CFM Public Affairs

Accidents Can Be Eye-Popping Moments of Discovery

No one roots for accidents, even though they sometimes can be moments of discovery, such as when a curious engineer walked through a radar test room and noticed something made a chocolate bar melt in his pants. Public affairs professionals should be equally as open to the accidental enlightenment of a melting chocolate bar in their pants.

No one roots for accidents, even though they sometimes can be moments of discovery, such as when a curious engineer walked through a radar test room and noticed something made a chocolate bar melt in his pants. Public affairs professionals should be equally as open to the accidental enlightenment of a melting chocolate bar in their pants.

Accidents have a deservedly bad reputation. However, some accidents turn into brilliant discoveries. That’s as true in public affairs as in business.

The list of accidental discoveries is impressive – and telling. The microwave oven, super glue, Teflon, Velcro, pacemakers, X-rays and glasses for the color blind. They are the byproducts of experimentation, curiosity, observation, failure and chance. 

The inventor of the microwave oven made his serendipitous discovery in 1946 when walking through a radar test room and noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pants. Curious, he aimed a magnetron at kernels of corn that popped and an egg that cooked almost instantly. Public affairs professionals should pay attention when an event, message or spokesperson causes a chocolate bar to melt in their pants.

Competent public affairs plans rely on credible research that provides a clear window into how a target audience views a topic or project. However, even the most well-conceived plans can have gaps or encounter unanticipated circumstances. Accidents happen. When they do, spend less time freaking out and more time assessing whether the accident revealed useful information or guidance.

A big problem with public involvement efforts is the overweening desire to exercise control. As a result, they have more to do with delivering a scripted performance than discovering fresh, unnoticed perspectives. Tightly controlling public engagement may avoid accidents. It also may miss out on accidental knowledge.

Take for example a public engagement effort to explain the purpose, dimensions and timeline of a major construction project that will disrupt local businesses, create neighborhood noise and affect school bus routes. A large group meeting, no matter how well orchestrated with explanatory posters, is almost certain to draw criticism – and negative media attention.

Seeking out neighborhood leaders in advance to ask them for their ideas on how to mitigate the project’s impact could produce “accidental” ideas, such as creating a new community park as “compensation” for the disruption or maintaining safe zones for school buses and schoolchildren. Yes, ideas like that would up the cost of the project, but they also could cool down the neighborhood outcry.

The type of research used to design a public affairs plan can anticipate “accidental” findings. Telephone surveys will produce quantitatively reliable findings. Interactive online engagement, on the other hand, will produce a wider range of comments – some not-so-helpful, a few incredibly insightful and one or two with specific, actionable suggestions.

One of the most useful train wrecks in public affairs is to meet face-to-face with critics. Not only is it disarming, such personal contact with what your opposition thinks can bend your own thinking. They may have viewpoints you never considered or give as much weight as they deserved. Such “accidental” discovery early in a public affairs process gives you a distinct advantage in coming up with convincing counter-arguments or modifying your proposal to accommodate opposition concerns.

The point: Be open to accidents. They aren’t always failures. They can be eye-popping moments that lead to improved projects, happier neighbors and satisfying consensus. 

Don’t let that melting chocolate bar in your pants go to waste.

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.

 

 

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.

 

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online News Startups Feeling Ad Dollar Pinch

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

The story of newspapers struggling to escape an industrywide die-off amid an explosion of digital alternatives is nothing new.   

But you might be surprised to hear that the rising startups of the online news world aren’t exactly raking in the profits either. In fact, as John Herrman of The New York Times wrote last week, some of the biggest brands in online news are already being forced to tighten their belts.

“This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people,” Herrman said. “Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue – but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.”

BuzzFeed appeared to be doing fine until The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the company fell $80 million short of its $250 million revenue goal for 2015. Building upon the dismal picture, BuzzFeed lowered expectations for the near future, slicing revenue projections for 2016 in half from $500 million to $250 million.

The news was a stunning development for an online world that has come to look to BuzzFeed as a content strategy leader. BuzzFeed has become a trend setter over the past several years with the popularity of its punchy listicles and quirky quizzes. Impressed with BuzzFeed’s ability to draw a massive online audience, struggling newspapers looked to the site as a model for how to get clicks. Building on that early success, BuzzFeed later expanded from a news and entertainment aggregator into providing its own news coverage. Fast-forward several years to today, BuzzFeed now fields a formidable investigative political reporting team, which has broken numerous stories about the 2016 presidential candidates.

But altogether, the revenue struggles of BuzzFeed, Mashable and Salon indicate it’s a dangerous time for publishers and a tricky time for advertising, both on the web and in print as neither sector appears to have found a stable business model for the digital age.

“The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold,” Herrman said. “The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling – a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.”

Numerous financial challenges have emerged for online publishers in the past several years, Herrman said. That includes anything from ad-blocking tools and automated advertising to the growing trend of readers gathering their news from stories posted on Facebook and other social networks.

“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages,” Herrman said. “As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites.”

Of course, advertisers have taken notice of the metrics, leading them to invest heavily in ads on Facebook (and Google) than with online news startups like BuzzFeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said.  

Posing further challenges on other fronts, Facebook just unveiled a big 10-year expansion plan that looks to give people fewer reasons to navigate away from Facebook. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke of Facebook’s ambitions to launch “TV-style live video.” Some like BuzzFeed and Vox are racing for their own video production deals with sights set on TV and film, and others like Mashable are investing more heavily in expanding their presence on Facebook.   

“Other companies are looking to focus more on branded content like videos, sponsored stories and full-fledged campaigns,” Herrman said. “But publishers have quickly learned that those efforts are labor-intensive and put them in direct competition with advertising agencies.”

The bottom line is if you thought the online startups had it all figured out, well, not just yet at least. The future of the news industry is still just as unclear as ever before. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

Being Gracious Instead of Pugnacious

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

Hard-chargers are often chosen to be the face and voice of a campaign involving a contentious public policy issue. That can be a mistake if they come across as pugnacious rather than gracious.

Issue managers would love to believe that facts and firmness move the needle of public opinion, and they can. But personalities often are a bigger influence by establishing a bond of trust.

For example, the tenor of a public forum can turn on a presenter’s conduct. Being gracious can be a big help in quieting and even swaying a rowdy crowd. Civic conversation has grown coarser, or at least it seems so, as people feel unburdened by civility in the comments they make and questions they ask. A successful influencer doesn't take the bait. He or she receives comments or questions with equanimity, then thanks them for the challenge and answers calmly. Grace under fire flusters and disarms opponents.

A gracious person can disagree without being disagreeable. They see disagreement as a chance to make the case with convincing facts and logic, not trash someone else's point of view. They recognize this is the path to earn grudging nods of approval.

A gracious demeanor conveys humility, respect of others and a sense of self-confidence. You don't talk down to an audience or try to snow them with your superior knowledge. Being gracious means staying positive and paying attention when others speak. It also means saying thank you and acknowledging when someone else makes a strong point. Graciousness requires knowing what not to say as much as what to say. 

So tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, politer you when you face a hostile crowd. Use graciousness as a weapon of choice.

Half-Truth Closer to a Lie Than Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Media Training Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Something Real by Storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections from the Leadership Guru

The distinction between leaders and managers is crisper thanks to Warren Bennis who said, “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Bennis, often called the father of leadership, died last week at age 89 after a life of advising business executives and U.S. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

I often referenced Bennis in my strategic communications course for MBA students at Willamette University, citing his belief that leaders are made, not born. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

Bennis believed leaders embrace failure, using it as motivation for eventual success.

Look for Bright Spots, Not Red Lines

President Obama and his red line has proven once again the truth of the parental maxim, "Be prepared to carry through on the threat you make."

Parents frequently threaten a child with a timeout or, later, taking away their smart phone or curbing driving privileges. Be careful what you threaten. Some times, many times, children will test you. If you don't follow through on your threatened punishment, the child knows he or she can push the limits with impunity.

That's the logic Obama used in warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons in his battle to retain power. Now that Assad by all appearances has tested Obama and his red line, Obama faces the politically awkward choice of administering a military spanking. The President is in a box of his own making.

Business leaders frequently paint themselves into a similar corner. They make threats about layoffs or even shutting down and moving elsewhere, only later to back down.

The lesson is to bite your tongue when you feel a threat ready to pop out. There are smarter ways to handle touchy situations.

It may be too late for Obama to retract his red line and try something else, but here are some suggestions you might use:

1. Listen

Before threatening, try listening to opponents and see if you can detect areas of agreement or concerns you can alleviate. The act of getting off your high horse and talking directly to people is disarming. Even if some opponents remain abusive, stay clam and stress you are there to listen and learn. Your opponents will get the message.

2. Collaborate

Another tried-and-true way to disarm opponents is to recommend some sort of collaboration. This could be on a community project that would be funded if your proposal is approved or it could be a study of potential impacts. It may even take the form of mediation. Getting you and your opponents around a common table is a way for you to assess the mettle of your opponents and to build a basic level of trust.

3. Innovate

People may be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see a greater good. One way to offer up a greater good is to innovate. Maybe it is an innovative community engagement process. Or an innovative community investment. Accompanying your project with an an innovative element could turn potential opponents into dedicated advocates.

4. Communicate

Once you have engaged opponents, keep talking. Don't let your communications lapses become pauses that breed doubt and suspicion. Think of communication as the proof of your transparency. Tell the truth and tell it often.

5. Execute

Nothing builds trust more, even amid lingering disagreement, than diligent follow-through. Do what you say. Do it on time. If in doubt, do it more than you promised. Nobody ever gets mad when you do more than say you will do. But you give opponents opportunity on a platter when you don't do what you say.

Leave the red lines to someone else. Instead find the bright spots and cultivate them.