The Deep Web, Social Media and Malicious Misinformation

 We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

The underbelly of the internet is a puzzling and poisonous place, where illicit drugs are sold and malicious misinformation is peddled. Fake news and incendiary memes launched from the deep web can bedevil consumer brands as easily as political campaigns.

Traditional communication responses to social media laced with lies is a lot bringing a fingernail clipper to a knife fight. New techniques are needed to fight back.

Richard Edelman, CEO of his eponymous PR firm, wrote a recent blog titled, “Understanding the Deep Web.” In it he advised, “In the battle for truth, a company must make its voice heard as quickly as it can. It’s a necessity to get out in front of a situation rather than play from behind.”

However, even a quick response may not be an adequate defense. In his blog, Edelman shares observations about fake news from Sharb Farjami, CEO of Storyful, which bills itself as a “social media intelligence agency.”

Storyful’s website offers an apocalyptic vision of contemporary social media: 

“Social media is not what it was eight years ago. The landscape is more complex and volatile, the stakes are higher, and the needs of business and media increasingly diverse. The weaponization of bots and misinformation, the impact of disinformation on elections and businesses, the threat eyewitnesses face when they capture and share current events –these are only a few of the features of the modern social landscape.”

We can argue over how things got this bad, but it is more productive to consider how to cope in this treacherous environment. Here are some of Farjami’s suggestions, as shared by Edelman:

  • Fake news often reaches traditional media via “feeders” lurking in the Deep Web, including on “fringe networks such as Gab, 4Chan and 8Chan.” Farjami quotes Wired as noting there may be “480,000 alt-right provocateurs [just] on the Gab site.”

  • Online provocateurs like to newsjack high-profile events to use as conduits for misinformation or an excuse to bash a brand. Within 48 hours after Nike launched its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, “racially charged memes” appeared on 4Chan and later gravitated to Facebook.

  • A favorite technique of Deep Web denizens is to make up controversies, such as falsely linking the 5G network to cancer and vaccines to birth defects.

Edelman says active brands aren’t able to avoid controversy involving political, social or cultural issues. They don’t need to step out into the conversation; the conversation can find them through the Deep Web.

While this may seem like a problem affecting only big brands, it isn’t. Much misinformation is transmitted in words, but the ability to show out-of-context or doctored video is quickly evolving. What people see in picture or video can quickly transmogrify into mischievous misinformation. With virtually everyone possessing a smartphone, the threat extends well beyond the Nikes and Starbucks of the world.

A new dimension of social media engagement may be social media intelligence gathering so you know when a tsunami from the Deep Web is headed your way and you still have some time to react.

 

Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

 The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

 Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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

Effective Communication and Simple Truth

 There is a direct connection between simplicity and effectiveness in communication. You can inform and persuade an audience by giving them the simple truth.

There is a direct connection between simplicity and effectiveness in communication. You can inform and persuade an audience by giving them the simple truth.

The distance between noise and purpose in communication can be measured in the gap between confusion and persuasion. Effective communication boils down to sharing the simple truth.

Simplicity is easy when the subject is simple. However, complex subjects tempt speakers into explosions of details that bewilder rather than inform listeners. Complex subjects are exactly the ones that demand simplicity.

The art of simplicity is elegance of expression, not patronizing people’s intelligence. Elegant expression requires discipline to focus on the essential, not the extraneous. Simplicity is not insulting; it is imperative to help people understand what you mean to say. For many exasperated audiences and reporters, a concise, well-framed argument is a welcome relief.

In earlier times, people would sit for hours listening to lectures, speeches and debates. But in our times, with television, the internet and social media, attention spans are much shorter. Getting to the point quickly and clearly are critical to gaining and retaining people’s attention. In earlier times, a great speaker was entertainment. In our times, longwinded, meandering discourse is tuned out as noise.

Making something complex seem simple takes skill and knowledge. You have to master your subject thoroughly so you can explain it simply. You need to know what is essential and what is just interesting. Giving your audience or interviewer the essence of your subject is elemental to getting your point across to an audience or your key message quoted in a story.

Admittedly, simple expression can be a conduit for slick-talking conmen, which is why it is important to simplify what you say without leaving out essential details that vouch for your credibility and validate what you say. Propaganda also can be alluringly simple, so your simplicity should take into account healthy skepticism. Make the proof of what you say simple to grasp, too.

Simplicity in communication becomes an art form when speakers paint word pictures, draw on familiar themes or create musical cadences in their sentences. Instead of providing unpacking instructions, effective speakers show what the finished product looks like when fully assembled. Don’t forget, pictures, videos and easy-to-understand charts can transport your audience to your point, too.

Speaking simply is situational. If you are giving an interview with a television reporter, you need to winnow down your key message to less than a sentence so it can fit in a 12-second on-air quote. If you are speaking to an audience consisting of experts on the topic, you can introduce more complexity while still keeping your expression economical. All audiences appreciate the favor of simple truth.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Further Thoughts on Framing, Reframing and Spin

 People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

Genetics research shows the evolution of life on earth is less like a tree and more like a virus. Evolving life doesn’t sprout new branches; it swaps genes between species.

This radical notion stuns our brains. What we thought we knew is undercut by a new way of understanding. We haven’t changed, but the frame through which we see something has changed. Instead of seeing evolution as a tree, we now see it in the shape of a web.

Frames are the mental structures that shape our view of the world, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and progressive activist. In his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” Lakoff argues that our frames match our values. There also is evidence that our frames mirror our beliefs. We select events and facts for our frame that confirm what we believe.

If you think illegal immigration is a scourge, you watch Fox News for stories that confirm your belief. If you think the Trump administration is corrupt, you devour Vox online stories to prove you are right.

For issue managers, this is a brave, migraine-inducing new world. Facts aren’t necessarily facts if they don’t fit within your frame. Our training to traffic in factual material with credible validation seems outdated – or at least outgunned.

The so-called post-truth era is actually the propaganda era. You don’t win with facts; you win with spin. A key to spinning is how you frame an issue. However, framing isn’t just about spinning; framing also is an essential way to break through the fog of people’s beliefs.

 George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “ Don’t Think of an Elephant! ” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

Lakoff says how you say something is as or more important than what you say. That’s a startling statement. Lakoff’s view relies on research in the 1980s by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that shows humans are consistently irrational, in part because of mental shortcuts that process information by sorting it according to existing frames.

This explains the frustration of rival partisans who can’t understand why their opposing counterparts don’t see things the same way as they do. They have different frames. Two people in the same house can have radically different views if one looks out the front window and the other looks out the back window.

Changing people’s minds becomes difficult because of radically different frames between the would-be persuader and his or her intended audience. We tend to argue from our moral viewpoint, which may be wholly inconsistent from the people we seek to convince.

In his book, Lakoff details how political conservatives have spent untold amounts of money over several decades to come up with powerful frames intended to solidify a political base and force opponents to debate on their turf.

Good examples are “partial-birth abortion” and “gay marriage.” Both terms were designed to shift the conversation about reproductive rights and marriage equality to frames consistent with conservative thinking. They replaced terms such as “pro-life” and “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Forcing people to defend certain kinds of abortions blocked a discussion of whether the state should overrule decisions made by women and their doctors. Employing the word “gay” before marriage was a clever way to summon up stereotypes about gay men and women.

A framing battle is warming up over the word “socialism.” Polling shows a rise among Democrats in support of socialism. Republicans scorn socialism as the opposite of capitalism. However, as Paul Krugman discusses in a series of tweets, “socialism” has become an intentional frame (or wedge) to cast suspicion on raising taxes to maintain Social Security and Medicare, or what some political conservatives call “entitlements” and Democrats refer to as the “social safety net.”

One of the better issue framers of our time is our current President. Through tweets and campaign rallies, Donald Trump creates and reinforces frames (Crooked Hillary, witch hunt, failing New York Times) that he believes give him political advantage by forcing others to rebut him. As we’ve seen, the rebuttals tend to solidify the viewpoints of his supporters. Trump’s claim that he can murder someone on the streets of New York and not lose a vote is compelling evidence he knows what he’s doing.

Those of us in the persuasion business spend time thinking how to frame issues to best advantage. We do our best work when we recognize existing frames and capitalize on them. When necessary, we try to find ways to reframe an issue so discussion can be in a more favorable mental arena.

Framing and reframing, especially on persistently contentious issues, isn’t easy or even obvious. It takes hard work. It demands understanding the moral perspective of the audience you seek to influence and creating arguments and imagery that fit within that frame.

Reframing can be as straightforward as convincing someone accustomed to looking out the front window to spend a moment looking out the back window. Same house. Same landscape. Same neighborhood. Different perspective.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. However, in the face of a bewildering public arena that stretches from backyard patios to digital clouds, simplicity can be a guiding virtue.

Keep that Tangled Tree argument of evolution in mind. People who don’t believe humans evolved from apes may be shocked into listening when you share evidence that 8 percent of human genes come from bacteria, plants and other animals and may be the key to our survival and dominance of our planet.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Angry Yimbys Make More Housing a ‘Religion’

 After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

In what has a man-bites-dog vibe, Millennials are driving a YIMBY movement to promote more housing in big cities as a way to combat rising rents and housing shortages.

The “Yes, In My Backyard” upwelling comes in direct response to years of success employing “Not In My Backyard” arguments. Yimbys believe tight housing conditions are the result of stymied housing developments, causing an imbalance between jobs and places to live.

“The [YIMBY] movement is fueled by the anger of young adults,” according to The Guardian. “Rather than suffer in silence as they struggle to find affordable places to live, they are heading to planning meetings en masse to argue for more housing – preferably the very kind of dense, urban infill projects that have often generated neighborhood opposition from NIMBYs .”

YIMBYs have popped up in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver, BC, and Sydney, Australia. San Francisco is the birthplace of the YIMBY movement, which isn’t a surprise when you learn the city added 307,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2013, but only built 40,000 new housing units. A chapter in Portland can’t be far away.

In what seems like an echo from the NIMBYs of yore, the head of the San Francisco-based YIMBY movement told The Guardian, “It’s clear there is a housing shortage – and the answer is to build housing. You generate policy by yelling about things.”

Sonja Trauss, 35, a San Francisco resident who helped galvanize the movement, dismissed housing shortages in big Western cities as financial or technical issues. “The cause of our current shortage,” she says, “is 100 percent political.” California’s large, influential tech community agrees with her and is providing financial backing for YIMBYs.

YIMBYs associate with progressives by favoring dense development near transit service. However, they have come under attack by liberal groups as “stooges” for housing developers by criticizing “space-hogging” single-family development and favoring gentrification of traditionally minority neighborhoods.

Ground Zero for this class struggle over housing is the Mission District in San Francisco, a lower-income enclave of Latino residents, who are now being displaced by large housing developments, with YIMBY encouragement. Trauss, who is being pushed as a local political candidate, says any new housing is better than no new housing, even if it is for wealthier people and contributes to gentrification. Latino activists say YIMBYs are disrespecting them and their concerns for being priced out of their current housing.

For better or worse, there is a new dynamic in front of elected bodies. Where once only opponents showed up for hearings on housing developments, now YIMBY proponents appear to voice support. And it is having an effect. According to The Guardian, the California Assembly approved a “sweeping legislative package,” with YIMBY support, to spur more affordable housing.

The movement isn’t just a US phenomenon. Vancouver YIMBYs are shaming officials for okaying sprawling developments with few homes. Australian YIMBYs are pushing local officials to allow homeowners to rent out attics and lofts. A YIMBY political party has formed.

Josh Lehner, the Oregon state economist who follows housing issues closely, just posted a new blog indicating the Portland metropolitan area is adding more housing units, but shortages persist throughout Oregon. Affordability, he says, remains a big problem and could get worse as interest rates continue to creep up.

YIMBYs versus NIMBYs may not produce nuanced public policy that recognizes the need for economic development and more housing on one hand, but also greater income equality and affordable housing on the other to avoid displacing families with nowhere else to go.

America Has an Aging Issue, With No Apparent Strategy

 Population projections indicate older Americans will outnumber young Americans in less than 25 years from now, which will pose profound challenges in housing, transportation, health care, family structure and politics. We aren’t prepared to address or capitalize on what such a change will mean.

Population projections indicate older Americans will outnumber young Americans in less than 25 years from now, which will pose profound challenges in housing, transportation, health care, family structure and politics. We aren’t prepared to address or capitalize on what such a change will mean.

Public affairs firms like CFM grapple with complex, difficult challenges such as multi-million-dollar infrastructure investments, large residential developments and controversial public policies.

As challenging as those can be, there is a looming challenge of even larger proportions: America has an aging issue.

In just 25 years from now, there will be more older Americans than young ones. No generation is prepared for, or seemingly fully aware of, the consequences.

This is not a bad news story. People are simply living longer. That’s a good thing. But is also can be a challenging thing.

For one, many older Americans lack the financial reserves to sustain themselves for a longer retirement. If you retire at 65 and have savings to carry you through for 10 years, but live until you are 85, that’s a pretty big financial gap, with no ready source to bridge the gap. Many seniors lack financial reserves. As The New York Times reports, pensions have vanished, costs for housing and medical care have soared and older people have reached the brink. As a result bankruptcies by older Americans have tripled since 1991.

Quality medical care is one reason people have longer life expectancies. However, the longer you live, the greater the chance of incurring chronic illness or some kind of trauma, such as a fall or heart attack. Medicare doesn’t cover the full cost of all health care for the elderly. And many older Americans are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Both health care programs are already under financial stress.

Housing is another concern. In addition to rising costs, older people must contend with stairs with ever more creaking knees. There is a surprising lack of single-story housing or housing with main floor bedrooms to accommodate seniors. Higher land costs and the push for greater density create bad market conditions for single-story housing in urban areas.

Optimally, older Americans can stay in their homes, close to their network of family and friends. As people grow older, friends die and family members aren’t always nearby. To stay at home and independent, older people need in-home care, which requires home care workers trained to assist the elderly. There is a shortage of such workers that may be hard to overcome because well-trained caregivers have other, more gainful options.

Mobility is an issue. At some point, older people shouldn’t be driving. They become dependent on others to give them a ride to the grocery store, doctor or a senior citizen center. Nonprofit programs such as Meals on Wheels can provide nourishing meals to shut-ins, but can’t keep up with growing demand. Shuttles, taxis and, someday, driverless cars help, but only for those who can afford them or live in communities that provide them.

Older people are viewed as prime targets by scammers. But friends and family can take advantage of older people, as evidenced by the surprisingly large number of reported cases of elder financial and physical abuse.

Amid this gloomy picture are some interesting opportunities. Many people retain their vitality and ability to work far past age 65. Instead of retiring, these people could contribute to the economy by continuing filling jobs that require specialized skills, assisting nonprofit organizations and mentoring younger people. Think of the movie, The Intern, in which Robert DeNiro’s character becomes a crucial part of the maturation of a recent startup. There also are plenty of examples of older people who volunteer or work for nominal salaries to modernize nonprofit accounting, hiring and communication processes.

One of the best sources of support for older people still living at home are other older people. “Getting older” seniors who still drive become drivers. Groups of older people form clubs or regularly socialize. Older people with medical training or knowledge often make sure their friends see their doctors regularly, take their medication and eat properly.

Efforts are underway to create age-friendly communities that take into account what people can and can’t do easily, which can range from walkable streets to clusters of key service providers. There is an Age-Friendly chapter in Portland that has created an action plan addressing housing, transportation, open spaces (gardens), social spaces and civil rights.

Despite those helpful actions, many older people are left on their own, with little support. Their world collapses in on them, financially, socially and emotionally. Their quality of life suffers and their potential to make contributions to their family, friends and community are sacrificed.

There isn’t a single silver-bullet solution to America’s aging challenge, which incidentally is not unique. China has the same emerging issue, which its leaders recognize will have profound effects on their country’s economy, social structure and political system.

What’s called for is wider recognition of the challenge and how it will affect virtually everyone regardless of age, political views, income or geography. A start would be to view the challenge as an opportunity to enable people who live longer to contribute longer. But it is an opportunity with opportunity costs. We will need to rethink how older people receive care – and from whom – as they age. We will need to fortify programs such as Medicare and Medicaid so they can address growing demand. We will need to modify how we think about older people in the workplace. We will need to view older people as assets, not burdens.

America’s aging issue isn’t an abstraction or someone else’s problem; it is every American’s issue. It will take every American to turn aging from a challenge to an opportunity.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Editor’s Departure Is Reminder of Local News Value

 Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

 

Mark Katches, editor of The Oregonian since 2014, is leaving for a similar job in Florida. The owner of New York’s The Daily News laid off half of its news staff, including the editor. Should we care? You bet we should.

Local newspapers have personalities and quirks that help to define their communities and contribute to what makes them unique. “Our local newspaper” is more than just an idle phrase. It is part of a community’s DNA.

It is no secret the business model of local newspapers is in serious trouble. The conversion of print publications to digital platforms that generate revenue has been rocky. As a result, newsrooms have shrunk. There are fewer reporters to gather local news. Stories of local interest go unnoticed and unreported. Enterprise and investigative journalism suffer. So does the community.

Katches came to The Oregonian in 2014 from the nonprofit Center of Investigative Reporting. Despite financial pressures, he emphasized “deep-dive journalism” that tackled stories about lead dust, senior care facilities and a teacher with an unchecked history of sexual abuse. He also pushed narrative stories, such as the award-winning series about a hand-raised polar bear at the Oregon Zoo.

Even though he frequently wrote bylined pieces, Katches is not a household word among the general public in the Portland metropolitan area, or even among readers of The Oregonian. Despite his relative anonymity, oregonlive.com under his watch grew its online audience by 70 percent. Katches created a video unit that earned six regional Emmy nominations this year, and he pushed watchdog journalism.

To some, The Oregonian is still the “local rag.” But, more significantly for the community, it is still here as a general circulation newspaper and doing its job of covering local news. Not all communities can say as much. The absence of a common, continuing source of information with known biases denies communities a collective sense of identity and self-reflection. You can hate your local newspaper – and say so in a letter to the editor.

The fundamental value of a local newspaper is that it covers local news, carries advertising with a local slant and comments on local issues. That’s a combination unavailable anywhere else.

Smart local newspapers, including The Oregonian, have established media partnerships with local TV stations and public broadcasting to share coverage and leverage the unique advantages and audiences of each channel. Little wonder there are former Oregonian reporters and editors working at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Split-week home delivery, embarrassingly thin editions and all-to-frequent typos can cause consternation. People may disagree with editorial positions, dislike the mix of columnists and miss their favorite cartoon. Some of us wish there was more bandwidth to cover important stories that now go unreported. But online and on doorsteps, The Oregonian delivers a news package that no one else does.

That is not to slight the Portland TribuneWillamette WeekThe Skanner or Portland Mercury that add significantly to the mix and diversity of local news coverage, often by their own enterprise reporting, investigative journalism and unique perspective.

Democratic societies go hand-in-hand with the maxim that all politics is local. To sustain functional institutions, we need to know about local news., as well as national and regional news. And we need to know more than just “breaking news” and snarky exchanges on social media.

You may not know Mark Katches, but he deserves our collective thanks for doing his best to make sure local news coverage, warts and all, still exists in Portland.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Finding the Warm and Fuzzy in a Promotion Gone Bad

 Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear CEO Sharon Price John saw a dream promotion turn into a chaotic nightmare, leaving lines of angry customers and their disappointed children locked out of oversold stores.

Then John had the guts to do something most CEOs shrink from doing – she went on national TV, owned the fiasco and apologized, while still managing to work in the Build-a-Bear brand story. She either has great instincts or a good communications coach.

Whether instinct or coaching, John gave a pitch-perfect demonstration of an effective mea culpa that other CEOs should study and emulate when they face a crisis situation. Here are the lessons taught by John and her PR team:

Lesson #1 – don’t dawdle.

The Build-a-Bear “pay your age day” promotion-gone-bad occurred on Thursday. By Friday morning, John’s PR people had arranged an exclusive on-air interview for her with NBC’s Today show. The pure-gold interview lasted nearly five minutes on a network show that generates $500 million in annual advertising revenue.

Lesson #2 – show remorse and empathy.

John didn’t hide behind her CEO desk. She sympathized with the families and their crying, confused kids who didn’t a get a bear, regardless of the price and long lines. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m a mom of three. I know the most disappointing moment is when a kid is super-excited and something doesn’t happen.” That’s about as close as you can get to convert a crisis into something warm and fuzzy.

 “CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

“CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

Lesson #3 – create realistic context.

John apologized and squarely placed the blame on her company’s failure to anticipate “unprecedented crowds” to take advantage of the promotion. While not totally satisfying, it was at least a somewhat credible explanation. John went on to explain that Build-a-Bear has offered its iconic customizable bear for a pay-your-age price as part of its ongoing “Count Your Candles” promotion.

"[The promotion] was based on the creation of a pay-your-age, count-your-candles birthday program because up to one-third of our sales are actually associated with kids' birthdays. It's their most special day,” John said. “And the birthday program for our birthday treat bear, that's an ongoing, all-year-long promotion where you come in during your birthday month and pay your age. And this particular day was just the day to kick it off and to introduce it to people. So we had actually put the information out there."

Lesson #4 – offer something tangible.

John said $15 vouchers were distributed to families who were unable to buy bears and Build-a-Bear “Bonus Club” members were able to go online to obtain a voucher. She added the “Count Your Candles” promotion would continue and the $15 vouchers would be good through August. She snuck in a commercial plug wile applying some salve to the self-inflicted marketing blunder. "We were not able to provide the service we wanted ... and we are doing our very best ... to make sure we can do what we can to make it right," she said. 

Lesson #5 – state your values.

John took advantage of her self-created opportunity on the Today show to remind people of what Build-a-Bear stands for. "First, I want to say that we are in the business of making sure kids have the best experience possible,” John said. “Our entire mission is about adding a little more heart to life. And our objective was to actually just make sure we could increase the accessibility for kids to make their own furry friend and take it home."

Too many CEOs – and PR professionals – forget a crisis is more than just a mess – it is an opportunity to tell your brand story, preserve your reputation and build trust.  

 

Upstart Candidate Wins Upset Through Smart Branding

 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory in a New York congressional primary through effective personal branding that included a 2-minute video, retro posters and savvy social media.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory in a New York congressional primary through effective personal branding that included a 2-minute video, retro posters and savvy social media.

Political campaigns can reveal emerging marketing trends as well as political issues. The lopsided upset victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over an entrenched Democratic incumbent in a New York congressional primary is a case in point.

The charismatic 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez used a 2-minute video, well-design retro posters and social media savvy to defeat an incumbent with more money, a political machine and presumably greater name familiarity.

The New York Times said Congressman Joe Crowley “fawned over his district’s diversity and pitched himself as an ally.” Ocasio-Cortez “pitched herself as a member of the community itself.”

A Crowley campaign staff member told the Times, “We had people running this like a 1998 City Council race, not a 2018 congressional primary.”

The upset of an incumbent from either political party sets off alarm bells. Some pointed to Ocasio-Cortez’s Puerto Rican background matching with a diverse district consisting of Queens and the Bronx. Others pointed to her progressive agenda (Ocasio-Cortez was an organizer in the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders). She rightfully dismissed both claims. She said she won, including in non-Hispanic parts of the district, because she ran a better campaign. Evidence supports her claim.

It would be fair to say Ocasio-Cortez positioned herself as a better fit with the district’s constituency. A self-described socialist, her progressive agenda included abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Medicare for All and federal job guarantees. The abolition of ICE resonated with a constituency that consists of 50 percent immigrants. The Medicare for All and federal job guarantees respond to growing political support for economic security measures. Whatever the specifics, what Ocasio-Cortez accomplished was fairly traditional in marketing terms – she created a sense of brand loyalty and convinced voters to buy what she was selling.

Ocasio-Cortez’ techniques are instructive in their simplicity. Her introductory video showed her as part of the community, with scenes of her riding the subway. Crowley posted a 3-minute video showing him driving a car. Her video received more than 500,000 views, compared to 90,000 for Crowley’s.

 Strong personal branding in the form of a compelling photograph of the candidate with a key message added a political point of view to what are often superfluous campaign buttons.

Strong personal branding in the form of a compelling photograph of the candidate with a key message added a political point of view to what are often superfluous campaign buttons.

Crowley bombarded constituent mailboxes with printed mailers. Ocasio-Cortez communicated via social media.

Ocasio-Cortez called on voters to have the “courage to change.” Crowley asked to get re-elected.

The Washington Post devoted an entire story to Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign materials. The defining element of the posters and campaign buttons was a portrait of the candidate. Instead of awkwardly smiling and looking at the viewer, Ocasio-Cortez is shown looking sideways and slightly upward in a heroic pose.

 The Ocasio-Cortez campaign used strategic design to create a strong, distinctive brand for the candidate, which drew on an earlier iconic poster that conveyed multiple messages about potential campaign success and affinity for working-class Americans.

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign used strategic design to create a strong, distinctive brand for the candidate, which drew on an earlier iconic poster that conveyed multiple messages about potential campaign success and affinity for working-class Americans.

“Like Rosie the Riveter in the iconic ‘We Can Do It’ poster, Ocasio-Cortez is dressed plainly but depicted heroically,” writes Nolen Strafs and Bruce Willen of Post Typography. This impression of an ordinary person being treated as a hero sends its own message and echoes the messages of the Ocasio-Cortez campaign.”

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign also employed a rare color and choice of typography in its political advertising. The yellow posters were a stark contrast to the usual combination of red, white and blue – and also subtly mirrored the yellow background in the Rosie the Riveter ad. Her posters featured a tilted italic typeface that Strafs and Willen said provided a “dynamic upward thrust” to her campaign materials.

Strafs and Willen pointed out Ocasio-Cortez’s use of a Spanish exclamation mark around her name made bilingual materials seem natural, not forced.

“The branding has personality and point of view, something absent from most political designs (and many politicians). It feels populist, pop and polished all at once,” the designers said. “Ocasio-Cortez is treated like the star on a movie poster, like she’s a character ready for action.”

In a surprising way, Ocasio-Cortez emulated the broad strokes of Donald Trump’s successful campaign techniques in the 2016 presidential campaign by creating a distinct and distinctive brand. Just as Trump dusted off a dozen GOP campaign competitors by being very different, she dislodged what many viewed as a Democratic political fixture in Washington, DC with the same pitch.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Give Your Prose a Hug to Squeeze Out Wasted Words

 Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Competition for eyeballs and shrinking attention spans make it imperative to write to the point.

Extraneous words, convoluted sentences and meandering thoughts confuse your audience and cause them to click somewhere else. “Extraneous words gum up our prose,” writes Philip Corbett in The New York Times “After Deadline” blog. “Many padded expressions are weak, flabby and ineffective.“

Bright, straightforward writing is the secret to keeping your audience’s attention. Bright writing means telling your story by selecting only the best details and describing them in vivid word pictures. Straightforward writing involves using a garden hoe to remove words, phrases and thoughts you don’t need to tell your story.

You can search online for extensive lists of wasted words. Candidates for the compost bin include:

  • Moreover
  • Currently
  • In order to
  • Presently
  • Basically
  • Essentially
  • Actually
  • Obviously
  • Literally

Simplifying sentences is another vital verbal gardening chore.  Corbett offered a simple example: Instead of “The answer is a simple one,” (six words) why not just “The answer is simple” (four words).

Corbett offered a more typical example (this one from The New York Times) of how to get rid of wasted words:

Replace: “His method was a laborious one that involved crushing the peppers with a potato masher and mixing them with rock salt from the island’s own salt mines, then aging the mash twice, adding vinegar in between.”  With: “His laborious method involved using a potato masher to crush peppers, then mixing them with indigenous rock salt and aging them twice while adding vinegar.” Editing reduced a 36-word sentence to a streamlined 25 words without sacrificing meaning or detail.

If you could trim an average of 10 words per sentence, you could shorten and add punch to marketing content, information posts and explanations of complex subjects. The space you save from fewer words would allow you to enlarge an image, highlight a key quote or insert an infographic.

Being kind to your readers, viewers and listeners requires mastery of your subject matter and a commitment to economical expression. Say what you need to say. Say it as straightforwardly as you can. Choose the best words to convey your meaning. Delete unnecessary and lazy words. Polish your sentences until they sparkle.

Unless you are a playwright or novelist writing dialogue, your written words don’t need to echo how you speak. Ironically, if you become a master editor of your own prose, it will leak over to how you speak.

Clear expression is never out of style, and these days it certainly is in high demand. Be a lover of language, treat words with respect and give your sentences frequent hugs.

[CFM can turn you into a word lover with training and assistance to tell your story through economical and bright writing.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

 The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

 

How Instruction Manuals Can be Instructive

 Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals are supposed to explain how something works or how to assemble something. The thought of an instruction manual induces dread in many people, but their evolution offers useful clues for today’s challenge of showing people what you mean.

 Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

According to Helene Schumacher, writing for the BBC, the first instruction manual was created by inventor James Watt, who advanced steam engine technology in the 1800s. Watt’s instruction “manual” was for his early, but effective document copier. His instructions were simple steps – take a sheet of paper with damp ink, put it on top of a blank sheet of paper, wrap it in a blanket and push it through the rollers. Watt glued the instructions to his copier.

Simple and easy to find – characteristics that still hold true for visual communications today.

Instruction manuals have proliferated in direct proportion to the number of new machines for industry and gadgets for households. Some are very technical and some are meant to make technical information easy to understand by non-technical people. Eventually, we evolved to instruction manuals explaining all the technology on our cars and how to assemble Swedish-made furniture.

People with some gray in their hair remember when instruction manuals were mostly all text. Often gobs and pages of text. Over time, instructions come as a set of sequential illustrations and, more recently, as videos. Even when there is text, it is written to be understood and not like a test question for an engineering student.

Printed instruction manuals have given way to online versions. Many instructions now follow Watt’s example of being integrated into a product so you can see them as you work.

Instead of being technical or procedural, instructions are often combined with recommendations for how to use a product. In her article, Schumacher cites the instructions that accompanied Kodak’s Brownie camera. It explained how to load film in the camera as well as hared tips on how to take a great picture.

You could view Kodak’s instruction as a form of branding. For years, Apple’s advertising for its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads have featured what you can do with their devices more than showcase their features. Interestingly, Apple doesn’t provide instruction manuals because it doesn’t want you fooling around with what it makes.

More complicated devices have led to more complicated instructions. However, product developers have taken steps to reduce the complications through design, which requires less complicated instructions.

Making instructions more user friendly is not just related to customer satisfaction; it also has become part of the consumer journey to buy products. People go online to check out a product before they purchase it.

Technology advances are influencing instruction manuals. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are coming into use in ways that meld instruction with initial experience of a product. QR codes are being integrated with instruction manuals so you can quickly find the information you need without thumbing through pages or scrolling online.

Just about every instruction manual innovation mirrors communications best practices – simplified design, relevant information, visual explanations, online versatility, technologically savvy, customer friendly.

Who would have thought instruction manuals could reveal the qualities of effective communications.

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Digital Media’s Impact on Crisis Response

 If someone asked how has digital media affected crisis response, the answer is simple: Crisis response must be immediate and center on action, not words. The only way that’s possible is to anticipate likely crisis scenarios and be prepared to respond.

If someone asked how has digital media affected crisis response, the answer is simple: Crisis response must be immediate and center on action, not words. The only way that’s possible is to anticipate likely crisis scenarios and be prepared to respond.

Digital media has disrupted traditional communications, including crisis response. The immediacy of digital media demands urgent response. The visual intimacy of digital media requires demonstrable response.

Speed and substance are the traits of an effective crisis response in the digital era. You don’t have time to dawdle and you can’t equivocate over meaningful action to address the crisis.

Before digital media, organizations had time to contemplate how to respond to a crisis, what to say and whether to engage with reporters and editors covering the crisis. Now, news of a crisis can rip across the internet before you know what to do or say or any reporter or editor writes a story. That’s why a speedy and action-centered response is imperative in the digital age.

Responding quickly is not the same as responding impulsively. Quick response is rooted in solid preparation – anticipating crisis scenarios, thinking in advance what resources would be needed in the vortex of a crisis and role-playing how you would actually respond. Good crisis plans have updated call-down lists, an identified crisis team leader and a ghost website with useful information that can be activated during a crisis.

Don’t waste time dreaming up platitudes posing as “placeholder” statements to plump up your crisis plan. Words matter much less than actions. Realistic crisis scenarios should be the foundation of a crisis plan – and, when appropriate, inspire management actions to lessen the likelihood or even prevent a crisis scenario from occurring.

As digital media has stolen the luxury of time and stripped value from words, it also has raised awareness that a crisis can befall anyone, anywhere, any time. Thanks to digital media, you may not find out about the crisis from a phone call or a dutiful coworker, but from monitoring social media after someone posts explosive video shot on a smartphone.

The evolution of digital media should send everyone scurrying to the file cabinet where their crisis plan is locked away. Pull it out, dust it off and make sure it meets the unforgiving demands of digital media. If you don’t have a crisis plan, there is no better time than now to prepare one, taking into account digital media and its implications.

For CEOs who still feel invincible and pooh-pooh crisis planning, put together a clip of corporate crises compounded by tardy and scattershot responses. That should disabuse him or her of any thought that a crisis can’t implode a reputation or sink a bottom line in the bat of an eye in digital media’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Let Your Ghost Website Prep for a Scary Crisis

 Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites are essential hardware for your crisis communication plan. They contain content you store away for a scary crisis.

Ghost content can be as basic as B-roll that you can feed TV reporters for use as “wild footage” in their crisis coverage. Content can be more advanced such as videos that show processes or safety features. There can be backgrounders, animations, frequently asked questions and answers, media clips and infographics.

Good crisis plans call for creation of ghost websites as a cupboard of content to draw upon when crisis hits. But ghost websites also can play valuable roles in crisis preparation itself.

The best crisis plans contain sound advice for how to respond to a crisis, not just what to say. Brainstorming for content to place on a ghost website should center on what you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate – and how best to show it. What you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate should lead you to go-to people and resources that can provide answers. Reaching out to go-to resources for ghost website content is like a dress rehearsal for a crisis, when getting and verifying information in real time is at a premium.

Restocking ghost website content presents a perfect opportunity for reviewing the overall crisis plan. Looking to see if you are missing useful B-roll footage or whether you should update an infographic are cues to make the same assessment of a crisis plan’s call-down phone list or the crisis scenarios that anchor your plan.

 Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Some of the most important ghost content you can develop is third-party validation of your products, product claims or safety processes. This validation should be checked routinely and updated as necessary. The review should trigger a wider reflection on additional ways to validate claims or emerging best practices, which in turn can alter approaches to a crisis or point to smart management actions.

Crisis scenarios can be very different and require significantly different kinds of crisis content. Ghost website content is a simple way to hammer home that point to a crisis team, as well as prepare for a crisis. Ghost content to deal with an environmental spill (showing your environmental stewardship) is not the same as what is needed to deal with financial fraud (showing your financial safeguards).

Reviewing ghost website content scenario by scenario can reveal pockets of knowledge you need to fill in or expose actions you should take to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a crisis.

In a crisis test drill, activating and pushing out appropriate ghost content can measure how well your social media platforms are positioned for crisis response.

A crisis manager could recruit a group of print and electronic editors to discuss the kind of validated content they would value in a crisis situation. The discussion could include a show-and-tell of ghost content. Their comments and insights could be useful in grooming or adding to a crisis plan’s ghost content.

Since a goal for effective crisis response is to preserve and even enhance a reputation, invite marketing staff to riff on ghost content ideas, which might double as marketing content. There is nothing wrong with repurposing ghost content for current usage, making it familiar when it returns as part of a crisis response.

Employing ghost website content as a catalyst in the crisis preparation process can sharpen the resulting crisis plan. It also will strengthen the ghost content you have created for that scary day.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

‘Seeing with the Same Eyes in Different Heads’

 Political polarization in America has reached levels not seen since the Civil War tore the country apart. Because that polarization is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, public affairs managers working on major projects, policy issues or ballot measure campaigns need to take it into account by intensifying engagement efforts with those most directly affected. [Photo Credit: Illustration/Brian Stauffer/USC Dornsife Magazine]

Political polarization in America has reached levels not seen since the Civil War tore the country apart. Because that polarization is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, public affairs managers working on major projects, policy issues or ballot measure campaigns need to take it into account by intensifying engagement efforts with those most directly affected. [Photo Credit: Illustration/Brian Stauffer/USC Dornsife Magazine]

Angry voters inhabit both sides of the political aisle, resulting in what perhaps should be the called bipolarization of the American electorate.

Pollster Frank Luntz interviewed 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats, with nearly two-thirds admitting they have stopped speaking with a friend or family member following the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Republican-leaning participants said it was exhausting trying to defend their vote for Trump. Democrats said they couldn’t fathom why anyone would vote for Trump.

The only unifying theme was a shared bipartisan anger at lobbyists, special interests and elected officials in Washington, DC. Even then, they didn’t agree on why they were angry.

The GOP-backed tax plan provided the perfect backdrop for exposing polarization. Republicans called it “well-deserved,” “great” and “excellent for economic growth.” Democrats called it a “lie,” “confusing” and “supporting the rich.”

Participants grew especially testy on the issue of racism. Republicans bristled at the charge they are racist or enable racism. Democrats blamed Trump for fanning the flames of “us-against-them.”

 Social media has played a role in amplifying frustration, disagreement and anger. A social media strategy is critical to any effective public affairs plan.

Social media has played a role in amplifying frustration, disagreement and anger. A social media strategy is critical to any effective public affairs plan.

One of Luntz’ objectives was to see whether dialogue and consensus are still possible in our current political climate. Nearly all of the participants said it may be time to look beyond our current two-party systems to find common ground. Most also agreed to continue the Luntz-moderated conversations, even if discussion is difficult.

The tribalism reflected in the Luntz interviews isn’t limited to views about Trump, Congress and political correctness. The deep divisions his participants reflect can seep into everyday life and be a buried obstacle in the path of a major local project or consensus on a policy direction. Anger and polarization are hardly the bunkmates of consensus and compromise. Without question, many Americans are very angry, deeply frustrated and in a polarized frame of mind.

In the public affairs sphere, this reality means care should be taken to avoid letting an issue or project fall prey to political bipolarization. Complex projects have enough built-in challenges without inheriting or inviting existential ones.

There is no secret sauce to avoid polarized neighborhoods, communities or electorates. But it certainly helps if you start projects or campaigns with genuine engagement with people involved or interested in what you are proposing. Listen and respond to concerns, including on social media. Focus your comments on community benefits, and validate those benefits. Don’t let your allies become bogeymen for your opponents. Be firm in confronting misstatements and lies, but refrain from personal attacks.

One of the best lines to emerge from April as National Poetry Month is: “See through the same eyes in different heads.” A remarkable phrase that should be the North Star for public affairs efforts. Help people see a project, policy or innovation with the same eyes. Opinions can differ, but the basic facts will be clear and not in dispute. Clarity is more important than unanimity. Transparency can reduce skepticism and at least create firmament for compromise, if not consensus.

We may deplore the polarization inflicting America, but for now we need to learn to live with it.  They may mean finding new and better ways to conduct business and engage publics. They may mean conceding and respecting differences of opinion. We don’t all have to think alike to make progress.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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 Merit of Collaboration as a Winning Strategy

 Collaboration is often a goal, but seldom thought of as a strategy, even though collaboration is the quintessential win-win solution that can involve alliances, partnerships, shared resources and a coordinated chorus of voices.

Collaboration is often a goal, but seldom thought of as a strategy, even though collaboration is the quintessential win-win solution that can involve alliances, partnerships, shared resources and a coordinated chorus of voices.

Collaboration is a common goal, but it also can be a compelling strategy. In fact, collaboration may one of the few strategies with an upside of achieving success.

Strategic collaboration can take the form of alliances, partnerships and shared resources to move legislation, undertake an enterprise or stretch scarce finances. They are the quintessential win-win solutions.

As appealing as collaboration sounds, it can be enormously hard to pull off in reality. Success requires a collaborative spirit, a willingness to be partners and an openness to share – attributes that aren’t always evident or even possible.

To avoid flailing around, Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation has created an assessment tool to test whether ground is fertile for collaboration. The tool is aimed chiefly for government-to-government collaboration, but could be adapted to other arrangements between public agencies, nonprofits and businesses.

One example of a government-nonprofit collaboration cited by ASU’s David Swindell is a shared investment by the Nevada Humane Society and the cities of Reno and Sparks to build a new facility near the publicly owned animal shelter. The tandem facilities enable collaboration to extend public dollars by having a partner focused on finding forever homes for rescued pets, as well as offer low-cost spay and neutering services.

“This is a good example of where a county is working in collaboration with a nonprofit agency to absorb costs and share benefits in a true partnership,” says Swindell. A clear, but hard to quantify value is reduced stress on animal shelter staff who feel they are doing everything possible to prevent euthanizing unwanted animals.

In the public affairs realm, collaboration is an effective strategy to harness collective support. Collaboration might include formation of a multi-agency advisory group, a list of diverse supporters, grassroots mobilization and group lobbying.

A show of strength through collaboration can make a strong impression on policymakers and play well in media coverage. A chorus of coordinated voices can ripple through social media. A grassroots army can march the message of a campaign to constituencies and corners of a state that otherwise would be unreachable.

Like any other strategy, collaboration is only as valuable as its contributions. To continue contributing, you need to ensure the wheels of collaboration keep rolling, which requires engagement and attention to detail. Swindell says it also demands measurement to quantify movement.

Collaboration can be a testing ground for innovation in cost reduction, service delivery or constituent satisfaction. As an alternative to going-it-alone, collaboration can be a strategy to attract public support to accomplish something that otherwise appears impossible.

Collaboration is not limited by geography. It can occur on a local or global scale. One constant is the need to define the “win” for all of the collaborative partners. Organizations, like most people, act out of self-interest. Collaboration is one way to make everyone a winner.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Practice = Secret to Making the Winning Shot

 Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale knocked down two last-second, game-winning shots in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four over the weekend and told reporters afterward she practices those shots everyday.  Speakers and presenters who want to make a hit should take note. (Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/AP)

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale knocked down two last-second, game-winning shots in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four over the weekend and told reporters afterward she practices those shots everyday.  Speakers and presenters who want to make a hit should take note. (Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/AP)

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale lived every athlete’s dream when she drained a last-second shot to win a national championship. It was the second Final Four game in a row in which Ogunbowale made a clutch, game-winning shot. When asked about her heroics, Ogunbowale said she expected her shots to go in because she practices them everyday.

In contrast, Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach for the University of Connecticut Huskies, said his number-one seeded and undefeated team that lost to Notre Dame and Ogunbowale in the semifinals took it easy too often during practice. Team members knew they were good, he explained, and assumed they would win.

That, in a nutshell, describes the prevalent attitudes about practice by public speakers and presenters. Some speakers and presenters practice to gain confidence. Others are self-confident – to a fault.

The old phrase “practice makes perfect” may be a hyperbole, but practice is absolutely the path toward perfection. And the stakes keep getting higher for more perfect communications with dwindling attention spans and growing competition for people’s attention.

Customized media training is never out of style – or unneeded, even for experienced speakers and presenters. Here are three reasons why:

Delivering a crisp, clear key message

As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is discovering on a daily basis, crisp, clear key messages don’t just roll off the tongue. They need to be crafted carefully, tested to see if they work as intended and practiced so they appear to roll off the tongue.

Depending on the circumstances, key messages must reflect more than what you want to say; they also need to deliver something your audience needs to hear or finds of value. Key messages must be in language that audiences will understand and delivered through a channel where they are listening or watching.

Speakers should strive to leave their audiences with something to remember. It can be a clever phrase or a memorable story, but it is almost never an off-the-cuff comment. There is little accidental success in speaking and presenting. If you want to hit the game-winning shot, you need to practice making the shot.

Reinforcing your point through your posture

Body language for speakers and presenters communicates more to audiences than the words they utter. If you look nervous, uncertain or unprepared, the audience will see it. They also will see the distracting physical tick or the inappropriate smirk.

Good posture can convey confidence, which gives audiences reason to have trust in what you’re saying. If you stumble through your remarks or look befuddled, audiences will consciously or subconsciously wonder if you know what are talking about. Certain postures, body language and facial expressions can come across as over-confident or defensive.

Practice, whether it’s in front of a mirror or on video as part of a simulated interview, can reveal how you look when you speak, what ticks you might have and whether your facial expressions match the message. Nobody likes to see someone smiling when they are announcing layoffs. With some coaching and lots of practice, you can improve your posture, pacing and breathing, which will boost your confidence and your audience’s confidence in you.

Making your message entertaining

Few people naturally speak in sound bites. But sound bites are an effective way to engage your audience or a reporter, so are worth the time and sweat it takes to develop them.

Presentations need pep, too, which can be provided with eye-catching graphics that reinforce key points or video clips that show what you are talking about.

Audiences are accustomed to a higher level of presentation value and polish. It takes forethought, hard work and practice to come up with those presentation values and achieve polish.

Stand-up comics make their money by delivering funny punchlines. They spend a lot of time writing their jokes and concentrating on timing so their punchline draws a laugh. The craft of stand-u comics should be an example to every speaker or presenter.

And if you really want to impress your audience, follow the example of Arike Ogunbowale and practice your game-winning lines everyday.

For more about media training, check out these previous CFM blogs:

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   Gary Conkling  is principal 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   .

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Two Contrasting Examples of Saying Something Stupid

 Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

All of us have said something stupid or insensitive. Most of us don’t do it on purpose or practice it as our key message.  Most of us are not Rick Santorum.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” the day after thousands of young people took to the streets to demand an end to gun violence, the former GOP senator and presidential aspirant from Pennsylvania said student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should learn CPR instead of protesting. Santorum said the students were pushing for “phony gun laws” that wouldn’t stop school shootings.

Regardless of your point of view, it would be hard to imagine a more tone-deaf or badly timed comment in the wake of massive nation-wide student-led protests. Recognizing the significance of what was happening, the National Rifle Association turned off its propaganda engines for the weekend. President Trump praised the students for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Santorum was part of a panel discussing the student protests, so perhaps he thought it was his job to lob a grenade into the conversation. Whatever his motivation, he sounded like a nincompoop.

 Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Coincidentally, Santorum’s comment came the same day as an interview aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” with outspoken radio legend Don Imus. At age 78, Imus is ending his 50-year career on radio and fighting a battle with emphysema.

During the interview, he unhesitatingly answered a question about his flip and bigoted remark in 2007 about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The remark cost him his job. It also caused him to reflect on such remarks.

"It did change my feeling about making fun of some people who didn't deserve to be made fun of, and didn't have a mechanism to defend themselves," he told CBS’ Anthony Mason. "I'm not full of sh*t. If I've done it, I'll own up to it. And then I have some sorta weird relationship with the audience. I think they saved me most of the time."

Later in the interview, Imus recalled how he met in person with the Rutgers team and their parents and apologized. “I sat and listened for four or five hours. And there was nothing I could say other than, 'I'm sorry,' and promise them that I would never give them a reason in their lifetime to be sorry that they forgave me. And I haven't."

The contrast between Santorum and Imus couldn’t be starker. Imus said something stupid and hateful, paid a price for it, owned it and sought redemption. He said he regretted ever saying what he said, adding “[be]cause I knew better.”

Santorum apparently felt it was his duty to say something stupid and dismissive in defense of his point of view. It seems unlikely Santorum will seek out student survivors of the Parkland school shooting and apologize, or even regret what he said because he knew better.

All of us say stupid things. What matters is what happens after you say something stupid.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Uber Fatality Shows a Crisis Can Travel Far and Fast

 The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

Managing a communications crisis in the age of technology has the quality of managing the branches of a family crisis, as evidenced by the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona involving an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode. It may be the first recorded fatality involving a driverless car.

The pedestrian fatality ensnared Uber (which was testing the driverless vehicle), Volvo (the manufacturer of the vehicle), an unidentified software developer and other automakers working on autonomous vehicles. For its part, Uber expressed condolences to the victim’s family, suspended its driverless vehicle testing program and said it was cooperating with local police.

Preliminary indications suggest the accident, which involved a woman and her bike emerging from a shadowy area where there wasn’t a crosswalk, may have been unavoidable with or without a driver. However, that finding is unlikely to quell concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles nor the communications crisis surrounding the incident.

Some critics have jumped on news that the Uber driver was a felon. More thoughtful critics have wondered how the software controlling the vehicle was written, and what priority it gave to avoiding a pedestrian, even one that may have been hard to spot with a human eye. Broader criticism has centered on how rapidly driverless cars have been advanced and whether the transformation should be slowed or even scrapped.

Automakers with autonomous vehicles on the cusp hustled to lament the fatality, but defend the project. Software developers may be squirming to find out how to avoid becoming scapegoats.

Construction accidents, environmental spills and financial embezzlements spill over to multiple parties, usually resulting in finger-pointing. But technology-centered crises are even more borderless. People harbor skepticism about technology. Ride-hailing Uber may be the most distrusted technology company, even among people who rely on it to get home safely from a night on the town.

Managing a crisis has always been a fluid, ill-structured exercise. When a crisis goes 3-D, it takes a special kind of communicator binoculars to track. Adding to the fun are the ever-changing outlets for crisis exposure. More angles, more players, more outlets make for more headaches.

Perhaps the most telling lesson from the Uber fatality is the crisis trail it creates for uninvolved parties. Even though a Volvo was involved in the accident, Mercedes felt compelled to comment since it has signed up to provide Uber driverless. Toyota commented because it is exploring driverless cars. The police made a point to note it was investigating the fatal accident just like any other fatal accident.

Responding to a crisis is hard and it is getting harder. More vulnerabilities. More “reporters” with smartphones. More “news” outlets. And now more players. If you thought you could skate by or play it by ear, your odds continue to plummet. You never know when a crisis can occur, and you can’t really guess how, who or where it will affect your business or reputation.

Crisis preparation may be harder than denial, but is a lot more useful and constructive. The Uber fatality should be a loud horn honk that crisis prep is a basic accessory to any successful business.

 

Combatting Online Fake News That Travels Faster Than Truth

 New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

This is real news that should send shivers down the backs of anyone concerned about their reputation – false news moves through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than the truth.

The disquieting finding by a team of researchers at MIT and published in Science is based on tracking the online life of “news” trafficked on Twitter. Real news and false news were judged by a collection of online fact-checkers that included Snopes.com and Politifact.com. The study authors found a false rumor is retweeted and spreads 70 percent more than a true story.

To put that into context, a true story may reach 1,000 people while a false rumor could gain an audience of up to 100,000 Twitter users.

While experts speculate on what propels falsehoods to travel faster online than the truth, reputation managers should worry about how to counter a campaign based on fast-moving, unverified fake news. Especially as technology “improves” to automate mass dissemination of fake news, turning a cascade from a single tweet into a volcanic eruption.

The Washington Post story on the MIT findings recalled a 2013 incident when someone hacked into the Associated Press Twitter account and “reported” explosions in the White House injuring President Obama. The report was untrue, but before anyone knew the truth, the Dow Jones index dropped 100 points – in just two minutes.

  Fake News Case Study   The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump.  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html    

Fake News Case Study

The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html

 

MIT researchers discovered that false news isn’t just spread by usual suspect bots. Some of the most viral contagions of fake news start as retweets from random individuals, which means the job of “monitoring the web” is pretty close to impossible.

Twitter collaborated with the researchers, which is itself a rarity, allowing them to trace the online lineage of 126,000 tweet cascades, spread by 3 million Twitter users.

Skeptics can question the sample and the differentiation between true and false stories. But the underlying fact remains that clicky false stories seem to have more online appeal and, therefore, represent a reputation-busting tool in the hands of unscrupulous or alienated people. It is a reputation manager’s worst nightmare. Someone tells a falsehood about you or your organization, you respond with verifiable facts, but the false narrative still dominates.

As noted in a previous Managing Issues blog, falsehoods that rise to the level of defamation can be dealt with by demanding that a social media platform removes the offending tweet. Many damaging falsehoods aren’t necessarily defamatory. They misstate facts or tell only part of the story. Debates over environmental issues and climate change are a great example of false or misleading narratives that come from either side of the debate.

Big lies by big actors usually get fact-checked. Big lies by lower profile actors seldom get fact-checked, which means the maligned party has the burden of trying to clean up the mess. Even lies exposed by credible fact-checkers can get shifted to their respective political lane of media outlets and never be seen by the other side of a polarized citizenry.

As social media moguls explore how to limit fake news, one tool reputation managers should consider when faced with a cascade of false news is to fight back on Twitter using promoted tweets. You would be, in effect, marketing your truth.

Use tools like video that attract the most attention on social media, including Twitter. Don’t whine. Find credible third parties who can verify your facts and attest to your veracity. Punch back hard, but fairly. Tell viewers the stakes. When appropriate, include a call to action such as shaming the person or organization responsible for the fake news – and those who help promote it, either unintentionally or on purpose.

Don’t be afraid to cross news channels to tell your story. Seek earned media coverage from print and TV outlets by stressing you are doing the only thing possible to combat the spread of false stories.

The worst thing to do is nothing. If you don’t defend your reputation, don’t expect anyone else to defend it. Purveyors of falsehoods may seem to have the upper hand in an online gunfight, but if you wage an honorable defense, you might receive more help than you expected.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.