crisis communications

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.

 

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.

 

Addressing Skeletons in Your Closet Before They Tumble Out

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

The chaotic state of political affairs in Virginia is a good reminder that skeletons in the closet have a nasty habit of popping their head out of the door.

Closet skeletons are a dimension of crisis preparation that is frequently overlooked in the mistaken judgment that what happened long ago will never be uncovered. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Virginians and the rest of America who pays attention to the news have discovered, that’s just not true. An obscure medical school yearbook picture can come back to haunt you.

An old skeleton liberated from the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, as Northam’s fumbling reaction illustrated. It is like an ambush interview on steroids. You have to address the unexpected surfacing of the skeleton and be judged on how you handle the surprise. As with any other crisis, being surprised is a big problem in responding credibly.

To err is human, as Alexander Pope observed, and to forgive is divine. The trouble is the vast majority of people need a reason to forgive. The unprepared politician, corporate executives , celebrity or nonprofit leader is ill-equipped to ask for forgiveness. Being prepared doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, but it helps.

Rummaging around in your past life in search of old skeletons may be uncomfortable – and unsettling for family members, friends and colleagues. But discomfort and private embarrassment seem like a small price to pay in the face of public disgrace.

The rummaging can have salutary benefits by revealing unacknowledged attitudes that present teachable moments. Using Northam’s situation as an example, if he had recalled the yearbook – or, more important, his earlier flippant attitudes about blackface, he could have turned his “surprise” into an epiphany. Admitting he failed to realize how blackface offended African-Americans, Northam could have displayed a capacity to open his eyes and mind to new realities, much like Virginians have had to face up to the reality that many confederate statues were erected as imposing Jim Crow-era reminders to black Virginians to “know their place.”

People running for public office should conduct thorough personal audits to identify any problematic skeletons in their past – or present. They should start by listing the transgressions before leaping to justifications. This is not really all that much different from a candid and thorough issue audit organizations should undertake to prepare crisis communications plans. The main difference is ranking probability.

The owner of a skyscraper should consider an elevator accident in an issue audit, but probably doesn’t need to worry all that much about an elevator crashing into the basement. Political candidates and officeholders can’t discount anything, as Northam’s yearbook page attests. The emphasis for candidates and officeholders is to brainstorm how to respond if their skeleton is exposed. 

Northam again proves illustrative. After his initial equivocation, Northam has earned some respect by dedicating the remainder of his gubernatorial term, assuming he gets to serve that long, to addressing issues of racial justice. If he had thought about the possibility of this blackface skeleton tumbling out of his closet, Northam could have responded more surefootedly and powerfully. His lack of preparation also showed through over the weekend during a relatively sympathetic interview with Gayle King of CBS News when she corrected his reference to Virginia’s racial past of importing “indentured servants” by saying, “You mean slaves.”

Changing times and norms have made behavior tolerated in the past intolerable in the present. In reality, sexual abuse and racial insensitivity were never okay. Victims were ignored or even punished. What’s really changed is that the spying eyes of social media make it harder for perpetrators to laugh off their bad acts. Victims have the tools to expose and punish them.

Like it or deplore it, you would be smart to prepare for it. Closet walls aren’t what they used to be.

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 Time You Save Is Your Best Friend in a Crisis

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.

The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.

The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.

Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:

Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.

Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.

Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.

Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.

Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.

Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone. 

Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation. 

Maintain Current Contact List

Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.

Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.

Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.

Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.

Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.

Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.

There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.

[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

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.

Talking on Your Feet in Impromptu Moments

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you know how funny improvisational humor can be. But when you are forced to make impromptu comments at a company meeting or in a public setting, funny usually isn’t your goal.

“Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech – perhaps even more so,” says speech coach Allison Shapira.

The same rules apply. Don’t meander into your message. Be sensitive to your body language. Make a single, solid point. Know when to stop. 

The same cautionary notes apply, too. Be wary of jokes. Avoid sliding into jargon or gibberish. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Remember brevity is better than boring.

Easier said than done, you say, especially if you are caught off guard by a request to speak. True, but the possibility of being called on should disabuse anyone they are just spectators at a meeting. As Shapira advises, “Be present.” Pay attention. Stay off your iPhone. Engage in the topic.

A trick to keep your mind alert is thinking about a question you could ask. Thinking about a question can get you into an answering-frame-of-mind. Even better, train yourself to think about what you could say, whether asked or not.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

Silent participation can be read by others as disinterest, timidity or lack of anything worth contributing. Those aren’t the traits that lead to job promotions. 

Shapira says speakers can prepare for formal presentations and impromptu opportunities. Leaders, experts or people in the middle of a controversy should definitely develop and practice impromptu speaking skills.

Media training, especially for crisis communications, can prepare speakers to deal with surprise questions and unexpected issues. Think of a request to make an impromptu comment as roughly the same as an ambush interview. You may be caught off guard, but don’t be caught unprepared.

Practice the skill of condensing what you say to a single key message and offering two or three supporting points. This approach requires discipline and focus, which happen to be exactly what you need when speaking without prepared remarks.

Experienced speakers, especially ones who have the scars from previous impromptu boo-boos, may venture into light humor and even storytelling (especially if a story is the request). However, be careful. If someone asks for your opinion, giving them a story may not seem responsive – and may not convey the real point you want to make. Self-deprecating humor has its place, but probably not when responding to a question in business meeting.

Speaking clearly is a requirement for effective communication in writing, presenting or speaking. You can practice clarity when you write emails or memos or when you create a PowerPoint. Clarity requires diligent editing, self-restraint and a genuine concern for your audience. If you want your audience to read or hear what you say, make it easy for them to know what you are saying.

The stakes may be higher than you realize. Your ability to talk on your feet can earn your esteem in the eyes of others, including bosses or critics.

“Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients,” Shapira says. “How you communicate in those impromptu interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.”

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 Deflation of “I’m Sorry” in the Economics of Apologies

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

We may have entered an era when a simple “I’m sorry” has little currency to the recipient of an apology. You might do better offering some form of compensation.

Effective apologies have become a mainstay topic when discussing crisis communications. Crisis counselors, including us, have encouraged sincerity buttressed by demonstrable actions to correct the wrong that required an apology. But a recent study hints that might not be enough to regain or even maintain a level of trust. 

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a  Freakonomics podcast  about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a Freakonomics podcast about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Benjamin Ho, an economics professor at Vassar who studies apologies, teamed up with Uber to test a variety of apologies following a ride gone bad. Apologies that included a commitment to do better in the future often backfired, especially when there was another subpar ride. The apologies that worked best involved monetary compensation.

If Ho was a psychologist, he might have explored why an apology tied to money was a better palliative than an apology tied to a commitment to do better. My dime store interpretation: People have become increasingly cynical. They doubt whether a promise about better behavior in the future will be – or can be – kept. Immediate gratification, like a $5 coupon for a future Uber ride, is more satisfying because it’s more tangible.

Tangibility is the key here. People expect an apology. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. But the apology isn’t enough. What counts is the action that follows. The more tangible the action, the better. Or as Ho put it, “Show me the money, basically.”

The Uber example focuses on money, but compensation isn’t the only tangible value apology recipients may desire. If a new water reservoir construction site suffers a major slide, neighbors will be less interested in money than concrete assurances the problem has been fixed. If your bank has been hacked, depositors will want protection from theft.

The phrase “action speaks louder than words” applies. Apologies are something you say. Actions are something you do. Saying you are sorry is important, but it’s best to prove your sincerity through meaningful, relevant and tangible actions. What you say and do after the apology is what counts.

You can’t overlook the economics of apologies. As Ho explained to NPR, “We tested apologies with or without a coupon. We found basically the most effective [Uber] apology, the ones that increased revenues, were just with a $5 coupon.”

Ho’s findings suggest apologies can be transactional. However, as any husband has discovered when bringing home flowers when he forgets an anniversary, the gesture only gets temporary love. You might earn forgiveness, but you don’t build trust with money or flowers.

Trust is the true goal of an apology. Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and public agencies need to realize the point of an apology is to regain trust that is lost or tested – and, when possible, to burnish a reputation. Trust and an enhanced reputation typically aren’t built on cash; they are earned by credible, demonstrable actions, which may include restitution. 

The underlying message of Ho’s study is that ordinary, pro forma apologies aren’t enough now, if they ever were. If you face a crisis, big or small, treat it seriously and put on your work boots to do what’s necessary to earn trust. 

Doing anything less is worse than a waste of time; it is a lost opportunity. And the loss could be permanent.

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.

 

Kavanaugh Defense Serves as Crisis Communication Case Study

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

As crisis communications cases go, there is no better example to study than the defense mounted last week by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters, including President Trump who nominated Kavanaugh, praised his fiery demeanor as appropriate for someone who feels unjustly accused. Critics said his emotional, defensive and at times partisan performance raised questions about his judicial temperament.

No one can dispute there was a sharp contrast between Kavanaugh’s hot defense and the cool, measured testimony of his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that Ford, who admitted she was terrified to testify in public before a national television audience, exceeded expectations as a credible witness. She calmly gave her testimony, answered questions clearly, admitted what she couldn’t remember and showed deference to her questioners. She politely asked for a promised break.

Some commentators summed up the hearing as a “she said/he said” moment, and from an evidentiary point of view, it was. However, on a perception scale, Ford looked credible as an accuser, while Kavanaugh came across as ticked off as the accused. It was a hearing with two “victims.”

The most cogent post-hearing analysis was that Kavanugh offered a Trumpian rejoinder. He denied the accusation of sexual misconduct and focused on what he called the “search and destroy” nomination process, which he blamed on Democrats and left-leaning news media. Maybe “search and destroy” was a clever sound bite Kavanaugh came up with himself, or more likely it was a sound bite recommended by Trump, who used the phrase himself in a tweet after the hearing ended. Senator Tom Cotton repeated the phrase in his appearance Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with sound bites. However, Kavanaugh (and whoever advised him) may have seriously misjudged the tenor of the moment and what a large part of the audience watching wanted to see and hear in response to Ford’s allegations. That misjudgment earned Kavanaugh a follow-up background check by the FBI, which Trump and Senate GOP leaders had previously denied.

Kavanaugh’s miscalculation is the crux of the crisis communications case study. He indulged in what he wanted (or someone wanted him) to say, rather than exercising the discipline to deliver an appropriate message.

We can argue over what an appropriate message would be in this circumstance. No one would have faulted Kavanaugh for expressing frustration over the nomination process, but his main job at the hearing was to declare his innocence and show respect for Ford and her claim. That was in his remarks, but it got lost in the ashes of his incendiary comments. Whatever respect he attempted to show Ford was negated by his disrespect for Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar when she asked him about his blackout drinking. 

A key principle of crisis communications is to project you are in control, even if you aren’t. Kavanaugh failed to do that. If anything, he seemed mad that he had to appear to defend his “good name.”

Another principle is to show empathy. Kavanaugh’s attempt at empathy fell flat. He said he believed Ford may have endured an attempted rape “by someone, at some time and in some place.” That was a barely cloaked way of saying Ford could not corroborate he was her assailant, even though she said she was 100 percent sure it was him. His denial also had the ring of a talking point when GOP Senator Lindsey Graham used the same phrase, with the same, perhaps unintended, dismissive conclusion.

One of the hardest things for someone to do in a communications crisis is to admit wrongdoing. Kavanaugh lawyered up and didn’t admit to anything other than he liked beer as a teenager and still does.

Kavanaugh’s shortcomings as a crisis communicator were amplified by Ford’s performance. She remained under control despite the sensitive nature of her allegation and her previous attempt to tell her story out of the limelight. She readily admitted gaps in her memory. Surely Kavanaugh’s training as a lawyer made him aware that nothing occurs in a vacuum. The hearing was set up, perhaps unintentionally, to hear two sides of the same story – and assess the veracity of both storytellers. He didn’t need to convince his supporters; he needed to have an impact on his doubters.

Maybe the biggest gaffe by Kavanaugh was failing to perceive how the back-to-back testimony would be viewed, especially by women. Ford had nothing to gain by testifying; he had everything to lose. Ford’s detailed account had the ring of authenticity – being shoved into a bedroom, thrown on a bed and “grinded upon” by Kavanaugh as he and his buddy, Mark Judge, laughed – even though some details were blurry or missing. Kavanuagh’s denial was absolute and he acted as if he never knew Ford. He talked a lot about how he “worked my butt off” to get good grades and play sports. He projected an image that raised more doubt about him than her.

Regardless whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent and the victim of a “smear campaign,” there is plenty of room to question his approach to the hearing. If his nomination was assured before the hearing, his performance raised or underscored doubts. Ford can look forward to returning to her life as a college professor. Kavanaugh has to pray he can hold onto his reputation and his nomination.

Without changing any of the facts, Kavanaugh could have emerged from the hearing no worse off or possibly even in a strong position. He could have used a good crisis counselor.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Finding the Warm and Fuzzy in a Promotion Gone Bad

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson #1 – don’t dawdle.

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

Lesson #2 – show remorse and empathy.

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

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

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

Lesson #3 – create realistic context.

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

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

Lesson #4 – offer something tangible.

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

Lesson #5 – state your values.

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

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

 

Digital Media’s Impact on Crisis Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Practice = Secret to Making the Winning Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delivering a crisp, clear key message

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

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

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

Reinforcing your point through your posture

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

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

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

Making your message entertaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a Reputation and the Walk to Redemption

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Taylor Swift’s aptly named new album “Reputation” offers insight into how to respond when you do something bad.

Most people concerned about their reputation don’t follow Taylor Swift’s example and write songs with titles like “I Did Something Bad.” Instead, most people try to figure out how to scrub social media sites and influence Google searches.

Whitewashing an online reputation has both physical and ethical limitations. Addressing a reputational issue head-on has a more durable and dependable life cycle. You are basically telling your own story, as Ms. Swift has done on her latest studio album titled, appropriately, “Reputation.”

Facing a rumor, allegation or documented exposé may be uncomfortable, but could be more rewarding than wishing the comments and innuendos would go away, which they won’t, even under an online pile of “good” news. A healthier and more reputation-friendly approach is to take charge of your own story.

This is a case of when a bold offense is the best defense. You can let a story drip you to death through court filings or information leaks. Or you can disrupt your opposition’s narrative with proactive communication.

Going on offense doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Bold offense is a strategic, not impulsive move that requires careful coordination with legal, financial or other key advisers. You may have to admit where you were wrong, insensitive, negligent or slow to act. 

Owning your mistake could be a small price to pay to earn the chance to tell your side of the story, earn some credibility and preserve a reputation. The admissions you make may be ones that you will make sooner or later in court or in a regulatory settlement. Waiting does little for your credibility and may further tarnish your reputation.

Telling your story doesn’t get you off the hook. But it will affect the arc of the conversation. You may introduce new facts or perspectives. Your admission may disarm critics. You may recommend something that takes the wind out of the sails of opponents. What’s important is that you make the conversation change course.

Reputation management isn’t a science or, for that matter, an art. Reputation management involves a candid analysis of a situation and identifying a proactive response. In an increasingly cynical and polarized world, protecting your reputation may take a really bold move.

Predictable or expected responses may tone down chirping, but not stop it. Hiding behind old, stale arguments – however justified those arguments may be – just perpetuates the critical chirping you want to escape. Ignoring the chirping is like throwing your hands up in the air. Trying to drown it out with louder chirping is like throwing a Hail Mary pass.

Protecting your reputation takes more than wearing a bullet-proof vest or trying to wave a wand to make bad news go poof. It usually requires a savvy, bold move that seizes the narrative from critics or pundits. Or as Ms. Swift expressed it in her song:

They never see it comin'
What I do next
This is how the world works

Reputations are precious, vulnerable things. People judge, but they also forgive. What they are less likely to do is forget a cover-up or a snow job.

When you do something bad, look for a path to redemption, not a secret passageway. Walking the path of redemption could be the best exercise for your reputation.

Curiosity Can Turbocharge Your Personal Search Engine

Curiosity stimulates the brain, strengthens relationships and unlocks otherwise overlooked insights. Do yourself a favor and reclaim your childhood curiosity. Don’t worry about the cat.

Curiosity stimulates the brain, strengthens relationships and unlocks otherwise overlooked insights. Do yourself a favor and reclaim your childhood curiosity. Don’t worry about the cat.

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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but for everyone else it can do wonders. Curiosity is the strategy to uncover less-than-obvious information and discover overlooked insight.

The practical benefits of curiosity are both personal and professional.

Curiously, curiosity is often in short supply. We are too busy or forget to ask questions. We are too timid to ask. We think we have enough information. We rely on Google for what we need to know. The result: People don’t know what they don’t know.

The knowledge gap from a lack of curiosity may run deeper than you imagine. Curious people tend to attract other curious people. The uncurious are left with their own thoughts – and, of course, their Google results.

Being inquisitive is something we exhibit in childhood, but can leave behind as adults. We shouldn’t. Curiosity is an essential element of engagement, which is increasingly a critical component of effective communications.

A curious person engages people in empathetic conversations, pulling out information or perspectives that people may not otherwise be willing to share. Those nuggets can illuminate a toxic force in a workplace, a viewpoint on a controversial issue or an unmet expectation. Just as important, asking questions can forge a caring relationship.

Research has shown curiosity is a sign of brain health. Engaging with other people stimulates the brain, builds healthier relationships and can be an antidote for anxiety.

All that, plus curiosity can unlock valuable data points. Curiosity is like putting a turbocharger on your Google search engine.

To rediscover your childhood curiosity, stow away your “I already know the answer” attitude. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Ask and find out.

You can rekindle curiosity by intentionally getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new – from what you eat to a useful app. Look for new experiences. Talk to people who aren’t in your tribe. When you hear an unfamiliar word, look it up. If something on the news piques your interest, track down details. Dare to be creative. Let yourself be amazed.

In client situations, be politely relentless in asking questions. Don’t settle for superficial answers. Keep asking so you discover the reasons behind answers. Dig to understand the nuances surrounding a complex issue or to find a fresh angle to explain what’s going on. 

If a client is uncomfortable with your professional curiosity, you should be curious about why. An issue manager or crisis counselor is not an errand boy. When you craft communications, your credibility is on the line as much as the client’s.

Curiosity will make your brain sharper, your relationships stronger and your career more rewarding. Quit worrying about the cat. Regain your enthusiasm.

 

Where Public Apologies for Sexual Misconduct Should Start

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior.   Photo Credit: The New York Times

The list of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing and presents a showcase of good, bad and pathetic public apologies, most of which fall far short of expressing regret for pervasive and systemic sexual misbehavior. 

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The still unfolding sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Hollywood, news media and politics also has showcased good, bad and pathetic high-profile public apologies.

Never an easy trick to pull off, even by the sincerest of people, public apologies require a lot more than “I’m sorry” because they usually involve a serious offense or allegation. To begin to repair reputational damage, a public apology must acknowledge wrongdoing, show empathy for victims and point to a path of rehabilitation.

Denying the allegations, even in the face of credible evidence, and denouncing accusers is the path to further reputational damage.

Jacob Sugarman, writing for Alternet, wonders whether there even is such a thing as a good public apology. If you are apologizing in public, he reasons, you have done something – or allegedly done something – pretty offensive. An apology may not be near enough to reach redemption. But it is a beginning,

Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who now faces two accusations of sexual misbehavior, began both of his statements with an apology. Then he said he didn’t remember the incident quite the same way as his first accuser or even remember the incident referenced by his second accuser. You would put Franken’s apology in the sort-of good category. He started with an apology, then offered a faint defense.

Louis C.K. began his apology by admitting he committed the offense of pleasuring himself in front of a captive audience of women. But his apology had the taint of a comic response. Yeah, I did it. Sorry. “I’ve been remorseful,” but get over it. The comic did say he was stepping back to reflect.

Franken directed his apology at his accuser, touted his own political record as a champion of women’s issues and called for a Senate ethics investigation, even though the USO incident for which he apologized occurred before he was in the Senate.

On the other end of Sugarman’s spectrum of apologetica are Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore who both deny accusations against them and stubbornly refuse to apologize for their actions. Weinstein has suggested his couch casting was the norm in Hollywood. Moore refuses to admit he even knew his teenage accusers.

To make matters worse, Weinstein hired Israeli spies to discredit some of his accusers. Moore dispatched his attorney to do the equivalent by demanding verification of Moore’s signature in a high school yearbook of one of his accusers he claims he never met.

Weinstein admitted himself to a sex addiction clinic. Moore refuses to withdraw from a race to win a seat in the US Senate, blaming the whole episode on political dirty tricks.

Somewhere in between was the semi-apology of actor Kevin Spacey. He offered commiseration with his teenage victim, explaining it was the result of “inappropriate drunken behavior.” Then he announced he is a gay man and has been traumatized for years by being in the closet.

The New York Times has published a story that lists the prominent men who have faced sexual misconduct accusations. The list needs almost daily updates. Charlie Rose, late of CBS News, is the latest man to offer an apology after eight women accused him of sexual harassment, groping and lewd behavior. “I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.”

It fell to Rose’s CBS News co-anchor Norah O’Donnell to put the whole issue of sexual misconduct into perspective: “This is a moment that demands a frank and honest assessment about where we stand and more generally the safety of women. Let me be very clear: There is no excuse for this alleged behavior. It is systematic and pervasive.”

The safety of women (and men, too) is at risk. Being seduced on a couch by a Hollywood producer or a business bigwig isn’t all that much different than being molested in an alley. Many women are emerging from the shadows of their memories to disclose what happened to them and the perpetrators who did it or tried to do it. The sheer volume of accusations and the common claim of unwanted kissing and groping and lewd behavior reinforces O’Donnell’s conclusion that “It is systemic and pervasive.”

One accused man accused who admits he’s a cad won’t end the pattern of sexual misconduct, but it’s a start. It also would be a perfect place to begin a real apology.

Reflections and Lessons to Learn About Sexual Misconduct

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

 A wave of allegations of sexual assault by men in power positions over women, girls and boys are a cause for collective reflection and universal action to take allegations serious and proactively root out sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is an explosive issue and recent allegations, denials, admissions and equivocations serve as a manual on what to do and not to do. They also are a mirror on how much or how little progress we have made on an issue that evokes raw emotions.

Rumors and charges of sexual misconduct by men in power positions aren’t new. The casting couch has been a longstanding image in Hollywood. But the flood gates of anger and frustration blew open with waves of revelations concerning big-time Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Despite Weinstein’s denials and his self-admission to a sex addiction clinic, he was booted out of his own company and expelled by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s company is considering a name change. His wife is seeking a divorce.

Allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct emboldened other women and men to reveal their long-suppressed horror stories about men who abused their power positions. The list, which is still growing, includes House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, NBC political analyst Mark Halperin, celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, comedian Louis C.K. and even former President George H. W. Bush.

The response to Weinstein’s abuses also provoked sharper, swifter responses to subsequent allegations – Netflix divorced itself from Spacey, Oreskes and Halperin were fired and Richardson was banned from working for Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines. However, critics questioned why Weinstein friends and associates didn’t blow the whistle sooner on his behavior that stretches back years. NPR’s CEO also took heat for not acting sooner when earlier allegations were made.

Many of the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing or said they couldn’t remember. Richardson said everything he did was consensual. Former President Bush cited his physical condition to explain his ass-touching during photo opps. Halperin and Oreskes apologized for their conduct and its impact on news team colleagues. Louis C.K. admitted his behavior was inappropriate and said he was withdrawing to reflect.

Amid the fallout from Weinstein, organizations with ties to alleged abusers quickly disassociated themselves and many issued statements about a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. There have been calls to elevate more women into positions of power.

Then came The Washington Post bombshell last week about Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his thirties and serving as an assistant district attorney. Moore denies the allegations and claims they are a political hit job just weeks before a special election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP officials urged Moore to step aside “if the allegations are true.” McConnell went further this week, saying he believed the allegations and reiterated Moore should exit the race and not imperil Republican chances to hold onto the seat and their precarious Senate majority.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went in a different direction. He blew past Moore’s denials and said Moore’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl appeared “consensual,” even though Alabama law puts the age of consent at 16. Hannity’s defense of Moore prompted Keurig and other companies to pull advertising from Hannity’s show, which in turn led Hannity defenders “to throw their Keurigs out the window.”

Alabama voters quoted in news stories expressed the range of reactions. Some were upset to hear the allegations; others saw the allegations as fake news and dirty politics. One convicted and conflicted Moore supporter said he would rather vote for a pedophile than a Democrat.

There are a lot of things to learn from this still unfolding series of stories:

  • Women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment should be respected for the courage it takes to tell – or in some cases retell – their stories. The sudden release of a spate of stories is a direct reflection of the hopelessness and fear many victims felt at the hands of men with power who they presumed, not incorrectly, would be protected. Questioning the timing of their revelations should be secondary to listening carefully to the content of their revelations.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that men in powerful positions (and a few women, too) have abused their positions to take advantage of people. Whether it involves pressuring women to have sex, forcing women to watch a man pleasuring himself or seducing minors shouldn’t matter. The gradations of abuse aren’t the issue and can’t be part of an explanation or excuse. Sexual abuse is, without any qualification, sexual abuse.
  • Owning the abuse, as Louis C. K. did, is a good start, but not full redemption. The worst toll of sexual abuse befalls the victim, not the abuser. Abusers may have to pay a price and even in some cases go to jail, but victims have to live with the stain of abuse for a long time, often with life-changing consequences. Give your emotional empathy to the victims.
  • While statements of zero tolerance are important and clearly timely, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your work environment hasn’t been turned toxic by sexual harassment or abuse. If you discover instances of it, take action. Don’t let it fester and, most important, don’t force victims to cower in the shadow of your inattention or inaction.
  • There may be a statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults, but there is no final deadline for allegations. If you think sexual abuse can be pushed under the rug or will just go away, think again. When allegations are made, pay attention. It may be time for rug-cleaning.
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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Actions Speak Louder Than Words in Post-Truth Era

The post-truth era has created sharper divisions that are deepened by social media and pose new challenges for organizations, individuals and professional communicators who need to send credible messages to audiences that are skeptical and have their own fact set.

The post-truth era has created sharper divisions that are deepened by social media and pose new challenges for organizations, individuals and professional communicators who need to send credible messages to audiences that are skeptical and have their own fact set.

The post-truth era and digital media complicate the best intentions of talking straight and telling the truth. Well-argued facts may be trumped by often repeated opinions.

Reporting the news and communicating to target audiences have become far more challenging because truth is increasingly relative and trusted information sources are suspect.

“Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers,” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine told the BBC. “For every fact, there is a counter-fact and all these counter-facts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.” In reality, facts and counter-facts intermingle almost indiscernibly with opinions posing as facts.

This reality goes beyond concerns over fake news. People view what’s happening around them through the lens of their political, ideological, religious and ethnic viewpoints. Put another way, we’ve become tribal about the information that immerses us and we ingest.

If anything, social media reinforces this tribalism by providing information vacuum chambers that closely resemble small village grapevines with parochial viewpoints. Social media also tends to feed the habit of hearing what you like – and provides the tools to lash out at what and who you dislike.

The non-stop speed of digital media is mind-numbing and outraces many of the mental safeguards people try to erect to weigh information fairly. The apparent collective coping mechanism of society in the digital age is to retreat to what is familiar – what we know or think we know.

For organizations, individuals and professional communicators trying to dispatch credible messages, especially in controversial settings or over contentious issues, the new shape of truth is a serious problem. Where once the challenge was to eliminate self-serving, ambiguous or false statements from communications, the challenge now is to couch messages in terms your intended audience will interpret as credible and not dismiss as fake.

Effective communication, whether written or spoken, has always depended on “knowing your audience.” Now it also means understanding how your audience will regard you and your views before you utter a word.

This is why many professional communicators, including me, emphasize actions before words. Actions are harder to misinterpret, even when the motives for actions are questioned. What you do can transcend tribal views of who you are and what you stand for. Your actions can interrupt the narratives of your opponents, giving you a chance to make a fresh impression divorced from pre-existing opinion.

Acting wisely, responsively and in a timely manner isn’t a magic wand that makes opposition or skepticism disappear. But actions can capture attention and open, if not change, otherwise closed minds. In a crisis environment, it is the best – and possibly only – shot you have to create a path for honest dialogue.

The post-truth era will most severely punish those who stumble into controversies unprepared, assuming they can bluster their way to a successful outcome. Misinformation is a hard beast to defeat and virtually impossible to overcome by chance. In bare-knuckle debates over major projects, housing developments or new policies, parties feel less restrained to stick with the truth as opposed to what sells. The smartest opponents know the importance of solid research and how to use it to arouse and enrage target audiences at your expense.

You can’t assume that traditional ways to group people are a true reflection of an audience. As Pew Research has shown, there are many fissures, for example, in groups we label as “liberal” or “conservative.” Making broad assumptions about an audience can overlook micro-groups and their quite distinct opinions.

Preparation must include research to know your opponent’s best arguments, as well as your own. But the post-truth era demands having a more visceral understanding of your audience, its perspective and its pain points. Facts won’t necessarily carry the day. Actions that take into account the biases and skepticism of an impacted audience have a better chance of leaping across the abyss of fact and fiction.

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

The Pros and Cons of Counterpunching

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching can be an effective strategy when attacked online, on TV or in print. But the counterpunch needs to pack some punch or else it may only serve to give more exposure to the original attack.

There is hardly a better example of an effective counterpunch than Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander’s response to a TV ad by his incumbent opponent claiming he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander, a 35-year-old former Army intelligence officer, produced a 30-second TV spot in which he assembles an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded while explaining his views on guns.

He describes how he rode shotgun while serving in Afghanistan for unarmed convoys, supports the Second Amendment and favors background checks “so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.” The spot ends with Kander saying, “I approved this message, ‘cause I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this” as he places a round in the fully assembled rifle.

Kander didn’t unseat Blunt, who was seeking re-election to the US Senate with strong support from the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t lose because of his views on guns. His ad clearly set the record straight.

Donald Trump rode his impulsive counterpunching prowess through a crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary and ultimately to the White House. As a debate strategy, Trump’s counterpunches kept his adversaries off balance and successfully deflected their criticisms of him.

Debaters often use counterpunching as a technique. But using counterpunching as a strategy in a communications crisis can be trickier because, unlike a debate, there are no formal rules. In the wide-open horizons of social media, a misplaced counterpunch can have the same effect as shooting yourself in the foot.

Like any other kind of strategic communication, a counterpunch needs to be weighed for its positive and potential negative outcomes. One of the most important considerations is context. Typically, gun control advocates don’t defend their views by brandishing automatic weapons. In Kander’s case, it made sense. As one political observer noted, “Militarism sells in Missouri.” The candidate’s ad was a not-so-subtle way to underscore that Kander served in the military and his opponent didn’t, despite his NRA endorsement.

Many of Trump’s campaign counterpunches and his defensive presidential tweets have stirred added controversy and, in more than few cases, fueled entire new controversies. If your strategy is to win the news cycle every day, this works. If you are trying to escape the news cycle, then counterpunching can be counter-effective.

The best use of counterpunching is to respond to a serious false claim about you or your organization. Even then the road can be treacherous.

Consider Tesla’s counterpunch to a 2013 New York Times story about a test drive that ended with a depleted battery and an embarrassing tow. Elon Musk called the story a fake and accused the writer of intentionally staging the bad ending. Musk trotted out graphs and charts based on driving logs that contested key points in the Times article.

The Musk counterpunch had antecedents. Many years before Audi challenged a report about sudden acceleration in its cars and won a retraction. However, Musk never quite earned a retraction, just a long article in the Times’ Public Editor’s Journal. The most telling part of the article was a comment by a reader and Tesla Model S owner who said the reporter should have read the manual about the range of the electric vehicle:


“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that the write ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type).”

But the reader also laid blame on Tesla:

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Not exactly a direct hit for a counterpunch. Instead of attacking the reporter and his integrity, Musk might have chosen another strategy, such as pointing out the need for more charging stations to eliminate problems like this. That would have acknowledged the problem and identified a solution, maybe earning editorial support for the solution by the influential newspaper.

A year later, Tesla appeared to learn this lesson and stayed quiet when the CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes aired a glowing piece about the Tesla, which included an engine growling noise when the car accelerated. Auto junkies jumped on the report, noting that electric cars don’t growl. CBS issued an apology, blaming the engine noise dubbing on an “audio error.” There was no win for Tesla in this drag race, so it wisely stayed in the grandstands.

When you are hit with a false claim, it is tempting to strike back. It can work, but it often doesn’t. Jason Kander produced one of the best ever counterpunching ads – and he still lost. Before counterpunching, think it through before acting on emotion.

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

Televangelist Proves Proverbial Value of Crisis Preparation

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen provided a fresh example of why crisis preparation is essential – and its absence can blow a serious hole in your reputation.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes with no place to go, Osteen offered prayers, but not access to his massive megachurch building, which was formerly where the Houston Rockets played. After a savage social media response, Osteen relented, then offered a string of explanations, none of which quieted the storm of criticism. Twitter users branded Pastor Osteen as a hypocrite.

Osteen already has faced criticism as a pastor-for-pay, with a net worth of more than $50 million, not a humble messenger of God to the downtrodden. His prosperity message of prayer-to-riches was oddly discordant with the equal opportunity ravages of flooding in Houston. His failure to open his church doors to flood victims only amplified that criticism, as well as put him in front of TV cameras, including NBC’s Today show, to explain his actions – or inaction.

Whether Osteen’s explanations hold water or not can’t drown out the reality that he wasn’t thinking ahead of what might happen if a huge hurricane barreled into the city bringing relentless rain in its wake. Osteen said he didn’t have the personnel available to manage a huge crowd inside his church. And he said no one could have anticipated the impact of the hurricane. Both explanations disregard the value of crisis preparation, which includes anticipating and planning for what might happen.

Huge hurricane, lots of rain, flooding, people forced to flee. Really not that hard to anticipate in a city on the Gulf of Mexico susceptible to big storms and with low-lying neighborhoods, some of which are named after bayous (bodies of water in flat, low-lying areas). Details of the building storm over the Gulf that became a Category 4 hurricane at landfall were widely reported days ahead. If there was massive flooding, officials would certainly be looking for some place to shelter them – like large convention centers or arenas that have bathrooms and kitchens. The bells should have started ringing.

Evidently, Osteen’s organization never had talked with Houston officials about storm response and apparently there were no internal conversations either. Not only was that a huge oversight, it also is a huge blown opportunity, as pointed out by Brad Phillips in his blog. “Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen,” Phillips wrote, “it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood [the name of his church] as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.”

In other words, Osteen blew a chance to convert his megachurch into a community refuge.

Osteen is a great speaker. But great speech isn’t always what’s needed in a crisis. TV news reports, social media and YouTube were filled with images of desperate people being rescued and knee-deep neighbors helping neighbors escape their roofs. Nothing provided a better contrast to Osteen’s crisis response than the picture of a long line of Houstonians who queued up to volunteer in rescue and relief efforts.

As the Harris County sheriff put it, the scenes were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. To thousands of flood victims and many others, Osteen’s slow-opening church door simply struck them as heartless.

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