crisis response

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.

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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.

 

Apple Offers Model Response to Aging Battery Crisis

In response to consumer concerns about slowed iPhone performance, Apple gave a model crisis response with a sincere apology, a clear explanation of what it did to extend again battery life, a consumer pledge and an offer to buy replacement batteries at a much cheaper price.

In response to consumer concerns about slowed iPhone performance, Apple gave a model crisis response with a sincere apology, a clear explanation of what it did to extend again battery life, a consumer pledge and an offer to buy replacement batteries at a much cheaper price.

Bad apologies dominated 2017, but near year end Apple provided a better example of a sincere apology accompanied by a clear explanation and a meaningful act of contrition.

When consumer suspicions were confirmed that older iPhones intentionally slowed down, Apple issued a statement on its website confirming the suspicions were true. After apologizing for a lack of transparency, Apple explained the slowdown was designed to extend the battery life of older iPhones, not prod users to buy a new one. And, it said it would reduce the cost of replacement batteries from $79 to $29.

The company’s statement is straightforward, clear and informative. It is a mature response to consumer concerns and a good model for how to respond to a crisis.

Far too many apologies in 2017, especially ones associated with sexual misconduct, were feeble and inadequate. Some were quasi-apologies. Others were defensive or defiant. They contributed to further decay of the reputations of the would-be apologists.

Sincere apologies don’t come easy. They can be uncomfortable. The temptation is to trim the truth. That’s why Apple’s face-the-music statement stands out from the pack.

“We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process. We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”

The statement acknowledges the problem, owns it and apologizes. Then comes an explanation that is neither defensive or fuzzy:

“About a year ago in iOS 10.2.1, we delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone SE. With the update, iOS dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown. While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance.

“Customer response to iOS 10.2.1 was positive, as it successfully reduced the occurrence of unexpected shutdowns. We recently extended the same support for iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in iOS 11.2.”

However, consumer grumbling began last fall about slower iPhone performance, which gave rise to conspiracy theories about Apple’s true intentions. Apple’s statement tackles that head on:

“First and foremost, we have never – and would never – do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.”

That declaration is followed by an understandable explanation of how cell phone batteries age and can cause sudden, unexpected shutdowns.

Apple’s statement ends with a section titled “Addressing customer concerns,” which includes the offer to reduce the price of out-of-warranty batteries to $29. The iPhone maker says in early 2018 it “will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.”

The statement concludes: “At Apple, our customers’ trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it. We are able to do the work we love only because of your faith and support – and we will never forget that or take it for granted.”

Conspiracy theories may still bounce around, but Apple provided consumers – and skeptics – a clear, comprehensive explanation coupled with an apology, a consumer pledge and a compelling offer for users with aging batteries. You can’t ask for or expect more from a credible crisis response.

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.

The Role of Reasoning and Integrity in Persuasion

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

The true art of persuasion relies on reasoning, credible proof and integrity. Persuasion based on faulty reasoning, half-truths or outright lies is propaganda.

Persuasion today means making someone believe something. Originally, persuasion meant making someone believe something through reasoning.

The absence of reasoning in contemporary persuasion may account for why so many people can’t agree on facts, let alone points of view. If you persuade based on half-truths, misleading facts or lies, you are dealing in the art of faulty reasoning and propaganda. Reasoning based on facts is what distinguishes demagogues from persuasive speakers.

Executive coach Greg Salciiccioli published a blog about “The Art of Persuasion” in which he optimistically says, “Persuasion can be a constructive way of finding shared solutions to a common problem.” He adds, “Persuasion, when used honestly, can be used to work toward a joint goal.”

Even though the national dialogue seems hopelessly stuck in a ditch, Salciccioli’s perspective on persuasion can be useful in engaging and possibly even convincing skeptical audiences.

“Persuasion requires a handful of useful skills, including active listening, emotional empathy and generosity.” Salciccioli wrote. “Without these things, people will take our actions and suggestions as that of a manipulator, and rightfully so. We must show that our end goal is to serve the needs of others, even in the case where we hold an opposing viewpoint.”

A hallmark of persuasion, according to Salciccioli, is providing credible proof or a reasonable explanation of your point of view. But persuasive people, he says, also need to be willing to make emotional connections with those they seek to persuade and to practice what they preach. If you can’t relate and be an example of your perspective, you have little chance to be persuasive.

In effect, Salciccioli has amended the definition of persuasion with the addition of the concept of integrity. You may seem to persuade without reason and authenticity, but you won’t be a persuasive person. That requires more than just a blather of words and boasts.

“Be an example, especially in the things you stand up for and publicly teach or claim,” Salciccioli explains. “It can be a hard thing to do as leaders, and while we’re all imperfect, this is probably the most important part of persuasion to get right. Strong positions we hold are easily undermined by hypocrisy. Put the time into practicing what you hope for others to achieve. It will give you a new sense of empathy and understanding that you cannot fabricate if you’re giving people the ‘real deal.”

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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.

Engagement is an Attitude, Not a Box to Check Off

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Creating connections is a public affairs imperative to vent concerns, meet expectations and shed light on ways to improve a housing development, a school bond or a crisis response.

Public affairs and marketing campaigns share a common trait – and sometimes a common fate. If campaigns fail to connect with their target audiences, they are compost.

Connecting with an audience can take a lot of forms. Ignoring an audience's interests or concerns isn’t one of them.

Public affairs professionals and marketers err by starting off with what they want to say rather than appealing to what their audience wants to hear. To make a connection, you need to acknowledge your audience’s perspective and pain points.

Establishing rapport doesn’t mean trimming your message. It does mean making a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes. Where are they coming from? What concerns them? What would alleviate their anxiety?

For example, the developer of a major housing development might begin his public affairs outreach by meeting one-on-one with some of the nearest neighbors to ask them to share their concerns and wishes if the development occurs. Later, at a neighborhood meeting or public hearing, the developer could begin his presentation by referencing his meetings, what he learned and how he tried allay concerns and accommodate wishes.

In the meantime, smart developers will absorb what they hear and translate it into modifications that respond to concerns and often enhance the development.

There should be no illusions that meeting and making compromises will satisfy all opponents or eliminate pitched opposition. It won’t. It will generate respect and mitigate opposition by some. It might even turn some opponents into proponents.

Community engagement is now an expectation of most public entities that approve land-use and construction plans. Public officials believe engagement can buff off the rough edges of development and provide a vent for frustration about more houses, more traffic and more kids in an already overcrowded school.

Demonstrating an ability to forge community connections also may prove important to convince public officials to allocate the necessary budget resources to review development plans and defend decisions that are appealed. A solid record of community outreach and good faith response in development plans can play a helpful role in winning final approval.

These same principles hold true in other public affairs spheres such as school bonds, major infrastructure projects and crisis response.

The best way to understand what you are up against is to talk with the people you are up against. They may be uncomfortable conversations, but they will be a lot more productive than shouting matches with people who feel, with justification, you have failed to listen to them.

Connecting with audiences is all about showing them you care about them and have their interests in mind. It is not a box to check off. It is an attitude. And if you practice it often and well enough, it can become a reputation.

Complementary Engagement Partners

Barney & Worth and CFM Strategic Communications have provided a range of clients with integrated community engagement and public affairs services to make quality connections that influence project outcomes.

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.

Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

We chopped Chipotle for mishandling a food safety crisis that sickened customers. Now it's time to give the Mexican fast food chain props for taking savvy steps to rebuild its reputation for "making better food accessible to everyone.”

In full-page print ads, Chipotle Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells owns the crisis as he lays out specific ways the company will sharply improve its food handling practices. 

“In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program.”

The ad lists eight “important advancements” that include improving supply chain food handling, employing new technology in prepping food, training farmers to meet stricter food safety requirements and improved in-store food handling procedures.

The list goes further, citing actions that crisis counselors often recommend – credible, validated third-party evaluations and inspections.

Ells says Chipotle managers and field leaders will need certification from a nationally recognized institution, which he added is a “first for any national restaurant chain.”

Restaurant inspections will “dramatically increase,” conducted by both Chipotle inspection teams and independent auditors.

Chipotle will implement an advanced electronic tracking system to monitor food sources and be able to trace supplies that should be removed or not accepted.

Chipotle will also create an advisory council comprised of industry experts charged with “continually reviewing procedures and providing insight into new food safety advancements.” An unsolicited suggestion, expand the advisory committee to include an online panel of Chipotle consumers and listen to their concerns, praise and ideas. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Chipotle’s sharpest critics suggested scrapping the brand and starting over. Instead, Ells chose the path of weathering the storm, which has included a significant drop-off in business, and emerging with a redoubled commitment to food safety. The ads are in effect the coming out party for the Chipotle brand and its new standards.

The actions Ells laid out aren’t flashy, but they respond directly to consumer questions (and fears) about the fresh food Chipotle serves. Maybe the chain should have figured out sooner that fresh fast food has higher risks than processed food. Chipotle’s response, at least as described, appears genuine and likely to be effective in reassuring wary customers to return.

With the painful lesson that fresh food demands greater vigilance now learned, Chipotle can embark on being the brand that leads the way on both. If it does, Chipotle will have converted its crisis into an opportunity to become better than before.

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.

Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.

Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:

Anticipation

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.

Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.

Surprise

Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.

Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.

Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.

First Impression

First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.

Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.

When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.

Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.

Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.

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.

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

Jim Lukaszewski, who bills himself as “America’s crisis guru,” says crises breed “mindless commentary” by the media and often other PR professionals. “They didn’t act fast enough.” “They didn’t have a crisis plan capable of responding to something of this magnitude.” “The response should have been executed much more cleanly with fewer hiccups.”

“Total nonsense,” Lukaszewski says. “Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding.”

His point: Forget the criticism, which is inevitable, and focus on reacting fast and communicating. Make what you say rise above “bloviation,” focus on victims and share the truth.

Some of the most tempting bait for crisis response ridicule is how long it takes for remedial action. Lukaszewski pointed to the 120 days it took BP to shut off its Gulf of Mexico oil leak, which invited criticism from the highest levels. In the absence of credible and frank crisis response, news agencies hired their own underwater teams to capture images of the leak.

Wishing it would take less time isn’t an effective crisis response. Explaining as honestly as possible what and how long remediation will take would have been the most appropriate approach, even if it still courted criticism. Better yet, perhaps BP should have hired the underwater crew to monitor its response, missteps and all.

The most immediate response that matters, according to Lukaszewski, is caring for victims. You can earn a lot of goodwill for sensitively addressing crisis impacts on neighbors, employees or customers. These are actions you can show with real-time tweets, video and live streaming that counter negative imagery arising from the crisis. There are almost the only actions you can control in a crisis.

Lukaszewski warns against going silent when a crisis hits.  “Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice,” he says. “There is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage,” even if the crisis response is “splendid."

The Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier serves as a good local example of what Lukaszewski calls "bungled crisis communication.” A UP spokesman issued a timely statement that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the derailment, which resulted in burning overturned railcars and an oil spill into the Columbia River.

The word “inconvenience” appended to an apology seemed woefully inadequate. UP failed to mention damage to Mosier’s water and sewer systems. Sewers were shut off and the water system was dry. UP also failed to acknowledge the disruption to the community, which was scary for a nearby school and costly for local merchants.

There was no way UP could escape scathing criticism for the derailment and subsequent oil leaks. But it could have gained some respect by an early acknowledgement of the damage that had been done and its commitment to make things right. Instead, UP’s actions seemed more intent on clearing the track to resume train traffic.

A good strategy would have been to have people with UP jackets or vests omnipresent in Mosier, listening, monitoring teams assessing damage and doing whatever possible to demonstrate regret for the accident, not just the inconvenience caused by the accident.

A glance at UP’s Twitter feed revealed no tweets about the derailment or Mosier cleanup efforts. Instead there were tweets about UP’s online Railroad Trivia, including who was president of the railroad in 1906.

As Lukaszewski says, it is hard to plan for a major crisis. They always stumble in unexpected directions. But what you can plan for is dealing with the crisis as honestly, quickly and with as much care as possible. That doesn't take training or a crisis play, just guts and determination. 

Customize Your Crisis Plan with Risk Scenarios

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

A fast food restaurant, an industrial helicopter company and a nonprofit child welfare agency don’t share the same vulnerabilities, so why should they have the same crisis plan? They need unique crisis plans built around risk scenarios each might actually face.

A fast food restaurant should prepare for a food safety crisis response, not one involving a helicopter crash or child abuse. That sounds obvious, but in practice many organizations settle for a crisis plan based on a template they plucked up somewhere online. Scenario-based crisis plans may or may not look like the crisis plan templates you can find online. This is a case where function is more important than form.

There are common elements in crisis plans, such as up-to-date phone lists, a designated crisis team leader and protocols on how to field press calls. While not unimportant, those are not the defining characteristics of a savvy, effective crisis response.

Here are some of critical characteristics of scenario-based crisis plans that you won’t get from a template:

Conduct an Issue Audit

A scenario-based crisis plan begins with an issue audit where key staff members and stakeholders meet to identify the spectrum of vulnerabilities facing their organization. Candor is critical so you don’t leave off a sensitive issue everyone would prefer  to ignore. The issue audit should cover the waterfront of potential operational, financial, legal, competitive and reputational risks.

Assess Probability and Potential Consequence of Risks

After a range of risks have been identified, they need to be assessed to determine how likely each is to occur and, if it does occur, how seriously it could hurt the organization. This is what risk managers and insurers do, but many organizations don’t have anyone to manage risk or the wherewithal to insure against risk. The key deliverable from a risk assessment is to create a hierarchy of risks in which those with the highest likelihood to occur and the largest potential impact are put on top.

Measure Your Perception Gap

Conducting perception gap research is essential to understand reputational risks. You may think your reputation is spiffy, but stakeholders or customers may disagree. Knowing there is a perception gap and why that gap exists is valuable information that can inform crisis scenario planning and an actual crisis response. The cost of perception gap analysis can be spread because its findings are also worthwhile for organizational branding, management decision-making and employee training and recruitment.

Determine What Risks You Can Control

An often overlooked aspect of crisis preparation is crisis avoidance. Look at your list of potential risks and assess which ones have factors that you can control. Are there ways you can improve safety in your operation? Can you install more reliable safeguards for your processes? Is there a way to diversify your revenue stream? How can you differentiate yourself from competitors in a way that will build goodwill with customers? The answers to questions like these about your list of vulnerabilities should generate a management action plan that at once increases organizational viability and lessens or eliminates a potential crippling organizational vulnerability.

Write a Crisis Plan Based on Highest Risk Scenarios

Craft crisis scenarios that are likely to occur, could wreak the most damage and over which you have little control. You should add scenarios that you could eliminate or mediate, but haven’t. Each crisis scenario should anticipate how and by whom it might be triggered, which can a valuable guide on where to look for the cause of a crisis and what steps to take to address it.

Get Specific in Crisis-Scenario Responses

Because you have identified high-likelihood, high-impact risks, it makes sense to be as specific as possible on how to respond. Where will you go to get the facts and how will you vet them? Who needs to be alerted about the crisis? What resources will you call on to assist with your crisis response? How will you organize internally to address the crisis? Who will be your spokesperson? What process will you use to ensure timely, accurate and trust-building crisis updates? Is there useful background information you can prepare in advance to release to the public when a Crisis scenario occurs?

Include Crisis Plan Checklist

Don’t forget to add basics such as internal and external contact information, designating a crisis team leader and media training for spokespersons and key fact-finders. Fact-finders may not be the persons you want in front of reporters and TV cameras, but they will understand their role better if they have experienced the pressure of responding on deadline to harsh questioning.

Evaluate Whether Your Crisis Plan Aligns with Your Values

A crisis will only become an opportunity if an organization’s response aligns faithfully to its professed values. The most memorable crisis responses are ones that closely correspond to an organization’s values. Are the actions outlined in step with those values? Will you do everything expected based on your values? Can you point to specific responses that demonstrate your commitment to your values? 

Run a Crisis Plan Fire Drill

A crisis plan isn’t an abstract manual; it is a realistic how-to-guide. Your organization won’t be fully prepared until you test your crisis plan, find out our kinks exist and iron them out. The best way to do that is to conduct an organizational fire drill involving a high-risk, high-impact scenario.

Keep the Crisis Plan Fresh

Crisis plans don’t have unlimited shelf life. Build in a timeline to review the plan, asking questions about newly emerging crisis scenarios and whether your media-training spokespersons are still available. Make sure to update contact lists regularly. Think continuously about ways to prepare background information in advance that can be stored on a ghost website for when you need it. Visual explanations and videos take time to produce, so don’t wait until a crisis strikes to get into the director’s chair.

Follow these steps and you will be as ready as possible for a crisis that could affect your organization. A disciplined crisis planning process is beneficial even if a crisis scenario occurs out of the blue. Your organization will have developed the mentality and muscle tone to respond as a unit with speed, accuracy and commitment.

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.

Live Streaming Crisis Response on Twitter

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter has become the recognized social media platform for crisis response, and its greatest potential may lie in the expanding capabilities for live streaming video through tools such as Periscope and twitcam.

This capability, which has been used so far for marketing purposes and video selfies, has the potential to give crisis response teams their own Tweetcasting channel where they can show how they are responding, assessing impacts or alerting people to dangers. Twitcam and Periscope are also coupled with a chat function to allow interaction with viewers.

Twitter recently announced plans to shut down twitcam on June 7, but don’t interpret that as a shift away from streaming tools. In fact, it comes at a time when the company is enhancing Periscope’s integration with smartphones and tablets on the Android system, the fastest-growing mobile platform in the world. Twitter announced the same plan for Apple's operating system in January.

The underlying value of Twitter is as a real-time communications platform that can be managed through the use of hashtags. The news media already hangs out on Twitter, where they promote their own stories and look for leads. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has demonstrated how tweets can “trump” the rest of the news and dominate a news cycle.

Periscope launched just last year, promising to become a popular tool among journalists with an eye on expanding live coverage of major events, press conferences and disasters. A recent University of Washington study on how people use Periscope in crisis responses shows the tool’s central role in the exchange of information surrounding three national stories from 2015.  

“Qualitative and quantitative analyses of tweets relating to the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, Baltimore protests after Freddie Grey’s death, and Hurricane Joaquin flooding in South Carolina reveal that this recently deployed application is being used by both citizens and journalists for information sharing, crisis coverage and commentary,” the researchers found. “The accessibility and immediacy of live video directly from crisis situations, and the embedded chats which overlay on top of a video feed, extend the possibilities of real-time interaction between remote crowds and those on the ground in a crisis.”

Honing in on one reporter’s coverage of the Freddie Grey riots, the study showed Twitter users are especially attracted to live video updates from the scene.  

“Paul Lewis, a Guardian correspondent, made particularly heavy use of Periscope to cover the event, authoring 26 Periscope tweets, including 10…that contained active streams,” the report reads. “His tweets were retweeted 296 times, and he was mentioned in 166 other tweets.”

Live streaming of content adds another dimension to real-time communication. It effectively puts viewers at the scene, allowing them to see events unfold and hear from direct witnesses, which conveys authenticity and can create positive impressions of crisis response.

Twitcam assigns live streaming videos with their own URLs, which make them easily discoverable when they are posted on a crisis response website or online newsroom. The thread of real-time Twitter updates will be greatly enhanced by corresponding video records.

Live streaming on Twitter could be useful for issue managers as well. Live streaming can generate content that acts like B-Roll video, providing interviews, visual explanations or on-the-scene coverage that can be shared in real time, then stored online for later use. This gives journalists – especially TV reporters – something else to flash on screen during their stories other than protesters with placards, costumes and over-the-top props. Well done live streamed videos may even change the arc of the story.

Of course, live streaming has all the intrinsic pitfalls of a live broadcast. You can’t control every variable in a crisis, so you won’t be able to anticipate every problem in your live streaming video. Successful live streaming takes foresight. You need someone who can be the director, someone skilled enough to shoot the video you want and a team that views live streaming video as a valuable asset, not a risky gimmick.

The future of live streaming looks bright for the business sector. A number of business-oriented apps are already available for live streaming video. But here’s something everyone should keep in mind: You don’t want a crisis to be the first time you’ve used a live streaming service. Take some time to become familiar with the technology. Practice live streaming and work through the kinks before you find yourself on the spot responding to a real crisis.

The good news is that technology has made shooting quality video a lot easier and much cheaper with digital cameras, including that tiny one on your tablet or smartphone. The cinema vérité appearance of what is shot can evoke immediacy and authenticity and is mostly a plus, not a minus. 

Journalistic ethics can’t be ditched. This isn’t a movie where you can take license with the truth. You need to provide a fair view of what’s happening and how you are responding.

For organizations still muddling around on whether they need a crisis plan, live streaming may seem like a reach. But that doesn’t need to be so.  Coming at crisis preparation with a fresh perspective may make it easier to embrace concepts such as live streaming video and serve as an enticement to get that all important crisis plan done.

The Value of Local PR Advice

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Companies and organizations ask for trouble when they fail to recognize the obstacles that can occur in communications between different cultures and geographies.

What is transparency in one culture may be completely foreign in another. The kind of language and quality of explanation that works in one part of the country may fall flat in the ears of consumers who live somewhere else.

The most fundamental obstacle is not knowing the local turf. Our colleague Ruud Bijl, who provides crisis counsel to clients from his home base in Amsterdam, wrote, "When a crisis occurs, corporate guidelines and cultural differences often cause an international company headaches.”

In his blog, Bijl cited the example of a Chinese toy company that was baffled by a West European company representative who recommended issuing an apology and recalling a defective video game. Toy company officials refused to do either and instructed their representative to respond only to complaints, even if that risked a long-term dent in the brand’s reputation. 

Encountering these kinds of obstacles doesn't require crossing international boundaries. They can occur anywhere. Cultural barriers can exist in the same city.

For example, a company with social service operations across America and a headquarters in the Midwest may feel like a fish out of water trying to communicate to stakeholders in a place like Oregon. The politics and sensitivities around the social services could be very different. And the company PR team may not have any existing relationships with key reporters or local influencers. Their attempt to deliver a complex message may be thwarted by not getting a reporter of a key publication to call them back on the phone.

Crisis response and media relations, like politics, is all local. You need to know the lay of the land and who to call. You should understand the local context for a problem or issue. Experience dealing with crises or touchy issues is valuable, but so is the good sense to seek some local assistance. 

Bijl advises that crisis communications plans take into account cultural differences and geographical distances so a crisis response team isn’t bogged down trying to identify and cope with those obstacles. The same counsel applies to a media relations or marketing program. Know your audience, understand how it gets trusted information and build rapport with those influencers before you roll out a campaign or respond to a crisis.

For large, complex and multi-location organizations, that may not be possible without competent local assistance. The cost of hiring and following the advice of a savvy local PR team is well worth it if you can avoid running into a communication brick wall.

Headlines Reinforce Crisis Response Reality

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

Fresh front-page headlines tell an old story – how you respond to crisis affects your reputation as much or more than the crisis itself.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was pressured to resign after his indifferent response to on-campus racial incidents, including snubbing a group of protestors who surrounded his car demanding an opportunity to talk face-to-face.

Chipotle faces a sharp business drop-off after the trendy burrito chain cavalierly responded to more than 40 of its customers in Oregon and Washington coming down with E. coli food poisoning. The company’s sluggish response to the crisis will put a dent in its "food with integrity" slogan that has attracted a loyal following, and it will give fuel to its critics who have mocked the restaurant’s high-calorie menu in the Chubby Chipotle campaign.

Then there’s GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has drawn rebukes from his Republican rivals and even more investigative intensity in the past week. Carson found himself under the microscope after complaining about excessive scrutiny following press reports that questioned the accuracy of his statements about a scholarship to West Point and a violent past as a teenager.

Looking overseas, the initial response by Egyptian and Russian officials to the downed Metrojet passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in retrospect looks like an effort to avoid rocking the tourist boat. While the plea not to rush to judgment made sense, the quick dismissal of a terrorist act contradicted their own words. It took action by British Prime Minister David Cameron – who suspended British carrier flights to Sharm el-Sheikh – to bring to light the very real prospect of a bomb that brought down the plane. Now, the Russian government has suspended flights as it tries to find a way to bring home more than 25,000 Russian tourists.

In this situation, the Russians are displaying the same head-in-the-sand reaction to a damaging international report about state-sponsored doping by the country's track and field athletes.

If you are Russia, maybe you don't care what other people think. But for most of us, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Preserving that reputation in a crisis situation is a priority.

While no two situations are alike, there are universal crisis response fundamentals that apply to all of these situations. Chief among them is responding proactively by acknowledging the crisis and its repercussions, accepting responsibility and taking demonstrable action to address the cause of the crisis.

If Wolfe had acknowledged and denounced the inexcusable racial incidents that occurred on the University of Missouri campus, he would have placed himself on the same side as those who were deeply offended. In light of the racial tensions sparked by events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, it is incredible that Wolfe could be so tone deaf.

Wolfe's resignation – spurred in part by the Missouri football team refusing to play this weekend – belatedly reflected empathy for the situation when he urged his departure to be the start of a healing process. Better late than never, but a proactive crisis response is always best.

Ethics and Crisis

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis is an unwelcome way to prove your mettle and test your ethics.

The chaos of crisis will challenge your calm, creating an opportunity to perform under pressure amid events out of your control. But crisis also will tempt you to cut corners, blame scapegoats and bend the truth. Your core values may take a backseat to expediency. Your ethics is one of the best tools to carry around in a crisis. 

Acting ethically in crisis, while hard, is the right thing to do. Ethical behavior is the path to a burnished reputation.

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the tainted Tylenol incident is the perfect example of a crisis response based on values. James E. Burke, CEO of J&J, challenged all his employees to put "Patients First," the company's brand promise. Pulling Tylenol from shelves, meeting with thousands of care providers and patients and developing the tamper-proof container were the fruits of following that core value.

Your ethics will be on the line when you are called on to stand in front of microphone, admit a mistake and take responsibility for a mess. Your reputation can take a hit if you hide out, shift responsibility and blame others.

People know stuff happens. They tend to judge based on what you do after stuff happens. Sluggish responses, fingerprinting and denial often leads to a cascading drop in credibility.

Here are four tips on how to integrate ethics into your crisis response:

Look in the Mirror
Before doing anything else, take stock of your reputation, your brand promise, what you stand for. Let that be your guide as you lead efforts to clean up a spill, stabilize a faltering operation or condemn a bad practice. Deputize everyone involved in the crisis response to follow the same guideline. Make an enhanced reputation your goal.

Be Proactive
Don't let events beyond your control define your response. Take charge of fixing what's wrong. Find a long-term solution. Communicate with your own employees and those who are impacted. Use tools such as Twitter that allow real-time communications.

Seek Advice
Owning a crisis doesn't mean dealing with it alone. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to seek expert opinions, consult your own employees and ask those caught in the crisis what they think should be done. Be curious and empathetic, not cavalier and impulsive. You may get conflicting advice, but you also will get invaluable suggestions.

See Your Actions in a Newspaper Headline
A simple test to assess your actions is to write the most slanted story and headline to describe them. If the result disturbs you, then reconsider what you do. Pursue actions that are unmistakably sound and reflections of your ethics, actions will are likely to produce headlines you would want your family and friends to read the next day.

First Call in a Crisis

If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

"If there's something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Ghostbusters"
                               – Ray Parker

That works for the movie, but if your organization finds itself in the midst of a crisis, the first people to let know are your own employees.

Too often, employee communication in a crisis is an afterthought. They are left finding out what's going on by reading news accounts or following someone else's tweets.

This is a badly missed opportunity because employees can be a trusted conduit for reliable information about a crisis. If employees aren't clued in, they can inadvertently become a conduit for inaccurate or confusing information through their iPhone pictures and social media chatter.

Many crisis preparation plans include excruciating detail on how and when to communicate with external audiences such as the news media, but glance over the value of timely internal communications. Few plans call for telling employees about a crisis first.

How a company deals with a crisis can enhance or tarnish its reputation. That is especially true for the company's workforce. If employees are left in the dark, their estimation of management can drop. Morale can sag as employees conclude they really aren't strategic partners in the enterprise.

Employees briefed on a crisis can do more than tell the company's story. They can help shape what the company does, offering practical advice about maintaining operations that could easily be overlooked in the chaos that dominates crisis situations.

Overloaded crisis communicators may think there isn't time to talk to employees when reporters or angry neighbors are calling every minute. But this really isn't a job that should be delegated anyway. The organization's top dog should seize the opportunity to share what is happening, explain the response and ask for constructive ideas.

There is a lot of confusion during a crisis. Don't be confused about who ya gonna call first.

Talking to Optimists and Pessimists

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

Should you focus on what's wrong or what's right? Are you pessimistic or optimistic? Do you project gloom or hope? Which is likely to attract wider support?

Sadly, there is no easy answer. But there are clues.

You could argue Ronald Reagan ("city on the hill") defeated Jimmy Carter ("crisis of confidence") in the 1980 presidential election because optimism triumphed over pessimism.

Then again, few dispute H.L. Mencken's sardonic observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public."

Pessimism and optimism may be polar opposites, but inseparable. They may be the devil and the angel that perch on our shoulders and whisper constantly in our ears.

Winston Churchill said, "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Harry Truman put it similarly, but differently, "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."

With exceptions, most of us qualify as part-time pessimists and part-time optimists. We are influenced by what's going on in our personal lives and what's happening around us. If you had a wonderful family, a good job and a beautiful community, but lived in the shadow of a nuclear conflict, you would have cause for both optimism and pessimism.

The duality and ineluctability of optimism and pessimism forms a significant challenge for communicators. Do you appeal to the dark side or light side of an issue? Do you play on people's fears or try to lift their hopes? Do you describe what's wrong or point to how to make it right?

Helen Keller may have the best advice of how to approach such questions. "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Optimism, in the face of all reason, is part of the American personality.

The best way to combat fear is to shine light on hope.

Americans may seem like reluctant optimists, when their confidence sags as consumers or their faith in government wanes or their anxiety over foreign conflicts surges. But without question, Americans gravitate to voices of optimism and people with ideas.

That's why crisis responders need to accept responsibility, but acknowledge the need to move forward. That's why issue managers must recognize valid concerns, but repeat a project's or proposal's benefits.

For a while, cynicism may seem to be winning. But it is hard to sustain the downbeat. The optimist in all of us grows weary at constant doomsday talk. That's why an upbeat argument can win attention – and maybe win the day, too.

One thing that unites people who see the glass half empty and those who see the glass half full is they both want to see the glass full.

"An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight. The truly wise person is colorblind."  – Albert Schweitzer.

Relevant link: We Need Optimists, New York Times

Media Training: Screen Tests for Spokespersons

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Dealing with the news media is not a spectator sport. It takes discipline and practice not unlike an actor learning to play a part and deliver lines in character.

Actors don't show up on stage unprepared, and neither should spokespersons. Media training is a must.

For people with media backgrounds, with lots of actual experience or who have taken media training before, media training can be an invaluable refresher course. You can always perform better.

Media training tutorials can cover a wide landscape of communications realities and challenges. But effective media training sessions always include exercises that put your speaking and thinking-on-your-feet skills to the test. We call them stress tests.

We have found the most effective stress tests require trainees to identify what they need to say, develop a key message and refine that message into something approaching a sound bite. We ask trainees to anticipate issues and questions they will face in an interview – maybe even an ambush interview – with an aggressive print or broadcast media reporter.

The interviews are digitally recorded so trainees can see themselves perform. They usually are their own harshest critics, noticing distracting twitches, slouchy posture or roving eyes.

Our media training sessions preferably include two stress tests. That way trainees get a second chance to clean up mistakes they made in the first interview.

When time allows, we like to preface the stress tests with an exercise aimed at helping people find their own voice. This usually involves asking a trainee to compose a short story about a subject near and dear to their heart and then relate it orally without notes. This low-stress experience gives trainees a chance to concentrate on a power position and eye contact without having to think too much about tricky subject matter or questions hurled from left field.

The tutorial section of the training offers some background on the changing face of the news media, new technologies that have accelerated the pace of news cycles and reporting ethics and responsibilities. We also cover social media, including the emergence of Twitter as a terrific real-time way to update the news media, employees and key stakeholders in a crisis.

But the heart of the media training is the role-playing experience in front of a camera. A key first step is to overcome the aversion of practicing to perform. CEOs can be the worst. They typically became CEOs because of their abilities to speak well and think on their feet. But as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner proved with his comment about "beautiful women not being funny," you aren't as prepared as you think you are.

Success in front of the camera starts with careful preparation, often in a compressed time frame. Very few people are capable of matching a moment on the spot with the right comment and emotional empathy. It is why actors do their homework before they play a part. They have to assimilate their role and make the script their own.

The purpose of media training is to give spokespersons the perspective, the tools and the tips to write an effective key message and deliver it in perfect pitch.

Media training stress tests are like screen tests for actors. They show your potential and what you need to work on to play your part. 

If you are or may be a spokesperson, arm yourself with media training. It's a smarter option than winging it.

CFM provides customized media trainings for a wide variety of clients. Contact CFM today to learn more. 

Resisting the Urge to Respond to Personal Attacks

When people blow smoke at you, don't fan the flames. Stay calm, ignore the bait and stick with the facts and principled arguments.

When people blow smoke at you, don't fan the flames. Stay calm, ignore the bait and stick with the facts and principled arguments.

When opponents resort to ad hominem attacks, you may imagine you are winning. Don't be so sure. But be sure to keep basing your arguments on principle, not pride.

Personal attacks have become common in political and public policy debates. They can be extremely annoying tactics to forbear. You receive scolding emails, your Facebook page is tagged and protestors with placards block the entrance to your building or your home driveway.

In-your-face opposition, especially if it persists past a news cycle, can make your blood boil. You want to strike back. However, that is what your antagonists want to turn their tactic into a media talking point.

Best just to smile and go about your business. You can take some solace in that your opponents are exerting energy and combusting goodwill by attacking you, not the policy or project you are associated with. You also should be consoled to know that these personal tactics often turn off people, especially people who are undecided on an issue.

Most important, don't overreact. The attacks speak for themselves. The audience who relishes the attacks isn't your audience anyway. Everyone else will contrast the attack with your calm non-response. That's true even if the tactics manage to secure media coverage.

When you don't rise to the bait, your opponents may ratchet up the noise level of their provocations or pursue more outrageous tactics aimed at "killing" or shaming the messenger. Use earplugs if need be, but just ignore the shenanigans.

Grassroots campaigns can be powerful tools to influence public viewpoints. But to work, they need a great cause or a huge villain. Don't become a huge villain by doing something foolish when provoked. Be confident of your position or your project. Stick with the facts. Most people will be able to tell the difference. 

The Almost Apology

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Brian Williams has done soul-searching, but still hasn't found the voice to spit out his apology and explanation.

Williams, the almost beloved former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will return to the airwaves, but in a lesser role on a cable affiliate of NBC's. It's a demotion, but still a job. All the more reason, Williams should just be plainspoken about why he inflated stories that he covered.

His interview with an obviously sympathetic Matt Lauer on the Today show wasn't crisp, even after more than four months to prepare for it. Williams said his exaggeration of facts or circumstances "came from a bad place' it came from a sloppy choice of words."

Placing yourself in a helicopter involved in a frontline firefight when you weren't at the frontline is something other than a "sloppy choice of words." It is an invented reality.

With some nudging by Lauer, Williams wound up admitting his inflations were "clear ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in." Telling tall tales is what fishermen do, not news anchors.

It would have been far better for Williams to say, "Look, there was no excuse for inflating my role in some stories. I let me ego get in front of my judgment. I was wrong then. I was wrong later when I repeated my untruths. I was definitely wrong for not owning what I did."

Now that is an apology that someone with Williams' style and eloquence could make. It is shame he didn't.

Williams did recognize he will be scrutinized carefully going forward, and he appeared to welcome that scurrility. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. I expect to be held to a different standard.”

Meaning no disrespect to Lester Holt who is expected to replace Williams as the nightly news anchor, Williams is really good as a news broadcaster. Listening to him is like listening to a good friend explain to you what happened during the day. 

Williams' good body of work and his talent entitle him to membership in "The Second Chance Club." But his failure to spit out a solid apology and explanation don't qualify him to be, as he suggested, the club's leading spokesman. Instead, Williams is a symbol of how hard it is to apologize convincingly, even when you have been caught red-handed and concede you are wrong.

Good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as an effective apology. People who need to apologize should keep that in mind.