Counterpunching

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching can be an effective strategy when attacked online, on TV or in print. But the counterpunch needs to pack some punch or else it may only serve to give more exposure to the original attack.

There is hardly a better example of an effective counterpunch than Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander’s response to a TV ad by his incumbent opponent claiming he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander, a 35-year-old former Army intelligence officer, produced a 30-second TV spot in which he assembles an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded while explaining his views on guns.

He describes how he rode shotgun while serving in Afghanistan for unarmed convoys, supports the Second Amendment and favors background checks “so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.” The spot ends with Kander saying, “I approved this message, ‘cause I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this” as he places a round in the fully assembled rifle.

Kander didn’t unseat Blunt, who was seeking re-election to the US Senate with strong support from the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t lose because of his views on guns. His ad clearly set the record straight.

Donald Trump rode his impulsive counterpunching prowess through a crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary and ultimately to the White House. As a debate strategy, Trump’s counterpunches kept his adversaries off balance and successfully deflected their criticisms of him.

Debaters often use counterpunching as a technique. But using counterpunching as a strategy in a communications crisis can be trickier because, unlike a debate, there are no formal rules. In the wide-open horizons of social media, a misplaced counterpunch can have the same effect as shooting yourself in the foot.

Like any other kind of strategic communication, a counterpunch needs to be weighed for its positive and potential negative outcomes. One of the most important considerations is context. Typically, gun control advocates don’t defend their views by brandishing automatic weapons. In Kander’s case, it made sense. As one political observer noted, “Militarism sells in Missouri.” The candidate’s ad was a not-so-subtle way to underscore that Kander served in the military and his opponent didn’t, despite his NRA endorsement.

Many of Trump’s campaign counterpunches and his defensive presidential tweets have stirred added controversy and, in more than few cases, fueled entire new controversies. If your strategy is to win the news cycle every day, this works. If you are trying to escape the news cycle, then counterpunching can be counter-effective.

The best use of counterpunching is to respond to a serious false claim about you or your organization. Even then the road can be treacherous.

Consider Tesla’s counterpunch to a 2013 New York Times story about a test drive that ended with a depleted battery and an embarrassing tow. Elon Musk called the story a fake and accused the writer of intentionally staging the bad ending. Musk trotted out graphs and charts based on driving logs that contested key points in the Times article.

The Musk counterpunch had antecedents. Many years before Audi challenged a report about sudden acceleration in its cars and won a retraction. However, Musk never quite earned a retraction, just a long article in the Times’ Public Editor’s Journal. The most telling part of the article was a comment by a reader and Tesla Model S owner who said the reporter should have read the manual about the range of the electric vehicle:


“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that the write ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type).”

But the reader also laid blame on Tesla:

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Not exactly a direct hit for a counterpunch. Instead of attacking the reporter and his integrity, Musk might have chosen another strategy, such as pointing out the need for more charging stations to eliminate problems like this. That would have acknowledged the problem and identified a solution, maybe earning editorial support for the solution by the influential newspaper.

A year later, Tesla appeared to learn this lesson and stayed quiet when the CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes aired a glowing piece about the Tesla, which included an engine growling noise when the car accelerated. Auto junkies jumped on the report, noting that electric cars don’t growl. CBS issued an apology, blaming the engine noise dubbing on an “audio error.” There was no win for Tesla in this drag race, so it wisely stayed in the grandstands.

When you are hit with a false claim, it is tempting to strike back. It can work, but it often doesn’t. Jason Kander produced one of the best ever counterpunching ads – and he still lost. Before counterpunching, think it through before acting on emotion.

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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.

Al Roker Animates Levels of Hurricane Devastation

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

All of us have heard a lot about hurricanes in recent days. NBC weatherman Al Roker showed an animated video this week demonstrating the varying impact of winds ranging from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane. It was devastating to watch.

Roker’s video was also a devastating example of visual explanations. Instead of a verbal description, the video’s animation (approximately 50 seconds in) let viewers clearly see what damage is caused with winds of escalating force – from blowing palm trees to blowing off the roof of a house. Words convey the meaning, but the video packs a punch.

Animated videos are common in weather reports, most frequently to show the storm track of hurricanes. Even though the tracking videos carry a hurricane’s category, those numbers don’t really tell the story of the potential destruction they can wreak. Roker’s animated video put dimension to the numbers.

While animated videos can’t be plucked off the shelf or created in a wink, they also don’t require a major production. Anyone who can show a story would be able to work with a graphic designer, digital specialist or college intern to create an animated video of that story. For the adventurous, there are even tools such as Flipagram, Adobe Spark and Animoto that let you muck around and generate your own animated videos.

You don’t need to be an artist to create animated videos. For example, Flipagram lets users combine photos, video clips and music.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by Cappelli Miles, a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by Cappelli Miles, a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

Whether you hire someone or do it yourself, animated videos are perfect content for social media and websites. People like to look at short animated videos that have eye appeal, are informative and offer entertainment value.

Successful animated videos are more than visual whizbang. They are stories told with moving pictures. Roker’s video about the force of winds in different categories of hurricanes worked because it put a visual stamp on the damage wrought by different wind speeds. The best animated videos simplify the complex and bring to mind the familiar in a refreshing new way.

Some stories can take the form of visual explanations, making a complex story seem simple. OregonSaves produced an animated video that walks viewers through the “whys” and “whats” of the new state-sponsored retirement savings plan.

Infographics can be converted to animated videos. Here are some interesting examples.

Emotions can drive animated videos. Think of all the animated cartoons you watched with your kids as they grew up that left you with a tear in the eye, even though the stories were aimed at 10-year-olds.

The bottom line is that animated videos work, attract clicks and stick in people’s minds. If they aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation or marketing toolkits, then you should go to work to add them.

Televangelist Proves Proverbial Value of Crisis Preparation

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen provided a fresh example of why crisis preparation is essential – and its absence can blow a serious hole in your reputation.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes with no place to go, Osteen offered prayers, but not access to his massive megachurch building, which was formerly where the Houston Rockets played. After a savage social media response, Osteen relented, then offered a string of explanations, none of which quieted the storm of criticism. Twitter users branded Pastor Osteen as a hypocrite.

Osteen already has faced criticism as a pastor-for-pay, with a net worth of more than $50 million, not a humble messenger of God to the downtrodden. His prosperity message of prayer-to-riches was oddly discordant with the equal opportunity ravages of flooding in Houston. His failure to open his church doors to flood victims only amplified that criticism, as well as put him in front of TV cameras, including NBC’s Today show, to explain his actions – or inaction.

Whether Osteen’s explanations hold water or not can’t drown out the reality that he wasn’t thinking ahead of what might happen if a huge hurricane barreled into the city bringing relentless rain in its wake. Osteen said he didn’t have the personnel available to manage a huge crowd inside his church. And he said no one could have anticipated the impact of the hurricane. Both explanations disregard the value of crisis preparation, which includes anticipating and planning for what might happen.

Huge hurricane, lots of rain, flooding, people forced to flee. Really not that hard to anticipate in a city on the Gulf of Mexico susceptible to big storms and with low-lying neighborhoods, some of which are named after bayous (bodies of water in flat, low-lying areas). Details of the building storm over the Gulf that became a Category 4 hurricane at landfall were widely reported days ahead. If there was massive flooding, officials would certainly be looking for some place to shelter them – like large convention centers or arenas that have bathrooms and kitchens. The bells should have started ringing.

Evidently, Osteen’s organization never had talked with Houston officials about storm response and apparently there were no internal conversations either. Not only was that a huge oversight, it also is a huge blown opportunity, as pointed out by Brad Phillips in his blog. “Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen,” Phillips wrote, “it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood [the name of his church] as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.”

In other words, Osteen blew a chance to convert his megachurch into a community refuge.

Osteen is a great speaker. But great speech isn’t always what’s needed in a crisis. TV news reports, social media and YouTube were filled with images of desperate people being rescued and knee-deep neighbors helping neighbors escape their roofs. Nothing provided a better contrast to Osteen’s crisis response than the picture of a long line of Houstonians who queued up to volunteer in rescue and relief efforts.

As the Harris County sheriff put it, the scenes were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. To thousands of flood victims and many others, Osteen’s slow-opening church door simply struck them as heartless.

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 Role of Reasoning and Integrity in Persuasion

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

Persuasion today means making someone believe something. Originally, persuasion meant making someone believe something through reasoning.

The absence of reasoning in contemporary persuasion may account for why so many people can’t agree on facts, let alone points of view. If you persuade based on half-truths, misleading facts or lies, you are dealing in the art of faulty reasoning and propaganda. Reasoning based on facts is what distinguishes demagogues from persuasive speakers.

Executive coach Greg Salciiccioli published a blog about “The Art of Persuasion” in which he optimistically says, “Persuasion can be a constructive way of finding shared solutions to a common problem.” He adds, “Persuasion, when used honestly, can be used to work toward a joint goal.”

Even though the national dialogue seems hopelessly stuck in a ditch, Salciccioli’s perspective on persuasion can be useful in engaging and possibly even convincing skeptical audiences.

“Persuasion requires a handful of useful skills, including active listening, emotional empathy and generosity.” Salciccioli wrote. “Without these things, people will take our actions and suggestions as that of a manipulator, and rightfully so. We must show that our end goal is to serve the needs of others, even in the case where we hold an opposing viewpoint.”

A hallmark of persuasion, according to Salciccioli, is providing credible proof or a reasonable explanation of your point of view. But persuasive people, he says, also need to be willing to make emotional connections with those they seek to persuade and to practice what they preach. If you can’t relate and be an example of your perspective, you have little chance to be persuasive.

In effect, Salciccioli has amended the definition of persuasion with the addition of the concept of integrity. You may seem to persuade without reason and authenticity, but you won’t be a persuasive person. That requires more than just a blather of words and boasts.

“Be an example, especially in the things you stand up for and publicly teach or claim,” Salciccioli explains. “It can be a hard thing to do as leaders, and while we’re all imperfect, this is probably the most important part of persuasion to get right. Strong positions we hold are easily undermined by hypocrisy. Put the time into practicing what you hope for others to achieve. It will give you a new sense of empathy and understanding that you cannot fabricate if you’re giving people the ‘real deal.”

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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.

Fake Video: Newest Reputation Challenge

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Reputation managers have had to deal with fake news, but soon they also may have to contend with fake videos.

New technology makes it possible to doctor a video of someone speaking and literally put words into their mouth. The results can be quite convincing and put the speaker on the defensive for something he or she never said.

The proof of concept is the Synthesizing Obama project at the University of Washington. Researchers took video of the former President and edited audio from numerous speeches, which they lip-synched to give his speech a totally opposite meaning. Researchers at Stanford are experimenting with technology to modify facial expressions to make fake videos even more convincing. Adobe has software that can alter audio add totally new and fake phrases, mimicking a speaker’s voice.

With tools like that, mischief can’t be far behind.

Combine a malicious tool with the instantaneous combustion of social media and you have a reputation crisis on steroids created on a laptop in someone’s dank basement.

William Comcowich, who leads Glean.info that provides customized media monitoring, encourages companies, PR firms and the news media to “develop ways to detect altered videos.” Easier said than done.

Whitewashing away fake videos isn’t really possible, and would be foolish to try. (The concept of trying to bury bad news online with a spate of good news stories doesn’t have much merit to begin with.)

Short of some technological Sherlock Holmes or a forensic army, the best defense may be vigilance and documenting with video key speeches by principals. If you find a video of the boss on social media that doesn’t sound quite right, the best way to fight back is to produce a raw video of the actual speech, with verification that it is complete and unedited.

Comcowich notes that it is natural for people to trust what they see. However, that trust was undermined when people realized how images can be manipulated with tools such as Photoshop. That may eventually happen to video, but meanwhile fake videos can destroy a reputation and mischaracterize what actually happens at an event.

Think how the violence last weekend in Charlottesville might be reshaped in the hands of a creative video editor with a story to spin. Think how the alternative narrative of the tiki torch march was undone by embedded journalist Elle Reeve who had raw footage from the beginning to the end.

Dismissing fake videos are too difficult to make is burying your head in the sand. Just as sophisticated production boards have been made to fit on laptop keyboards, the tools to create videos will be in the hands of mischief makers sooner than you think. It’s not too soon to modify a crisis plan to account for
the advent of fake videos.

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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.

Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

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.

How You Begin a Speech Determines When It Ends

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

How a speaker begins determines when his or her speech ends for the audience. A weak or wobbly opening can send your audience to their smartphones in a nanosecond.

First impressions matter – a lot, but strong beginnings to a speech or presentation doesn’t just happen. They must be imagined and created. And, if you really want to make a strong impression, tested and practiced.

Brad Phillips, who specializes in communications training, has written a book titled 101 Ways to Open a Speech that offers suggestions of how to “grab your audience from the start.” He shared five of the 101 ways in his blog.

While some openings will work well, others may not suit your speaking style or fit the occasion. But the real lesson is in finding a strong opening that connects you and the audience and gives them a reason to keep listening.

Tommy Thompson, while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services for President George W. Bush, visited Portland and spoke at the City Club. He began by stepping forward from the podium and recognizing people in the audience who had met with him or led him on tours during his Portland visit. The simple gesture of friendliness created instant rapport. People, including me, noticeably inched forward on their seats to pay attention to what he said in his speech.

Making an instant connection with an audience may be the simplest way for speakers to make a positive, inviting first impression.

Phillips suggests a similar idea that is often tried, but can fall flat or backfire – asking the audience a question and a show of hands response. Some questions seem canned; others come off as patronizing. But compelling questions, Phillips says, arouse interest. His example: “If given a choice, would you rather be blind for the rest of your life or obese?”  That’s probably not a question most people have faced, but the choices are familiar enough to get their minds engaged. The speaker has created a platform to dive into his subject (research showing seven out of 10 women would prefer blindness to obesity, suggesting vanity trumps practicality.)

Disarming an audience can be an effective way to launch a speech. Phillips says that could involve turning good advice on its head, such as don’t overload your speech with too many statistics, an admonition I preach in my media training sessions. He notes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s opening that stacked five statistics on top of one another for a desired effect.

"The numbers tell the story quite clearly. A hundred ninety heads of states, nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent. The numbers have not moved since 2002, and they're going in the wrong direction. Even in the nonprofit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top, 20 percent. We also have another problem, which is that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. A recent study in the U.S. showed that of married senior managers, two-thirds of the married men had children and only one-third of the married women had children."

Perhaps the best idea Phillips shares is also the hardest for most speakers and presenters to achieve – the sound bite. He cites the 1980 presidential campaign pitting President Jimmy Carter against GOP challenger Ronald Reagan, who knew how to stir up a crowd. With the candidates deadlocked at 39 percent each, Reagan began to separate himself from Carter when he offered this definition of the dire economic conditions facing Americans at the time:

"[Carter's] answer to all this misery, he tries to tell us that we are only in a recession, not a depression. As if definitions, words relieve our suffering…If it's a definition he wants, I'll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

You know who won the election.

There is a lot more to a great speech than the beginning, but without a powerful start, the rest may not matter.

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.

Parallels Between Solutions Journalism and Issues Management

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Solutions journalism could make issues management more necessary – and more challenging.

Solutions journalism is a new thrust in journalism schools, including the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, that seeks to apply investigative reporting techniques to identify and explore solutions to vexing community or social problems.

In many ways, solutions journalism parallels issues management. It involves careful listening and casting a broad net for relevant solutions in place or under consideration around the world. Listening posts, quality research and broad awareness of what others in similar situations are doing are the tools of savvy issue managers.

Regina Lawrence, executive director of the UO’s Agora Journalism Center, cited the center’s collaboration with local news organizations to create “solutions-oriented coverage of Portland’s housing crisis.” The one-year project included community engagement to identify issues and gathering personal stories that Lawrence said otherwise would have been missing in local news reporting. The result has been a more engaged community conversation about a range of housing issues, which culminated in legislation at the just concluded Oregon legislative session.

Stretched newsrooms no longer have the luxury of taking time to become absorbed in an issue and undertake “closer listening within a community,” Lawrence says. With funding from the Knight Foundation, she says a platform called “Gather” will be created to provide an online meeting place for journalists and provide “a toolkit of case studies and resources.”

Solutions Journalism Network already has posted a beta site that contains hundreds of news stories on a wide array of topics from agriculture to science. In the category of “Agriculture, Fishing & Forestry,” there are 202 curated stories about: “Management of food systems and their underlying resources. These stories center on ways of maintaining productive, healthy and sustainable systems of agriculture, fishing and forestry. Included also are efforts to establish food security, community food systems and responsible irrigation.”

Many of the stories probably could be discovered through Google searches, but a network devoted to finding solution-oriented stories could save reporters a lot of leg work and lead them down paths they may not have time to discover. It could be a tremendous tool for reporters, editorial writers, bloggers and community journalists.

If Lawrence is right about solution journalism on the rise, it will mean issue managers need to up their game to keep pace. That means finding ways to listen to the rumble in key communities and being aware of related developments and ideas in other places.

The best form of issues management is anticipating significant change and coming up with ideas in advance to cope with it or, better yet, bend that change into an opportunity. That suggests issue managers should applaud and even support the spread of solutions journalism, which could improve the depth and quality of news reporting on complex or multi-sided subjects.

Smart issue managers might even seek out opportunities to interact with solutions journalists in forums aimed at identifying trends, challenges and opportunities.

At a minimum, solutions journalism promises to go beyond breaking news and superficial coverage of sophisticated issues, which could lessen the growing cynicism of news consumers and of constituencies that issue managers must communicate with and convince.

“Solutions remain an under-represented part of the news – particularly given the astonishing changes that have occurred around the world in recent years,” wrote David Bornstein in a New York Times op-ed. “Over the past two or three decades, millions or organizations have sprouted up globally to tackle problems in new ways.” If that spirit animates journalists to seek solutions, it also should animate issue managers.

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.

Science Fiction Helps Imagine Unimagined Solutions

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world. Illustration from Harvard Business Review

 Science fiction may seem far-fetched, but it can make it easier to picture change and imagine solutions that would otherwise seem out of this world.

Illustration from Harvard Business Review

Business leaders and issue managers should read science fiction to escape the confines of their own assumptions and engage in freer thinking that can unlock unimagined solutions to intractable problems.

“Exploring fictional futures frees our thinking from false constraints,” advises sci-fi writer Eliot Peper in an article published in Harvard Business Review. “It challenges us to wonder whether we’re even asking the right questions. It forces us to recognize that sometimes imagination is more important than analysis.”

He begins his article by noting the mountainous problem of horse poop facing New York City officials in the late 19th Century. He urban planners brainstormed the problem, but no one could imagine a horseless New York, even though only 14 years later motorized vehicles outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in the city.

Peper is not alone in urging sci-fi reading. Richard MacManus, an author like Peper, said science fiction “extrapolates current technology,” “highlights societal and cultural changes” and, at its best, identifies solutions to big problems. Deploring the wave of apocalyptic science fiction, MacManus said stories such as The Martian shows an “inventive, can-do spirit that makes us optimistic about the future."

He praised Peper’s book Cumulus for showing how “economic inequality and persistent surveillance [can] push the San Francisco Bay Area to the brink of civil war.” Noting inequality and surveillance are subjects commonly sensationalized, he said, “Peper’s novel takes a more thoughtful approach to these topics and ponders what kind of society we might end up with if inequality and surveillance continue on their current trajectory.”

Stephanie Buosi, a self-described latter-day convert to science fiction, says it allows people “to experience what-if scenarios of various novel universes.” Buosi credits science fiction for putting what-if scenarios into human terms (even when they involve aliens). “We read about the protagonist in the what-if scenario, and it becomes easier to imagine our own reactions if the fiction were to occur in our reality.”

Annie Evett, who blogs about writing, put a similar turn on the same point. “Of all forms of literature, science fiction is the only one that deals primarily with change, routinely painting it story against the colorful background of a different society – be it on Mars, post-apocalyptic earth or other planet, or amongst the mythical worlds. Even though there are endless possibilities available to write about, they all have one thing in common; that being that the worlds they describe are like the here and now and that they are on the brink of change.”

William Hertling, also a science fiction writer, offers several reasons to read it. He says it invites exploration and expands the range of what people see as possible.

“When China wondered why their scientists and engineers weren’t as creative as their American counterparts, they set out to study why,” Hertling notes. “Talking to scientists and engineers around the world, they found those with the most imagination and creativity all shared a love of science fiction.”

He also says science fiction makes it easier to understand complex ideas and can reduce hysteria by making unfamiliar things and situations more familiar and even logical.

Practice How You Look, Not Just What You Say

Chances are your audience will remember how you look and your expressions more than what you say. Make sure you devote as much time to practice your body language as you do your speech.

Chances are your audience will remember how you look and your expressions more than what you say. Make sure you devote as much time to practice your body language as you do your speech.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eye roll at the G20 Summit became an instant online sensation. It also is a reminder that how you look can speak volumes and is more likely what people will remember rather than what you say. That’s especially true in crisis situations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expressive eye roll went viral, letting everyone know her exasperation with points being made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expressive eye roll went viral, letting everyone know her exasperation with points being made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Merkel rolled her eyes while Russian President Vladimir Putin was mansplaning some topic with his finger. Merkel’s reaction was absolutely clear without uttering a word. That shows the power of body language.

Communications coaches focus on key messages, elocution and clarity. They also encourage good posture and eye contact to convey confidence. That may not be enough.

Unintended or inappropriate expressions can undo whatever message you intend to deliver. Smiling while announcing job layoffs sends the wrong message. Folding your arms while someone asks a tough question is a sign of defensiveness. Speaking without expression about a damaging environmental spill seems cold and unfeeling.

Well-conceived media training that includes video-taped simulated interviews gives speakers a chance to take a long and often painful look in the mirror. That long look can reveal annoying ticks, slumping shoulders, wandering eye contact and fidgety hands. With training and practice, speakers can cure those faults. However, it’s harder to identify and mediate impromptu expressions.

There is no magic wand or secret alchemy to ensure engaging, respectful and appropriate reactions for every kind of situation. Good speakers recognize the need to train themselves to be ready for the unexpected. Like actors, they understand what their body actions say is as important as the words they speak. Like actors, they train their bodies as well as their voices.

Actors generally don’t have to deal with interruptions, except for an occasional cell phone ring or someone with a loud, persistent cough. Stand-up comics, on the hand, have to deal with hecklers. The best comics learn how to turn heckling into laughs. The late Don Rickles relied on insult humor. Jim Gaffigan uses deadpan expression. In both cases, their body language matched their words, underscoring the comic effect. It’s worth paying attention to comedians to take a few pages from their acts on how to train to respond with the intended effect.

Performing in public, whether as an actor, speaker or spokesperson, demands discipline, practice and confidence. That can mean overriding your natural tendencies and substituting a studied response. Think of a politician being pummeled by angry constituents at a town hall meeting. There is little upside for a politician to show visible frustration or anger. They can’t really deflate the tension with humor, so they have to maintain an engaged, sincere visage and do their best to answer questions and ease anxieties.

Experienced speakers learn how to use facial expressions to underscore a point and sustain rapport with their audience. Sometimes an effusive smile, a wink or a positive gesture can say what words can’t.

The omnipresence of cell phones that can capture unguarded moments ups the ante on solid preparation. When you speak, you are literally on camera, whether you know it or not. Don’t let an eye roll turn into a viral sensation by accident, only by design. Spend as much time practicing how you look giving a speech as the words you will speak. Your expressions, like Merkel’s eye roll, may be all that people remember and share.

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 Reality of Bad Optics, Politically and Otherwise

Bad optics are hard to explain away. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who took his family to a beach even though everyone else was barred from state beaches because of a stalemate over the state budget.

Bad optics are hard to explain away. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who took his family to a beach even though everyone else was barred from state beaches because of a stalemate over the state budget.

“I think have proven over the last eight years that I don’t care about political optics – I care about right or wrong.” That’s how a defiant Governor Chris Christie defended his family outing on a New Jersey beach when public beaches were closed because of a legislative stalemate on a state budget.

Political optics isn’t about right or wrong. Political optics about how what you do looks to the outside world. In Christie’s case, lounging on an empty beach didn’t look good.

It doesn’t matter that Christie is near the end of his tenure as governor of New Jersey. It also doesn’t matter that the beach where he and his family lounged is connected to the governor’s residence or that the budget stalemate suddenly broke in time for public beaches to open on the Fourth of July.   It simply didn’t look good, and no explanation could change that.

Social media predictably exploded with cutouts of Christie in his beach chair superimposed on famous movie beach scenes and in the Oval Office. It was the visual definition of bad optics.

Chris Christie’s day on the beach exploded on social media as satirists mocked him by photo-editing him in his beach chair into famous settings on the beach and elsewhere.

Chris Christie’s day on the beach exploded on social media as satirists mocked him by photo-editing him in his beach chair into famous settings on the beach and elsewhere.

Use of the term “optics” in connection with politics dates back to the 1970s. The ubiquitous “photo op” is a derivation of optics. The idea of a political photo op is to be shown doing something good or likable such as dedicating a new bridge or eating hot dogs with constituents at a Fourth of July celebration. You might call that good optics.

Bad optics is the opposite. Bad optics happen when a politician, business person or civic leader is captured in a photograph or video doing something that is stupid or unlikable. Like calling supporters of your political opponent “deplorables,” strapping your dog in a cage to the roof of your SUV or, as mayor of New York, being photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork.

Some may ridicule the notion of political optics as nothing more than an attempt to be “politically correct.” The best-known exponent of that view is the guy who tweeted a short video of himself taking down a man whose head was the CNN logo just outside a professional wrestling ring. This guy specializes in mocking political correctness as a way to distract attention and stir up his political base, even though it increasingly alienates almost everyone else.

You don’t have to be a president or governor to generate bad optics. In a former time before smartphones and social media, an event that may have caused a mild reaction by eyewitnesses can turn into a viral sensation that is embarrassing and unrelenting as it spreads through social networks.

There is no fool-proof way to avoid bad optics. But just as photo ops take careful planning to execute successfully, the same amount of care and forethought needs to be exercised to sniff out situations that could turn into bad optics. Politicians have staff to advise them. The rest of us have to depend on coworkers, friends and family members. If you don’t trust your own judgment, which is wise, ask those around you if something will look bad and could dent your reputation.

The late William Safire, a columnist and political speechwriter, deplored the use of the word “optics” in a political context. He and others said symbolism has its place, but so does underlying reality, and the two are not the same thing. True. But here is another reality – people are more likely to see the symbolism of an event than encounter the reality of it. Only foolish people believe symbolism doesn’t matter. When we lay wreaths on the graves of fallen warriors on Memorial Day, we show respect. When the governor of New Jersey takes his family to the beach when other residents are barred from doing the same, he displays disrespect. That is the reality of bad optics.

 

Quality, Flexible Content = Cornerstone to Amplify Distribution

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

The ability to publish your own content is liberating, but knowing how to promote your content can be bewildering. There is a lot of advice and a heap of online tools out there, but the simplest advice may be to produce good content and share it in as many forms and forums as you can.

Instead of trying to follow mystifying listicles of tips on promoting your content, focus on a few smart steps. Start with content that is relevant, useful and engaging to your target audience. Next, deconstruct and reconstruct your content into catchy quotes, visual tools (presentations, charts, infographics) and animated videos. Finally, place your content online in your website, a blog and social media posts.

You can optimize that basic approach with social media ads, using content-sharing platforms and reaching out to online influencers, which can amplify distribution of your content.

This may seem like squirting a water gun at a huge crowd, but the characteristics of digital media give you analytics that show what works and what doesn’t, so you can modify your approach to reach your particular audience in their preferred online channels.

Make your content flexible and fungible so it can be dispatched in a variety of forms through varied distribution channels.

Publishing your own content is touted, properly so, as a cost-effective way to deliver marketing messages for a product, issue or political campaign. Self-publishing also can be a strong defensive shield, allowing you to tell your story, unfiltered and in appropriate layered detail. You even can take critics head-on, getting out your side of a messy story.

Simplifying the content publishing process doesn’t make it any easier, but it provides a clearer path to pursue. If you followed all the advice from experts (much of which is very good), you could be distracted from the basics – producing quality content and promoting it in a myriad of ways.

Just focusing on quality content, instead of quantity, is a huge step in the right direction. A great place to start is answering the most frequent questions your audience asks.

As you address frequent questions or pressing concerns, think about all the different ways you can express your answer. For example, data is often more accessible, not to mention impactful, if expressed in a chart or an infographic. Take a page from infomercials and include visual explanations that can be rendered as presentations or videos. Make sure you include some sound-bite worthy language that you can use as pullout quotes or as social media teasers.

Some topics are timely, while others are not. Make sure your mix includes “evergreen” content that isn’t tethered to time, but can be repurposed as events arise or fill a hole in your editorial calendar.

It makes economic sense to dabble in social media advertising. Promoting some of your content can produce surprising results. And it can reveal cracks in your strategy that you can fix.

Investing some energy in discovering key influencers for your target audience can pay huge dividends. You can include their insights in your content or ask them to review and share what you produce, which is painless and inexpensive way to broaden distribution to the people you want to target.

A little chutzpah never hurts when it comes to seeking earned media coverage by asking print or online publishers to use your content, perhaps as an op-ed or a feature story. This requires content written to journalistic style and standards and not brazenly self-promotional. With shrunken staffs and viewers who are less resistant to third-party content, publishers may welcome your submissions, which can include your contact information if not links to your website or blog.

Another low-cost distribution strategy is to monitor social media for posts on similar topics and add a comment with a link to your content.

Once you have gotten your feet on the ground and built a following, you can expand your sights to include some of the tools and channels that can amplify distribution. Keep in mind, there are no magic formulas for spread content far and wide, any more than there are for generating viral videos. The single most important thing you can do is concentrate on quality content that connects with your audience, then turn it into a Swiss-knife of output that you can post in a variety of places.

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.

Infographics Visually Unpack Complex Issues

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

One of the easiest way to torpedo complex legislation or a major project is to call it “too complicated” for legislators or the general public to comprehend. Conversely, the way to advance such bills and projects is to lay them out simply – and visually.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Simplicity does not mean dumbing down dense information. Simplifying complicated material requires hard work to master a subject, focus on key elements and attend to details. It also requires seeing a subject through the eyes of your intended audience and presenting your information in a sequence and hierarchy that makes sense to that audience.

The byproduct of simplifying the complex is often referred to as elegant simplicity. Your audience gets a full view of a complex subject that is accessible, understandable and actionable. You aren’t speaking down to your audience; you are helping your audience look up to grasp a complicated subject.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, which has been made into a mini-series, includes an excellent example of distilling the brilliance of a theoretical physicist into explanations that readers without a scientific background could follow. The ability to synthesize concepts like the theory of relativity is probably why Apple’s Steve Jobs, himself a master of elegant simplicity, gravitated to Isaacson to write his biography.

For most advocacy or public affairs challenges, writing a novel isn’t a practical communications option. However, visual communications is a tool that can work very well in the form of presentations, infographics and videos. How text is packaged, with subheads and links, also can make a huge difference in audience comprehension.

In my days as a state lobbyist, I was hired to negotiate and pass legislation to allow larger commercial customers to select their own electricity provider. The legislation contained many parts and opponents made hay by claiming it was “too complicated.” We came back the next session with a bill including the same provisions, but laid out more clearly and logically and a flip chart. We used the flip chart in meetings with legislators, legislative staff and the media to provide background on the Northwest electrical grid and how our legislation would work. Suddenly, a truly complex subject was made simple to understand. The legislation easily passed.

That flip chart was essentially a presentation-version of what we now call infographics – visual expressions of information presented in context and sequence. 

Infographics have become quite common. Jacqueline Thomas assembled 40 infographic that made complex subjects seem much simpler. They ranged in topics from the lowdown on  carbon budgets to the mysteries of feng shui. Some her examples were more impactful than others, but they all the shared the trait of tackling a tough topic and chopping it down into comprehensible pieces.

Let’s examine one example titled " Why Prolonged Sitting and Standing is Unproductive,” preparedly Anna Vital for the Workers Health & Safety Centre. This infographic illustrates the stress on the human body – from back pain to varicose veins – of sitting or standing for too long. The infographic offers a solution by suggesting standing up 16 times a day for two minutes can do more good than exercising for a half hour. It also offers practical advice on checking your work posture every 20 minutes or so, taking breaks and stretching.

There is nothing revolutionary in this infographic, but it tells a complete story, with informative illustrations. Trying to tell the same story with words would be clumsy. Telling it with video might not be as granular.

All visual communications can be effective. Choosing the right one is an important first step toward success. Include infographics in your visual communications toolbox. Just as illustrated children’s books convey magical concepts to youngsters, well-done infographics can unpack complexity for your audience at a glance. In an age of multiple impressions and shorter attention spans, a glance is all you may get for your message.

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.

Engagement is an Attitude, Not a Box to Check Off

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Public affairs and marketing campaigns share a common trait – and sometimes a common fate. If campaigns fail to connect with their target audiences, they are compost.

Connecting with an audience can take a lot of forms. Ignoring an audience's interests or concerns isn’t one of them.

Public affairs professionals and marketers err by starting off with what they want to say rather than appealing to what their audience wants to hear. To make a connection, you need to acknowledge your audience’s perspective and pain points.

Establishing rapport doesn’t mean trimming your message. It does mean making a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes. Where are they coming from? What concerns them? What would alleviate their anxiety?

For example, the developer of a major housing development might begin his public affairs outreach by meeting one-on-one with some of the nearest neighbors to ask them to share their concerns and wishes if the development occurs. Later, at a neighborhood meeting or public hearing, the developer could begin his presentation by referencing his meetings, what he learned and how he tried allay concerns and accommodate wishes.

In the meantime, smart developers will absorb what they hear and translate it into modifications that respond to concerns and often enhance the development.

There should be no illusions that meeting and making compromises will satisfy all opponents or eliminate pitched opposition. It won’t. It will generate respect and mitigate opposition by some. It might even turn some opponents into proponents.

Community engagement is now an expectation of most public entities that approve land-use and construction plans. Public officials believe engagement can buff off the rough edges of development and provide a vent for frustration about more houses, more traffic and more kids in an already overcrowded school.

Demonstrating an ability to forge community connections also may prove important to convince public officials to allocate the necessary budget resources to review development plans and defend decisions that are appealed. A solid record of community outreach and good faith response in development plans can play a helpful role in winning final approval.

These same principles hold true in other public affairs spheres such as school bonds, major infrastructure projects and crisis response.

The best way to understand what you are up against is to talk with the people you are up against. They may be uncomfortable conversations, but they will be a lot more productive than shouting matches with people who feel, with justification, you have failed to listen to them.

Connecting with audiences is all about showing them you care about them and have their interests in mind. It is not a box to check off. It is an attitude. And if you practice it often and well enough, it can become a reputation.

Complementary Engagement Partners

Barney & Worth and CFM Strategic Communications have provided a range of clients with integrated community engagement and public affairs services to make quality connections that influence project outcomes.

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.

Clarity is the Key to Connecting

Clarity offers the only sure way to cut through complexity and complication in advocacy. You need to know your stuff and then make it perfectly clear to your readers or listeners.

Clarity offers the only sure way to cut through complexity and complication in advocacy. You need to know your stuff and then make it perfectly clear to your readers or listeners.

Public affairs is no different than advertising, storytelling or a sales pitch. Making a positive first impression is paramount. However, because public affairs typically involves complex subjects with complicated or even convoluted story lines, making a positive first impression is not enough. The key to connecting is clarity.

Clarity involves careful choice of words, select use of pictures or charts and, most important, mastery of your subject matter. As an advocate, the greatest skill you can master is how to synthesize a topic so elected officials, important stakeholders or impacted neighbors can understand its critical dimensions – and the point you are advocating.

Less is usually better than more, if for no other reason than your audience has other stuff to worry about. You need to grab attention, pique interest and marshal a logical train of information. Fewer and simpler words, a pertinent anecdote and insightful arguments can pack the most punch by helping the listener or viewer unpack your clear meaning.

You may believe analytical approaches to issues are boring and turn off audiences. They can. Your job is to make your analysis relevant and memorable – and possibly even a little entertaining. The best path is the clear path. Talk, don’t lecture. Show, don’t preach. Illuminate, don’t obfuscate.

In the Bible, Jesus taught via parables – simple stories in a familiar setting that radiated deeper meaning than the superficial details of the story. The parable of the prodigal son helps us reflect on the forgiveness of a father – and the feelings of the son who didn’t stray from the flock.

Achieving clarity through simplicity is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. On the contrary, making your point elegantly is very hard to achieve. It forces you to select the most salient facts and the most compelling arguments, then weave them into a narrative that attracts and holds an audience’s attention.

The challenge is especially intense for lobbyists who reckon they have less than 90 seconds to gain some mind-share of a busy politician who spends all day listening to people pitching points of view. To break through, you must provide clarity on your issue and your proposed solution.

Angry neighbors may come to a community meeting hell bent on shouting you down. You must disarm your would-be critics with your down-to-earth clarity and tell-it-like-it-is language. Make your case so they see it from your side of the table. They may still be angry and in opposition, but before leaving they may come up and shake your hand for talking to them directly and clearly.

Your assignment may be to reach a wider audience through an op-ed or a blog post. Jump into your story and walk your reader through your case. Avoid the weeds, digressions or side issues. Stay on course and clearly lay out your case.

Ernest Hemingway is revered for his straightforward, clear writing style. But Hemingway didn’t just type away final-draft copy. He painstakingly edited his work, much like a sculptor creating the soft curve of his subject’s face. Clarity is rarely a gift any of us get at birth. Clarity is earned, often with the help of gentle readers, test driving your arguments with friends and listening to critics.

If you want to be persuasive, don’t memorize the dictionary. Strive for the kind of clarity that’s only possible when you know your stuff – and the audience you are trying to convince.

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.

Avoiding the Certainty Trap in Crisis PR

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty can be an asset, but not necessarily in PR. Certainty in the PR world breeds overconfidence and swamps skepticism, which should be the animating force for professional communicators.

Statements are false until proven true for PR pros. If you can’t validate a claim, there is not point in claiming it. The court of public opinion has a much lower standard of guilt and a higher standard of proof.

Some of the biggest gaffes in crisis response result from PR pros who drink the Kool-Aid from a charismatic CEO. Failing to suspect spin is like falling down a flight of stairs. Once you start falling, it’s hard to stop.

Another kind of certainty trap is relying too much on how past events unfolded. This trap can be painful if you assume a crisis will blow over because it has before. In actuality, a crisis that went unnoticed previously can be like a slow smoldering fuse to a similar crisis that occurs later.

Crisis situations involve events spinning out of control. Getting facts is a daunting challenge, especially under the clamoring pressure of the news media, affected parties, worried employees and concerned stakeholders. That’s why one of the most important parts of a crisis plan is laying out in advance where you can go and who to seek out to get reliable information.

Many times, this information – such as safety procedures, fail-safe equipment and personnel safeguards – can be traced, documented and positioned on ghost websites, ready for use when needed. You also may be able to line up third-party validation for practices or testimonials from product users. These proactive moves won’t eliminate the confusion in a crisis, but they can provide tools for an effective crisis response.

Another part of smart crisis preparation is put an issue into context. This is not an exercise in excusing the cause of a crisis, but to put an event into some perspective. A train derailment because of an isolated track flaw is serious, but quite different from a series of derailments because of deferred track maintenance. Context can reduce the breathlessness of crisis reporting – or it can breathe more oxygen into a crisis. The key is knowing, not assuming, what you have on your hands.

Claims that turn out to be false or misleading, even if they were made with the best intentions and incomplete data, can damage a reputation far more than the source of the crisis. A crisis can happen to anybody, but a reputation only can be preserved with a credible crisis response, which includes telling the truth, even if it's uncomfortable and hard to find.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you validate a claim with certainty.

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.

CEO Makes Moves to Return United to Friendly Skies

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

 CEO Oscar Munoz put some muscle behind his apologies for the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plan and showed what a competent crisis response can look like if you have the courage to undertake it.

Stung by the angry reaction to dragging a bloodied passenger off a plane, United Airlines has finally responded aggressively and adroitly. The air carrier went beyond apologies to announce tangible changes in policy and quietly settle with Dr. David Dao who was forcibly removed from his seat when he refused to surrender it to a United employee.

In full-page newspaper ads and emails to United loyal passengers, CEO Oscar Munoz said the incident involving Dr. Dao occurred because "Our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they knew is right.”

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

After an internal study identified what went wrong and asked “How did this happen?” Munoz said “Fixing the problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us at United and, as CEO, it is my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

Whether Munoz was coached in his response doesn’t matter. He owned the fiasco and took responsibility to fix it. A lot of CEOs lack the courage to do that, preferring to pass the buck or make someone else the scapegoat. Kudos to Munoz for manning up to the crisis United Airlines faced.

Reforms Munoz announced included disallowing police officers to remove passengers for failing to give up their seats, increasing incentives for voluntary rebooking and eliminating red tape for reimbursing passengers whose luggage has been lost. Those commitments and others were posted at https://hub.united.com/united-actions-being-taken-2379920604.html.

Munoz went further:

"While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.

"I believe we must go further in redefining what United's corporate citizenship looks like in our society. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.

"Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, 'I fly United.'"

Munoz admits the proof will be in the pudding. Will the airline and its 87,000 employees have learned the lesson and make flying fun instead of fearful? Only time – and the airline’s marketing department – will tell. 

Telling positive passenger stories is perfectly okay if they are genuine and live up to the words and actions of Munoz. His statement, maturity and actions have given United Airlines a chance to exit a dark space and return to the “friendly skies.”

Regrettably, it took days before United and Munoz came to their senses. If he had acted immediately after the incident, people would have remembered his quick action as much or more than the incident itself. Now, people will be watching with a skeptical eye at United’s performance. At least, after Munoz’ announcement, they have something to look at skeptically.

There Would be a Crisis Without Twitter

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Now that Twitter has become a staple in crisis response toolkits, it would be a huge loss if the social media platform went away. There are partial substitutes, but no real replacement.

Twitter has become a staple in crisis management plans and crisis response. So what would happen if Twitter disappeared?

Unlike its social media cousins, Twitter has had a hard time making money, giving rise to speculation if just flap into the sunset. Whether that is likely or not, the question about a Twitter-less future is an interesting one to ponder.

It has taken a lot of persuasion to convince a growing number of people that Twitter is the perfect tool for real-time crisis updates. Twitter remains the primary online watercolor where the media hangs out, pitching its own stories and sniffing for new ones to pursue. For public affairs professionals and crisis managers, it is the place to be if you have a fast or slow-breaking story to tell.

Chris Abraham of Gerris digital says alternatives are already starting to creep into use, and more may follow. “Over the last couple of years, mainstream news channels have been using Instagram as a source for soft news,” he writes. But there are more protected user profiles on Instagram than Twitter, which can limit its utility as a real-time news blaster. Facebook, Abraham adds, is a “walled garden,” making it an unpredictable vehicle for crisis updates. Snapchat has a user base skewed to younger people.

YouTube is the other current contender for a role similar to Twitter’s. The challenge is that many people don’t think of checking out YouTube to find out about real-time news. They are more likely to look there for Saturday Night Live or Daily Show news clips.

Abraham isn’t convinced of Twitter’s demise. “Twitter,” he says, “is more alive and vibrant than ever,” even if it has become somewhat less relevant for marketing and advertising. Marketers, Abraham explains, view Twitter as "loose firehose” that is as likely as not to turn a promotional campaign into a crisis. Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump’s use of Twitter is a case study of successful promotion, effective deflection and self-inflicted, loose firehose wounds.

The 140-character limitation on Twitter continues to spook many users or potential users, even though the restriction is actually one of the platform’s strengths. Users are forced to make their point succinctly and succulently to capture attention. For crisis response, that challenge is usually not a problem.

We recommend crisis managers and communicators use Twitter updates:

  • To alert the news media or affected publics to fresh updates;
  • To direct viewers to live streaming or a photo gallery showing remediation efforts in real-time;
  • To cue interested parties on the timing of in-person briefings or upcoming activity; and
  • To send customized content or news releases to targeted reporters or publications.

Other than a group email blast, no other social or digital media platform can do that work as effectively as Twitter. While group emails allow targeted outreach, many people, including reporters and editors, don’t consistently consult their email accounts frequently, especially for news updates. They tend to monitor their Twitter feeds for that.

So, if Twitter disappeared, it would leave a big hole in crisis response. There may be partial substitutes, but not a complete replacement.

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.

 

 

United Airlines, Spicer Define Bad Crisis Response

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

For crisis communications junkies, last week was a fantasy camp. United Airlines dragged a passenger off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his ticketed seat. Sean Spicer forgot Adolph Hitler gassed 6 million Jews.

As bad as their flubs were, their follow-up flubs were even worse.

There have been lots of critical TV interviews and blog posts describing both incidents as case studies of what not do in a communications crisis. You didn’t really have to be a crisis expert to point out the serial gaffes.

United Airlines and Spicer finally got around to apologies, but only after excruciating journeys.

  • UA’s CEO initially praised the airline employees who manhandled a passenger off a plane and into a Chicago hospital, then went silent for a day as social media lit up with the video of the bloodied passenger and finally acknowledged something was wrong with company policy that required an investigation. Meanwhile, United’s stock took a big hit, enraged passenger groups called for a boycott and Chicago aldermen, who are no strangers to crisis, dressed down UA officials.
  • Spicer issued several clarifications of his remark intended to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a worse bad guy than Hitler, but that seemed oblivious that Hitler used chemical weapons to exterminate Jewish people. Adding to the insensitivity, Spicer’s misguided comparison was made on Passover.

It would take several blogs to list all the lessons and takeaways from the United Airlines and Spicer stumbles. Here are just a couple that deserve mention:

It’s on video, Stupid

Dragging passengers off planes and saying ridiculous stuff at a press briefing aren’t the only things that attract video recording. There are two ex-Sacremento police officers because someone pulled out an iPhone and captured them beating up a man in the middle of the street for a minor traffic violation. They were fired in large part because the report they filed failed to mention the beating. Big mistake.

Executives at United Airlines must have looked at the tape of Dr. David Dao hitting his head on an armrest and being pulled off the plane by his arms. If you looked at that tape and thought it was the passenger’s fault, you need some serious media training – and perhaps psychological counseling. Spicer could have replayed his performance and realized he made a bonehead comment. Everybody else in the room or who saw the tape of his press briefing thought so – almost instantly.

Don’t forget people will have the picture of what you do. Look at the picture from the eyes of viewers, not through rose-colored lenses.

Admit you made a mistake, for crying out loud

Here's the deal. Sooner or later you will apologize. Do it sooner, not later.

People by and large judge your reaction to a gaffe more critically than the gaffe itself. That’s why people embrace Steve Harvey after he erroneously announced the winner of a Miss Universe contest. He owned his mistake, made things right immediately, took his lumps, didn’t react like a jerk to social media mockery and now is more popular than ever.

Instead of making excuses or lame clarifications, make fun of yourself. If you are Spicer, call a press conference, shrug your shoulders and admit you acted like a dunce. The mea culpa takes the wind out of the sails of a crisis if it is genuine and complete.

If you do something dumb, do something smart

The best way to atone for stupidity is to do something brilliant. United Airlines belatedly decided to provide a reward for the traumatized passengers who watched Dr. Dao’s ejection. If the airline is smart, it will settle the likely lawsuit filed on behalf of Dr. Dao so it can concentrate on rebuilding customer trust.

This is not a smarmy moment. Make fun of yourself. Come up with a fun game to deal with oversold ticket situations. Give every passenger in the next month a free glass of good wine. (Disclaimer: I will be passenger on a United Airlines flight within the next month. Check your records for my seat number. I like Cabernet Sauvignon.)

If your White House ID card says Sean Spicer, call up Saturday Night Live and offer to do a parody of yourself. Lorne Michaels would be taken aback and could save money by not paying Melissa McCarthy to play you. Then quietly make a contribution to the effort to make sure no one forgets the Holocaust – and what led up to it.

This blog is long enough. Don’t get me started on Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

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.