marketing PR

Clever Phrases Woo the Ear, Stick in the Brain

‘Just Do It’ is the iconic slogan for Nike. Clever phrases are common in marketing, but less so in public affairs where they could help simplify complex issues with words that woo the ear and stick in the brain.

‘Just Do It’ is the iconic slogan for Nike. Clever phrases are common in marketing, but less so in public affairs where they could help simplify complex issues with words that woo the ear and stick in the brain.

Word JazzThe Curse of CashLord of the Flies. Each of these catchy titles evokes a mental picture by wooing the ear.

Through startling juxtaposition, clever alliteration and logical incongruity, these titles have become earworms that reinforce the resonating power of carefully crafted phrasing.

While we live in a visual world where visual communications dominate, clever phrases still have a place in earning valuable mindshare with target audiences. Nike has the swoosh, but is defined by its catchphrase, “Just Do It.” KFC says all you need to know about what it serves with its tagline “finger lickin’ good.” Taco Bell’s invitation to try something different is summed up with “Think outside the bun.” 

Brand marketers definitely appreciate the value of clever phrases, but strangely public affairs professionals have been slower to embrace them. In truth, it is no harder – or easier – to simplify a complex public issue than it is to project an image of a brand personality.

The Willamette Valley Wineries Association is asking the 2019 Oregon legislature to approve a suite of three bills that deal with wine labeling. Like most legislative issues, there are lots of details. But to capture the reputational importance of the legislation, WVWA says, “What’s on the label should match what’s in the bottle.” Simple. Direct. Unarguable.

Clean Water Services has earned awareness for its advanced water purification technologies through its clever Pure Water Brew Challenge that invites brewers to create tasty beers literally from bath water.

Clean Water Services has earned awareness for its advanced water purification technologies through its clever Pure Water Brew Challenge that invites brewers to create tasty beers literally from bath water.

Clean Water Services sponsors the Pure Water Brew Challenge to highlight its water purification technology – and remind people of the value of water re-use. The idea has caught on as water agencies in other states are staging similar bathroom-to-beer fests. 

The Oregon State Treasury wanted a name and tagline that instantly described its new state-sponsored retirement savings program for workers whose employers don’t offer a plan. Treasury’s PR team came up with “OregonSaves” and the tagline “Work hard. Save easy,” which conveys the convenience of saving for retirement through automatic payroll deductions. 

This isn’t glibness for glibness’ sake. Clever phrases do a favor for target audiences by condensing meaning to a memorable few words – an earworm that wiggles deeper into their brains. More important, an ear-worthy description of a measure is the best defense against opponents who will try to smudge up the situation.

Voice talent extraordinaire Ken Nordine, who died last week, created the phrase “Word Jazz” for his 1957 album of beat poetry and then turned it into a defining title for a radio program that lasted for 40 years. The phrase accurately described his legendary voice, which included coaching Linda Blair for “The Exorcist,” the Grateful Dead and David Bowie. Word jazz emerged as more than a title and has become an emblem for a kind of evocative speech. The phrase is too rich to die. 

The Curse of Cash” author Kenneth Rogoff used his provocative title to entice readers to consider why large-denomination bills cause more trouble than benefit. Bills larger than $100, he says, are more likely to be used in drug deals and tax evasion than everyday commerce. Rogoff’s title piggybacks on the common phrase “cash is king.”

Sometimes clever phrases pop into mind, seemingly out of nowhere. More often, they are the product of hard thinking, creative collaboration and trial and error. [Nike’s slogan grew out of a brainstorming session and was a takeoff on the last words of a convicted murderer.] Whatever the route, clever phrases can mean the difference between wowing an audience and making an audience yawn.

A clever phrase isn’t a substitute for a good idea or a worthy cause. However, a clever phrase is an effective tool to plant that good idea or worthy cause into people’s consciousness. The clever phrase can produce a shared understanding and respect for an idea or cause. The clever phrase can serve as a call to action, turning a listener into an advocate. The clever phrase, as the saying goes, can “win the day.”

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.

 

How Instruction Manuals Can be Instructive

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals are supposed to explain how something works or how to assemble something. The thought of an instruction manual induces dread in many people, but their evolution offers useful clues for today’s challenge of showing people what you mean.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

According to Helene Schumacher, writing for the BBC, the first instruction manual was created by inventor James Watt, who advanced steam engine technology in the 1800s. Watt’s instruction “manual” was for his early, but effective document copier. His instructions were simple steps – take a sheet of paper with damp ink, put it on top of a blank sheet of paper, wrap it in a blanket and push it through the rollers. Watt glued the instructions to his copier.

Simple and easy to find – characteristics that still hold true for visual communications today.

Instruction manuals have proliferated in direct proportion to the number of new machines for industry and gadgets for households. Some are very technical and some are meant to make technical information easy to understand by non-technical people. Eventually, we evolved to instruction manuals explaining all the technology on our cars and how to assemble Swedish-made furniture.

People with some gray in their hair remember when instruction manuals were mostly all text. Often gobs and pages of text. Over time, instructions come as a set of sequential illustrations and, more recently, as videos. Even when there is text, it is written to be understood and not like a test question for an engineering student.

Printed instruction manuals have given way to online versions. Many instructions now follow Watt’s example of being integrated into a product so you can see them as you work.

Instead of being technical or procedural, instructions are often combined with recommendations for how to use a product. In her article, Schumacher cites the instructions that accompanied Kodak’s Brownie camera. It explained how to load film in the camera as well as hared tips on how to take a great picture.

You could view Kodak’s instruction as a form of branding. For years, Apple’s advertising for its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads have featured what you can do with their devices more than showcase their features. Interestingly, Apple doesn’t provide instruction manuals because it doesn’t want you fooling around with what it makes.

More complicated devices have led to more complicated instructions. However, product developers have taken steps to reduce the complications through design, which requires less complicated instructions.

Making instructions more user friendly is not just related to customer satisfaction; it also has become part of the consumer journey to buy products. People go online to check out a product before they purchase it.

Technology advances are influencing instruction manuals. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are coming into use in ways that meld instruction with initial experience of a product. QR codes are being integrated with instruction manuals so you can quickly find the information you need without thumbing through pages or scrolling online.

Just about every instruction manual innovation mirrors communications best practices – simplified design, relevant information, visual explanations, online versatility, technologically savvy, customer friendly.

Who would have thought instruction manuals could reveal the qualities of effective communications.

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

 

Apple Offers Model Response to Aging Battery Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality, Flexible Content = Cornerstone to Amplify Distribution

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

A competent content marketing strategy starts with quality content and continues with an energetic plan to mold and share it as in as many forms and forums as possible.

The ability to publish your own content is liberating, but knowing how to promote your content can be bewildering. There is a lot of advice and a heap of online tools out there, but the simplest advice may be to produce good content and share it in as many forms and forums as you can.

Instead of trying to follow mystifying listicles of tips on promoting your content, focus on a few smart steps. Start with content that is relevant, useful and engaging to your target audience. Next, deconstruct and reconstruct your content into catchy quotes, visual tools (presentations, charts, infographics) and animated videos. Finally, place your content online in your website, a blog and social media posts.

You can optimize that basic approach with social media ads, using content-sharing platforms and reaching out to online influencers, which can amplify distribution of your content.

This may seem like squirting a water gun at a huge crowd, but the characteristics of digital media give you analytics that show what works and what doesn’t, so you can modify your approach to reach your particular audience in their preferred online channels.

Make your content flexible and fungible so it can be dispatched in a variety of forms through varied distribution channels.

Publishing your own content is touted, properly so, as a cost-effective way to deliver marketing messages for a product, issue or political campaign. Self-publishing also can be a strong defensive shield, allowing you to tell your story, unfiltered and in appropriate layered detail. You even can take critics head-on, getting out your side of a messy story.

Simplifying the content publishing process doesn’t make it any easier, but it provides a clearer path to pursue. If you followed all the advice from experts (much of which is very good), you could be distracted from the basics – producing quality content and promoting it in a myriad of ways.

Just focusing on quality content, instead of quantity, is a huge step in the right direction. A great place to start is answering the most frequent questions your audience asks.

As you address frequent questions or pressing concerns, think about all the different ways you can express your answer. For example, data is often more accessible, not to mention impactful, if expressed in a chart or an infographic. Take a page from infomercials and include visual explanations that can be rendered as presentations or videos. Make sure you include some sound-bite worthy language that you can use as pullout quotes or as social media teasers.

Some topics are timely, while others are not. Make sure your mix includes “evergreen” content that isn’t tethered to time, but can be repurposed as events arise or fill a hole in your editorial calendar.

It makes economic sense to dabble in social media advertising. Promoting some of your content can produce surprising results. And it can reveal cracks in your strategy that you can fix.

Investing some energy in discovering key influencers for your target audience can pay huge dividends. You can include their insights in your content or ask them to review and share what you produce, which is painless and inexpensive way to broaden distribution to the people you want to target.

A little chutzpah never hurts when it comes to seeking earned media coverage by asking print or online publishers to use your content, perhaps as an op-ed or a feature story. This requires content written to journalistic style and standards and not brazenly self-promotional. With shrunken staffs and viewers who are less resistant to third-party content, publishers may welcome your submissions, which can include your contact information if not links to your website or blog.

Another low-cost distribution strategy is to monitor social media for posts on similar topics and add a comment with a link to your content.

Once you have gotten your feet on the ground and built a following, you can expand your sights to include some of the tools and channels that can amplify distribution. Keep in mind, there are no magic formulas for spread content far and wide, any more than there are for generating viral videos. The single most important thing you can do is concentrate on quality content that connects with your audience, then turn it into a Swiss-knife of output that you can post in a variety of places.

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

Infographics Visually Unpack Complex Issues

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

Visual communications such as infographics make complex subjects seem much simpler by organizing information, creating contrasts and showing how stuff works.

One of the easiest way to torpedo complex legislation or a major project is to call it “too complicated” for legislators or the general public to comprehend. Conversely, the way to advance such bills and projects is to lay them out simply – and visually.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Metro has produced a Regional Snapshot of the Portland metropolitan area’s transportation network, which faces worsening congestion. It explains the situation with a series of informative infographics interspersed with videos and photos.

Simplicity does not mean dumbing down dense information. Simplifying complicated material requires hard work to master a subject, focus on key elements and attend to details. It also requires seeing a subject through the eyes of your intended audience and presenting your information in a sequence and hierarchy that makes sense to that audience.

The byproduct of simplifying the complex is often referred to as elegant simplicity. Your audience gets a full view of a complex subject that is accessible, understandable and actionable. You aren’t speaking down to your audience; you are helping your audience look up to grasp a complicated subject.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, which has been made into a mini-series, includes an excellent example of distilling the brilliance of a theoretical physicist into explanations that readers without a scientific background could follow. The ability to synthesize concepts like the theory of relativity is probably why Apple’s Steve Jobs, himself a master of elegant simplicity, gravitated to Isaacson to write his biography.

For most advocacy or public affairs challenges, writing a novel isn’t a practical communications option. However, visual communications is a tool that can work very well in the form of presentations, infographics and videos. How text is packaged, with subheads and links, also can make a huge difference in audience comprehension.

In my days as a state lobbyist, I was hired to negotiate and pass legislation to allow larger commercial customers to select their own electricity provider. The legislation contained many parts and opponents made hay by claiming it was “too complicated.” We came back the next session with a bill including the same provisions, but laid out more clearly and logically and a flip chart. We used the flip chart in meetings with legislators, legislative staff and the media to provide background on the Northwest electrical grid and how our legislation would work. Suddenly, a truly complex subject was made simple to understand. The legislation easily passed.

That flip chart was essentially a presentation-version of what we now call infographics – visual expressions of information presented in context and sequence. 

Infographics have become quite common. Jacqueline Thomas assembled 40 infographic that made complex subjects seem much simpler. They ranged in topics from the lowdown on  carbon budgets to the mysteries of feng shui. Some her examples were more impactful than others, but they all the shared the trait of tackling a tough topic and chopping it down into comprehensible pieces.

Let’s examine one example titled " Why Prolonged Sitting and Standing is Unproductive,” preparedly Anna Vital for the Workers Health & Safety Centre. This infographic illustrates the stress on the human body – from back pain to varicose veins – of sitting or standing for too long. The infographic offers a solution by suggesting standing up 16 times a day for two minutes can do more good than exercising for a half hour. It also offers practical advice on checking your work posture every 20 minutes or so, taking breaks and stretching.

There is nothing revolutionary in this infographic, but it tells a complete story, with informative illustrations. Trying to tell the same story with words would be clumsy. Telling it with video might not be as granular.

All visual communications can be effective. Choosing the right one is an important first step toward success. Include infographics in your visual communications toolbox. Just as illustrated children’s books convey magical concepts to youngsters, well-done infographics can unpack complexity for your audience at a glance. In an age of multiple impressions and shorter attention spans, a glance is all you may get for your message.

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

Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure, Messy Innovation and Success

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

Trying is the first step toward failure, says Homer Simpson. In our society, failure is a four-letter word. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

The TED Radio Hour last weekend focused on failure. The show included an interview and TED Talk excerpts from entrepreneur Astro Teller who said he rewards colleagues at his moonshot factory for failing. Calling innovation “messy,” Teller said the ability to recognize and acknowledge failure allows people to stop heading in the wrong direction and start fresh looking for a productive direction.

The secret to success, Teller says, “is learning how to kill projects” so they can be reborn.

Economist Tim Harford, who wrote Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, says trial and error is a tried-and-true method to solve problems. Brilliant Eureka moments may occur sometimes, but Harford says it is better to embrace failure and constantly adapt, “to work from the bottom up rather than the top down.”

Casey Gerald, who founded MBAxAmerica, espouses the “Gospel of Doubt.” Gerald said core beliefs have let him down in life, helping him to learn that “clear-eyed doubt can sometimes be better than belief.” Innovation doesn’t start with certainty, just curiosity and resolve.

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch, who collaborated with Ken Kesey on a collective novel project at the University of Oregon, said early career failures fueled her efforts to “find worth” in herself as a writer.

The theme of the show, hosted by Guy Raz, was “failure as an option.” Far too often, failure is seen as an end point, not a launch pad; as a sign of defeat rather than a signpost to move in another direction.

Many communications projects are scrapped because they initially don’t succeed or underperform. Sponsors or the communicators themselves give up without trying to fix what is failing.

Excellent communications strategies and tactics are frequently the product of trial, error, testing and restarting. If at first you don’t succeed doesn’t mean you can’t ultimately succeed.

Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest choreographers with roots in Seattle’s ballet company, received highly critical reviews of her dance musical Movin’ Out set to the music of Bill Joel. Instead of closing it down, Tharp methodically ironed out each criticism of the show, and from there the show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations.

Tharp wrote a book called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, in which she describes the habit of realizing you are in a rut. Ruts, Tharp says, are like false starts. The only way to get out of a rut, according to Tharp, is to admit you’re in one, climb out and look for fresh inspiration or untried approaches.

That’s good advice. Failure is not a permanent condition. It’s just the first step on a longer journey to eventual success.

Turn Your Voice into Thought Leadership

Freakonomics Radio is a great example of employing a podcast to extend a brand into new channels. Podcasts can also be a great way to give voice to thought leadership.

Freakonomics Radio is a great example of employing a podcast to extend a brand into new channels. Podcasts can also be a great way to give voice to thought leadership.

Podcasts represent a proven path to express thought leadership, expand a brand and create a loyal following. But don’t be fooled by their seeming simplicity, podcasts require mastery of the format, relentless discipline and creative spark to succeed.

Freakonomics Radio is a popular podcast that extends the franchise of zany, offbeat economics that started with an improbable bestselling book about “cheating teachers, bizarre baby names and crack-selling mama’s boys.” Reluctantly started by a wary journalist and an equally wary economist, Freakonomics has morphed into a series of books, lectures, documentaries, guest appearances and a radio show.

There also is the Freakonomics “Question of the Day Podcast” that features shorter audio discussions tackling issues such as “Why Do People Believe Compliments, But Not Criticism?” and “Would You Ever Eat Bargain Sushi?”

Freakonomics creators Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt are busy guys. They bother with podcasts because it complements and augments their brand in another channel. It is hard to read a book or view a video while driving, jogging or walking, but you can listen to the radio or an iPod. Podcasts are an avenue to reach your audience in a very direct, personal communication channel.

That avenue can have a lot of potholes and side streets to navigate. Producing a podcast of 30 to 60 minutes requires more than a tape recorder, a few scattered ideas and a soft drink. You need good recording equipment, a script and topics people want to hear about. 

Podcasts can be valuable content, but also hollow efforts unless they are promoted through social media or an email list and posted on an easily navigable website or online newsroom.

The voice or voices are everything in a podcast. There are no visual attractions or sight cues. The audience depends on what it hears. The better the quality, the more likely they are to keep listening.

There are technical twists, too. Quality sound is essential. You need to produce different audio files such as MP3 and WAV to accommodate a range of listeners and their devices. If you are going to integrate music or background sound, you will need someone with the skill to mix your podcast. You also need someone to ensure your final product is clean and to maintain a content management system.

The good news is that producing high-fidelity sound is a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be. But it isn’t necessarily easy.

The result can be worth the effort. The effort starts with ideas that are several notches away from stuffy, but still useful and relevant to your listeners. Your voice talent needs to practice, and perhaps take some voice coaching. He or she may never sound like Morgan Freeman, but you certainly don’t want to sound like a bad version of Gilbert Gottfried or Roseanne Barr. Your team needs to be equipped for the job so you produce top-notch sound to convey your messages.

Podcasts can be an entertaining way to charm and communicate to customers. It’s up to you to provide the entertainment and charm. 

Attack Readers with Your Best Fact First

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” may be the best opening line of a novel in English literature. It should be a reminder of the importance of getting your best fact first in what you write.

The opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for the sharp contrasts that make the story compelling. It reinforces and adds dimension to the book title. The reader has a major cue for what to expect.

Many contemporary writers, including ones who write white papers, blogs and op-eds, don’t follow Dickens’ example. They loop into their main theme, sometimes waiting to spring it on the hapless reader until the fourth or fifth paragraph. In an age of short attention spans, exasperated readers often give up and move on.

Journalism students are taught – or at least they used to be taught – to spit out your best fact at the front-end of your first sentence. You want to attack your reader with your best fact, for the same reason you want to make a grand entrance or a great first impression. A wishy-washy beginning to a piece meant to persuade is the equivalent of a limp handshake.

People can disagree on the “best fact.” But it’s indisputable in today’s overloaded marketplace of information and messages, the best fact is usually what attracts readers’ attention and causes them to keep reading.

Placing the best fact first isn’t as easy as it sounds. After identifying what the best fact is, you need to conceive how best to say it. A blandly worded best fact is almost as bad as a buried best fact. 

Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities works because it is succinct, has a natural cadence and is easy to remember. These are the same qualities that produce great sound bites. The best opening lines are, in effect, written sound bites.

Here are four made-up public affairs examples to illustrate the point:

• A majority of white Millennials believe they suffer as much discrimination as minorities, according to a recent poll.

• Data shows only 2 percent of all U.S. tax dollars go to educate children in public schools, suggesting public education is no longer the national priority it once was.

• Immigrants to the United States pay more in fees and taxes than they receive in public services and health care. That’s the finding from a recent economic study examining the financial impact of immigration.

• Rising housing prices in a community reflect demand outstripping supply and reinforce the need to increase the supply of housing units, especially ones that match the unmet market.

There are lots of excuses to avoid putting the best fact first. None of them hold much water. If your goal is readership, follow the eyeballs of readers. Give them your best and entice them to read more.

It’s worth noting that Dickens didn’t always follow the example he set in A Tale of Two Cities. Other works of his began with murkier opening lines. But one good example is all you need to remember the benefit of the best-fact-first strategy. A Tale of Two Cities actually offers two excellent examples – the opening line and the closing line. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Write like that and you will get read.

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

Familiar Phrases as Mental Cues

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Familiar phrases such as “take the bull by the horns” can say a lot in a few words, helping pack a punch in your sound-bite explanation, answer or comeback.

Garrison Keillor has a comedy bit in which he uses a string of familiar phrases matched with sound effects by his wingman, Fred Newman. The bit works because the phrases trigger familiar images in our minds.

Familiar phrases can be persuasive mental cues that convey complex information in a few words.

Phrases such as “the buck stops here,” “take the bull by the horns,” “don’t put all your eggs in one basket" and “throw caution to the wind” are freighted in meaning that extends beyond the definition of the words they contain. They tell a mini-story. They paint a clear picture. They quickly and deftly draw on what we already know in order to tell us something we don’t know.

Some phrases suffer from over-use and have become tired clichés. Other phrases derive from idioms, which have become like a foreign language in the ears of younger generations. But that doesn’t diminish the value of a freshly framed familiar phrase to explain an issue, answer a question or score a point.

•  The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company said, “Innovation needs to be the goal of U.S. health care reform – not its victim.”

•  The owner of an upscale grocery store, faced with allegations of selling contaminated products, snapped, “The only thing spoiled here is our customers.”

•  Maryon Pearson, the wife of a British prime minister, quipped, “Behind every successful man is a surprised woman."

Rick Steves, the famed travel writer, interviewed Miles Unger about his book tracing the life of Michelangelo. Unger peppered his replies with phrases of familiarity. Noting the famous artist never married, Unger said, “Michelangelo’s art was his wife and his works were his children.” He described Michelangelo’s struggle for regard as an artist as opposed to a craftsman for hire by saying, “He refused to paint Madonnas by the square foot.” Unger said Michelangelo’s masterpieces, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, were “art with an agenda” that brimmed with the humanism of the Renaissance.

Unger employed word plays that struck a familiar chord with listeners. Art as a wife and artworks as children is not a unique expression, but it is an effective one to underscore Michelangelo’s single-minded dedication to his artistry. He conjoined two familiar images with his reference to painting fine art by the square foot. His quip about art with an agenda was a crisp, economical way to say there was deeper purpose to what Michelangelo created.

We live in a time when we are constantly bombarded by information, which has had the perverse effect of shrinking our attention spans – or at least our patience. Sound bites have become necessary to pique interest, hold attention and convey meaning. Familiar phrases can be a sound bite savior by stretching the impact of just a handful of words.

Sound bites, like good melodies, keep echoing in your ear and are hard to get out of your mind. They are clever enough to repeat. Most importantly, they give listeners a verbal cue card of what you think is really significant. Think of them as verbal underlining.

The experienced speaker or speechwriter learns the tricks of using or twisting familiar phrases to “cut to the chase” of connecting with an audience. What you say may be new, but it will stick better if it is fastened to what your audience already knows.

If you need a familiar-phrase tutor, consult Will Rogers: “A fool and his money are soon elected.” “Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.” “An economist’s guess is liable to be as good as anyone else’s.”  

Heed George Bernard Shaw’s advice to avoid confusion over the “power of conversation” and the “power of speech.” Most conversations are forgettable. A great line can live on for a long time.

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

Trump: Accomplished Ringmaster of the Communication Circus

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump has turned the presidential race, political correctness and polite discourse on their head. So, is he exemplifying the traits of a good or bad communicator? That probably is a matter influenced by your political persuasion, but a fair analysis suggests he has both good and bad communication traits.

In what one voter called the “post-pragmatic” period in American history, Trump offers passion over policy. He insults instead of ingratiates. He emotes rather than explains.

The Donald’s mix of provocative statements, nonstop tweets and 24/7 media availability has managed to smother the campaign fires of his opponents. He calls a Fox News analyst a bimbo and gets more coverage than a candidate who unveils a 10-point plan on a vital issue.

Critics say Trump is playing on fears, inflaming biases and inciting anger. Supporters say he is merely channeling pent-up political reaction to government rigor mortis.

Regardless of whether Trump continues to fly high in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, there are some lessons to learn from how he campaigns. Writing for ragan.com, Clare Lane lists some of Trump's best takeaways:

•  He has a core message that he repeats over and over.

•  He taps into the emotional “truth” of his audience.

•  He speaks in language his audience understands.

•  He knows how to reframe questions and issues.

•  He is intentionally different than his opponents.

Trump tells big crowds at his rallies that he is running for president to “make America great again.” He has turned a tagline into a mantra, a phrase into a brand.

Perhaps ironically as a billionaire, Trump empathizes with people who feel downtrodden. He knows their hot buttons and he isn’t hesitant to push them.

It’s no accident that Trump has made racist and sexist remarks and dismissed political correctness as a liberal conspiracy. They are calculated comments to connect with deep-seated feelings and fears in the voters he seeks to attract.

Trump is a master at turning around questions. He pivots to make his points, without worrying whether he answers a question. Even when pressed, Trump shifts the topic.

From his cartoonish hair to his braggadocio behavior to his testy tweets, Trump is unparalleled. There is no one like him. In a field of dozens, being so distinctive has made him the center of attention, which he maintains by consistently “surprising” everyone. He even got a full news cycle’s worth of coverage for staying overnight once in Iowa instead of flying back to his New York penthouse.

If those are his good traits, what are his bad ones? It is pretty much the same list.

Trump barks his key message because he doesn’t have – or doesn’t want to share – many details of what he would do if elected president. Yes, we know he would tear up some executive orders, but how would he build that huge wall between the United States and Mexico, how would he deal with Chinese leaders, how would he increase the wages of average Americans? And what exactly about America’s past does he view as so great to warrant its revival?

Trump is long on passion, but short on persuasion. Sooner or later, when emotions cool, you want some real answers.

Speaking the language of those you seek to reach is critical, but not all-encompassing. Sometimes leadership requires speaking above the crowd, raising its sights. You can summon the “better angels” of ourselves with familiar phrases used in powerful ways.

People who conduct media training teach how to bridge from awkward questions back to key messages. Sometimes, however, the most provocative thing to do is actually answer that awkward question.

Being different is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing. Building trust, showing emotional intelligence and displaying grace under pressure count, too.

There should be no argument that Trump is an accomplished ringmaster in the communication circus. What may seem like indulgence may, in fact, be a disciplined, if highly irregular, approach to gaining and retaining notice.

Consider Trump’s decision not to participate in the final GOP presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Was it really meant to snub Megyn Kelly because of her questioning in an earlier debate? Or was it a shrewd maneuver to thwart the plans of his Republican rivals to gang up on him during the debate?

Like him or not, Trump is a study in how to communicate. Some good, some not so good. He definitely is not a loser, though, even if you view him as a lousy candidate.

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


The Profound Transition of the News

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

Everyone acknowledges the news business is undergoing a fundamental transition. That transition, however, may be more profound than we realize.

It is obvious print and electronic news media are moving rapidly to establish or enhance their online presence. Less obvious is the shift to delivering the news on mobile platforms such as smartphones.

Gone are the days when a large percentage of the population sat around the kitchen table in the morning reading the newspaper or coming home at night from work, putting on slippers and watching the nightly news on TV. Nowadays, people experience the news almost constantly on electronic devices. 

Instead of making a point of intersecting with daily news events, readers and viewers today are soaked with a persistent shower of news, which they tend to read in spurts.

News people talk about the reality of a 24/7 news cycle, with fluid deadlines and an imperative to publish first (and clean up later). That 24/7 news cycle is paralleled by a similar change in news consumption habits. People expect to find out what's happening – not just what happened – when they light up their phones and tablets.

The news has a shadow in the form of social media. News outlets use social media to promote their stories. But social media itself has become a barometer of what's trending, an indicator of what's collectively viewed as important, or at least interesting, in the moment.

While websites, especially news outlet websites, routinely feature multimedia content, social media sites increasingly enable one-click access to videos. It is another sign of the news reaching viewers without going through a news channel.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet reflected on these changes in an interview published over the weekend in the newspaper's "Sunday Review" section. The Times, he said, has divided its prodigious news resources into a "print hub," responsible for the newspaper, and a video team.

The video team's assignment, Banquet says, will be to identify and pursue stories that appeal to corporate advertisers. However astute that may be as a revenue-generating stream, it may overlook why viewers are fascinated with video.

Because video is no longer the hostage of expensive or unwieldy production equipment, almost anyone can shoot it and edit into a comprehensible story. The appeal of video is its authenticity. It puts the viewer on the scene to see for himself or herself.

More importantly, video works a lot better than a lot of words on the small displays of smartphones. You don't have to read about what's happening right now; you can see it and experience it in something closer to real time.

News outlets have tried to latch onto this real-time fascination by emphasizing "breaking news." Too often, however, that has become a path to covering fires, shootings and ice storms in lieu of more challenging stories about policy debates, community problems and disturbing trends.

The real power of video is to tell a story in a compact, emotive manner that holds strong appeal to a wide range of viewers. Videos are very versatile. As we've seen, they can show a police officer gunning down an unarmed man or they can make a complex story approachable and understandable.

As news producers race to catch up with news viewers, those of us who pitch stories on behalf of clients have to don running shoes, too. Pitching will still be a person-to-person activity, but what we pitch needs to change dramatically.

News releases prepared by public relations professionals have already become more sophisticated, with visual assets, infographics, B-roll video, charts and links. Now, we will need to go further.

With shrunken news staffs and heightened demand for video content, news outlets will be more open to accepting volunteered video content. This is a great opportunity to tell stories that otherwise would have little chance of ever seeing the light of day in traditional or new media. It also is a moment that requires building trust so we aren't pushing brand messages in the guise of news or distributing intentionally distorted, one-sided information.

The key takeaway is that how the news is distributed and read will have a strong bearing on what news is conveyed. The transition underway in the news media is causing a transition in what is viewed as news. Consumers of news, who now have an exploding number of options to get "news," will have to take more responsibility for the economic survival of the news channels they want and trust.

News influencers, including PR professionals, need to shoulder some of the same responsibility if we want trusted news channels to exist. 

Tags:    News, news coverage, news channels, social media, smartphones, news videos, story pitching, marketing PR, public affairs, Dean Baquet, CFM PR

Good Communications = Good Business

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent corporate survey reflected a growing reliance in the C-Suite on chief communications officers. While this is encouraging, it is about time. Or, more accurately, about time again.

"These best-in-class corporate affairs officers shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisers to CEOs, and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team," according to a Korn Ferry Institute survey.

Good news, but the public relations profession in the United States began as senior advisers, usually reporting to the president of a company. Only over time did PR became a department that was shuttled down the hall. PR became a corporate function, not a source of valued advice.

In fact, heads of PR departments struggled to be in the room when key corporate decisions were made. Sometimes they were given directions, but never consulted on matters revolving around communications.

There may be many explanations for why the role of a senior communications officer has been resurrected and accorded more respect. Certainly one reason is the rise of online content marketing and the eclipse of traditional advertising. Customer engagement puts a higher premium on two-way communications, and brands can be negatively impacted by an ill-advised CEO tweet or an inappropriate or ill-timed post on Facebook by a staffer.

In a digital world where everyone with a laptop, tablet and smartphone is an editor, communication strategy and style plays a larger role in cultivating and maintaining a brand.

Internal communications is no longer just about a bland note from the CEO or pictures from the holiday party, but a forum for continuous improvement and an advance warning system of competitive trouble.

A communications crisis can happen any time, requiring companies to respond rapidly using tools like Twitter to provide real-time updates to the media, employees and impacted communities.

While companies certainly need hands on deck to pitch stories, write ads and engage on social media, they also need a voice or voices at the very top level to ensure corporate strategies reflect sound communication strategy. That's where senior PR counselors started and, hopefully, that's where they will return.

Embedding smart communications into an overall corporate strategy is good business. And it has been good business for a long time.

Big-Minded Vs. Small-Minded

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Solving a problem is greatly aided by a big-minded approach instead of a small-minded one. Small minds tend to focus on obstacles to overcome. Big minds see opportunities that leap over obstacles.

Small-minded people go with what they know. Big-minded people survey a wider universe to find a smart idea.

To be sure, all of us can be big-minded and small-minded in different circumstances. But the lubrication that enables someone to move beyond a constricted view is curiosity.

I made this point while giving an informational interview to a soon-to-graduate marketing major from Portland State University. She asked simply how my firm, which is celebrating its 25th year in business, has adapted.

After noting we never created a brochure and that we start every client pitch from scratch, I said our fundamental adaptation was believing we had a lot to learn. We try to make Big-Mindness a business operating principle.

When my 21-year-old captive audience asked how to learn Big-Mindedness, my answer is to let experience be your teacher. Read outside your comfort zone. Volunteer in community organizations to see other people in their space. Work on a political campaign to listen to people and see the evolution of viewpoints. Travel. And pay attention to what's happening.

Even the seemingly most remote news events can be eye-opening. The two examples I gave my interviewee were the window into the expanding universe provided by the Hubble telescope and the experimentation of researches to verify the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and chickens.

Seeing the vast expanse of what we call outer space should open our minds to life somewhere else beside earth. A similar discovery many years ago that showed the earth revolves around the sun opened new vistas for small-mindedness. It allowed science to shed light on the world without the shadow of dogma.

The seemingly pointless research project that indicates chickens can regress and have something more like a prehistoric snout instead of a beak offers a cellular-level notion of how life functions and evolves. We aren't destined to be what we are; we have adapted to become what we are.

The practical value of such knowledge is that the universe of answers is wider than our own solar system of information and that we can effect change if we understand what factors account for change. Both have broad utility in the field of marketing, which at its core is a quest to find what works.

Problems may seem insoluble. And, if you only consider the options in your small mind, they may be. But when your thoughts to cross over to the big mind, more options materialize. The path to success may not be clear, but it certainly isn't closed.

News and Yesterday's News

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

In comedy, a badly timed punchline ruins the joke. It's the same in news. Deliver it on time, it's news. Deliver it late and it's yesterday's news.

Nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response. But sluggish media relations can be just as harmful. The most serious casualty is a lost opportunity to tell your story when a key audience may be listening or watching.

Here are some of the most common, albeit lame reasons for tardy media engagement:

  • Arthritic approval structures in organizations, especially large ones.
  • Obsessive word-smithing over language in a press release that will never see the light of day.
  • A reticence to share some facts until all facts are known.
  • A forlorn belief that the story will blow over.
  • Worries about legal exposure.
  • Waiting for the right moment.
  • Not wanting to look pushy.

Organizations that understand the value of media relations in this media-rich digital age overcome those obstacles to timely news delivery. They streamline how news releases are written and approved. They focus on key messages, not press releases. They know opportunities come and go, but some stories don't fade away. They pay attention to legal counsel, but don't enslave themselves to it. They understand that if they don't tell their story, somebody else will.

Most important, smart organizations see effective media relations as a critical strategy. Direct communication with your target audience is vital, but that audience also pays attention to third-party coverage and commentary to provide context and validation.

In a world of profiling communications channels, media relations has gotten tougher. But one thing remains the same. News is news. Old news isn't news, just like a mangled punchline isn't funny.

Once Is Never Enough

Like most good things in life, once is never enough. Once is certainly not enough to ensure that your well-crafted key message gets heard and absorbed.

It's not that people, including your target audience, are dumb or inattentive. They simply have a lot going on and are constantly bombarded by messages. Your message, as compelling as it may be, is just one more inbound missile of noise.

Repeating your words over and over might get the job done, but it also may set audiences to wondering whether you have lost your bearings. A better approach is what we call integrated communications.

Integrated communications is really just another name for having your messages reach people in a lot of different ways. The tobacco industry perfected the ability to surround people with a message, which is why you saw cigarette logos on billboards, in newspaper ads and on race cars. Because putting something that's on fire in your mouth and inhaling the smoke isn't natural, tobacco marketers worked overtime to show all kinds of people smoking in all kinds of places. They wanted smoking to seem the norm in society.

The principles of surrounding people with your message — and helping them put it into a familiar, personal context — is the heart and soul of integrated communications.

Solve Problems, Not Find Fault

The website rollout of your signature achievement is an unmitigated disaster. And the chancellor of Germany learns the United States has been poking its spying nose into her smart phone text messages. Time to take a vacation or time to shoulder the blame?

Most blunders don't rise to the level of those facing President Obama. And regardless how he chooses to respond, the smart response for the person in charge is to own the problem, even if it isn't his or her fault.

Granted, this is easier said than done. Legal advisors may warn against blindly accepting liability. Financial advisors may urge caution to avoid fines and costly restitution. Your own inner voice may resist taking the blame, wishing instead to transfer all your energy to the end of your finger pointed in someone else's direction.

However, there is abundant evidence that people can forgive mistakes, but resent equivocation or dissembling. Mostly what people want to hear is a little sympathy for what happened and a lot of action to fix the problem so it doesn't happen again.

Owning a problem shouldn't be seen as a weak or defensive posture. Stepping up and taking charge can project a confidence-building image, an image based on action rather than ambivalence.