The Chemistry of Turning Failure into Success

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure doesn’t make someone a loser, but history shows failure can lead to success. Exactly what is the chemistry that converts an ounce of failure into a pound of success?

(Reposted from March 12, 2019)

(Reposted from March 12, 2019)

The scientific method regards failed experiments as useful because they eliminate one path and invite pursuit of alternatives. Failure is less a roadblock than a detour sign. Thomas Edison summed it up, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Some failures produce unexpected success, such as the discovery of an unintended use of a substance or process. Some of the most gainful inventions were actually accidental successes. Google Post-It notes for a good example.

The attitude of people toward failure can be a huge factor. Some see failure as the end. Others view failure as the beginning. Or, as Winston Churchill noted, “success is stumbling from failure to failure.”

Stumbling from failure to failure isn’t exactly an inviting prospect, especially in a field such as public affairs. Clients expect public affairs professionals to “fix” their public issues, not fumble them. 

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

Failing to fix a client’s problem can be humiliating and demoralizing for public affairs professionals, who pitch clients on the prospect of victory, not consolation prizes. Good public affairs professionals win more than they lose, but everyone loses sometimes.

The image of a public affairs professional as a “fixer” isn’t useful – or usually accurate. Yes, public affairs professionals, if they are worth their fee, have relevant experience, good contacts and a huge dose of savvy. If they really know what they are doing, they will focus their attention on what they don’t know before spinning out a strategy.

In this sense, the discipline of public affairs is a lot like a scientific experiment. You need to test your hypothesis and let the results guide your actions. Testing the waters might take the form of talking with trusted sources, closely reading media coverage, consulting with legal experts or conducting research, often via one-on-one interviews. 

A client may have a clear understanding of his or her public problem. The public affairs professional’s responsibility is to develop a clear direction to address that problem. The solutions to most public affairs challenges aren’t as simple as stepping from A to B. The chance for strategic missteps or detours is high. Failure at one turn can’t be construed as total disaster. Sometimes a failure is the light post to the pathway to success.

That suggests the chemistry for converting failure to success depends a lot on mental attitude – curiosity instead of bravado, flexibility instead of rigidity, honesty instead of spin, self-confidence instead of over-confidence. The right chemistry also requires an underlying optimism that success is achievable and the resiliency to keep searching for the road to success amid failure. Albert Einstein’s well-known words are apt, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Success for a public affairs professional is seldom a hero’s walk. More often, success involves deep questioning, a realistic objective, a strategic plan and thoughtful execution of that plan – with eyes wide open for ditches, dead-ends and detours that require a modified route. Patience is a virtue. 

The chemistry of success boils down to self-confidence in finding a way that works, regardless of how many twists and turns it might take.  Getting to success doesn’t have to be smooth, simple or pretty. You just have to keep trying to get there.

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.

 

Leaning into Better Writing, One Word at a Time

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Good writing is critical to effective communications, especially in public affairs. Good writing involves knowing what to write, how to write it and what to leave out. And it helps if you can write intelligently and efficiently.

Good writing rarely occurs without mastery of your subject. If you don’t know what you are talking about, it is impossible to write about your subject clearly and coherently. Do your homework before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Subject mastery leads to identifying a hook that can capture and hold the attention of your audience. Hooks serve as convenient hangers that let details of your subject naturally unfold for readers. Hooks also can be turned into crisp, catchy headlines. You can measure the sharpness of your hook options in test tweets.

Mastering a subject enables a writer to base a central argument on the most salient details while omitting interesting, but extraneous other details. Don’t tread on short attention spans by trying to tell everything you know about a subject. Readers don’t care how much you know. You need to engage them on what would be useful for them to know. They will find that much more interesting.

Concentrating on critical details provides focus for both the writer and readers. Savvy writers bond with their prospective readers by marshaling details to answer the questions readers would ask. This is especially important in persuasive writing when the main objective is winning agreement and support.

Careful attention must be paid to placing details in a logical sequence that readers can easily follow. The architecture of writing can take the form of a story, a report, a talk, a presentation, an essay or a blog. The logic train for each form varies, but the details always remain on the rails of a logic train so readers and viewers know where you are headed. 

When you reach the point of putting your thoughts on paper or a computer screen, try writing a complete draft that covers your hook, central argument and supporting details. Don’t worry if it is rough. That’s what editing is for. Editing may involve correcting typos to a full rewrite. If your first draft inspires a rewrite, that’s a good thing, not a bad omen.

When unsure whether you have hit the mark, ask trusted colleagues to give you their honest appraisal. Gentle editors can mix honesty with useful advice.

Writing fast can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes it is both. Looming deadlines dictate when a piece of writing must be ready for prime time, but not how long it should take to get your story, presentation or blog just right. Adjust your schedule based on how well you write under pressure. If you work slow, give yourself enough time to think, research, write, edit and polish. Don’t short-change your reader with a slapdash job of writing.

The best writers are good listeners. They hear the melody of words and know how a good sentence sounds. They can replicate in writing how people speak. They employ everyday phrases and expressions.

Excellent writers understand words can paint pictures in the minds of their readers with vivid imagery, careful detail and active verbs. As the saying goes, good writing is a ship to anywhere you want to sail. This kind of writing demands constant observation. Some note-taking helps, too. 

Writers have egos, but they can’t act like spoiled princes and princesses. Great writing shines through regardless of the medium. Charles Dickens published his greatest works in monthly installments. People couldn’t wait to read each installment because of Dickens’ keen observation and authentic storytelling.

Don’t believe that barf about “born writers.” Like athletes or engineers, writers have to learn their craft through study, practice, trial and error. You don’t pole vault 17 feet or design a robot in your first outing. Good writing requires the same level of dedication, the same blood, sweat and tears. 

Writer’s block is a fiction, an excuse to give up. If you need a break to clear your head or work over a sentence in your head, take a break, don’t reach for a mental crutch. 

You can be a good writer and still work on perfecting your craft. Write letters, compose poems, volunteer to give a speech or maintain a daily journal. Keep looking for your unique voice. Think of new ways to attack the written word. Stretch your comfort zone. Whatever you do, write.

The Picasso Museum in Málaga, Spain, the great painter’s birthplace, contains 285 works that show the artist’s evolution in style and technique. What startles viewers are Picasso’s traditional paintings that formed the bulwark of his skill as an abstract genius. Picasso could never have created his cubist masterpieces without the foundation of learning how to paint a realistic garden. Great mastery isn’t an accident or a gift. It is earned. 

All of us may not have the ability or opportunity to become grand masters. But nothing stands in our way of getting better every day to the delight of our readers – and to the grudging respect of our doubters.

Famous quotes[1].jpg
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.

 

 

Oddsmaking and Crisis Planning Have Lots in Common

Oddsmakers do their homework to manage risk and make money on betting. Organizations should follow their example and understand their odds of facing various crisis scenarios and how to minimize their reputational risk.

Oddsmakers do their homework to manage risk and make money on betting. Organizations should follow their example and understand their odds of facing various crisis scenarios and how to minimize their reputational risk.

Savvy bettors don’t plunk down money without checking the odds. So why do CEOs risk their company reputations without considering the odds of facing a serious crisis?

Oddsmakers weigh the probabilities of just about everything from sporting events to reality TV winners. Crisis communications specialists are the oddsmakers of crisis scenarios for corporations, brands, nonprofits, individuals and public agencies. They help identify what can go wrong and the probability of it going wrong.

Unlike oddsmakers who earn money when people place bets, crisis counselors earn their money by showing how to reduce the odds of catastrophic or reputation-damaging crisis. 

Oddsmaking and crisis counseling have a lot in common. Oddsmakers simulate games, contests and anything people wager on to determine the ‘spread’. They talk to people and apply sophisticated algorithms. Crisis counselors employ issue audits to discover the ways an organization could become entwined in a crisis, even through no fault of their own. Part of that issue audit is to assess the likelihood of a specific crisis scenario and the consequence if it occurs.

A fast food restaurant could have a shooting in its parking lot or cause people to get sick from eating tainted or spoiled food. Both events would be serious, but not equally likely. It would be impractical for a fast food restaurant to employ an armed guard, but it would be prudent to install state-of-the-art food security systems because the odds and consequences of making customers sick are greater.

Back when, oddsmakers relied on ‘horse sense’ and ‘gut feelings’ to set odds. Now oddsmakers rely on computers and statistics. Setting accurate odds is critical for oddsmakers to manage risk and make money. 

Once upon time, organizational leaders may have relied on horse sense and gut feelings to assess risk and make money. Now they have access to risk insurance experts, marketing metrics and crisis counselors who can help identify risk, opportunity and smart management actions. 

Oddsmakers and organizations have notable differences. While oddsmakers have outsourced their statistical analysis, organizational leaders would be wise to in-source their risk assessment efforts. Oddsmakers spread their risk. Organizations bear the full weight of their risks.

Oddsmakers can make up for an upset loss in the Super Bowl with “wins” from other bets. Organizations immersed in a serious crisis can’t shift the cost or blame for the crisis somewhere else.

Getting the odds wrong is a business problem for oddsmakers. Getting the odds wrong in a crisis can be a business and reputational disaster for organizations. 

Whether or not you are a betting man or woman, be like oddsmakers and know your spread. For most organizations that means knowing what crisis scenarios they could face and how they can prepare in advance to reduce their odds of experiencing a crisis or dealing with a crisis if it occurs.

CFM Strategic Communications is a leading crisis counselor in the Pacific Northwest. We assist clients to anticipate and prepare for potential crisis scenarios. We help clients caught in a crisis situation deal with external and internal communications with an eye toward protecting an organization’s reputation. We provide media training for spokespeople. We have experience convincing higher-ups they need to understand their odds of facing a crisis. The  CFM Crisis Ebook  shares some of what we have learned and have to offer in addressing a reputational threat.

CFM Strategic Communications is a leading crisis counselor in the Pacific Northwest. We assist clients to anticipate and prepare for potential crisis scenarios. We help clients caught in a crisis situation deal with external and internal communications with an eye toward protecting an organization’s reputation. We provide media training for spokespeople. We have experience convincing higher-ups they need to understand their odds of facing a crisis. The CFM Crisis Ebook shares some of what we have learned and have to offer in addressing a reputational threat.

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.

 

 

Getting to the Point by Scrapping Padded Prose

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose is a good way to bore, confuse or frustrate readers. So why do writers keep wasting keystrokes and tempting the patience of their audiences?

It’s not ignorance. Any book about effective writing encourages lean language. Writing instructors are blunter in their advice – “say what you mean, and no more.”

“In old baseball films, pitchers would execute an absurd, double-rocking windup before throwing the ball. The extra histrionics did nothing but bore the crowd and sap their own energy,” writes Ron Reinalda. “Similarly, today’s writers toss in superfluous phrases before making a point. Readers have no use for them, and they waste everyone’s time.”

In his blog for ragan.com, Reinalda provides a list of verbal “culprits.” It’s a long list, but it would have to be even longer to cover the entire wasteland of superfluity. Here’s a few of his most wince-inducing bugaboos: 

  • Not surprisingly – “If it’s not surprising, why mention it?”

  • Never forget that – Readers will decide whether it’s forgettable or not.

  • The truth is – “Is revealed truth or just a truism?” Or just a lazy transition?

  • The fact of the matter is – Ugh. Just spit out the “fact.”

  • I want to start off by saying – “Too late. You started off by clearing your throat.

There are other page-wasters that add no meaning while exasperating the reader. My short list includes:

  • The fact that – The fact is you should rewrite your sentence and leave out this useless and clunky phrase.

  • In order to – The infinitive form of a verb can do this job without any help. (“To support” rather than “In order to support”)

  • Literally – This has become the new “like” and “you know” in speech and writing. When used correctly, this is helpful adverb. Most of the time, it is used as a crutch or exclamation mark.

Dead wood in sentences is just part of the problem. As Reinalda points out, “Many writers don’t get to the damn point.” At times, it seems writers don’t know what point they are trying to make, which can make superfluous phrasing all the more irritating.

If you rationalize flabby prose by pointing to your “conversational style” or “old habits,” you are off base. Flabby speech is as cringe-worthy as flabby prose. You can drop old habits, pretty much like you have with rotary phones and DVDs.

Your writing should matter, so write like it matters. Spend time thinking about what you want to say, master your topic so you know what’s important and then commit your thoughts to words – words that tell your story, explain your point of view or share valuable information and no more.

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.

 

 

 

Promoted Content Sans Fact-Checking Is the Cousin to Fake News

News outlets use promoted content, as well as guest columns and op-eds, to attract readers and fill in for shrunken newsrooms. But promoted content without fact-checking is the cousin of fake news and can be embarrassing for a news outlet to publish and a reputational dent for a PR firm to produce.

News outlets use promoted content, as well as guest columns and op-eds, to attract readers and fill in for shrunken newsrooms. But promoted content without fact-checking is the cousin of fake news and can be embarrassing for a news outlet to publish and a reputational dent for a PR firm to produce.

Promoted content in newspapers, magazines and online news outlets is becoming more common. The practice provides a low- or no-cost avenue for content marketers and can fill up space that hollowed out newsrooms cannot. But there are dangers that news editors and PR professionals should recognize and take steps to avoid. 

Ted Kitterman, in a media relations blog posted on ragan.com, recalled how Jeffrey Epstein unleashed his PR team in 2009 to promote favorable “news” after his release from jail for sexual offenses. Kitterman said articles ran in ForbesThe National Review and HuffPost promoting billionaire Epstein’s “financial acumen.”

Based on research published last week by The New York Times, the articles were written by Epstein’s PR firm. A contributing writer agreed to attach his byline to the piece that ran in Forbes. The writer was paid $600 by Epstein’s PR firm. 

When approached by the Times, the writer said he was unaware of Epstein’s sexual assault history in 2009 and, if he had been, wouldn’t have lent his name to the article. He apparently didn’t offer to return the $600 check. Forbes responded to the Times report by removing the piece, noting the piece failed, retroactively, “to meet our editorial standards.”

Spotting an attempt to whitewash the reputation of a sexual predator should be relatively easy. Recognizing misleading or false claims in promoted content may not be so easy. This kind of content is the cousin to fake news. Both will require a village to identify and prevent.

Publications, especially those online, rely on outside content to feed their daily news streams. Forbes posts 100 articles a day, much of it written by 3,000 contributing writers. The flow of content has led to a surge in viewership, as well as criticism for lackluster editing and profiteering from becoming a “content farm” instead of a respected business publication.

Kitterman pointed to a 2018 HuffPost policy change that now requires editorial approval for guest-written content. “One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to. Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy. When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard,” HuffPostEditor Lydia Polgreen wrote in explanation of the policy change.

It's not enough to blame news outlets. PR professionals must refresh their memories of professional and ethical standards and play a positive role, too. They don’t have to say ‘yes’ to every client idea or demand. They can and should warn clients about the backlash and reputational damage caused by whitewash, misleading or false content. More fundamentally, PR professionals should worry about contributing to further erosion in public trust of news sources. 

Promoted content, as well as guest columns and op-eds, are here to stay. They can be useful PR vehicles to tell brand stories and offer an unfiltered viewpoint on a public policy issue. News outlets need to supplement the content their own staffs generate to feed their “communities of viewers.” 

Kitterman offers some basic advice to news editors and PR pros:

  • Commit to transparency. Be honest about who wrote an op-ed and the purpose of its message. Declare who is sponsoring promoted content and why.

  • Fact-check. Editors should ask for substantiation and PR pros should be able to provide it for major claims in promoted content or op-eds. If claims cannot be substantiated, PR pros should remove them and editors shouldn’t publish them.

  • Hire an editor. News organizations have trimmed their copy desks so a lot more copy goes into print or online without someone’s red-pen attention. Many PR professionals have scant or no journalism experience and may not recognize the line between useful information and puffery. PR firms should have someone on board who has editorial skills and skepticism. 

One of the unsung advantages of digital media is its almost limitless ability to distribute content. To leverage that advantage without losing viewer trust requires attentive integrity by content producers and publishers.

“Combined, PR firms and news sites made a big mistake,” according to Kitterman, “and if actions aren’t taken, another Epstein could waltz through understaffed newsrooms unchallenged.”

 

A Reimagined Version of Local Newspaper Storytelling

The New York Times  shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

The New York Times shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

It is common knowledge newspapers are wheezing on their deathbeds. But before you pronounce the last rites, take a gander at The New York Times special report on how the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was barely saved from a massive fire.

The special report is a combination of journalistic storytelling, eye-popping imagery and informative animation. You really forget you are viewing a “newspaper” as you scan spectacular photography of the fire and learn through animation how close the roof came to collapsing. There are even artistic scenes from a firefighter’s notebook that would make Leonardo DaVinci applaud. 

And it’s all in a newspaper.

Granted, The New York Times isn’t just a garden-variety newspaper. But it does produce daily editions in print that land on people’s doorstep, including mine, just like hundreds of other daily newspapers around the nation. The Times has grander resources than virtually any other American newspaper, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination.

The digital revolution may make the printed page obsolete, but that doesn’t have to extend to the concept of newspapering. The digital page can extend the reach of a physical page and is bounded only by the limits of ingenuity.

Having worked for small daily newspapers, I understand the sense of limitation that can exist in newsrooms. But just as small dailies innovated with offset and color printing, so can newspapers of any size innovate with new digital tools. 

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

While working for The Daily Astorian, we covered stories about the Columbia River estuary, a sprawling and highly sensitive ecosystem that extends from the mouth of the river all the way upriver to Bonneville Dam. In retrospect, we wrote stories about the estuary in segments – fisheries, marine transportation, pollution from runoff and recreation. We presented great photography in full-page spreads, but never connected the dots. Frankly, we didn’t think about it.

If I was in my same job today as then, I would propose to the daily newspapers in Longview, Vancouver and Portland a collaborative project that would tell the complete and coordinated story of the estuary of one of America’s most important and seminal rivers. The story could live online as well as on print. It would be an ongoing story that charts changes in the river and the evolution of issues affecting the river and its constituents.

Without websites and digital tools that perform on laptop computers, telling the rich story of the Columbia River estuary would be hard to imagine. With those tools, the story could be told with a wealth of visual imagery that brings text and statistics to life – and to kitchen tables, coffee shops and school classrooms.

Newspapers are undergoing existential change as they struggle to monetize digital platforms and content. Subscribers who want local coverage will also want quality content. The Times special report on Notre Dame Cathedral points the way for presenting significant content in a compelling fashion.

To carry off this sophisticated level of presentation will require different skills than my staff and I had at The Daily Astorian in the 1970s. But many journalists today are digital natives who interact and think differently about content acquisition. Challenges that my age-cohorts would view as insurmountable may only be road-bumps for the new generation of journalists.

This form of deep-information storytelling fits well with “solutions journalism” by offering more than a superficial, fragmented and intermittent picture of serious topics. Readers/viewers will appreciate and benefit from the effort. They may not get the same small-town thrill as reading the police log to see if their neighbor was arrested as a peeping Tom. However, they will be able to engage – at their convenience – with a story with informational depth, visual reinforcement and entertainment value.

As The Times reportage demonstrates, you don’t have to know Paris, French culture or Catholic history to be enthralled with the story about how an iconic building nearly collapsed because a newly hired security guard went to the wrong building and courageous firemen took a risk to save the building and its invaluable treasures. The only thing missing was Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.

The future for newspapers – and perhaps for public affairs – will be in telling complex stories – and perhaps some little understood common stories – with some digital flair that marries a visual world of storytelling with newspaper reporting integrity. You can’t get that reliably on social media or cable news. You could get that kind of storytelling from a reimagined version of local newspapering.

Don’t forget, the Times special report was fundamentally about a fire and the skill of firemen, which exist in every city large enough to have a newspaper.

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.

 

Aloha Lessons on a Hawaiian Beach

You can learn a lot relaxing on a Hawaiian beach and reflecting on beach scenes that are parables for making better and smarter decisions.

You can learn a lot relaxing on a Hawaiian beach and reflecting on beach scenes that are parables for making better and smarter decisions.

Hanging out on Hawaiian beaches is refreshing and reflective. It offers moments to escape what you do every day – and to think about how you could do what you do even better. It provides what Hawaiians would call aloha lessons.

It turns out, beach scenes are parables. Paddle boarders who always look down to avoid falling miss the point of paddle boarding. Swimmers without suntan lotion are doomed to burn. Standing on coral rock will ruin the coral and cut your feet as a reward. 

***

 Personally, I don’t go out on paddle boards. If I did, I would want to see more than the paddle board and my feet. Based on my observations, first-time or timid paddle boarders get so focused on not falling, they forget why they are paddle boarding. They may only glimpse their scenic surroundings and totally miss an oncoming wave or a shark circling under them.

From my beachside vantage point, I reflected that fear of failure, like staring at your feet on a paddle board, can be a blinding obstacle to knowledge, friendship and success. You need to look up to learn, forge friendships and achieve success.

In public affairs, you need a heads-up attitude to spot solutions instead of always looking down at the problems that beset you. Curiosity, openness to fresh thinking and shamelessness to borrow successful ideas are heads-up behaviors that can save the day, even if you fall off your paddle board a few times.

*** 

Ignoring sound advice can burn you – on the beach and in the court of public opinion – can make you red in the face, not to mention other places. 

Sunburns are uncomfortable because of the pain and, to a greater extent, the embarrassment. Unless you are a tiny child, you know better. The sunburn, the agony and the humiliation are all avoidable. 

You can reduce your exposure to red-faced embarrassment by paying attention to credible warning signs and accepting wise counsel with courtesy and even some humility. You are never too old to learn.

While submerging yourself in the water won’t necessarily prevent sunburn, a professional style that immerses yourself in a wide range of diverse views with an open mind may prevent gaps in your thinking and flaws in your decision-making.

***

Knowing something is foolish and doing it anyway – like standing on a coral reef – is irresponsibly destructive and deserves more than a sliced-up foot. Coral reefs are underwater eco-gardens to view and protect, not trounce. 

Foolish things are often done rashly, without thinking. For snorkelers, standing on a reef can be a grandstand for viewing a brightly colored school of fish or finding “high ground” to steer clear of a moray eel. 

Anyone can by guilty of rash behavior, such as over-reacting to an unpleasant event, perceived slight or boorish insult. However, a cooler head takes the time to assess the moment and the consequences of acting. Sometimes, immediate action is appropriate and necessary; other times, it’s not. 

One of the most important lessons taught by experience is the self-confidence to weigh decisions before lurching into action. Some may call this indecision. But wading through the excitement to see the core issue involved can make the course of action much clearer. And you can avoid standing on that coral reef and cutting yourself in the foot.

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.

 

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Leadership in a crisis involves skills admired in the abstract, but shunned in practice when feathers are flying. In our current moment, crisis leadership too often are AWOL.

In Leadership for Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin traces the evolution of four Presidents from their formative period to the crucible of crisis that defined their legacy. In her narratives about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin points out the traits that each President employed as he led the nation out of crisis.

The traits she identified from the four presidents are case studies for any leader charged with managing a crisis – careful listening, empathy, thoughtfulness, patience, preparation, dramatic action, humility and personal responsibility. 

Careful Listening: Lincoln surrounded himself with a “team of rivals.” Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt consumed huge volumes of information, but they listened most carefully to human stories. Johnson chose to retain John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet as a sign of respect and ensure he understood the priorities of his predecessor. Listening for all four men was how they learned, especially in a time of crisis when time was the enemy.

Empathy: All four Presidents assumed the role as the representative of Americans at large, not special interests or regional preferences. In their own ways, each President tried to put themselves into the shoes of the soldier, the overworked and underpaid coal miner, the dispossessed farmer and the downtrodden minority. They thirsted for real-life stories that revealed real-life circumstances. From those stories, they developed an empathy that informed and humanized their decision-making.

Thoughtfulness: Each President found a way in the midst of crisis to carve out a space to think. They understood the crisis they faced had both transactional and transformational dimensions. They gave thought to how to address the immediate aspects of crisis while identifying the underlying cause and possible remedies.

Patience: When the Presidents decided on a course of action, they didn’t immediately spring into action. In some cases, they waited for the right moment for public opinion to congeal. In other cases, they took their time to consider options, reactions and precedents. They exercise what you might call creative patience.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Preparation: When a final decision was made, support staff was mobilized to put the necessary steps in place. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps and demanded that 125,000 unemployed and unmarried young men would be recruited, trained and transported to untended American timberlands within months. Few thought it was possible, but it happened because of expert preparation and coordination.

Dramatic Action: In a crisis, actions matter more than words. Sometimes the actions are bold and risky. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt intervened in a major coal strike. FDR called a special session of Congress to establish new banking regulations. Johnson pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Each dramatic action solidified the perception that these four men were leaders. They were able to accomplish what most people thought impossible – 200,000 new recruits, an arbitrated end to a destabilizing coal strike, federal insurance for bank deposits and the first civil rights legislation of any consequence since the end of the Civil War.

The last two qualities Goodwin identified may be the most important.

Humility: By almost any standard, the Roosevelts and Johnson were not humble. Lincoln came closest to humble, but even he seethed with ambition. In the face of crisis, however, each in their own way displayed humility in service of their objective. Lincoln abided the advice of political opponents. Teddy Roosevelt endured the insufferable attitude of coal company owners. Johnson let GOP Senate Leader Everett Dirksen play the lead role in passage of the Civil Rights Act. These four presidents put their egos in their pockets, at least for a while, to achieve a greater good than could have achieved on their own.

Personal Responsibility. All four Presidents assumed full responsibility for their actions – and the potential for failure. Lincoln’s confidantes warned the emancipation proclamation could redouble the resolve of the Confederacy and led to mass defections from the Union army. Teddy Roosevelt knew his intervention in a strike was outside his constitutional authority. In his fireside chats, FDR admitted some of the policies and programs he initiated were experimental and may not work as intended. Good to his word, Roosevelt modified or ended programs that didn’t work. Johnson was told civil rights legislation would never make it out of a Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers. He told Martin Luther King, Jr. that he could make it happen.

Goodwin’s book focuses on presidential crisis management. However, the principles of effective crisis management don’t change because of different job titles. Any crisis is a fundamental challenge to a reputation, a brand or an identity.

The most significant change in managing a crisis since the eras of Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Johnson has been the advent of the internet, digital media and smartphones. Time is an even greater enemy to a smart response to a crisis.

The only known antidote is more thoughtful advance preparation that includes identifying potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and an internal crisis team leader. Preparation also should include updated contact lists, a trained media spokesperson and a ghost website with information and imagery that can be shared immediately.

What Goodwin’s treatise on leadership teaches is the imperative of CEO involvement in crisis management. Only the CEO can provide the moral authority as well as the administrative approval for bold crisis responses. Only the CEO can speak for an entire organization, including its consumers, stakeholders and employees affected by the crisis and the response. Only the CEO can see beyond the crisis to the future. Only the CEO can invoke the mission and purpose of an organization as guidance for every person involved in a crisis response.

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.

 


Turning the Complex into Something Simple and Engaging

Opponents of projects, initiatives and ideas use “complexity” as a stiletto to undercut solid arguments. Advocates need to fight back by making the complex seem simple through techniques such as familiar forms, effective packaging and engaging visuals. A little humor helps, too.

Opponents of projects, initiatives and ideas use “complexity” as a stiletto to undercut solid arguments. Advocates need to fight back by making the complex seem simple through techniques such as familiar forms, effective packaging and engaging visuals. A little humor helps, too.

Explaining complex ideas can benefit by breaking down the subject into pieces and adding a little entertainment value. A reporter for The Guardian explained a green lifestyle with a daily schedule and some cheeky examples.

In her “24-hour guide to going green,” Georgina Lawton offers ideas for boosting your environmental cred. Her ideas span the spectrum from useful to wonky to yucky.

Useful ideas include installing an aerating shower head, biking to work, using environmentally friendly office supplies, choosing biodegradable bathroom products and microwaving food.

Wonky ideas including investing in a bamboo toothbrush, switching to an internet provider that relies 100 percent on renewable energy, buying an energy-efficient game console, avoiding products in plastic containers and sleeping on bamboo-fiber bed sheets.

Yucky ideas include borrowing your wardrobe, avoiding a flush with anything not biodegradable and feeding your dog insects.

All told, Lawton’s clever piece tells a story about climate crisis in a familiar format, with personalized details and a few touches of humor, like feeding your dog insects (she actually was recommending a dog food made from insects). The eyeball-grabber image was a bulldog with a caterpillar on its nose.

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Few people are likely to follow the regimen Lawton laid out or starting planting bamboo in their backyard, but that’s not the point. Her narrative, backed up by some relevant statistics, is intended to show how small steps can make a sustainable difference.

Actual or alleged complexity can be a project killer. Opponents wield “complexity” like a stiletto, slashing at well-conceived arguments, informative charts and third-party validation. Calling something the opposite of simple can be devastating.

One antidote to this project poison is making the complex seem simple. Lawton achieved simplicity with a daily schedule, something familiar to most people, whether they use them or not. She added a few pinches of humor to make her story go down easy.

The daily schedule was doubly advantageous because of how it packaged her information into bite-size pieces, as opposed to long, dry paragraphs of text, and tucked in statistics noticeably, but unobtrusively here and there.

Finally, she adorned her packaging with clever headlines – 8 am: feed your dog insects; 3 pm: take a guilt-free loo break; 4 pm: save some tress with your search engine.

And who can forget the Winston Churchill-lookalike bulldog, with a slanted jaw and a caterpillar resting on his nose?

Lawton’s techniques – simplicity, humor, packaging, clever phrasing, eye-grabbing images and savvy use of statistics – are transferable to public affairs campaigns charged with advocating for complex ideas, projects or legislation. These techniques are the best defense against opponents who seek to confuse decision-makers or a target audience by bemoaning “complexity,” often because they lack any real, substantive arguments.

Advocating for a complex project is a heavy lift. You can make it easier by making it simpler, engaging and easier to grasp. Your intended audience will welcome such advocacy. Your opponents will hate it. What could be better than that.

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.

Spotting and Calling Out Big Piles of BS

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation is everywhere. Wary citizens aren’t sure how to combat the misinformation surrounding them. Now there is a class for that.

University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a course titled “Calling Bullshit” that is designed to identify and call out misinformation “cloaked in data and figures.” For those unable to enroll in college, you can check out @Callin_bull account on Twitter, where you can find videos of course lectures and examples of revealed bullshit.

The core idea Bergstrom and West are pushing is critical thinking, which seems as rare at times as misinformation is abundant. They offer clues for non-mathematicians on how to detect fraudulent and misleading “information,” such as checking sources, looking for logical coherence and testing statistical relevance. The same techniques that require careful scrutiny apply to detecting fake videos.

Their college course has snagged the attention of at least 70 universities that have asked to borrow course materials. Bergstrom, who is a computational biologist, and West, a former graduate student of Bergstrom’s, are working on a public version of the course. “We wanted to show our students that you don’t need a master’s degree in statistics or computer science to call bullshit,” Bergstrom told The Washington Post.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Research indicates the group most likely to be fooled by and share fake news are older adults over 65 who align as political conservatives. 

Bergstrom and West honed their skills of spotting misinformation by reading professional papers and sniffing out statistical flaws and illogic. They realized misinformation – especially when propelled by social media echo chambers, created with artificial intelligence and carried on websites dedicated to conspiracy theories – is a far larger problem. Careless academic research is one thing; intentional efforts to mislead to sell products, push a political candidate or defame someone by deception is quite another.

They aren’t the first crusaders against bullshit, noted Post science writer Ben Guarino. “Journalist Darrell Huff wrote ‘How to Lie With Statistics in 1954. Astronomer Carl Sagan published “The Demon-Haunted World” in 1995, in which he offered to readers a ‘baloney detection kit.’”

In his story, Guarino includes a practical example of how an anti-BS examination works and the results it can produce. A Bates College student challenged claims that Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city with a high percentage of Somali refugees, was “dangerous.”

Using crime statistics provided by Lewiston police, the student generated graphs showing that Lewiston’s crime rate between 1985 and 2017 had actually declined. More than 20 other cities in Maine, she showed, had higher crime rates.

Her findings, which she printed on fliers that were distributed, surprised many in Lewiston, a town that saw its mayor resign after his racists text messages were leaked. Local police asked for a copy of the flier, recognizing a lower crime rate was an unacknowledged compliment for their work.

West called it a “thoughtful correction,” but also an instructive guide on how to combat misinformation, whether intentional, inadvertent, malicious or simply sloppy.

 

 

Advice for Conveying Good or Bad News to Employees

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Announcing internal change, especially if it involves layoffs, can be a nerve-wracking communication challenge. It is so nerve-wracking, in fact, that many faint-hearted CEOs are conveniently absent, delegating the unpleasant chore to underlings.

As a general rule, bad news should be the business of the CEO. Only he or she can put the bad news into some understandable context, align it with the organization’s vision for the future and point to a constructive way forward. 

The constructive way forward isn’t just for the employees who will lose their jobs; it’s also for the employees who will remain. How well that pathway is laid out will influence the morale of the continuing workforce.

Layoffs aren’t the only internal communication challenge. Any kind of change – from a modified health insurance plan to a new owner – can create anxiety among employees. The change doesn’t have to be galactic – for example, removing soft drinks from the lunch room vending machine – to generate an employee reaction. 

Executives who carefully render financial, operational, sales and logistical plans too often treat internal communications in a slapdash fashion, with little forethought and haphazard execution. Sometimes “planning” boils down to assigning someone other than the CEO to be the hapless messenger. Flak jackets aren’t provided for the fall guys and gals. 

This is a huge oversight considering employees can be the most influential ambassadors for a company, nonprofit, public agency or brand. If you think of employees as strategic partners, which they are, you should conclude they deserve thoughtful, plainspoken and truthful communications, whether it is good news or bad news.

Elizabeth Baskin, an internal communications specialist writing for ragan.com, offers useful suggestions of how to think strategically about internal communications. That begins, she says, with giving employees more than a superficial whitewash of what’s occurring.

Baskin believes internal communications should pivot on organizational vision, starting with making sure employees know what the vision is. “That vision can help anchor employees in times of change and reassure them that the change is part of a larger strategic plan,” she says. 

Any kind of change can cause jitters, so relating changes – big or small, bad or good – to an organizational vision can be stabilizing. Employees can see the change in the context of a bigger picture. It may not make a pink slip any easier to swallow, but it can give an employee a sense of why the pink slip was necessary. For employees who will bear a heavier workload, it can be reassuring. 

When the news is bad, internal communications needs an empathetic tone and personal. Think of it as talking to members of the business family. “Don’t sugarcoat it nor spin it nor put off communicating the news,” Baskin advises. “National research indicates that employees want to know as soon as possible – especially if it’s bad news.”

It is naïve to expect bad news can be contained. Expect the opposite – that the details of the bad news will be shared on email and social media even as you are sharing it with employees. Don’t get outraged; be prepared to answer media inquiries.

Communicating change to organizations with far-flung operations and multiple offices is especially challenging. Teleconferencing provides an avenue for the CEO to deliver the news to everyone at the same time. It’s worth solving whatever logistical challenges may exist to pull this off successfully.

Baskin’s final piece of advice is to humanize your messages, whether good or bad. “Communicating the nuts and bolts of the change is important, but we must also link it to human outcomes.”

Change is disorienting. CEOs usually have to approve it. They also should be the ones who share the news of it to employees. If they believe employees are their organization’s greatest assets, they should treat them like great assets.

 

Own Your Errors and Hit Homeruns with Your Mature Example

Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier is a dynamic young talent, but against the Boston Red Sox over the weekend he had a dreadful game on defense, contributing five runs to the visiting team. After the game, Frazier refused to talk with the media, damaging his own reputation, undermining his own self-esteem and clashing with the Yankee clubhouse tradition of owning mistakes as self-motivation and setting an example for others.

Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier is a dynamic young talent, but against the Boston Red Sox over the weekend he had a dreadful game on defense, contributing five runs to the visiting team. After the game, Frazier refused to talk with the media, damaging his own reputation, undermining his own self-esteem and clashing with the Yankee clubhouse tradition of owning mistakes as self-motivation and setting an example for others.

Owning failure isn’t easy. Avoiding responsibility can be worse than failure. Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees is the latest case example.

Frazier had a nightmare game over the weekend against the Boston Red Sox. His unraveling play in right field led to five Boson runs over two innings, sealing a win for the visiting nemesis of the hometown Yankees. That’s bad enough. Then Frazier refused to talk to the press and acknowledge his flubs. 

His on-field meltdowns – he played defense like his shoelaces were tied together – cost the Yankees a game. His childish refusal to face the press after the loss damaged his reputation in the clubhouse and with fans. 

Frazier is a 24-year-old star-in-the-making. He is tenacious and talented. He also is immature and that immaturity could stunt his career.

As a baseball player myself as a youth and later as an adult, I can tell you failure is part of the game. You flub a grounder. You strike out with the bases loaded. You run the team out of a rally. You are humiliated. You want to lock yourself into the porta-potty and hold your breath until everyone leaves the ballfield. 

But life is like baseball. There is another game another day. You have another chance to be the hero instead of the goat. Redemption is just one clean single up the middle away.

The key takeaway from Frazier’s clubhouse hibernation is that failure on the field can be conquered by courage off the field. Facing the music, owning the stink and redoubling the effort are heroic ways to cope – and to inspire others to find a path forward from their failure.

In crisis communications, we tend to overlook, to underestimate the impact of denial on those watching what has unfolded. Owning a mistake isn’t just self-redeeming; it is redemptive for those watching. Owning a mistake is an example for others to follow when they fail or fall down.

Refusing to own a mistake not only tarnishes your own reputation, it also puts a stain on your colleagues, your company and your followers. They are diminished in the same way you are when you hide from failure. 

Frazier defended his no-show appearance as a natural reluctance to address his lack of defensive prowess in public. Hello, Frazier is a professional baseball player, somebody who plays a game for pay in front of thousands of fans. Fans who expect some level of accountability. Fans who hope players will be great, but for whom they don’t expect perfection.

The problem with Frazier’s attitude is that it undersells his own resiliency, his own talent and his own will to succeed. Worse, it undervalues the example he could set – to be human, to be humble, to be forgiving of himself. People screw up all the time. They need to see and be inspired by other people who have the courage to be larger than their screw-ups.

The impact of owning your own failure is therapeutic, not only for you, but also for the people around you, especially the people who root for and look up to you. Owning a failure is not only a sign of maturity, it is a badge of leadership. You tell those around you it’s okay to fail, but it’s not okay to deny it, walk away from it or prevent you from pursuing success.

Failure is not the end of the road. It often is just the road sign to another route to success. Failure is just part of life’s journey. You help everyone find their path by admitting you lost track of yours.

[Conkling is a lifelong, die-hard Yankees fan – and a fan of Clint Frazier.]

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.

 

 

Fake Videos Are a Reality, Not Just a Threat

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a high-profile victim of altered video intended to embarrass her for slurring her speech as if drunk. The technology for doctoring photos and videos has become commonplace, but the tools and techniques to detect and defend against visual forgeries is not as widespread. It should be.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a high-profile victim of altered video intended to embarrass her for slurring her speech as if drunk. The technology for doctoring photos and videos has become commonplace, but the tools and techniques to detect and defend against visual forgeries is not as widespread. It should be.

The threat of fake or doctored videos is officially no longer a threat, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can attest. The doctored videos of her that surfaced last week weren’t the first time detractors manicured video content to embarrass her.

While the doctored videos of Pelosi were spotted and outed quickly, it is fair to say that the technical ability to create deepfake videos is far ahead of the practical ability to spot them. Experts say virtually anyone with a laptop could have doctored the Pelosi videos.

Even when fake or doctored videos are outed, they still can circulate widely on social media, in some cases with a push from influencers – or a President of the United States. The fake video of Pelosi has been viewed millions of times on Facebook. 

As we noted in an August 2017 Managing Issues blog, desktop technology exists to edit video and audio to make anyone say almost anything. In the Pelosi video, her natural speech pattern was distorted so she sounded drunk.

If fake videos were just the innocent stuff of parties or a good-natured roast, we could just sit back and laugh. Unfortunately, they aren’t just for fun. They are weapons to destroy a reputation or cut down a political opponent. In the partisan silos of today’s news media, fake videos can quickly become “fact.”

Circulation of political fake videos is calculated. Trump likes them because they share well with his aging political base. They also are red meat opportunities for Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, who frequently airs them. Some fake video creators defend their handiwork as “entertainment” that engages people who otherwise would shy away from politics.

High-profile individuals, corporations or politicians can’t ignore the need for 24/7 media monitoring. If there ever was a doubt, the specter of fake videos should squelch any hesitation. The task of media monitoring is no longer as simple as having someone read newspapers and clip relevant articles. Media monitoring now spans online news, social media, blogs, message boards, video channels, broadcast TV, radio and print – not just in the United States, but also internationally.  There are ample commercial choices that can provide some or all media monitoring.

Forensic tools exist to spot doctored photographs and videos. The Global Investigative Journalism Network posted this  tutorial  on techniques and tools to ferret out fake visuals, manipulated data, twisted facts and out-of-context information.

Forensic tools exist to spot doctored photographs and videos. The Global Investigative Journalism Network posted this tutorial on techniques and tools to ferret out fake visuals, manipulated data, twisted facts and out-of-context information.

Being aware of coverage that affects you isn’t enough when it comes to video content. You or someone on your behalf needs to view it forensically to ensure the video is authentic and editing is contextually accurate and fair. This can be complicated that goes far beyond detecting a jump cut in a TV interview. In anticipation of an altered video scenario, you should add a new section to your crisis plan that identifies media monitoring options, go-to resources and potential responses. 

Upon detecting a fake or doctored video, you need a capability to address it and its fallout. Unfortunately, you can’t simply raise your hand and call foul. Depending on the seriousness of the fake video content, you may need to mount an aggressive response. 

An aggressive response should include:

  • Third-party verification that a video is fake or doctored.

  • The source video that is altered.

  • Identification of the responsible party who doctored the video, if known.

  • Calling out websites or channels that are promoting the fake video.

Political figures have little protection from slander, but they can ask surrogates and supporters to out the fakery and its malign motivation. Their communications staff can request traditional and mainstream media to write editorials or accept op-eds that condemn such political tactics. In Pelosi’s case, Facebook refused to ban the fake video of her. Twitter continued to allow it to be shared. YouTube said the fake video violated its standard of ethics. A spliced video of Joe Biden’s apology about inappropriate touching of women took just 19 hours to go from its originator’s keyboard to the Trump Twitter account. 

Individuals and business leaders enjoy a little more legal protection from slander and can pursue legal remedies to have the fake video content taken down from its origin and a public statement admitting it was doctored. An apology would be nice, too.

Be aware that political or business figures willing to commission and post visual forgeries like to play rough and loose with the rules of fair play, including passing the blame on who is responsible. Responding in kind is a fool’s errand. But exposing such dirty tricks and affixing blame is perfectly fair – and smart if you have facts down cold.

Pelosi chose to shrug off the video and Trump’s reference to it. This wasn’t a strategic, not casual decision by Pelosi’s camp. She has accused Trump of self-impeachment, a coverup and in need of a staff intervention. Pelosi’s needling led Trump to call her “Crazy Nancy” based on “slurred words” in the fake video. Pelosi scored points with her political base and her fractious House Democratic caucus on both counts.

Whether a fake video response is frontal or subtle, a clear-eyed decision is required on how and when to respond. No response isn’t an option. It’s just like a trademark – you have to monitor and defend it against infringement or see your trademark devalued.

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.

 

 

Gritty Positivity Adds Social Fabric to Public Affairs Strategies

Columnist David Brooks deplores the lack of media coverage for gritty, raw and authentic stories about healing and community-building. The same is true about public affairs strategies that can be heavy on stats and ponderous on claims, but light on grit and authenticity.

Columnist David Brooks deplores the lack of media coverage for gritty, raw and authentic stories about healing and community-building. The same is true about public affairs strategies that can be heavy on stats and ponderous on claims, but light on grit and authenticity.

News media consumers don’t have to look very far for bad or frightening stories. They have a harder time finding uplifting stories about people helping other people.

“Many of our colleagues don’t define local social repair and community-building as news. It seems too goody-goody, too ‘worthy,’ too sincere. It won’t attract eyeballs,” says David Brooks in his latest column in The New York Times. Brooks thinks that’s wrong-headed.

After attending a #WeaveThePeople conference in Washington, DC, Brooks encountered what he described as “some of the most compelling people I’ve ever met.” A former prison inmate who connects community members to health care services. A Texas man who assists people with spinal cord injuries. A former Army Ranger who suffered from PTSD, but now builds communities for veterans.

“Why don’t we cover these people more?” Brooks asks. Their stories are “emotionally gripping” and demonstrate how to turn vulnerability into action. Many of the stories, Brooks admits, “was uncomfortable and searing, but the discomfort broke through barriers and moved us closer.”

The stories have substance and include “acute observations” about how to heal, build community and win trust. Brooks believes readers would devour and value such stories, if they were told.

The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.

The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.

“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that associational life is the central feature of American life,” Brooks says. “Somehow we in the media under-cover this sector. We barely cover the most important social change agents. These people are not goody-goody. They are raw, honest and sometimes rude.”

Brooks’ observation rings true in a wider circle than the news media. In public affairs, the stories that are told are more often just sterile, emotionless arguments coupled with slick slideshows. They can be true, even persuasive, but not compelling. They make a point, but don’t always talk about making a difference that matters to a community. They touch the surface, not the core.

“How did we in our business get in the spot where we spend 90 percent of our coverage on the 10 percent of our lives influenced by politics and 10 percent of our coverage on the 90 percent of our lives influenced by relationship, community and the places we live in every day?” wonders Brooks.

The same question should be asked of public affairs communications, with too much verbiage about process, too much focus on “benefits,” too much hype, too little empathy and almost no grit or social fabric. 

Communities are unmoved by statistics, predictions and promises. They would more likely be impressed by tangible actions; promises made and kept; and raw, if uncomfortable, candor.

As weavers that Brooks encountered said, “Neighbors are people we practice doing life with” and “relationships move at the speed of trust.” Public affairs strategies should increase their focus on neighbors, relationships and trust, so they can tell stories that are authentic, believable and inspiring.

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.

 

 

Ignoring Risk Communication is Definitely Risky Business

Managing risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rick management must include risk communication, providing consumers, employees and stakeholders with useful, relevant and timely information that allows them to make decisions to protect themselves.

Managing risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rick management must include risk communication, providing consumers, employees and stakeholders with useful, relevant and timely information that allows them to make decisions to protect themselves.

Businesses and nonprofits manage risk. They also need to communicate about risk. However, risk communication is like going to the dentist. It’s something you know you need to do, but you try to avoid. That’s risky. Effectively communicating about risk can de-escalate risk and build trust.

The current debate about vaccinations is an example of what can happen when risk communication is absent or inadequate. Anti-vaccinators filled the void by raising fears that scientific evidence doesn’t support. Now medical professionals are playing catch-up amid an international outbreak of measles, a disease that was largely arrested after a measles vaccine was licensed for use in 1963.

Communicating about risk applies to a wide swatch of industry sectors such as food service, financial investing, home sales, manufactured products, health care, transportation and telecommunications. Understanding the role and importance of risk communication should play a central role in risk management decision-making. Giving affected parties meaningful, relevant knowledge about risks gives them a chance to protect themselves, which is key to risk reduction.

Risk communication is an important cog in risk management. Accurate, accessible information enables consumers, employees and stakeholders to make informed decisions about the use of products, travel destinations, public health and personal behavior. The absence of risk communication exposes people to risks. The same is true for opaque, misleading, untimely or incomplete risk communication.

When done right, crisis plans identify vulnerabilities and build crisis responses for crisis scenarios. Crisis plans don’t always cover risk communication, especially for ongoing activities that pose risks even without a crisis. This is an unfortunate oversight.

Examples of risk communication include information on labels, warning signs and consumer alerts. Those can be effective, but more can be done. Clear, easy-to-access information on a website, blogs, infographics and informational videos can be very useful in increasing awareness and understanding of risks. Risk communication, as demonstrated by pharmaceutical TV commercials with disclaimers longer than the main ad, can and should extend to marketing. Fear of risk can upset a brand. 

There are growing consumer expectations for proactive risk communication, especially in areas such as food preparation, prescription drug side effects and dangerous machinery. One of the best ways to assess this expectation in your audience is to conduct risk perception research. Ask your consumers what they want to know and what worries them. Test your risk communication messages and discover the messengers and channels that work best to convey confidence.

Intelligently discussing risk, including responding to skeptics and critics, can lead to greater brand loyalty. Shying away from talking about risk can raise doubts or undermine trust. Intelligent discussion doesn’t equate to patronizing explanations or a gob of scientific gibberish. Information needs to be actionable and relevant.

Credible third parties are important tools in risk communication. They can lend their expertise to your what should be an ongoing conversation with consumers and stakeholders. Third-party authentication is not the same as a celebrity endorsement. You are getting a seal of approval from someone who knows what they are talking about – and that people look to for reliable advice.

Another improbable ally in risk communication can be trial lawyers – the ones who file million-dollar product liability lawsuits for faulty products. Trial lawyers have deep experience in analyzing risk communication for accuracy, adequacy and accountability. Ask for their recommendations on how to communicate risk effectively. It is smart to pay them up front rather than to wait and read their advice in an expensive court filing. 

Risk communication may be one of the most overlooked and undervalued forms of public relations. Today’s complex information environment presents daunting challenges and previously unimagined opportunities for risk communication. Yesterday’s answer may be today’s yawn or blow off. Find out what bothers your audience, then feed that appetite with credible information that results in trust.

Don’t assume trust is a permanent condition. It can vanish in an instant. That means a vigilant approach to assessing risk and its effect on your consumers, employees and stakeholders, so you can maintain a fresh approach to risk communication that answers questions and informs smart behavior.

The risk you talk about is the risk you help avoid.

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.

 

Spinning Mueller Findings Made a Sad Chapter Even Sadder

Attorney General William Barr’s rollout of the Mueller report subjected him to charges of acting like President Trump’s defense attorney trying to spin the findings in their best light. The episode reinforces why spinning can cause more damage to your case than benefit, provoking sharper reactions from critics and raising doubts about your viewpoint.

Attorney General William Barr’s rollout of the Mueller report subjected him to charges of acting like President Trump’s defense attorney trying to spin the findings in their best light. The episode reinforces why spinning can cause more damage to your case than benefit, provoking sharper reactions from critics and raising doubts about your viewpoint.

The sharp backlash to the press conference held by Attorney General William Barr prior to the public release of the Mueller report is evidence of the serious peril of spinning a story.

Whether you agree or disagree with the findings of the special counsel’s investigation in Russian election meddling and potential collusion by the Trump campaign, it is hard to disagree that Barr’s summary of the report didn’t square with language in the report. That dissonance led to instantaneous criticism that Barr tried to spin the report’s findings in a positive light before anyone had a chance to read it.

The result was a day-long drip of media reports and blogs detailing the gap between Barr’s summary and Robert Mueller’s findings. Critics said Barr acted more like Donald Trump’s defense attorney than the US attorney general. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena to obtain the full, unredacted Mueller report. Calls for Trump’s impeachment grew louder.

Barr, who arranged his press conference before the official release of Mueller’s report, was clearly sensitive about appearances. When asked about spinning the substance of the report, Barr abruptly left his press conference podium, but disputed he did anything inappropriate. His performance led some congressional Democrats to demand Barr’s resignation.

Trump, who heralded Barr’s earlier 4-page summary as “total exoneration” and called Thursday a “good day” after Barr’s press conference, suddenly was under attack again. Commentators combed through the 448-page report, unearthing details and findings that Barr glossed over, such as the 10 incidents of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller investigated.

Barr implied Mueller’s investigation was unable to produce evidence of obstruction of justice. In the prologue to his report, Mueller said no charges were contemplated because of the Department of Justice’s policy that a sitting President cannot be indicted. Mueller said he was unable to dismiss Trump’s conduct as obstruction, in part based on testimony from the president’s own staff who were cajoled to lie and try to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation. Barr even came up with a novel defense of Trump’s conduct, saying his potential obstruction was the fruit of deep frustration.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “Now Americans have had a chance to read the Mueller team’s own words – and they are very different from Barr’s characterizations.”

What happens next is a political matter. What’s important in this context is a realization that spinning can have outsized impacts compared with relatively modest benefits. You may not only lose the argument, you may lose your reputation, too.

There is a basic flaw with spinning. You have to assume your audience isn’t bright and won’t catch on to your snow job. Even if your audience is uncritical, your critics won’t be so forgiving in exposing your gaslighting, which can generate negative media coverage and waves of social media disparagement.

Communicators who resort to spin ultimately come across as desperate. Flimflam replaces facts. Emotional appeals substitute for logic.

Spinning a story can burn bridges, as Barr has discovered. A respected attorney, Barr has been reduced in the eyes of some critics to Trump’s press agent. However, not a very good press agent.

If Barr would have consulted with a competent crisis communications counselor, he would have followed a different path in releasing Mueller’s report, starting with a different initial summary. A more forthcoming and nuanced summary may not have delighted Trump as much, but it would have more accurately foreshadowed the full report’s findings.

Barr did a decent job of explaining why redactions were needed, but his unartful rollout of the full redacted report was clumsy and misleading, sparking a congressional subpoena to see the whole report and the investigative materials behind it.

Holding a press conference 90 minutes before release of the report set up the scenario of the slow-drip discovery of awkward and embarrassing details. An alternative would have been to produce an annotated summary of the report, which could have been shared with the news media on an embargo basis an hour or two before public release. The annotated summary would have replaced the press conference and could have included Barr’s conclusions and his rationale. This approach may not have earned him White House employee of the month, but it would have served the public interest – and his own reputation – much better. 

A press conference could have been held after release of the report to answer tough media questions and provide thoughtful answers. This would have prevented the release of the report from unwinding without any formal explanation or rebuttal. This approach would have avoided having Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stand rigidly behind Barr with the pained look of a prisoner of war on display.

Criticism was inevitable, but it would have been trained on the decision not to pursue criminal charges against Trump rather than on trying to brighten a dark chapter in American history through spin.

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 Secret Treasure Buried in an Issues Audit

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

The essential first step of a crisis plan is an issues audit. Identifying vulnerabilities is critical to developing a crisis plan based on likely crisis scenarios. It also can be a revealing look into management, operational and capital decisions that can mitigate or eliminate risk.

Unmasking potential management, operational and capital decisions to reduce risk is an unappreciated dimension of issues audits. The chance to zero in on ways to reduce risk should be reason enough to conduct issue audits.

An empty wallet is the most common excuse for postponing a rigorous exploration of organizational vulnerability. A close second is a lack of time. Both are pallid justifications for avoiding the hard, but not necessarily expensive work to pinpoint problems and think about how to address them. 

Too many executives lull themselves into believing a major crisis won’t occur on their watch, which leads them to shuffle their feet on a crisis planning exercise. They fail to recognize that identifying vulnerabilities can be a window into actions that would materially lessen exposure – or even gain a competitive advantage.

CFM’s approach to crisis plan development results into two deliverables – a strategy to address likely and consequential crisis scenarios and a list of smart investments to mitigate risk. This provides a very different approach to an annual capital investment plan. Instead of sets of competing priorities from different divisions, top executives would have a prioritized list of investments that would make a material difference in an organization’s risk profile.

A common compliment by managers after completing a CFM-managed issues audit is that it produces a lot more than an agenda of what to worry about. It also sheds light on what you can do to ease or even eliminate worries. This is the secret treasure buried in an issues audit. 

“I was skeptical that an issues audit would do anything more than show us what we already knew,” said one manager who participated in a CFM issues audit. “What I failed to see until I went through the process was what the issues audit told us about how we could avoid risk. That’s priceless.”

A crisis plan based on realistic crisis scenarios is reason enough to conduct an issues audit. An added plus is a roadmap to risk-reducing capital investments or management steps. A typical rigorous issues audit lasts four hours, including time set aside for coffee and donuts. How else could you get so much value for a four-hour investment of staff time? 

There is an even more subtle benefit from well-conceived issues audits.  Bringing together the full cross-section of organizational top management induces a learning moment and a collaborative spirit. The team participating in the issues audit leaves the session knowing more about the operational pain points of their colleagues than any seminar or staff meeting could teach.

“I came into our issues audit knowing about my problems,” one senior official recounted. “I left with a deeper understanding pf the problems my counterparts face. What I thought would be a perfunctory meeting turned into an eye-opening opportunity.”

An issues audit would be worth the time and expense just to pinpoint the crisis scenarios in a crisis plan. Added value as a keen-eyed management tool is a bargain. Strengthening the camaraderie and collaboration of your staff can be a priceless benefit.

If you haven’t undergone an issue audit to identify your vulnerabilities, what are you waiting for?

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.

 

Think Like a Lawyer, Write Like a Journalist

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Legal writing can be, for lack of a better description, legalese – stilted, ponderous and opaque. However, behind all that seeming pomposity is a clear way of thinking centered on facts, corroborated evidence and credible sources.

Writing for general public consumption, as journalists do, requires a more comfortable, inclusive style, using words that are commonly understood, phrases that paint pictures and sentences that convey a point with clarity.

The best of both worlds is when writers think like lawyers and write like journalists. Thinking like a lawyer and writing like a journalist is an example of activating both the left and right sides of the brain. This is how public affairs professionals should communicate.

Thinking like a lawyer doesn’t have to crimp your writing or speaking style. Thinking like a lawyer can add order and authority to what you write. Thinking like a lawyer can narrow the focus of what you write and sharpen your key messages. Thinking like a lawyer can make your argument more believable and persuasive.

Training to become a lawyer involves learning how to conduct research, interpret the law, build a case and defend an interest. Those can be valuable insights for public affairs professionals as they write advocacy pieces, op-eds and testimony that seek to inform and persuade.

A key principle in legal thinking is establishing a solid foundation for assertions. Legal thought can be fairly portrayed as rational, logical and linear. Facts aren’t Christmas tree ornaments; they are building blocks. Arraying facts in support of a position diminishes ambiguity, provides clarity and creates confidence in what’s being asserted. This is exactly the job description of public affairs professionals. 

Public affairs professionals don’t do their job in front of judges. But they in effect do their jobs in front of juries that may be neighborhood associations, interest groups or townhall meeting audiences. Orderly presentations conveyed in plainspoken language and accompanied by credible written or visual evidence can convince juries in a courtroom – and “juries” anywhere else.

Another useful trait of legal training is understanding the value of dialogue and learning by listening. This is must-have skill for successful public affairs professionals.

Legal training has drawbacks for communicating broadly. Lawyers tend to downplay emotive forces, overlook creative options and ignore inspirational themes. Those may have little place in a courtroom, but they have a definite place in the court of public opinion. In their writing, journalists report on topics evoking emotional and inspirational responses. They look for creative way to tell their stories. 

There are lawyers who are good writers and effective speakers. They understand the powerful combination of legal thinking and journalistic writing. Public affairs professionals should emulate that same combination to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests.

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.

 

Saying Everything Versus Saying Something Memorable

A TV interview is not a seminar or improv theater. TV interviews demand discipline to make your main point as clearly and unmistakably as possible, preferably with words or a phrase that reporters will capture and audiences will remember.

A TV interview is not a seminar or improv theater. TV interviews demand discipline to make your main point as clearly and unmistakably as possible, preferably with words or a phrase that reporters will capture and audiences will remember.

The assignment: Deliver your key message in a TV interview. The tactic: Spill your guts or say one thing that listeners will remember?

The right answer is both obvious and elusive. Sure, you want listeners to remember your golden nugget of a thought. But, hey, don’t they need to know all this other stuff to understand why the golden nugget is, well, golden?

No, they don’t. 

What encyclopedic speakers fail to realize – or accept – is that while they have spent years, maybe decades, learning their subjects, their listeners will interact with the topic in a mere matter of seconds. Listeners are thinking about their jobs, what their kids are doing, the bills they need to pay and the lawn that needs to be mowed. Your key message for them is more big intrusion than big thought. If you want what you say to stick, you better apply some verbal glue.

In the legislative world, witnesses at public hearings are wise to abide by the axiom that the longer you talk, the fewer votes you are likely to get. Committee chairs want solid testimony. They also want testimony that sticks to core facts, avoids wandering into the weeds and wraps up in a timely way.

It is good advice in virtually every public setting, especially TV interviews, which are all about sound bites, not academic seminars. Spokespersons are like actors whose job is to perform, giving voice to rehearsed lines, not to expound or improvise.

A quote in a TV story can last 10 to 12 seconds. Your 10 to 12 seconds can sound like mush or it can be pointed and clear. Even better if it’s pointed, clear and memorable.

No question, it is much harder to craft a key message that conveys your meaning and resonates in the ear of an audience than to speak off the cuff in front of a camera. Experts who wing their comments frequently complain that reporters miss their main point. No big surprise. When you are forced to drink out of fire hose, it is hard to savor the refreshment. 

Even if spokespersons sparkle in brief, ear-worthy opening comments, they can blow it by over-answering questions instead of delivering crisp answers. Long-winded, ill-focused answers can sound pretentious, condescending and, worst of all, evasive. That’s true for most TV interviews, and certainly true for every TV interview amid a communications crisis.

If you want to excel at interviews, for TV, print or online, do yourself a favor. Spending time thinking what you want to say, polish how you say it and practice to master what you’ve crafted. Making your comments short and punchy is much harder than free-wheeling stream of consciousness. The effort is worth it when you make your point, the reporter includes it in her story and the audience hears and remembers what you said.

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 Chemistry of Turning Failure into Success

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure doesn’t make someone a loser, but history shows failure can lead to success. Exactly what is the chemistry that converts an ounce of failure into a pound of success?

The scientific method regards failed experiments as useful because they eliminate one path and invite pursuit of alternatives. Failure is less a roadblock than a detour sign. Thomas Edison summed it up, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Some failures produce unexpected success, such as the discovery of an unintended use of a substance or process. Some of the most gainful inventions were actually accidental successes. Google Post-It notes for a good example.

The attitude of people toward failure can be a huge factor. Some see failure as the end. Others view failure as the beginning. Or, as Winston Churchill noted, “success is stumbling from failure to failure.”

Stumbling from failure to failure isn’t exactly an inviting prospect, especially in a field such as public affairs. Clients expect public affairs professionals to “fix” their public issues, not fumble them. 

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

Failing to fix a client’s problem can be humiliating and demoralizing for public affairs professionals, who pitch clients on the prospect of victory, not consolation prizes. Good public affairs professionals win more than they lose, but everyone loses sometimes.

The image of a public affairs professional as a “fixer” isn’t useful – or usually accurate. Yes, public affairs professionals, if they are worth their fee, have relevant experience, good contacts and a huge dose of savvy. If they really know what they are doing, they will focus their attention on what they don’t know before spinning out a strategy.

In this sense, the discipline of public affairs is a lot like a scientific experiment. You need to test your hypothesis and let the results guide your actions. Testing the waters might take the form of talking with trusted sources, closely reading media coverage, consulting with legal experts or conducting research, often via one-on-one interviews. 

A client may have a clear understanding of his or her public problem. The public affairs professional’s responsibility is to develop a clear direction to address that problem. The solutions to most public affairs challenges aren’t as simple as stepping from A to B. The chance for strategic missteps or detours is high. Failure at one turn can’t be construed as total disaster. Sometimes a failure is the light post to the pathway to success.

That suggests the chemistry for converting failure to success depends a lot on mental attitude – curiosity instead of bravado, flexibility instead of rigidity, honesty instead of spin, self-confidence instead of over-confidence. The right chemistry also requires an underlying optimism that success is achievable and the resiliency to keep searching for the road to success amid failure. Albert Einstein’s well-known words are apt, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Success for a public affairs professional is seldom a hero’s walk. More often, success involves deep questioning, a realistic objective, a strategic plan and thoughtful execution of that plan – with eyes wide open for ditches, dead-ends and detours that require a modified route. Patience is a virtue. 

The chemistry of success boils down to self-confidence in finding a way that works, regardless of how many twists and turns it might take.  Getting to success doesn’t have to be smooth, simple or pretty. You just have to keep trying to get there.

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.