Messaging

Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

 Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

We chopped Chipotle for mishandling a food safety crisis that sickened customers. Now it's time to give the Mexican fast food chain props for taking savvy steps to rebuild its reputation for "making better food accessible to everyone.”

In full-page print ads, Chipotle Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells owns the crisis as he lays out specific ways the company will sharply improve its food handling practices. 

“In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program.”

The ad lists eight “important advancements” that include improving supply chain food handling, employing new technology in prepping food, training farmers to meet stricter food safety requirements and improved in-store food handling procedures.

The list goes further, citing actions that crisis counselors often recommend – credible, validated third-party evaluations and inspections.

Ells says Chipotle managers and field leaders will need certification from a nationally recognized institution, which he added is a “first for any national restaurant chain.”

Restaurant inspections will “dramatically increase,” conducted by both Chipotle inspection teams and independent auditors.

Chipotle will implement an advanced electronic tracking system to monitor food sources and be able to trace supplies that should be removed or not accepted.

Chipotle will also create an advisory council comprised of industry experts charged with “continually reviewing procedures and providing insight into new food safety advancements.” An unsolicited suggestion, expand the advisory committee to include an online panel of Chipotle consumers and listen to their concerns, praise and ideas. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Chipotle’s sharpest critics suggested scrapping the brand and starting over. Instead, Ells chose the path of weathering the storm, which has included a significant drop-off in business, and emerging with a redoubled commitment to food safety. The ads are in effect the coming out party for the Chipotle brand and its new standards.

The actions Ells laid out aren’t flashy, but they respond directly to consumer questions (and fears) about the fresh food Chipotle serves. Maybe the chain should have figured out sooner that fresh fast food has higher risks than processed food. Chipotle’s response, at least as described, appears genuine and likely to be effective in reassuring wary customers to return.

With the painful lesson that fresh food demands greater vigilance now learned, Chipotle can embark on being the brand that leads the way on both. If it does, Chipotle will have converted its crisis into an opportunity to become better than before.

Holy War of Words

 The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan picked a smart spot to respond to an Oregonian article that claimed Portland’s two largest Catholic high school football squads have become “artificial all-star teams.” Hogan's response illustrates when and how to respond to negative press.

Andrew Nemec, who describes himself as a “recruiting reporter” wrote: “Scan the rosters of both programs, and it’s startling jut how much talent has been sloshed off programs desperately in need of better athletes just to stay competitive.” He added “there’s nothing holy” about the so-called Holy War when Jesuit plays Central Catholic because “the rivalry is more artificially enhanced than baseball’s steroids era.”

Charges that Jesuit and Central Catholic poach players from other schools is hardly new. But Nemec took the charge to a new level by mentioning specific players and the high schools they would be playing for “if not for their departures to private schools.” While acknowledging private schools across the country have advantages, he singled out Jesuit as the top athletic program in the nation after winning state titles in football, girls volleyball, girls swimming, girls soccer, boys swimming, baseball, softball, boys tennis and girls track.

Interestingly, with all that talent, Jesuit is ranked second in Oregon’s big-school Class 6A football rankings. West Linn, a public high school, is number one. Nemec wrote that after losing to Jesuit in the 6A state final last year, West Linn added two all-state players from Wilsonville and a tight end from Tigard. “The arms race has begun to infect top public schools, too,” he concluded.

Hogan was among the commenters on Nemec’s article. He also shared his thoughts in a post titled "Fact Check" on the school's website. Noting his educational background as an English teacher and an editor, Hogan proceeded to shred Nemec’s thesis. The Oregonian reporter directed tweets to a handful of Jesuit football players, asking in what public high school boundary area they lived.

“In two cases, Mr. Nemec apparently did not know that the students he contacted had attended Catholic schools since preschool and had every intention of remaining in the parochial system for high school,” Hogan wrote. Another student mentioned in the article enrolled in Jesuit after his family moved to Oregon.

“Jesuit High School offers no scholarships or financial aid based on merit or talent,” Hogan said. The $2.85 million in annual financial aid is parceled out based on family financial status as determined by an out-of-state independent evaluator.

His biggest zinger was disputing Nemec’s claim that after Jesuit’s senior class suffered a winless freshman season, the school went on the recruiting trail to land the “state’s top talent.” Hogan said the current senior class is the largest in Jesuit’s history. Only three transfer students gained enrollment at Jesuit the year following the winless football season – and none were in-state football players.

Hogan cited Tim Massey, who was an assistant coach for the freshman team when the current Jesuit seniors lost all nine games of their season. “That 0-9 season, and its aftermath, is one of the most cherished memories in 33 years of coaching," Massey said. "Those guys could have given up or gotten down on themselves or simply found other things to do. Instead, they gutted out that season, hit the weight room and kept after it. And they got stronger and better.” As it turned out, a lot better. Several players have committed to play NCAA Division I football.

Hogan’s response was well played and provided a factual rebuttal to aspects of Nemec’s article. His comments won’t sway some people who dislike schools like Jesuit, but he pushed back against points that Nemec couldn’t substantiate so the online record is balanced.

He jabbed Nemec for failing to call him to check facts or get Jesuit’s side of the story, another key point to have on the record.

Responding to unfavorable stories requires strategy and savvy. The smartest place to push back is on factual errors or the lack of balance in a story. That’s what Hogan did. He was restrained and respectful, but firm. He also took the high road.

“If someone at The Oregonian wants a real story,” he said, “I suggest they write about the amazing, powerful ‘purple-out for CCA’ fundraiser that Central and Jesuit’s student body conducted at the big game last Friday night.” Then he invited to Nemec to join him at a student mass and “discover the true source of Jesuit High’s success.”

Why Attorneys and PR Counselors Should Play Nice

 Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to a crisis is balancing lawyerly advice about courtroom liability with PR counsel about the court of public opinion.

Avoiding or minimizing legal liability can come at the expense of tarnishing or losing a reputation. For some clients, losing a reputation is more costly – and more permanent – than an adverse verdict.

Advising clients to say nothing can be a safe legal position, but a precarious reputational position. It is incumbent for attorneys and PR counselors to respect what each other does and offer clients constructive counsel that protects their full set of interests.

Wise attorneys recognize the power of words, so they carefully shape their messages. Experienced PR counselors understand the judicial process. That should form the basis for mutual respect and a healthy working relationship.

Attorneys and PR counselors are both advocates, each with a different target audience and parallel lenses to view the crisis. Judges and juries – not to mention opposing legal counsel – are a key audience. But so are the people affected by or interested in the crisis and its cause, which can include coworkers, neighbors, customers, regulators and, of course, the news media.

In law school, attorneys are taught how to parse words in cases and frame arguments. They don’t always learn the power of what is not said – or of not saying anything.

Journalists and PR professionals typically get a superficial picture in their training of how the legal system works. Most never spend time in an actual courtroom, watching a trial or diving into briefs supporting lawsuits. Few have covered a criminal or civil matter from beginning to end for a news outlet. Some have never heard of attorney-client privilege or appreciate its significance to protect clients and communications.

Clients deserve fulsome advice, even to the extent of differing views. An attorney and PR counselor may have sharply varying viewpoints on how much the client should say and when to say it. Dispensing their counsel in a respectful, professional manner gives clients a fuller view of their options and the risks and opportunities attaching to those options.

Self-confident attorneys and PR counselors serve their clients well when they collaborate and do their best to arrive proactively at a consensus that doesn’t equate to stonewalling or self-indicting confessions.

One of the most vital conversations is what can be said or done that provides reassurance to the people most impacted by a crisis. Earning trust in the heat of a crisis depends on meaningful actions and clear statements. This is as valid to consider as the ultimate liability for the crisis.

Despite coming from different universes, attorneys and PR counselors can be good teammates. And for the good of their clients, they should be.

In a crisis, clients already have enough stress. The last thing they need is a pair of squabbling advocates. However, attorneys and PR counselors don’t always play nicely together in the sand box. They have been called the “oil and water team.” Attorneys discount PR counselor understanding of the law. PR counselors think lawyers are rigid impediments to clients telling their story. Clients facing crisis shouldn’t settle for either stereotype. There are attorneys and PR counselors who know how to work together in the best interests of their collective clients.

An important part of crisis planning and preparation is to ensure your attorney and PR counselor have track records of collaboration and mutual appreciation that winning in court, but losing in the court of public opinion still equals a loss.

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.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

Surprise

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

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

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

First Impression

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure, Messy Innovation and Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disarming Genius of Crowdsourcing Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tesla and Tips on Talking Like a Visionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Online Newsroom in the Public Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Risk of Socially Responsible Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Familiar Phrases as Mental Cues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words to Quit Living By in 2016

 Awesomesauce, one of the quirky words or phrases everyone should consider dropping from their vocabulary in 2016. 

Awesomesauce, one of the quirky words or phrases everyone should consider dropping from their vocabulary in 2016. 

One of the virtues of English is its adaptability, which also can be one of its most distressing downfalls as it adopts annoying words and phrases.

Here are some that you might consider excising from your vocabulary in 2016.

1. Literally: This is a perfectly good word that has been hijacked as a catch-phrase that distorts its actual meaning. People say “literally” much like they once said “really.” For example, if you said, “He literally stood on his head,” you could just as well say, “He stood on his head.”

2. Awesomesauce: This was cute, sort of, in a credit card company ad, but it is a silly, sophomoric expression, pretty much like “secret sauce.” Of course, if you want to sound silly and sophomoric, these are perfect word choices.

3. For all intents and purposes: We all know what it means, more or less, but it serves mostly as a 5-word delay of what you want to say. Skip the prelude and spit out the main message.

4. Walk it back: We have sports broadcasters to thank for this animated version of “strike that.” Walk your dog, not your retraction.

5. Next level: Experts tell us to take it to the “next level.” What does that mean? It sounds more like directions at a multi-story department store. “Where can I find men’s underwear?” “Next level, sir.”

6. Little did I know: This is one of those phrases that don’t require a confession. We’ll be able to tell on our own.

7. Leverage: This is a word borrowed from physics and construction. I admit to using it regularly as a short cut for explaining how to exploit an advantage. Leverage is used correctly, just too often. Give it a rest in 2016.

8. Elephant in the room: When originally used, this was an arresting way to refer to the big issue left undiscussed in a meeting. Don’t pen in your elephant. Just say, “Let’s talk about the big issue that we are avoiding.”

9. Par for the course: Golf is on the decline, and so should the use of this tired phrase. Ditto for “bang for your buck,” “we lack the bandwidth” and “think outside the box.” They served their purpose and now deserve a respectful retirement.

10. He/she is a rock star: Meant as a compliment, this reference is muddy at best. Do you mean he/she has a big following, a good voice, an outrageous lifestyle? It isn’t appreciably better to compliment someone as a “guru,” “jedi” or “ninja,” which all have a mixed bag of qualities. Try complimenting someone on what they actually are good at.

11. FOMO: Yet another in an endless line of acronyms, “Fear of Missing Out” seems more akin to a psychological problem than a useful phrase. The good news is that FOMO-phobia is curable. Resolve not to miss out. If you do, look for a BOGO.

12. Netflix and chill: Okay, I admit I had to look up what this meant as code for a hookup. Clever, especially with a gratuitous product mention for Netflix. This phrase should go in the same trashy bin as “twerking” and “fap.” You can look up “fap” for yourself.

Of course, no list of New Year’s word resolutions would be complete without a desperate plea to end the contagion of Valley-Speak. “How, like, could you, like, do that?” I mean, like, how can you seriously talk like that?

Nothing drives me to distraction quicker than the ubiquitous overuse of “like,” the generational substitute for “umm” or “uhhh,” which may date back to the prehistoric hominid period. Hominids were just figuring out how to speak. Today’s generation of “like” speakers seems bent on returning to those primitive roots.

My most important New Year’s word resolution – don’t utter “like” in my presence unless you literally like something. Kapish?

A White House Lesson on Choosing Words Wisely

 In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest proved last week that a careless word in a press conference can ignite a media firestorm. 
 
Taking to the podium to condemn Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Earnest said: “The first thing a president does, when he or she takes the oath of office, is to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And the simple fact is, that what Donald Trump said yesterday disqualifies him from serving as president.”
 
As the word “disqualifies” rapidly made its way across the web in headlines, sound bites and new memes about Trump, Earnest’s statement incidentally convinced many Americans that he actually had been booted out of the race. 

That afternoon, tweets paired with the hashtag #TrumpIsDisqualifiedParty soared to the top of Twitter’s list of trending topics. As a testament to how viral a tiny misstatement can become, in the week since, the hashtag has made millions of impressions on Twitter and some news organizations even doubled back with stories making it abundantly clear that Trump was not disqualified. 
 
The reaction to Earnest’s statement is an extreme example of some of the greatest challenges spokesmen face in dealing with the media. As the news industry relies more on controversial sound bites and the public takes less time to seek out the greater context beyond a headline or a tweet, it’s increasingly important to choose words carefully. 
 
It’s safe to assume Earnest meant to say that Trump’s idea makes him “unqualified” for the presidency. But to many, the point was lost in his phrasing and the ensuing coverage. 
 
White House: Donald Trump Muslim plan 'disqualifies' him from presidency,” a CNN headline read, perfectly encapsulating the common response across the media landscape.

Hard to blame the media for jumping on this. The blame rests with Earnest for being careless with what he said.

This should reinforce the need for scripting what you say before talking to the media, paying special attention to what not to say. It takes discipline for spokespeople to say what they need to say and no more.

Crafting a relevant key message and wrapping it into a quotable sound bite takes time, and it demands practice to pull it off.

Media training helps. But common sense helps, too. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to recognize words, phrases or expressions that will create a headline. As an experienced communications professional, Earnest should have known better when he uttered the word "disqualified." Even "unqualified" would have been a headline-grabber. He, after all, is the White House press secretary, not a TV commentator.

Word choices can make a huge difference in conveying your point and not letting the story line – or a headline – get away from you. In a world of skimmer-readers, the headline is all they may see and ingest.

Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter. Would you overlook a showstopper line, regardless of whether the spokesperson meant to say it or not?
 
No matter how long an interview goes or how much you have to say before it’s done, reporters  look for just a few punchy quotes to inject into a story. Often a single quote defines the story, yet you never know which one a reporter will use. So, always choose your words wisely.
 

The Too-Much Answer

 The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

Eager spokespersons sometimes share too much information when answering questions, obscuring the key message they intended to highlight.

Spokespersons who turn into gushers when asked questions typically fail to know their mission, which is to deliver a message, not act like an encyclopedia.

Saying the right thing with just-enough language requires discipline. That usually comes from media training and experience. The kind of experience when your key message is omitted from a story and replaced by something less important, trivial or wrong.

Don't blame the reporter, who has to make sense of what you say and turn it into a short clip for TV or radio or a couple of quotes for a print or online article. If the reporter can't decipher your central point in your flurry of words, blame yourself for creating the confusion.

There is a fine line between a tight response and a terse response. A terse response can come across in the interview, and later on air, as evasive. A tight response, if delivered confidently and conversationally, can convey a sense of command by the spokesperson, increasing their believability. The only way most spokespersons gain that confidence is through practice. You need to now what you need to say and practice how to say it effectively.

Media trainers encourage chiseling key messages into sound bites. That may sound contrived, but the idea is to zero in on a message and the best way to express it. Not only will that help to ensure it is quoted, it will make the message more comprehensible.

In this regard, the spokesperson role is more like a playwright and an actor. You start with a goal, then think like a playwright how to present it – the words, the scenery, the staging. The actor's responsibility is to make the words come alive with his or her voice and body language.

Another critical aspect of media training is the art of bridging – how you take a question and turn it back to your key message. Instead of learning strong bridging phrases, some spokespersons think out loud and wander toward an answer, which may not be all that well thought out. The ill-considered answer too often is a launch pad for additional questions that pull the interview far away from your key point, maybe even into regions you sought to avoid.

Spokespersons are chosen because of their knowledge of a subject and/or their job title. However, their key message can be swamped by over-sharing or feeling they must get everything on the record. Digressions, windy explanations and technical jargon exasperate most reporters, at best, and confound them, at worst.

Transparency for a spokesperson involves telling the truth in a way that is meaningful and can be heard. Too much information is often the enemy of the truth. It buries what is important under the weight of interesting, but non-essential facts.

The best spokesperson is the one who knows what to say – and what not to say. The best spokesperson thinks about connecting with his or her audience through 12 seconds on air or two paragraphs in print.

Working with All Generations

 

 Working with colleagues from a different generation presents a number of communication challenges. But with a few key principles, it's possible to bridge the generation gap in the workplace.  

Working with colleagues from a different generation presents a number of communication challenges. But with a few key principles, it's possible to bridge the generation gap in the workplace.  

While working with multiple generations in the office and with clients is nothing new, the digital era constantly brings about new challenges in communication.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Generation X (early 1960s-early '80s) prefer emails and face-to-face communication, while Millennials (roughly 1982-2004) text and use social networks, like Twitter and Instagram, and messaging apps like Snapchat to communicate. 

There seems to be a new social media tool emerging every day, and while Millennials seem to instantly understand them, older workers often feel overwhelmed. In reality, too much reliance on one method can alienate coworkers and clients, making it difficult to communicate with someone from another generation with a different preference.  

There is a generational difference in formality, too. Suits have turned into jeans – and not just on casual Fridays. Abbreviated stream-of-conscious communication is replacing anguishing over a letter or email.

In many workplaces, the traditional at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday at your desk has been replaced with telecommuting. Measuring productivity now involves judging the quality of your work product rather than how many hours it took you to do it. 

So, in today’s fast changing workplace, how can coworkers from different generations work effectively with each other and their clients? Here are some tips. 

1. Understand work styles. Rather than assuming your communication style is best, notice how different coworkers and clients prefer to communicate. 

Does someone come to your office to talk instead of texting? Does a client respond to your phone call by email? Learn how others like to communicate and use it. If you’re not sure, just ask.  

2. Share perceptions and values. You can often avoid generational conflicts by learning one another’s perceptions and values. 

A Boomer may find the lack of formality and manners of a Millennial offensive, while Millennials may feel their opinions are not considered or appreciated. 

3. Be willing to learn. As an older Gen Xer, I tend to dismiss the newest social media tool by telling myself “it’s a waste of time” or “ it’s just a fad, so no need to learn it." 

But don’t be fooled. Older workers should always be willing to learn new communication tools since they will need them when working with younger clients. Don’t be afraid to ask the younger workers in the office for help. 

The opposite is true for younger workers. Abbreviations and short, incomplete thoughts are fine between friends, but that’s not a good way to communicate with clients. Learning how to write well is a trans-generational necessity, so be willing to learn from others on what makes a good writer.  

4. Realize the strength in all generations. The best communicators are comfortable with all generations of communication tools, and they aren’t afraid to try out new ones. Since most clients will be multi-generational, valuing the strengths of each generation’s communication style guarantees the best value to one’s client – and a more cohesive workplace.  

Half-Truth Closer to a Lie Than Truth

 Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Fair and balanced reporting means telling both sides of a story. However, telling both sides of the story can allow one side to traffic in misinformation and get equal or better coverage than a truth-teller.

One of the dirty little secrets in today's public affairs world is that too often the misinformation is intentional. Misinformation doesn't have to be a big lie, just enough indirection to mislead or distort the facts. 

Contentious issues get the adrenalin going, which can lead spokesmen to exaggerate, hype certain facts or even make false claims to win support. This misinformation gets reported without analysis or fact-checking as the "other side of the story," With no barriers on what to say or how to say it, misinformation can be cast in bombastic visual events, which have the habit of sticking in the public's mind more so than good old-fashioned facts.

Even diligent readers are left to sift through the two sides, without any objective guide to discern facts from convenient fictions.

This phenomenon has become a commonplace dimension of public debates. and, as such, has become a nightmare for issue managers who have a job description that requires sticking to the facts.

Admittedly, some misinformation is simply sloppy fact-gathering. Someone misinterpreted data or relied on a flawed source. Other times, misinformation is the heart of a strategy – to advance an agenda or block a project. Such as questionable intelligence data about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or repeated references to a propane export terminal's "blast zone."

Blatant distortions incite rage and social media rants. They can be the perfect fuses for protests, which in turn earn more news coverage, creating an impression of broad opposition.

Sound familiar? It should because misinformation is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in civic discourse. It's okay to fudge the truth, advocates reassure themselves, because ends justify the means. They have taken Mark Twain's sly comment as a license to lie – "get your facts first, then distort them all you please."

The hyperventilation of public debates tends to lower the bar of what is acceptable. Before long, both sides are stretching the truth. Passions may be aroused, but the real legacy of this kind of discourse are cloudy memories and deepening cynicism. 

Public relations professionals have witnessed this erosion of public conversation, and sometimes contributed to its demise with less than truthful assertions. Now the chickens have come home to roost. With thinner media news staffs and more channels for rogue fact-telling that can be retweeted mindlessly, it has become harder for the public to know what to believe. As a result, they find something better to do than pay attention.

There is no magic elixir to wash away this problem. It is here to stay and, if anything, getting worse. The best approach under the circumstances is to produce credible third-party validation for claims you make, then be unrelenting in pressing those claims and their validation in public venues.

This is painstaking work that involves creativity, discipline and grit. It requires getting out your side of the story first. It may require confronting opponents who deal in slippery arguments and dubious facts. It definitely will require spending patient time working with reporters and editors to tell your story, provide your facts and validate your claims.

And one counterintuitive suggestion: Be able to tell your opponent's story better than your opponent. It's not your job to tell the other side's story, but if you can tell it fairly and accurately, you earn credibility – and a greater chance that people listen to your story and trust it is the truth.

The Public Affairs Rugby Match

 Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

Donald Trump typifies the kind of blowhard that can dominate a public conversation. You need to fight back with sharp messages and sharp elbows.

The Republican Party has a problem not dissimilar from a lot of organizations – a voice that tends to drown out almost everyone else.

Donald Trump, a master of provocative improvisation, is surging in the GOP primary polls because of his outspoken style, blunt speech and repeated insults. Alienating the political elite has become his calling card.

Media coverage of Trump has sucked the air of the room for the other 15 declared GOP presidential candidates. Other than condemnations of Trump, little of what they say on the stump gets reported.

The party's predicament could reach a crescendo at the first candidate debate August 6, which will be limited to only 10 of the current 16 hopefuls. Trump would be hard to keep off the stage, even though his brash political rhetoric could commandeer the show.

Many organizations find themselves lost in the fog of blowhards who hijack the dialogue, often with misinformation or fear mongering. Scaring people has a lot more emotional impact than a tightly worded, factual explanation.

You can wring your hands or you can, as the saying goes, fight fire with fire. Without deserting principled advocacy and substantiated facts, you can create your own firepower by concentrating on the best argument you have that resonates with the audience you are trying to reach and disarms the opposition.

This is not an argument for a shouting match or sloganeering. But you can't show up at a gun fight with a butter knife. Opponents these days have grown more sophisticated. They rely on polling to pick the argument that works. They use inexpensive social media to spread their word. They caricature your worst vulnerability. Responding with reams of data and long, involved talking points will leave you overmatched.

As Trump's opponents will discover, presumably sooner than later, they need to sharpen their own messaging to grab voter and media attention. These people are running for President of the United States, so tell people why and how you would make a unique difference. Turn Trump into a clever bridging line back to your own key message.

The same advice holds for issue managers. Sharpen your verbal sword. Don't wander into the fray; jump in with your best argument, phrased in a way that people will listen and remember. Take the opposition argument on by plainly saying why it is misplaced, misinformed or wrong.

What have you got to lose? The bloviators will win unless you join the fight, using your best argument, the smartest communications tools and your strongest convictions.

Remember, public affairs is not a spectator sport. It is more like rugby. Gear up accordingly.

Explanations Versus Impressions

 Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Ben Vereen went from one of the hottest entertainers in America to someone who couldn't get his calls returned, even from friends, after making an unintended bad impression in a high-profile setting. What happened to Vereen is a classic case of how an impression outshines an explanation.

Vereen was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural celebration. He chose to pay homage to popular black minstrel star Bert Williams. Vereen performed in black face, as Williams was forced to do when he entertained white audiences.

The response to Vereen's act in blackface was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative. One critic called him a "disgrace to his race." Vereen's attempts to explain his teachable moment fell on deaf ears. People only remembered what they saw, not what he said.

While what you say is important, it is equally important to anticipate how people will hear or see it. If Vereen had anticipated the reaction, which in light of the times and the occasion should not have been unexpected, he might have adapted his performance. Vereen might have entertained as Williams would have, then ended with a provocative note that Williams was forced to perform the same act in blackface. That would have left a strong impression, requiring little explanation.

We live in a world where the impression you make is a key to whether anyone will pay attention to your explanation. Trying to explain your way through a tough issue is a lot like bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Issue managers need to suppress the urge to explain and focus on how to impress. Believing that "if people could just hear the facts, we'd do fine" is regrettably a dangerous fallacy, especially when you are dueling with opponents who color across the lines when they give the "facts."

There is nothing unprincipled about stating your case accurately, fairly and with some oomph. Marketers follow this principle because they know people can only absorb so much information, so you need to claim a toehold of their mind with an indelible impression.

With a toehold in your audience's brain, you create the opportunity to provide some explanation. Without that toehold, your explanations have little chance to penetrate, let alone influence.