Public affairs

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.

 

A Primer on Public Affairs

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

We have been asked more than once what public affairs involves. Our best answer is a communications challenge that occurs in the shadow of a public issue.

Public issues can loom over marketing, media relations or crisis communications. Public affairs to address a public issue can take the form of strategic communications, marketing plans, crisis counsel or advocacy – and often involves some combination.

Public affairs professionals, at least the ones who know what they’re doing, typically have experience in the public sector or dealing with the public sector, such as a reporter who covers government or the courts. One way or another, they have the scars and skills earned through managing – or muddling through – a public issue.

At its core, public affairs is like any other form of marketing. You need to understand your audience, condense your message and tell your story with effect, whether in writing or orally and whether you have 30 minutes or 30 seconds. That’s why knowledgeable public affairs professionals know the value of research and have a working knowledge of what type of research matches specific challenges.

Some public affairs professionals are attorneys, but all good public affairs professionals have a solid working understanding of the law, legal procedures and judicial language. Public affairs professionals frequently work side by side with attorneys because their respective disciplines overlap. Sometimes the best solution to a public issue is legal; other times it requires changing a law or regulation. 

It is fairly easy to grasp that public affairs involves managing a public issue through direct engagement (open houses, town meetings, door-to-door visits), media outreach (press releases, op-eds, white papers) and social media (explanatory videos, infographics, charts). 

It is less obvious that public affairs centers on reframing or clarifying a complex, contentious public issue. The ability to reframe a contentious issue and clarify a complex one is what sets apart a skilled public affairs professional from someone who simply has ‘public affairs’ on their business card.

Another overlooked attribute of a skilled public affairs professional is the ability to anticipate a public issue and the arc of its evolution. Managers and clients would be wise to listen to warnings from public affairs professionals and their recommendations on how to ward off an impending public issue or at least mitigate its dire consequences.

Public affairs professionals are an important part of any team attempting to advance a major project, respond to a crisis, engage the public on a significant initiative or pass legislation. Public affairs professionals know the lay of the land, media contacts and elected officials and their staffs. Chances are good that an experienced public affairs professional has worked on a similar project or faced an analogous challenge and, as a result, can add valuable perspective of what to do – and not to do.

Effective public affairs depends on who you know and what you know. Experienced public affairs professionals have a lifetime of contacts they can tap for information or attempt to influence. They have watched the wheels of government grind away, followed the footsteps of men and women on planning commissions up to congressional committees and synthesized confusing events into 10 to 12 revealing paragraphs. They have a vertical understanding of public issues that enables them to see the depth of an issue and know where to dig for a solution.

Of course, knowledge has a shelf life. People move on from government, newspaper and nonprofit jobs, so connections need to be refreshed continuously. Communication techniques and channels morph and change. Almost every communications plan worth its salt these days includes a website, social media and video content. As recently as a decade ago, that wasn’t so.

Processes and practices evolve, too. The days of building rapport by taking someone to a professional sporting event or a pricey dinner have ended in the public affairs space, thanks to stricter ethics laws and reporting requirements. Public affairs professionals have adapted by pursuing other ways to build and maintain relationships. Integrity matters more than ever.

One thing hasn’t changed. Public affairs remains a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on form of communication. Personal contact, authenticity and compelling presentations are still what makes public affairs effective. Knowing what you’re doing is important, too.

(Since its founding in 1990, CFM Strategic Communications has been regarded as a leading public affairs firm in the Pacific Northwest with experience guiding major projects, developing and executing strategic communications plans and providing crisis counsel.)

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.

Half-Truth Closer to a Lie Than Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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