Starbucks, Race and "Corporate" Anthropology

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Some issues are so touchy that even talking about them generates controversy, as Starbucks discovered with its initiative to have baristas engage coffee drinkers with ad lib comments on their cups about race.

The "Race Together" initiative was another effort by CEO Howard Schultz to stir things up. It certainly created a lot of buzz, both pro and con. And, by all accounts, it has provoked some conversations that may never have occurred.

Just getting the initiative out there has sparked conversation, however awkward, about a subject that is often cast, quite literally, in black and white terms.

Recent events, including an aggressive arrest of a black University of Virginia undergraduate this week,  have added even a sharper edge to racial relations. More people are protesting, but fewer people may be talking, at least to each over the racial divide.

A lot of brands see it in their own self-interest to keep their heads bowed to the grindstone. Focus on the product and service. Make sales, not waves.

Starbucks is a corporate phenomenon of a different stripe.  At least as Schultz has steered his ship, Starbucks doesn't just serve coffee; it creates a community to engage over coffee. This same philosophy may not work for, say, a company that makes power tools. But it may be a path other brands might consider, especially those that want to be viewed as contemporary and transparent.

What Starbucks is doing to spur conversations about race can be seen as in line with a broader movement to embrace culture anthropology as an avenue to gain insight into customer preferences. Instead of sifting through big data, anthropologists observe customer behavior, just as they might observe tribal habits in a remote Pacific Island.

What they learn can be startling and often at odds with conventional thinking. For example, customers of a line of sports apparel may be less interested in gaining a competitive edge than in staying healthy. That insight can lead to a vastly different tagline and advertising. You see your customer less through your own preconceptions and more in their natural element.

In many ways, that's what the Starbucks campaign is doing. The company can withstand a snarky tweet about not wanting a sermon on a coffee cup in return for percolating authentic, if at times awkward, conversations about a subject most people avoid.

You don't need to be a cultural anthropologist to know talking is better than shouting on a subject like race. And if you are in the business of creating communities, then you should be prepared for conversations about subjects that really matter.


Turning Bright Spots into Your Sweet Spot

Looking for bright spots can help you find your sweet spot.

Looking for bright spots can help you find your sweet spot.

Boston has groaned under the weight of 104.1 inches of snow this winter, yet Bostonians are rooting for two more inches before the season ends. "It would be shame to have gone through all this and not break the record," said one upbeat Boston resident leaning on his well-worn snow shovel.

This attitude is known as looking for a bright spot. It is often the source of great success.

In their book "Switch," Chip and Dan Heath write about Jerry Sternin who went to Vietnam on behalf of Save the Children with the assignment of making a dent in widespread child malnutrition. He had virtually no money. Vietnamese officials gave Sternin six months to make something worthwhile happen.

Sternin didn't have time or resources to conduct an exhaustive study of why children were malnourished, so he went to villages to see what he could learn. He found children who were getting proper nourishment, and he took  time to find out how and why.

What Sternin did was look for bright spots. What he found were actions that could be copied in every Vietnamese village. He turned bright spots into shining examples of what could be done to make a difference.

Later, Sternin was responsible for setting up leadership training that looked for what he called "positive deviance," which is just another way of describing bright spot.

Far too often, we look for what's wrong, not what's right. Often, cultivating and nurturing what's right is a straighter path to success than trying to fix what's wrong. Copying success may be quicker, cheaper and smarter than coping with failure.

Looking for bright spots is not an excuse for neglecting to solve problems. But trying to solve problems isn't always the way to make breakthroughs. Dan Heath describes a company with a sales force with two stars, two plodders and two non-producers. A problem-solver may focus his or her attention on the plodders and non-producers. Someone looking for bright spots would spend his or her time finding out what made the sales team stars successful.

In the realm of issues management, the value of quality research is to look for bright spots – the message that makes a difference with the audience you need to convince.

Outreach efforts should stick to that effective message, rather than trying to "improve" other, less convincing messages.

Assessing community reaction to your messages should center on seeing who is impressed and asking them why. Is it the message, the messenger or something else? Finding the bright spot can become your sweet spot.

That can make all the difference in winning the day or finding yourself under an avalanche of opposition. 


The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Being Prepared for the Q/A

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Too many CEOs and senior executives turn into wingmen when they approach question and answer sessions. They wing their answers and go down in flames, along with an opportunity to build trust. 

It takes a great deal of self-confidence to manage an organization, regardless of its size. But self-confidence isn't enough to prepare for a Q/A session with a key audience, especially an audience with an attitude and some tough questions. The only way to be ready for Q/A is to prepare – a lot.

Smart executives go to great pains to prepare for Q/A sessions. They make sure they are grilled with the toughest and widest range of questions and get help on framing solid, effective responses.

Depending on the significance of the Q/A, practice sessions can last for a day or more. Some executives may say they don't have that much time to devote to preparation. They fail to realize they could be spending a whole lot more time on damage control if they bomb in their Q/A performance.

Here are the most frequent problems: 

1. Caught off guard by a question.

The question may come from left field, but so what. Left field is still in the ballpark. Good prep work will identify even the most outlandish questions, so you have thought about them and have an answer at the ready.

 2. Don't have the information readily at hand.

If you are stumped by a question, it is better to admit it than try to bungle through an answer. However, if a question is fairly obvious – say, it's about the safety features of a proposed facility, the audience will expect you to have an answer. Failing to answer is tantamount to appearing evasive or, worse, uninformed. The people who prep you should have the license to remind you what you should know, which is usually why you are the one standing up giving the answers at a Q/A. 

3. Give inarticulate or incomprehensible answers.

Answering a question effectively includes giving an answer the audience can understand. Muddled facts, cloudy descriptions or cryptic references don't cut it. The purpose of an answer to a question is to satisfy the person who asked the question. Your answer may not always make them pleased, but it should never leave them confused. That's why you practice polishing your answers in a prep session.

4. Don't tell the truth.

Believing your own opinions can be dangerous when you are speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people. They don't hold many Q/A sessions in country clubs, so executives need to prepare for a different kind of social engagement. The best advice is to tell the truth – and to make sure of your facts when you prepare for the Q/A. 

5. Striking a patronizing tone.

When you know a lot and the audience may be a lot less informed, the temptation arises to give patronizing answers to questions. Unfortunately, audiences have the collective ability to topple you off your smarty-pants pedestal. Good preparation involves converting complex information or nuanced points into clear language.

6. Coming across as untrustworthy.

Just like any good speaker, you need to build rapport and trust with your audience. In a Q/A, that often involves bridging into your answer with some kind of empathetic comment. It can be as simple as "That's a great question" to "You raise a very discerning point." Framing answers in human terms helps to establish rapport because you demonstrate you have taken the time to think about the issue in more than a rote way. Thoughtful answers breed trust, even if they don't always generate agreement.

Newspapers May be Dying, But Newsrooms Aren't Morgues

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Columbia Journalism Review usefully reminds us that spunky local news media are still capable of exposing wrongdoing in their own backyards, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian did in the unfolding scandal involving former Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes.

The narrative that print media is dying a slow death may still be valid, but that doesn't necessarily translate into newsrooms as morgues. Reporters may face different challenges and incentives to post stories quickly online, but the basic journalistic motivation of digging up the truth remains.

It is true that many local newspapers are reluctant to take on stories that can involve scandal and public embarrassment. But that was true before the advent of digital media. If anything, the digital era has upped the ante for reporters and their editors to find and follow stories that attract attention.

CJR, one of the most respected voices in American journalism, credited "aggressive accountability reporting by local media" for toppling Oregon's popular governor who had just won an unprecedented fourth term in office. The CJR article noted, Kitzhaber blamed the news media for a rush to judgment on allegations he and his fiancée engaged in improper influence peddling.

The article and the episode should be big hints that media relations remain a critical element in effective strategic communications, especially in a crisis. Hoping that bad news will escape the media's attention or blow over after a one-day negative story doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. It is more like lighting a match near an open gas tank.

News media can fairly be judged on whether they make a robust effort to cover the news. But don't assume that sleeping dogs never wake up or that a friendly looking pooch may not have a little pit bull in him.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

When an Apology Isn’t Enough

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams delivered an on-air apology this week for telling a false war story involving a 2003 incident in Iraq. While the apology was well done, it may not be enough to calm the waters or repair the damage to the credibility of one of broadcast journalism’s most credible figures.

As public apologies go, Williams gave a good one. He owned a mistaken recall of events, directed his apology to the servicemen involved in the false story and expressed an appropriate amount of remorse. But Williams didn’t fully answer the question of why he made up the story in the first place, and why it took so long to admit it — to the world, to himself.

It was the kind of incident that would be hard to forget.

As Williams reported it in 2003, he was in a Chinook helicopter that took enemy fire from a propelled rocket grenade and made an emergency landing, rolling into the desert at the edge of an Iraqi airport. In reality, Williams and his camera crew were in a Chinook helicopter that arrived somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes later. The crew of the stricken helicopter was still assessing damage when Williams arrived. All the helicopters and crew remained in place for two or three days, surrounded by an Army unit for protection. No one reported any enemy fire during that time.

In the excitement of the moment, Williams filed a report on the life-and-death incident, putting himself in harm’s way in the helicopter that was hit. As you would expect, the hot-dogging irritated the men who actually were in harm’s way, but they were too busy to object or just assumed it was another hotshot TV reporter showing off.

Williams has emerged as one of TV’s most respected and trusted TV guys. Because of his willingness to let his broadcast anchor hair down on shows like Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, Williams also has wide appeal. He is the most watched guy on TV news.

His reputation is based on a lot more than the helicopter incident in the Iraq desert, but since 2003 his reputation has included continual reference to the incident. NBC traded on the incident. Tom Brokaw interviewed Williams about the incident. So when Williams repeated his false story last week as part of tribute to a retired soldier, the crew in the 159th Aviation Regiment had had enough.

Sgt. Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter carrying Williams and crew, went to Stars and Stripes. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Miller said.

“It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer of the helicopter that was hit. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”

Stars and Stripes exhumed from the NBC online archive the headline of Williams story: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”

In his apology, Williams said that 12 years after the incident, his memory had conflated the helicopter being hit and his later arrival. “Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience … and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

However, Williams didn’t explain or apologize for why he falsely reported his direct involvement in the first place. Unquestionably, it made for a better story, but it was baldly untrue. He also didn’t explain why he repeated the false story in a piece he wrote in 2007 or variously described the incident. In some versions, he rode in the helicopter trailing the helicopter that was hit.

Print and broadcast journalists have been sanctioned or fired for falsifying stories. Williams may face discipline himself from NBC.

Whether he is or not, his credibility has taken a blow. Social media blew up following his apology, with many dismissing his apology as insufficient and others poking fun at him for taking credit where credit wasn’t due. At #BrianWilliamsMemories, there were online parodies of Williams reporting from the moon, being seated at the Last Supper, hitting the beach at Normandy and chronicling an asteroid storm that wiped out the earthly world of dinosaurs. One wag placed Williams alongside O.J. Simpson on his famous freeway ride.

Funny stuff for us; not so funny for Williams. He was back at the anchor desk, but a big chunk of his reputation was left in shreds on the cutting room floor.

Don't Be Like That Marshawn Lynch

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you were looking for a punishing running back, you couldn't do any better than Seattle Seahawk's Marshawn Lynch. If you were looking for a model of how to handle the media, look elsewhere. Being the Beast doesn't work.

Throughout his career, Lynch has avoided reporters. Unfortunately for him, it is part of his job as a professional football player. Lynch has been fined for no-shows at press conferences. Maybe reticent CEOs should get the same treatment when they duck the press.

Amazingly, many heads of corporations, nonprofits and public agencies don't think meeting the press is part of their job or, if it is, don’t think it’s an important part. 

Wrong. Their job may depend on how well they perform in dealing with the media. 

Dealing with the media, especially as the head of a significant organization, is neither art nor science. It has a lot to do, however, with common sense and being personable. The media writes or posts stories that influence public perception. Leaving a bad impression because of indulgent or boorish behavior isn't productive or good for your organization. 

Leaders don't need a bromance with reporters to show respect for the job they do — or help them to do that job. Talking straight and being genuine build rapport and, over time, trust. And the time inevitably comes when you want to see something about your organization published, which is when the rapport and trust you have built will come in handy.

You won't always be happy about the coverage you receive, but it usually is the coverage you or your organization have earned. You will get a better shot of telling your side of the story if you make it easy for reporters to get your side of the story.

At a Super Bowl press conference, Lynch showed up, but told reporters the only answer they would get to any question is, "I'm here so I won't get fined." And that's what traditional and social media reported. 

The performance added to Lynch's already sketchy reputation as a media bad boy who happens to be a great running back. It did nothing to enhance the reputation of his foundation or the good work it is doing in his hometown of Oakland. Spouting canned answers and staring down the press awkwardly for several minutes was what you might call beastly. 

Lynch is a great example of what a great running back is like, but his Beast routine at press conferences is a failed strategy that will get you tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Pluses and Minuses of a Robust Crisis Defense

Pluses and Minuses of a Robust Crisis Defense.jpg

Prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz' aggressive denial of sexual charges is a case study of how to mount a robust crisis defense — and the pitfalls of such a defense.In a crisis, sometimes a great defense is the best offense. There is no better example of that approach than Alan Dershowitz' denial of accusations that he engaged in sex with a teenage girl.

Dershowitz, along with British Prince Andrew, has been implicated in a court filing as having sex with an under-age girl. Both have denied the allegations, but Dershowitz has gone far beyond a simple denial. He has volunteered to appear on TV shows to make declarative statements, offer evidence of his innocence and challenge his accuser to make her claims in a public forum, not just in a court filing.

The robust defense mounted by Dershowitz, who is a Harvard law professor, should be a case study for what an aggressive response to a crisis looks like. Here is what his approach teaches: 

Make your denial in person. Dershowitz didn't just write a statement denying his guilt, he sought a public forum to express his innocence. He was willing to give the charge greater exposure on a major TV talk show in order to give the same exposure to his denial.

Make your denial specific. Dershowitz didn't hem and haw. He categorically denied knowing or ever meeting the young woman making the charges. He offered specific references to where he was and who he was with the two times identified by the woman who alleged she and Dershowitz had sex. He admitted flying in an airplane owned by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, but says he never saw improper behavior by Epstein.

Take on your accuser directly.  Dershowitz, who is a prominent attorney, challenged his accuser to appear publicly and repeat the allegations made in her court filing. He said she hasn't out of fear he will file defamation actions against her for telling lies about him.

The Dershowitz defense is also illustrative as to its potential pitfalls.  Being public, specific and in-your-face is like an open invitation for people to debunk your claims. And that is happening.

Ed Whelan, writing for the National Review, says Dershowitz' denials don't exactly match up with the accusations. They leave room, he suggests, for both the denial and the accusation to be true. 

Nick Bryant, posting on Gawker, is even more aggressive in describing how close Dershowitz was with Epstein, an admitted pedophile. Bryant says Epstein's private jet was essentially a flying sex parlor and Dershowitz was a frequent passenger.

Dershowitz has been ensnared in crisis before. He engaged in a running academic battle with Norman Finkelstein over claims made by Dershowitz in a book, which Finkelstein also alleged contained plagiarized sections. In this matter, Dershowitz also offered a robust defense, including a threat to sue for defamation.

The lesson from all this is that going on the offense to defend your reputation should be based on solid facts, irrefutable validation and an eyes-wide-open understanding that just because you say something doesn’t mean that everybody will believe it. Be prepared for antagonists or skeptics to rummage around in your past to find hints or evidence that you are guiltier than you admit.

Dershowitz' denials in this case have won him more than shadow of doubt. Many believe he is innocent because of the firm, specific and direct ways he has confronted his accuser. But if shadowy facts cloud his story, Dershowitz will have risked an even greater fall. There is more forgiveness for a misstep than for a deliberate misdirection. 

Seizing Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

The Seattle Seahawks showed insensitivity by linking the team's dramatic comeback victory with the civil rights legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it shouldn't be an excuse for companies to avoid social media.

The Seattle Seahawks showed insensitivity by linking the team's dramatic comeback victory with the civil rights legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it shouldn't be an excuse for companies to avoid social media.

The Seattle Seahawks staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL playoff history over the weekend. Then they blew it on Monday.

An over-ventilated person in the Seahawk PR department thought it would be great to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day and commemorate at the same time the team's never-give-up-hope victory. Clever idea. Bad decision.

The football team's Twitter account posted "We shall overcome" along with a picture of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson accompanied by King's famous "Take the first step in faith." Social media reaction was swift and slashing.

One tweet called it blasphemous to equate a football game victory to the civil rights struggle led by King.

The Seahawks responded quickly and smartly by removing the tweet and posting an apology admitting poor judgment. "We apologize for poor judgment shown in a tweet sent earlier. We did not intend to compare football to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King."

The episode is a further reminder than social media is not a parlor game. It is serious business, with serious consequences.

However well intended the Seahawks tweet was, it reflected the kind of poor judgment that usually results from a non-existent vetting system for social media posts. If a group of people had looked at and thought about the proposed post before it was published, a more mature judgment would have prevailed and it would have never seen the light of day.

The post also shows the hazards of newsjacking. To someone excited by the Seahawks comeback win, tying it to MLK Day seemed like a perfect way to extend the euphoria. Instead, it exposed a blind eye to the sensitivity that remains today as the nation celebrates King's role in the ongoing battle to win and keep civil rights. Football mattered on Sunday. Something else far greater mattered on Monday. 

Some jaded company officials will point to this example as the reason not to have a social media presence. They couldn't be more wrong. Companies need to share their voice on social media, as well as the real communities in which they operate. If nothing else, this level of engagement affords them a chance to see how their views measure up outside corporate headquarters.

An occasional slip-up, while regrettable and often avoidable, shouldn't be an excuse to dodge direct contact with the world through Twitter or any other social media platform. 

Don't Forget Editorial Board Visits

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

Much energy is devoted to wordsmithing press releases which could be better channeled into thinking more broadly whom to brief in person.

Notwithstanding the decline of newspaper readership and ad space, their editorial columns still have an impact. Editorial writers are worth the time to meet with and tell your story. Remember, the newsroom and the editorial staff aren't marching to the same drummer. In a savvy media relations strategy, you need to sing your song to both. 

While news releases bring attention to facts, events or developments, editorial board visits provide an avenue to express an opinion or to share the context behind the facts, events and developments.

Sharing your views doesn't automatically translate into a favorable editorial. But it does ensure your views are taken into consideration when an editorial is written.

A newspaper's editorial slant is usually obvious, but never should be taken for granted. There are plenty of examples of a pro-business paper writing an editorial lambasting a business.

Just as it is necessary for you to tell your story about a project, it is imperative you provide your perspective on the project — the way you hope the public or key groups will see the project.

An effective news release zeroes in on key points, starting with your best fact. An effective editorial board meeting should hew to the same discipline and hone in on what's really important. The exercise of framing snappy news releases and editorial board key messages should simplify and sharpen the focus of all communications. 

Proponents most often have a lot to say. But reporters and editors, just like the general public, want you to cut through to the bottom line. What are you proposing, doing or committing to that is significant? Winnowing down what you say increases your odds of getting across your desired message.

Questions or conversation can explore other relevant ground in an editorial board meeting. That's when you are apt to have an opportunity to rebut an opponent's claims or clear up a point of confusion.

Editorial board visits take time to arrange and prepare for. It is time and energy well spent, especially if the editorial on your topic is favorable or sympathetic with your point of view.

A Simple Reputation Management Plan

Tillamook Creamery audited its risk, identified rBST as a concern of its customers and eliminated it from its dairy products, earning it a major marketing advantage.

Tillamook Creamery audited its risk, identified rBST as a concern of its customers and eliminated it from its dairy products, earning it a major marketing advantage.

Managing your reputation can be as simple as identifying the greatest vulnerability within your control to fix – and fixing it.

Reputation management schemes vary in their complexity and cost. But an effective reputation management review boils down to pinpointing the worst problem you could face that you could make go away if you tried. After that, all it takes is the fortitude to make it go away.

Tillamook County Creamery Association undertook a reputation management exercise and fingered rBST, a bovine growth hormone, as the greatest threat to its dairy brands. The Monsanto-manufactured supplement added to Tillamook's productivity, but increasingly the parents who bought its dairy products grew wary of the long-term health effects of rBST.

Tillamook dairy farmers had the choice whether to scrap rBST, which they did. Despite the economic impact, Tillamook earned loyalty as a company that looked out for the well-being of its customers over profit. A step to protect a reputation became a powerful marketing tool. 

For many businesses, the threat that could undo it isn't down the road, but right at hand – a restaurant with lax food security, a medical clinic with loose controls on who can access opioids, a movie production company with a gaping hole in its IT network.

Waiting for a crisis is a dangerous reputation management policy. Enduring a crisis is a painful one.

Exerting a relatively small amount of energy at minimal expense to take stock of your risks – financial, environmental, safety, operational and competitive – can save money and your enterprise. 

Admittedly, some problems are hard to eliminate. But a surprising number can be mitigated, if not erased. However, they won't disappear by wishing them away.

A good New Year's resolution for your business, nonprofit or public agency is to audit your risks. Don't hold back on risks you could realistically face.

With a list of vulnerabilities in hand, assess them based on their relative consequences and their cost to remediate. Most of all, evaluate them based on whether you have the ability to eliminate or shrink the risk. That's where to focus first. 

Taking a load off your shoulders may slow you down in the short term, but you will be able to race faster down the road. And your reputation will be more secure for the effort.

Crisis Plans and Critical Details

Failure to check out the details can waylay the best laid crisis preparedness plans.

A great crisis preparedness plan can be thwarted with a wrong phone number, outdated emergency responder list or a trained spokesperson who has been transferred to Poughkeepsie.

A great crisis preparedness plan can be thwarted with a wrong phone number, outdated emergency responder list or a trained spokesperson who has been transferred to Poughkeepsie.

One of the most common practical shortcomings of crisis plans is outdated phone and email lists. Other common problems:

  • Chemical inventories are incomplete or not up to date.
  • The last incident training exercise with local emergency responders was years ago.
  • The war room you identified lacks an Internet connection.
  • The "ghost website" mentioned in your plan was never populated with background materials, B-roll video or other useful information.
  • The spokespersons you gave media training took new jobs and you didn't designate or train replacements. 

These oversights can be catastrophic if a crisis occurs. An employee can face serious injury unless you can tell firefighters on the spot how to handle his exposure. You can't stay on top of real-time information flows without reliable communication channels. The person standing in front of a battery of microphones with zero experience can botch an answer and tarnish an organization's hard-earned reputation.

Many organizations satisfy themselves with crisis plans that are generic. They grab a template online, fill in the blanks, print it on quality paper at Kinko's, show it off at a staff meeting and place it on the shelf. Ironically, it can do less harm there.

Crisis plans worth their weight are based on scenarios that are likely or at least imaginable for a particular business, nonprofit or public agency. The risks faced by a fast food restaurant are far different than those faced by a bank, plastics manufacturer or commercial property developer.

When crisis plans are molded around scenarios, the big picture and small detail are more obvious. Scenarios create a tangible context in which a crisis might occur, so you can think through how you will gather needed facts, stabilize or maintain operations during a crisis and communicate with affected communities and the news media.

If you crafted a crisis plan five years ago and haven't touched it since, the plan probably omits any mention of Twitter or Instagram as effective channels to provide timely updates to a wide range of publics. The plan is likely weak on dealing with crises sparked or fanned by posts on social media. And, as Sony Pictures and Target can attest, most crisis plans fail to contemplate computer hacking and its consequences.

Details in a crisis plan are critical. They need to be checked at regular, frequent intervals. Scenarios should be evaluated to see if they are still risks or whether new, scarier risks have emerged that demand attention.

But remember, your plan can be terrific, but you still can stumble if the phone number of the person you need to consult is wrong.

Why Media Training Matters

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

You are standing in front of a bank of microphones and wall of TV cameras. Your words and how you express them will influence how the public, elected officials and employees view your organization. A lot is riding on your performance.

Even though the stakes are large, many spokespersons wing it. They enter the pit without any training and often without a realistic appreciation of the chaos they will encounter. They are entering the lion's den as bait.

Media training is intended to prepare spokespersons — and their bosses — to deal with the news media, cope with the pressures of social and digital media and manage the flow of information to a variety of external and internal audiences.

If crises are opportunities to demonstrate an organization's core values and enhance their reputation, then preparation and continuous practice are essential. Here is what media training should cover:

  • Building rapport with reporters. Spokespersons should understand the news media's role and how they do their job. Respecting deadlines, providing information in a timely manner and avoiding spin are ways that spokespersons build a positive relationship with reporters so they work with you instead of looking for ways to go around you. 
  • Understanding the value of sound bites. Reporters want facts. They also want great quotes. Spokespersons need to deliver both. An interview clip on a TV broadcast frequently lasts 10 seconds, which means there isn't time to offer a lengthy explanation. You need a short, quotable sentence or phrase that conveys your key message. This takes art, but mostly it takes the hard work to identify the most important fact and convert into a sound bite.
  • Knowing when not to take the bait. Good reporters have techniques to get you off message. Spokespersons must learn the skills to stay on message. They have to become like actors who perform their lines on cue without getting sidetracked by someone coughing loudly in the audience. Spokespersons also need to know how to redirect a reporter's question to stay on message.
  • Projecting the right emotion. The last thing you want is a spokesperson who smirks while describing a layoff. How you look when you speak speaks louder than what you actually say. Media training, which involves simulated interviews on camera, helps spokespersons see their posture, facial expressions and hand motions, which can reinforce the key message or distract from it.
  • Conveying confidence. It takes skill for a spokesperson to convey confidence in the midst of chaos. Media training provides tips on how to maintain composure and project a command of the facts, even if they are incomplete when you brief reporters. Confidence is critical to give key audiences — whether it's an adjoining neighborhood or an organization's own employees — reassurance that the problem causing the crisis is being addressed with their safety in mind.
  • Performing under stress. It's one thing to talk a good game and another to play one. Media training puts spokespersons under the lens of a camera so you can see how well you handle a question out of left field or new information that is shown to you without prior warning on a smartphone. Stress-testing spokespersons give them a taste of what a real crisis would be like. It separates the wannabes from the can-do spokespersons.

Effective media training isn't like a lifetime vaccine. You need to undergo it more than once. Experienced spokespersons routinely tune up before a known major event or periodically just to keep their skills at the sharpest edge.

The Complete and Convincing Apology

NBC Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman proved that good people can make mistakes and own those mistakes with a complete and convincing apology.

NBC Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman proved that good people can make mistakes and own those mistakes with a complete and convincing apology.

Many apologies fall short on the sincerity scale. They also are typically incomplete. That wasn't the case for the Ebola-related apology last week by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.

Snyderman is regularly featured on NBC's Today and Nightly News shows. She comes across as knowledgeable, articulate and authoritative. Her opinions, as a result, carry some weight with viewers.

The apology followed her coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which ended when freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo contracted the deadly virus. Snyderman and her team returned to the United States and submitted to a voluntary 21-day self-quarantine.

However, within days, Snyderman was spotted walking outside her house. That prompted New Jersey health officials to press for mandatory quarantines.

She apologized, saying, "I stepped outside the boundaries of what I promised to do and what the public expected of me. And for that, I'm sorry."

In addition to apologizing for her misstep, Snyderman expressed regret for the controversy it generated.

"When I came back from Liberia with my team," Snyderman told NBC Today show co-host Matt Lauer, "we had already been taking our temperatures four, five six times a day, and we knew our risks in our heads — but didn't really appreciate, and frankly, we were not sensitive to, how absolutely frightened Americans were."

She acknowledged her actions undermined the credibility of her own reporting on Ebola, as well as the importance of quarantines to protect public health.

To complete her apology, Snyderman expressed regret her actions and the controversy that result became a distraction that diverted public attention from the actual Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The completeness of Snyderman's apology is what sets it apart from too many public apologies. She owned what she did, as well as the repercussions caused by what she did. Many pubic apologies barely own what they did and rarely acknowledge the grief their bad actions caused. 

Snyderman's complete apology showed the strength of character she evinces when she talks. She proved her own words, "Good people can make mistakes." Good people who make complete and convincing apologies usually get a second chance.

Think Before You Post Online

Venting on social media can feel good in the moment, but could bring your career to a jolting halt. 

Venting on social media can feel good in the moment, but could bring your career to a jolting halt. 

Think twice before you post.If you ever feel the need to sound off, find a secret spot and vent. Don't spew on social media.

The latest reminder of this online truth is Elizabeth Lauten, formerly the communications directors for a Tennessee congressman. After her Facebook bashing of the Obama daughters, Lauten finds herself embarrassed and unemployed. 

The spark that blew up Lauten's career was the sight of Sasha and Malia Obama looking and acting like teenagers when their father, the President, performed the annual ceremony of pardoning a turkey. Most people found this scene silly enough that they didn't watch, let alone let loose a social media mega bomb.

Many people may have shared Lauten's views about the girls' behavior, but only Lauten felt compelled to share her views about the girls – and gratuitously about their parents – with the world on her public Facebook account, and the world responded very quickly.

What did Lauten expect? Even teenagers could have predicted the blow-back she received from her Facebook posts. They've seen it over and over when someone posts an in-your-face screed.

Lauten's apologies won't win a crisis response award either. She took her Facebook page private and issued a sort-of apology. Lauten said after re-reading what she wrote, talking to her parents and "many hours of prayers," she realized her words were "hurtful." Her apology was aimed more at offended viewers of her post than the two young girls whom she directly offended.

A Republican Party operative added more gasoline to the fire by telling people to get over the incident, which he characterized as a mistake by a middling staffer for a rank-and-file congressman. That certainly was helpful context, especially in the world of social media where status doesn't matter.

The cautionary tale, acted out once again, carries the simple message of thinking before posting. Venting may be good for your mental health, but public venting often can land you in hot water. Or, as in Lauten's case, in the unemployment line. 

Giving Thanks

A simple "thank you" can mean a lot and it costs nothing to give.

A simple "thank you" can mean a lot and it costs nothing to give.

The Thanksgiving holiday should serve as a reminder of the importance and value of giving thanks – to colleagues, customers and clients.

Few actions, at any cost, provoke more goodwill and loyalty than a well-timed, heart-felt thank you.

Despite their remarkably high ROI, thank yous are hard for some people to express. They are too consumed with what they are doing to recognize great work, amazing innovation or impressive perseverance by the people around them.

In a world driven by relationships more than almost anything else, the simple "thank you" should become a routine part of your vocabulary. While the words themselves carry meaning, to utter them meaningfully requires you to pay attention to what others do and say. 

People who can give thanks are people who tend to think about other people and what they are thinking. In a phrase, they are customer-centric. The "thank you" should be more than just a social convention; it should be a genuine reflection of admiration or appreciation.

If you routinely thank people, you know what a blessing it can be. If you don't thank people, give it a try. You may need to look up from your smartphone or let go of your own personal fixation. The reward will be worth it.

Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling.jpg

It takes more than facts to tell a complex public affairs story. It takes an insatiable curiosity to find the facts that make the story compelling – and believable.Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

Another story talks about the problem with pictures, such as mammograms and satellite photos. Still another probes how The Pill went off the rail with the Catholic Church, but if explained differently as a medical life-saver for women it might have had a different outcome.

Most of the 19 resurrected New Yorker articles by Gladwell dealt with subjects that people facing public affairs challenges would find familiar. What would be unfamiliar is how Gladwell wove together background information and related data from tangential sources to produce a compelling story, a page-turner. 

Many "experts," including us, urge more storytelling in public affairs campaigns. What we fail to mention is the importance of diligent research to find the facts that will make a story compelling – and believable.

Facts are good, but often not enough to persuade people. You need to make the facts come alive so the target audience for the story can relate to them and ultimately believe them. That's where indefatigable homework plays a huge role. You often need to know more than your own stuff to make your point. There is no greater asset in this quest than an insatiable curiosity.

A profile of Gladwell described him as a "writer of many gifts," with a "nose for the untold back story that will have readers repeatedly muttering, 'Gee, that's interesting!'" That, in a nutshell, is the holy grail of writing in the public affairs space. 

The Gladwell profile added, "He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different." That's hard to do if you haven't done it yourself as the writer.

Gladwell has his flaws. Lack of curiosity isn't one of them.

Making Something Real by Storytelling

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare andAfrican Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson'sOne Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

Bryson didn't use glimmering language. He leveraged the power of interesting details to tell a story, adding a dash of humor. It is a spellbinding combination.

It is worth noting Bryon's milieu is non-fiction. He is the author of A History of Nearly Everything, which he truncated to A Short History of Nearly Everything andA Really Short History of Nearly Everything for the attention-deficit crowd. He isn't making stuff up. He is making a bunch of facts comprehensible and enticing.

The skills Bryon most manifests are 1) curiosity, 2) the ability to make connections and 3) the skill to weave what he discovers into a story.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to," Bryson writes in the opening line of his hysterical autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." He describes a "curious time" in the 1950s in America when no one knew that DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout weren't good for you.

His subject matter is irrelevant to his expertise. He can make a summer seem like a dream, a continent appear irresistible and his own Midwest childhood a magical experience. What he can do best of all is communicate.

His writing talent should be a talisman for issue managers trying to communicate complex and controversial material. Command of subject, the ability to zero in on interesting and cogent content and the skill to wrap it all in a satisfying sandwich of storytelling can make a huge difference in connecting with an audience.

Apologies That Mean What They Say

Too many corporate apologies feel as if they have been plucked from the Hallmark card rack rather than genuine statements of remorse.The corporate apology is threadbare, but still necessary. What is dying on the vine is customer and stakeholder patience because too many corporate apologies are disingenuous and lack promised follow-through.

After a misdeed, words are important. But what makes the difference is action. Especially if you promise to do something to prevent a recurrence of your misdeed.

When a crisis hits, corporate executives want to make the bleeding stop. They often are willing to say almost anything to staunch the flow of bad news.

However, many executives fail to recognize that a crisis is an opportunity. Instead of a moment for panic, a crisis response is a chance to demonstrate your core values, to show what you really believe.

If you are a health care organization and say patients come first, a crisis is a chance to prove it. If you are a retailer and say customers are always right, a crisis is a chance to affirm it.

Too many corporate apologies are canned or theatrical performances. Executives go through the motions, saying the right words, but without conviction. Their lackluster or half-hearted follow-up is the tell.

Apologies are those unintended teachable moments that reveal to customers, stakeholders and employees whether you are trustworthy or just another hollow suit.

A blogger recently asked whether the corporate apology is dead. My answer: no, it just looks like the walking dead. Zombie apologies can do more harm than good. Apologize like you really mean it. Then take strong actions that show you meant what you said in your apology.