issues management

Communications Lessons Ripped from the News

Congressman Adam Schiff, usually one of the most well-spoken and precise Members of Congress, decided unwisely to launch an impeachment inquiry hearing with a MAD magazine parody of President Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president. Few people thought it was funny. Republicans filed a motion to censure Schiff. [Photo Credit: Melina Mara/Washington Post]

Congressman Adam Schiff, usually one of the most well-spoken and precise Members of Congress, decided unwisely to launch an impeachment inquiry hearing with a MAD magazine parody of President Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president. Few people thought it was funny. Republicans filed a motion to censure Schiff. [Photo Credit: Melina Mara/Washington Post]

Uh-oh impromptu comments, ineffectual walk-backs, untimely attempts at humor and unmet promises. Reminders by high-profile newsmakers of classic communication no-no’s.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed his leadership role on a promise he would carry out Brexit. So far, Johnson has mostly met with failure, leading to party defections, legislative action to block his no-deal exit and a major court ruling against him. [Photo Credit: Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed his leadership role on a promise he would carry out Brexit. So far, Johnson has mostly met with failure, leading to party defections, legislative action to block his no-deal exit and a major court ruling against him. [Photo Credit: Reuters]

Media training stresses the importance of being prepared before speaking, knowing what to say and what not to say and resisting the temptation to be “funny.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s “quid-pro-quo” admission and subsequent effort to retract it and Congressman Adam Schiff’s ill-considered parody of President Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president proved why. So does British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to deliver on his Brexit promises

Mulvaney and Schiff are experienced political professionals. They should know better. Johnson tried to seize the moment with a big promise, which so far he has been unable to keep. However, the point of this blog isn’t to dwell on the newsmakers, but rather to offer a quick refresher course on how to avoid stepping into a big pile of goo.

Preparation

Speaking opportunities don’t come with guarantees of success. They are better understood as gambles. When you accept a speaking opportunity, you are gambling that you will make a good impression and deliver an effective message. Thoughtful and thorough preparation will improve your odds.

Preparation begins by identifying the point you want to make. Sounds simple, but think of all the speeches, press conferences and impromptu interviews you’ve witnessed that left you wondering what the speaker was trying to say. Speech prep is no time for hubris. You have been given a podium because someone believes you have something to say. However, make sure your remarks satisfy what the audience came to hear. They don’t have to agree, but they shouldn’t feel like you wasted their time.

Once you have settled on a key message, the next step is to craft a compelling way to express it to make it easier for your audience to grasp and remember it. Your key message is the main takeaway from your talk, so make sure it’s quotable and won’t get lost in a jumble of words.

Next comes designing the architecture of your remarks. That requires mastery of your topic so you can marshal facts or arguments to support your key message in plain language and a sequence that will be clear to your audience. It also involves coming up with a strong, attention-grabbing beginning and a powerful closing.

Anticipate what your audience will want to know and what questions audience members may ask. Accomplished speakers answer their audience’s question without them being asked. The reward is often more sophisticated actual questions that allow a speaker to elaborate on their key points.

Knowing what to say and how you want to say it should be combined with equal mastery of what you don’t want to say. In the heat of the moment, especially in exchanges with the news media, you can find yourself taking the bait of a question that leads you off message and into land mines. 

Practice

A finely worded, beautifully orchestrated set of remarks can turn tinny fast if the speaker hasn’t practiced delivering his or her remarks. Writing remarks and speaking them are vastly different. Practicing will lead to editing that smooths your sentences and adds natural voice cadence to your delivery.

Practicing in front of a spouse, friend or colleague will give you valuable feedback on how your comments are received. This is a good way to discover whether your key message is compelling, your speech architecture is clear and your supporting facts are convincing.

Practice what you plan to say, as well as how to deflect from what you intend not to say. This can be a lot harder than planning what you intend to say. Not answering a loaded question or resisting an invitation to speculate requires a level of maturity, but also careful thought. You have to be mindful not only of what you’re not saying, but also how you’re not saying it.

Rehearsing in front of a mirror or, better yet, on video can reveal voice tics that can be off-putting and postures that can be distracting. Being aware of and eliminating the uhms, change rattling and swaying can enhance your speech and help fortify strong rapport with your audience.

The greatest benefit of practice is increased self-confidence. A self-confident speaker lays a foundation for greater rapport with an audience. Self-confidence based on thorough preparation and deliberate practice is earned. Self-confidence without preparation and practice is an invitation for missteps.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted there was a quid pro quo in sending aid to Ukraine, then unsuccessfully tried to walk back the admission. [Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News]

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted there was a quid pro quo in sending aid to Ukraine, then unsuccessfully tried to walk back the admission. [Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News]

Walking Back Comments

Walking back a misstatement or ill-considered remark is a politically correct way of describing communication damage control. Issuing a statement indicating you didn’t mean to say what you said isn’t going to get you off the hook, especially if what you said is on video or taped. Offering an interpretative clarification isn’t any better. 

As many high-profile people have painfully discovered, comments – spoken, written or in tweets – are largely exempt from erasure. And the internet has a long memory and a huge archive.

There isn’t any fool-proof, fail-safe way to “walk back” a misstatement. The remark stands, regardless whether you own it or not. An apology, while often appropriate, isn’t an eraser, either. 

The only guard against misstatements is not to make them. The best insurance policy to avoid misstatements is preparation and practice.

Humor

Getting a chuckle is a great way to break the ice with an audience. It also is a great way to tumble into a manhole. The best media training advice: Don’t be cute. Don’t assume you are funny. Leave comedy to comedians.

Trying to inject humor into a serious situation is like playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol. Your chances of getting shot are a lot larger than hitting the jackpot.

Promises, Promises

Only a fool makes promises he or she can’t deliver. Making problematic promises can reflect and be interpreted as a sign of self-delusion. Ironically, grand promises are viewed with heightened suspicion. Audiences feel they are getting a snow job.

Unachieved promises made with the best of intentions aren’t excused from wrath. They intensify cynicism and can damage reputations.

Leaders make bold statements, which often including promises, such as this famous refrain by Winston Churchill: “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...” The difference is Churchill was rallying countrymen in preparation for war. As it turned out, what he promised came true.

If you must include a promise in your remarks, make sure it is a promise you will honor and can keep.

CFM Media Training Graphic.png
Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Turning the Complex into Something Simple and Engaging

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

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

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

(Reposted from July 1, 2019)

(Reposted from July 1, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 2.08.11 PM.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

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.

(Reposted from April 8, 2019)

(Reposted from April 8, 2019)

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aloha Lessons on a Hawaiian Beach

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 


Turning the Complex into Something Simple and Engaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 2.08.11 PM.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Spinning Mueller Findings Made a Sad Chapter Even Sadder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

The Secret Treasure Buried in an Issues Audit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Think Like a Lawyer, Write Like a Journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Saying Everything Versus Saying Something Memorable

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

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

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

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

No, they don’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

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.

Combatting the Crisis of Competition

Businesses should prepare for crisis involving an environmental spill, financial fraud, cyberattacks or sexual misconduct. They also should plan for an eventual crisis of competition, especially a disruptive idea that topple a business from a mountaintop to a scrap heap.

Businesses should prepare for crisis involving an environmental spill, financial fraud, cyberattacks or sexual misconduct. They also should plan for an eventual crisis of competition, especially a disruptive idea that topple a business from a mountaintop to a scrap heap.

Years ago, a Tektronix executive burst out of his office brandishing a report showing the company had achieved a 99 percent market share in analog oscilloscopes. He beamed at what he viewed as a sign of world domination.

However, the executive missed the subtle signal in the report that the market – and Tek’s competitors – had moved on to digital oscilloscopes. Tektronix had corralled the lion’s share of a vanishing market. It wasn’t world domination as much as a crisis of competition.

When we consider crisis in terms of business, our minds naturally think of environmental spills, financial fraud, cyberattacks and sexual misconduct. We forget about a crisis of competition, which can be an existential battle, not just a bad headline. People get fired and businesses pay fines in most crises, but in a crisis of competition a once-thriving company may cease to be relevant or even exist.

RCA was the biggest thing in vacuum tubes and actually did pioneering work on semiconductors, long before they made vacuum tubes obsolete. RCA executives apparently thought semiconductors never would amount to much, let alone replace their bread and butter. They failed to see their crisis of competition in the glare of their own success.

A crisis of competition deserves the same forethought, careful planning and strategic preparation as any other kind of crisis. Perhaps ironically, the best time to plan for a crisis of competition is when your business or organization is on the top of the mountain. Think of it as the most strategic view to see what everyone else is doing that may affect your standing – and eventually your bottom line.

Competition can take many forms – lower prices, better marketing, new technology or a wholly different approach. A competitor may be a business you know and watch, someone who comes out of left field or a galaxy like Amazon. Like RCA, the next bright idea could be shining in your own lab or workshop.

Unlike more common forms of crises, an apology or clever social media post won’t do much good in a crisis of competition.

Keep in mind success invites company and competition isn’t spontaneous. That means you know competitors are coming after you and you have a head start – not a bad position to begin crisis of competition planning, but also not a moment for complacency.

While market research is good for revealing what customers like, dislike and want, it isn’t the right tool to search the universe for innovative new competitors or disruptive emerging ideas. This takes a vastly different mindset to see the world of potential competition less like a vector and more like an erratic line.  

Market research for automakers didn’t stumble onto the idea of car-sharing. Market research for Folgers Coffee never anticipated Starbucks. Market research for multi-family housing developers left unexplored the idea of adult dormitory living. The strategic lens for crisis of competition planning isn’t looking for trends; it is looking for trendsetters.

Canvassing the arena of ideas to see which ones make economic sense, which ones could be disruptive and which ones are most likely duds is the business of crisis for competition planning. And just because an idea initially looks and behaves like a dud doesn’t mean it is permanently a non-starter. The investors on Shark Tank frequently wave off ideas that go on to be entrepreneurial successes, despite their misgivings.

Companies must realize they have a built-in bias for their product or way of doing things, which can result in their downfall. (Think of the progression of cameras from boxy things on a tripod to a button on a smartphone.) They need to fertilize their own thinking with outside views. Be curious. Follow some promising trails. Talk to people with unconventional viewpoints. Talk to you customers about what their next frontier looks like so you are better prepared to take the journey with them.

Back to Tektronix for a moment. There was an engineer who walked through the corporate cubicles carrying a small disk with wires sticking out both sides. For anyone willing to listen, the engineer would say what he held by his fingers could do everything that one of Tek’s large laboratory oscilloscopes could do – only cheaper, faster and anywhere. A lot of people thought he was crazy. What he was carrying around was, in actuality, a digital oscilloscope.

Make a point of listening to the contrarian in your midst. He or she might not be crazy. They may be on to something. They may show you how to avoid the crisis of competition by discovering the road to your own breakthrough. That breakthrough might eventually put you out of the business you’re in, only to set you up in the business you could be for years to come.

Gestures Can Make or Break Your Speech

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

If you want to make a point in a speech or presentation, your gestures can help – or hurt. Gestures can reinforce your message or distract your audience. Gestures can convey emotions or project a lack of confidence.

While most gestures are spontaneous, effective speakers and presenters devote time to eliminating gestures that may be naturally counterproductive. For male speakers, it can be sticking their hands in their pockets. For female speakers, it can be swaying as they talk with their hands behind their backs.

Like words, gestures have meaning. There may not be a gesture dictionary, but people know their definitions. Crossed arms signals defensiveness. Hands on hips connotes condescension. Hands in pockets betrays nervousness. Hands crossed in front suggests timidity. Thumbs up shows agreement. A fist warns of anger.

When you consider that people listening to a speech or presentation remember 80 percent of what they see and only 20 percent of what they hear, gestures take on greater significance. Your words might be brilliant, but your gestures can cause an audience to start looking at their smartphones.

Media training can help. Media training can help you with your words, while also making you aware of annoying gestures and off-putting verbal tics. There is nothing as chastening as watching yourself speaking and gesturing on video. Unless you are a total narcissist, you will become your harshest critic.

Self-criticism must be harnessed into purposeful practice to get rid of annoying gestures and focus instead on gestures that connect you with your audience and reinforce your message. Be like successful athletes and train your body to perform smoothly and effortlessly. Develop a lean style with movements that matter.

You can learn a lot by practicing in front of a full-length mirror. It’s just you and your reflection. No pressure.

You should emulate stand-up comedians who take their routines on the road, testing gags in front of real audiences. (Telling jokes into a mirror never produces any laughs.) Practice your speech in front of friends, family or coworkers. Encourage them to be candid, telling you what you did well and not so well. Ask them to comment specifically on your gestures.

For major speeches, presentations or a TED Talk, consider hiring a media trainer or speech coach. Give yourself enough time before appearing on stage to make adjustments and practice. 

Because gesturing is a normal human behavior, be conscious of your body language in everyday circumstances. Self-awareness is the first step to improving the physical dimension of your communication. You can practice your moves at low-pressure social events and family gatherings. 

Gestures tend to reflect inner thoughts and fears. You may need to practice some psychology on yourself to disguise nerves, control angry outbursts, avoid giddy laughter and stop flailing your arms.

Study powerful speakers in person, on television or in church, making special note of how they use their hands, how they stand and how they establish and maintain rapport with their audience.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all set of gestures. Your gestures need to be authentically yours. Whether tall or short, old or young, use your assets to their greatest advantage.

And, don’t forget, the most endearing gesture you can make is to smile. You don’t need a coach to practice smiling. You don’t need media training to know a smile can delight an audience better than anything else.

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.

Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

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

Further Thoughts on Framing, Reframing and Spin

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

Genetics research shows the evolution of life on earth is less like a tree and more like a virus. Evolving life doesn’t sprout new branches; it swaps genes between species.

This radical notion stuns our brains. What we thought we knew is undercut by a new way of understanding. We haven’t changed, but the frame through which we see something has changed. Instead of seeing evolution as a tree, we now see it in the shape of a web.

Frames are the mental structures that shape our view of the world, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and progressive activist. In his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” Lakoff argues that our frames match our values. There also is evidence that our frames mirror our beliefs. We select events and facts for our frame that confirm what we believe.

If you think illegal immigration is a scourge, you watch Fox News for stories that confirm your belief. If you think the Trump administration is corrupt, you devour Vox online stories to prove you are right.

For issue managers, this is a brave, migraine-inducing new world. Facts aren’t necessarily facts if they don’t fit within your frame. Our training to traffic in factual material with credible validation seems outdated – or at least outgunned.

The so-called post-truth era is actually the propaganda era. You don’t win with facts; you win with spin. A key to spinning is how you frame an issue. However, framing isn’t just about spinning; framing also is an essential way to break through the fog of people’s beliefs.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “ Don’t Think of an Elephant! ” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

Lakoff says how you say something is as or more important than what you say. That’s a startling statement. Lakoff’s view relies on research in the 1980s by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that shows humans are consistently irrational, in part because of mental shortcuts that process information by sorting it according to existing frames.

This explains the frustration of rival partisans who can’t understand why their opposing counterparts don’t see things the same way as they do. They have different frames. Two people in the same house can have radically different views if one looks out the front window and the other looks out the back window.

Changing people’s minds becomes difficult because of radically different frames between the would-be persuader and his or her intended audience. We tend to argue from our moral viewpoint, which may be wholly inconsistent from the people we seek to convince.

In his book, Lakoff details how political conservatives have spent untold amounts of money over several decades to come up with powerful frames intended to solidify a political base and force opponents to debate on their turf.

Good examples are “partial-birth abortion” and “gay marriage.” Both terms were designed to shift the conversation about reproductive rights and marriage equality to frames consistent with conservative thinking. They replaced terms such as “pro-life” and “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Forcing people to defend certain kinds of abortions blocked a discussion of whether the state should overrule decisions made by women and their doctors. Employing the word “gay” before marriage was a clever way to summon up stereotypes about gay men and women.

A framing battle is warming up over the word “socialism.” Polling shows a rise among Democrats in support of socialism. Republicans scorn socialism as the opposite of capitalism. However, as Paul Krugman discusses in a series of tweets, “socialism” has become an intentional frame (or wedge) to cast suspicion on raising taxes to maintain Social Security and Medicare, or what some political conservatives call “entitlements” and Democrats refer to as the “social safety net.”

One of the better issue framers of our time is our current President. Through tweets and campaign rallies, Donald Trump creates and reinforces frames (Crooked Hillary, witch hunt, failing New York Times) that he believes give him political advantage by forcing others to rebut him. As we’ve seen, the rebuttals tend to solidify the viewpoints of his supporters. Trump’s claim that he can murder someone on the streets of New York and not lose a vote is compelling evidence he knows what he’s doing.

Those of us in the persuasion business spend time thinking how to frame issues to best advantage. We do our best work when we recognize existing frames and capitalize on them. When necessary, we try to find ways to reframe an issue so discussion can be in a more favorable mental arena.

Framing and reframing, especially on persistently contentious issues, isn’t easy or even obvious. It takes hard work. It demands understanding the moral perspective of the audience you seek to influence and creating arguments and imagery that fit within that frame.

Reframing can be as straightforward as convincing someone accustomed to looking out the front window to spend a moment looking out the back window. Same house. Same landscape. Same neighborhood. Different perspective.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. However, in the face of a bewildering public arena that stretches from backyard patios to digital clouds, simplicity can be a guiding virtue.

Keep that Tangled Tree argument of evolution in mind. People who don’t believe humans evolved from apes may be shocked into listening when you share evidence that 8 percent of human genes come from bacteria, plants and other animals and may be the key to our survival and dominance of our planet.

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.

Angry Yimbys Make More Housing a ‘Religion’

After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

In what has a man-bites-dog vibe, Millennials are driving a YIMBY movement to promote more housing in big cities as a way to combat rising rents and housing shortages.

The “Yes, In My Backyard” upwelling comes in direct response to years of success employing “Not In My Backyard” arguments. Yimbys believe tight housing conditions are the result of stymied housing developments, causing an imbalance between jobs and places to live.

“The [YIMBY] movement is fueled by the anger of young adults,” according to The Guardian. “Rather than suffer in silence as they struggle to find affordable places to live, they are heading to planning meetings en masse to argue for more housing – preferably the very kind of dense, urban infill projects that have often generated neighborhood opposition from NIMBYs .”

YIMBYs have popped up in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver, BC, and Sydney, Australia. San Francisco is the birthplace of the YIMBY movement, which isn’t a surprise when you learn the city added 307,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2013, but only built 40,000 new housing units. A chapter in Portland can’t be far away.

In what seems like an echo from the NIMBYs of yore, the head of the San Francisco-based YIMBY movement told The Guardian, “It’s clear there is a housing shortage – and the answer is to build housing. You generate policy by yelling about things.”

Sonja Trauss, 35, a San Francisco resident who helped galvanize the movement, dismissed housing shortages in big Western cities as financial or technical issues. “The cause of our current shortage,” she says, “is 100 percent political.” California’s large, influential tech community agrees with her and is providing financial backing for YIMBYs.

YIMBYs associate with progressives by favoring dense development near transit service. However, they have come under attack by liberal groups as “stooges” for housing developers by criticizing “space-hogging” single-family development and favoring gentrification of traditionally minority neighborhoods.

Ground Zero for this class struggle over housing is the Mission District in San Francisco, a lower-income enclave of Latino residents, who are now being displaced by large housing developments, with YIMBY encouragement. Trauss, who is being pushed as a local political candidate, says any new housing is better than no new housing, even if it is for wealthier people and contributes to gentrification. Latino activists say YIMBYs are disrespecting them and their concerns for being priced out of their current housing.

For better or worse, there is a new dynamic in front of elected bodies. Where once only opponents showed up for hearings on housing developments, now YIMBY proponents appear to voice support. And it is having an effect. According to The Guardian, the California Assembly approved a “sweeping legislative package,” with YIMBY support, to spur more affordable housing.

The movement isn’t just a US phenomenon. Vancouver YIMBYs are shaming officials for okaying sprawling developments with few homes. Australian YIMBYs are pushing local officials to allow homeowners to rent out attics and lofts. A YIMBY political party has formed.

Josh Lehner, the Oregon state economist who follows housing issues closely, just posted a new blog indicating the Portland metropolitan area is adding more housing units, but shortages persist throughout Oregon. Affordability, he says, remains a big problem and could get worse as interest rates continue to creep up.

YIMBYs versus NIMBYs may not produce nuanced public policy that recognizes the need for economic development and more housing on one hand, but also greater income equality and affordable housing on the other to avoid displacing families with nowhere else to go.

‘Seeing with the Same Eyes in Different Heads’

Political polarization in America has reached levels not seen since the Civil War tore the country apart. Because that polarization is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, public affairs managers working on major projects, policy issues or ballot measure campaigns need to take it into account by intensifying engagement efforts with those most directly affected. [Photo Credit: Illustration/Brian Stauffer/USC Dornsife Magazine]

Political polarization in America has reached levels not seen since the Civil War tore the country apart. Because that polarization is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, public affairs managers working on major projects, policy issues or ballot measure campaigns need to take it into account by intensifying engagement efforts with those most directly affected. [Photo Credit: Illustration/Brian Stauffer/USC Dornsife Magazine]

Angry voters inhabit both sides of the political aisle, resulting in what perhaps should be the called bipolarization of the American electorate.

Pollster Frank Luntz interviewed 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats, with nearly two-thirds admitting they have stopped speaking with a friend or family member following the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Republican-leaning participants said it was exhausting trying to defend their vote for Trump. Democrats said they couldn’t fathom why anyone would vote for Trump.

The only unifying theme was a shared bipartisan anger at lobbyists, special interests and elected officials in Washington, DC. Even then, they didn’t agree on why they were angry.

The GOP-backed tax plan provided the perfect backdrop for exposing polarization. Republicans called it “well-deserved,” “great” and “excellent for economic growth.” Democrats called it a “lie,” “confusing” and “supporting the rich.”

Participants grew especially testy on the issue of racism. Republicans bristled at the charge they are racist or enable racism. Democrats blamed Trump for fanning the flames of “us-against-them.”

Social media has played a role in amplifying frustration, disagreement and anger. A social media strategy is critical to any effective public affairs plan.

Social media has played a role in amplifying frustration, disagreement and anger. A social media strategy is critical to any effective public affairs plan.

One of Luntz’ objectives was to see whether dialogue and consensus are still possible in our current political climate. Nearly all of the participants said it may be time to look beyond our current two-party systems to find common ground. Most also agreed to continue the Luntz-moderated conversations, even if discussion is difficult.

The tribalism reflected in the Luntz interviews isn’t limited to views about Trump, Congress and political correctness. The deep divisions his participants reflect can seep into everyday life and be a buried obstacle in the path of a major local project or consensus on a policy direction. Anger and polarization are hardly the bunkmates of consensus and compromise. Without question, many Americans are very angry, deeply frustrated and in a polarized frame of mind.

In the public affairs sphere, this reality means care should be taken to avoid letting an issue or project fall prey to political bipolarization. Complex projects have enough built-in challenges without inheriting or inviting existential ones.

There is no secret sauce to avoid polarized neighborhoods, communities or electorates. But it certainly helps if you start projects or campaigns with genuine engagement with people involved or interested in what you are proposing. Listen and respond to concerns, including on social media. Focus your comments on community benefits, and validate those benefits. Don’t let your allies become bogeymen for your opponents. Be firm in confronting misstatements and lies, but refrain from personal attacks.

One of the best lines to emerge from April as National Poetry Month is: “See through the same eyes in different heads.” A remarkable phrase that should be the North Star for public affairs efforts. Help people see a project, policy or innovation with the same eyes. Opinions can differ, but the basic facts will be clear and not in dispute. Clarity is more important than unanimity. Transparency can reduce skepticism and at least create firmament for compromise, if not consensus.

We may deplore the polarization inflicting America, but for now we need to learn to live with it.  They may mean finding new and better ways to conduct business and engage publics. They may mean conceding and respecting differences of opinion. We don’t all have to think alike to make progress.

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.