public affairs

Gritty Positivity Adds Social Fabric to Public Affairs Strategies

Columnist David Brooks deplores the lack of media coverage for gritty, raw and authentic stories about healing and community-building. The same is true about public affairs strategies that can be heavy on stats and ponderous on claims, but light on grit and authenticity.

Columnist David Brooks deplores the lack of media coverage for gritty, raw and authentic stories about healing and community-building. The same is true about public affairs strategies that can be heavy on stats and ponderous on claims, but light on grit and authenticity.

News media consumers don’t have to look very far for bad or frightening stories. They have a harder time finding uplifting stories about people helping other people.

“Many of our colleagues don’t define local social repair and community-building as news. It seems too goody-goody, too ‘worthy,’ too sincere. It won’t attract eyeballs,” says David Brooks in his latest column in The New York Times. Brooks thinks that’s wrong-headed.

After attending a #WeaveThePeople conference in Washington, DC, Brooks encountered what he described as “some of the most compelling people I’ve ever met.” A former prison inmate who connects community members to health care services. A Texas man who assists people with spinal cord injuries. A former Army Ranger who suffered from PTSD, but now builds communities for veterans.

“Why don’t we cover these people more?” Brooks asks. Their stories are “emotionally gripping” and demonstrate how to turn vulnerability into action. Many of the stories, Brooks admits, “was uncomfortable and searing, but the discomfort broke through barriers and moved us closer.”

The stories have substance and include “acute observations” about how to heal, build community and win trust. Brooks believes readers would devour and value such stories, if they were told.

The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.

The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.

“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that associational life is the central feature of American life,” Brooks says. “Somehow we in the media under-cover this sector. We barely cover the most important social change agents. These people are not goody-goody. They are raw, honest and sometimes rude.”

Brooks’ observation rings true in a wider circle than the news media. In public affairs, the stories that are told are more often just sterile, emotionless arguments coupled with slick slideshows. They can be true, even persuasive, but not compelling. They make a point, but don’t always talk about making a difference that matters to a community. They touch the surface, not the core.

“How did we in our business get in the spot where we spend 90 percent of our coverage on the 10 percent of our lives influenced by politics and 10 percent of our coverage on the 90 percent of our lives influenced by relationship, community and the places we live in every day?” wonders Brooks.

The same question should be asked of public affairs communications, with too much verbiage about process, too much focus on “benefits,” too much hype, too little empathy and almost no grit or social fabric. 

Communities are unmoved by statistics, predictions and promises. They would more likely be impressed by tangible actions; promises made and kept; and raw, if uncomfortable, candor.

As weavers that Brooks encountered said, “Neighbors are people we practice doing life with” and “relationships move at the speed of trust.” Public affairs strategies should increase their focus on neighbors, relationships and trust, so they can tell stories that are authentic, believable and inspiring.

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.

 

The Chemistry of Turning Failure into Success

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure doesn’t make someone a loser, but history shows failure can lead to success. Exactly what is the chemistry that converts an ounce of failure into a pound of success?

The scientific method regards failed experiments as useful because they eliminate one path and invite pursuit of alternatives. Failure is less a roadblock than a detour sign. Thomas Edison summed it up, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Some failures produce unexpected success, such as the discovery of an unintended use of a substance or process. Some of the most gainful inventions were actually accidental successes. Google Post-It notes for a good example.

The attitude of people toward failure can be a huge factor. Some see failure as the end. Others view failure as the beginning. Or, as Winston Churchill noted, “success is stumbling from failure to failure.”

Stumbling from failure to failure isn’t exactly an inviting prospect, especially in a field such as public affairs. Clients expect public affairs professionals to “fix” their public issues, not fumble them. 

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

Failing to fix a client’s problem can be humiliating and demoralizing for public affairs professionals, who pitch clients on the prospect of victory, not consolation prizes. Good public affairs professionals win more than they lose, but everyone loses sometimes.

The image of a public affairs professional as a “fixer” isn’t useful – or usually accurate. Yes, public affairs professionals, if they are worth their fee, have relevant experience, good contacts and a huge dose of savvy. If they really know what they are doing, they will focus their attention on what they don’t know before spinning out a strategy.

In this sense, the discipline of public affairs is a lot like a scientific experiment. You need to test your hypothesis and let the results guide your actions. Testing the waters might take the form of talking with trusted sources, closely reading media coverage, consulting with legal experts or conducting research, often via one-on-one interviews. 

A client may have a clear understanding of his or her public problem. The public affairs professional’s responsibility is to develop a clear direction to address that problem. The solutions to most public affairs challenges aren’t as simple as stepping from A to B. The chance for strategic missteps or detours is high. Failure at one turn can’t be construed as total disaster. Sometimes a failure is the light post to the pathway to success.

That suggests the chemistry for converting failure to success depends a lot on mental attitude – curiosity instead of bravado, flexibility instead of rigidity, honesty instead of spin, self-confidence instead of over-confidence. The right chemistry also requires an underlying optimism that success is achievable and the resiliency to keep searching for the road to success amid failure. Albert Einstein’s well-known words are apt, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Success for a public affairs professional is seldom a hero’s walk. More often, success involves deep questioning, a realistic objective, a strategic plan and thoughtful execution of that plan – with eyes wide open for ditches, dead-ends and detours that require a modified route. Patience is a virtue. 

The chemistry of success boils down to self-confidence in finding a way that works, regardless of how many twists and turns it might take.  Getting to success doesn’t have to be smooth, simple or pretty. You just have to keep trying to get there.

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 Simplicity Teams with Creativity for Public Affairs Results

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then simplicity is the father of creativity. That’s certainly true in the world of public affairs.

Creativity through simplicity in public affairs is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. It involves the thoughtful reduction of details to reach the essence of a subject so it is instantly recognizable and compelling. The end result may be a creative argument, snappy catch-phrase, strategic plan or clever solution to a vexing problem. The result also could be as basic as unraveling the “complexity” manufactured as a smokescreen by opponents.

Representing industrial energy customers several years back, I and others lobbied for an admittedly complex measure to allow manufacturers that use large amounts of electricity to purchase energy from a non-utility provider. Utility opponents managed to scuttle the legislation by calling it too complex.

Advocacy Piece with Bills Numbers.jpg

When we brought back the bill in the next legislative session, we did two critical things – we simplified how the bill was written and we replaced our fact sheets with a flipchart. We began every meeting with a legislator by saying, “This issue is not really complex. Let us show you why.”

The flipchart walked through how electricity is distributed, explained why large industrial customers were often electricity generators and outlined the specific provisions of the bill. The debate shifted from complicated, confusing details to the merits of the legislation’s key provisions, which included investments in energy conservation and efficiency. The bill passed easily with strong bipartisan support. 

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Conventional wisdom may reject the notion that subtraction is creative. Clients usually want ‘more’ options, more details, more justification rather than ‘less’ complication and confusion. They want to throw mud against the wall to see what sticks. They can’t conceive that simplicity is the creative key to unlock understanding.

The phrase “making ideas take shape” is uncannily on point to describe the path from simplicity to creativity. The “shape” can be an image, a chart or a well-turned phrase, but it has a readily accessible form, something familiar that human brains can digest and file away.

Infographics have earned popularity by saying a lot simply and visually. They can illustrate a key point, sequentially walk a viewer through an issue or show how something works. This “show me” approach to information-sharing is a perfect example of creative simplicity. 

People have complex mental capacities, but they absorb information in relatively simple, elemental ways. Conveying information in an elemental form improves the odds that the intended audience will receive and bank your message.

Creativity can be clever. However, just as often creativity is useful and practical. By focusing on the one thing that is most important, we uncomplicate a subject for an audience. The ability to simplify eliminates the unnecessary so the necessary has space to speak. You create clarity out of chaos.

Your best creative tool is curiosity. Do more than see what is going on around you. Observe it carefully and learn how the simplest things can convey rich meaning creatively. Making something complex seem simple takes hard work. You better get started.

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.

 

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.

 

Accidents Can Be Eye-Popping Moments of Discovery

No one roots for accidents, even though they sometimes can be moments of discovery, such as when a curious engineer walked through a radar test room and noticed something made a chocolate bar melt in his pants. Public affairs professionals should be equally as open to the accidental enlightenment of a melting chocolate bar in their pants.

No one roots for accidents, even though they sometimes can be moments of discovery, such as when a curious engineer walked through a radar test room and noticed something made a chocolate bar melt in his pants. Public affairs professionals should be equally as open to the accidental enlightenment of a melting chocolate bar in their pants.

Accidents have a deservedly bad reputation. However, some accidents turn into brilliant discoveries. That’s as true in public affairs as in business.

The list of accidental discoveries is impressive – and telling. The microwave oven, super glue, Teflon, Velcro, pacemakers, X-rays and glasses for the color blind. They are the byproducts of experimentation, curiosity, observation, failure and chance. 

The inventor of the microwave oven made his serendipitous discovery in 1946 when walking through a radar test room and noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pants. Curious, he aimed a magnetron at kernels of corn that popped and an egg that cooked almost instantly. Public affairs professionals should pay attention when an event, message or spokesperson causes a chocolate bar to melt in their pants.

Competent public affairs plans rely on credible research that provides a clear window into how a target audience views a topic or project. However, even the most well-conceived plans can have gaps or encounter unanticipated circumstances. Accidents happen. When they do, spend less time freaking out and more time assessing whether the accident revealed useful information or guidance.

A big problem with public involvement efforts is the overweening desire to exercise control. As a result, they have more to do with delivering a scripted performance than discovering fresh, unnoticed perspectives. Tightly controlling public engagement may avoid accidents. It also may miss out on accidental knowledge.

Take for example a public engagement effort to explain the purpose, dimensions and timeline of a major construction project that will disrupt local businesses, create neighborhood noise and affect school bus routes. A large group meeting, no matter how well orchestrated with explanatory posters, is almost certain to draw criticism – and negative media attention.

Seeking out neighborhood leaders in advance to ask them for their ideas on how to mitigate the project’s impact could produce “accidental” ideas, such as creating a new community park as “compensation” for the disruption or maintaining safe zones for school buses and schoolchildren. Yes, ideas like that would up the cost of the project, but they also could cool down the neighborhood outcry.

The type of research used to design a public affairs plan can anticipate “accidental” findings. Telephone surveys will produce quantitatively reliable findings. Interactive online engagement, on the other hand, will produce a wider range of comments – some not-so-helpful, a few incredibly insightful and one or two with specific, actionable suggestions.

One of the most useful train wrecks in public affairs is to meet face-to-face with critics. Not only is it disarming, such personal contact with what your opposition thinks can bend your own thinking. They may have viewpoints you never considered or give as much weight as they deserved. Such “accidental” discovery early in a public affairs process gives you a distinct advantage in coming up with convincing counter-arguments or modifying your proposal to accommodate opposition concerns.

The point: Be open to accidents. They aren’t always failures. They can be eye-popping moments that lead to improved projects, happier neighbors and satisfying consensus. 

Don’t let that melting chocolate bar in your pants go to waste.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

The Time Has Come for Video Op-eds

Bill Gates explains his idea for a clean energy “moonshot” in an extended video op-ed posted online by The New York Times. Video op-eds are emerging as one of the best ways to convey an unfiltered message that people will view and share.

Bill Gates explains his idea for a clean energy “moonshot” in an extended video op-ed posted online by The New York Times. Video op-eds are emerging as one of the best ways to convey an unfiltered message that people will view and share.

Video op-eds may be an idea whose time has come.

Op-eds are a tried-and-true way to convey an unfiltered message in news columns. However, with shrinking editorial pages and newspaper readership, the op-ed has diminished in value. Getting an op-ed published is still valuable, but mostly as a source of solid content to share on social media. 

If social media is the ultimate target for an op-ed, then social media rules should apply. The number one social media rule to obey is video gains more eyeball contact than text.

For traditionalists, this trend may appear as an aggravation. It’s actually an opportunity.

Op-eds published in newspapers or other print outlets are one dimensional. There is a catchy headline and 500 words to make your point. In a video op-ed, there are many more flexible options.

In its simplest form, a video op-ed can consist of the op-ed writer voicing what he or she wrote. This allows a viewer to see the person speaking and observe their expressions and body language. It permits a speaker to establish a “face-to-face” rapport with an audience and inject appropriate emotion into his or her content.

A video op-ed can capture two or three people discussing a topic, offering a mix of perspectives or even contrary points of view. A carefully edited give-and-take can be very informative, quick-paced – and highly shareable. 

Robert Reich has become a social media mainstay with his illustrated political commentaries that feature him talking to his audience while using a sharpie in the background to show his point.

Robert Reich has become a social media mainstay with his illustrated political commentaries that feature him talking to his audience while using a sharpie in the background to show his point.

Adding presentational elements to a video op-ed can be entertaining as well as informational. Robert Reich, the former Cabinet officer-turned political commentator, uses sharpies to make drawings that punctuate his commentaries.

Specifically designed for social media, Reich talks over sped-up imagery of him creating his engaging illustrations. The sketches reinforce his words, making it more likely viewers will get – and retain – his point. 

The Washington Post employs video op-eds in a wide range of forms to discuss topics such as “Grand Juries 101,” why gerrymandering could be okay if done better, a Thanksgiving message from Teddy Roosevelt and a remembrance of columnist Charles Krauthammer. The WaPo op-eds take advantage of film clips, illustrations, charts and anything visual to grab eyeballs and stimulate thought. The video op-eds live on the publication’s online newsroom, providing evergreen content that can continuously draw clicks. 

The New York Times has created an online channel for wide-ranging video op-ed contributions. Samples include Robert Redford expressing opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, Bill Gates discussing a clean energy “moonshot” and a video essay contrasting Siri with a human assistant. The video op-eds can be as short as 90 seconds up to more than six minutes in the Gates’ contribution.

In-house video production is no longer a pipe dream. Credible high-definition video can be shot with a smartphone. Video op-eds don’t represent any greater technical challenge than explanatory or training videos. 

Previous Rules of Engagement blogs have offered tips on how to conceive and execute quality video content. Like any other type of video, video op-eds require producers to zero in on the point they want to make, then think expansively about how to show it. Drop all inhibitions and let your imagination go to work. Seek professional help, if needed, to carry out your dream plan.

Public affairs can be a stodgy, change-resistant wing of public relations. If you want to reach target audiences and be relevant, contemporary tactics are essential, including video op-eds. Experiment to get your creative sea legs, but don’t hesitate to take the plunge.

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.

Digital Media’s Impact on Crisis Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

‘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.

The Merit of Collaboration as a Winning Strategy

Collaboration is often a goal, but seldom thought of as a strategy, even though collaboration is the quintessential win-win solution that can involve alliances, partnerships, shared resources and a coordinated chorus of voices.

Collaboration is often a goal, but seldom thought of as a strategy, even though collaboration is the quintessential win-win solution that can involve alliances, partnerships, shared resources and a coordinated chorus of voices.

Collaboration is a common goal, but it also can be a compelling strategy. In fact, collaboration may one of the few strategies with an upside of achieving success.

Strategic collaboration can take the form of alliances, partnerships and shared resources to move legislation, undertake an enterprise or stretch scarce finances. They are the quintessential win-win solutions.

As appealing as collaboration sounds, it can be enormously hard to pull off in reality. Success requires a collaborative spirit, a willingness to be partners and an openness to share – attributes that aren’t always evident or even possible.

To avoid flailing around, Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation has created an assessment tool to test whether ground is fertile for collaboration. The tool is aimed chiefly for government-to-government collaboration, but could be adapted to other arrangements between public agencies, nonprofits and businesses.

One example of a government-nonprofit collaboration cited by ASU’s David Swindell is a shared investment by the Nevada Humane Society and the cities of Reno and Sparks to build a new facility near the publicly owned animal shelter. The tandem facilities enable collaboration to extend public dollars by having a partner focused on finding forever homes for rescued pets, as well as offer low-cost spay and neutering services.

“This is a good example of where a county is working in collaboration with a nonprofit agency to absorb costs and share benefits in a true partnership,” says Swindell. A clear, but hard to quantify value is reduced stress on animal shelter staff who feel they are doing everything possible to prevent euthanizing unwanted animals.

In the public affairs realm, collaboration is an effective strategy to harness collective support. Collaboration might include formation of a multi-agency advisory group, a list of diverse supporters, grassroots mobilization and group lobbying.

A show of strength through collaboration can make a strong impression on policymakers and play well in media coverage. A chorus of coordinated voices can ripple through social media. A grassroots army can march the message of a campaign to constituencies and corners of a state that otherwise would be unreachable.

Like any other strategy, collaboration is only as valuable as its contributions. To continue contributing, you need to ensure the wheels of collaboration keep rolling, which requires engagement and attention to detail. Swindell says it also demands measurement to quantify movement.

Collaboration can be a testing ground for innovation in cost reduction, service delivery or constituent satisfaction. As an alternative to going-it-alone, collaboration can be a strategy to attract public support to accomplish something that otherwise appears impossible.

Collaboration is not limited by geography. It can occur on a local or global scale. One constant is the need to define the “win” for all of the collaborative partners. Organizations, like most people, act out of self-interest. Collaboration is one way to make everyone a winner.

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.

 

Gold Medalist Shaun White Misses Mountainous Opportunity

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White soared in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe event, winning his third Gold Medal and solidifying his legacy as one of America’s greatest Olympians. His handling of a sexual misconduct allegation was less soaring.

Shaun White thrilled his countrymen, including me, with a sparkling final run to win his third Olympic gold medal in the men’s snowboard halfpipe. Unfortunately, he also disappointed many of his countrymen by failing to own responsibility for his sexual misconduct as alleged in 2016 by a female member of his band.

Few American athletes, and certainly even fewer winter Olympians, have scaled as high of a mountain of success and acclaim as White. He is credited with putting skateboarding on the athletic map and turning his particular event into a breathtaking spectacle of big air and jaw-dropping spins.

In the gleaming light of his success on the halfpipe, White shone less brightly in his post-event interview at which he dismissed the sexual misconduct allegations as “gossip.”

Still basking in the limelight, White had a mulligan to get it right the next morning when he was interviewed on NBC’s Today show by Savannah Guthrie. He didn’t get out of the rough. Guthrie gave him a wide lane by asking if he had anything further to say about the allegation. White expressed regret for his “gossip” comment, in what appeared to be a scripted moment. Guthrie pressed him ever so gently to say something about the sexual misconduct allegation itself. All White could muster was that he has changed. No mention of the woman he allegedly harassed.

White undoubtedly had been prepped by his legal counsel. He should have sought advice from a reputation counselor. White will never have a grander moment to apologize. That would have made him not only king of the hill, but also a man willing to admit his fault, even as he is celebrated for his greatness.

You could call it a mountainous missed opportunity.

Unquestionably White’s legacy as an Olympic great will remain. But his reputation as a man could have soared along with that legacy if he bucked the trend of other accused men and owned his misconduct. If White had, the issue would have faded into the shadows instead of continuing to dog him as he contemplates participating in newly authorized 2020 Summer Olympic skateboarding and possibly yet another winter Olympic try in 2022. He apparently failed to call upon any female reporters at his post-victory press conference, which will be hard to sustain going forward.

Preserving a reputation has an Olympic quality of requiring discipline and courage. If it was easy, no one would have a bad reputation, unless like Charlie Sheen you cultivated one. White passed the test of athletic discipline and courage with literally flying colors. Too bad, he crash-landed on a test of his maturity and manhood. White is great. He could have been even greater.

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.

 

What Super Bowl Ads Can Teach about Managing Issues

Instead of spending millions to air the movie trailer of  Deadpool 2  during the Super Bowl, the film’s producers launched a clever, in-character Twitterstorm mocking itself for being too cheap to run an ad during the big game. The use of Twitter is just one of the lessons that can be drawn for issue managers from this year’s Super Bowl.

Instead of spending millions to air the movie trailer of Deadpool 2 during the Super Bowl, the film’s producers launched a clever, in-character Twitterstorm mocking itself for being too cheap to run an ad during the big game. The use of Twitter is just one of the lessons that can be drawn for issue managers from this year’s Super Bowl.

Issue managers are often late to the party on how to use social media to explain a complex issue or contend with a contentious opponent. Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel has some tips based on this year’s Super Bowl ads.

Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel shared her communication insights on Super Bowl ads, which also apply to issue management.

Self-acclaimed social media nerd Beki Winchel shared her communication insights on Super Bowl ads, which also apply to issue management.

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, listening and viewing habits have changed, especially among younger adults. Just as important, tactics have evolved to capture people’s wayward attention. In a recent blog for PR Daily, Winchel cites four clever tactics that brands used to capture eyeballs during the Super Bowl. They offer insight into how issue managers might spruce up their communications.

  1. Winchel’s first suggestion is to use Twitter. Unlike other film and TV show producers, 20th Century Fox chose to sit out the Super Bowl commercial game and instead promoted Deadpool 2 with tweets by the franchise’s main character that portrayed the studio as too cheap to buy an ad. It was basically newsjacking on steroids or, in this case, “wrist-deep in cocoa butter.”

    Most issue managers don’t have budgets for ad campaigns, but they can think creatively about filling a niche through social media, and particularly via Twitter through the use of hashtags. Depending on the audience you need to reach, Twitter or Instagram can be perfect channel choices to squeeze out a message in keeping with your brand personality or the context of an issue.

    Humor can be an effective, albeit sometimes dangerous weapon. But audiences like to be entertained, so don’t overlook how humor and wit can play a role in your narrative.
     
  2. Citing Diet Coke’s ad featuring actress Hayley Magnus, Winchel encourages the use of spontaneity. Magnus shot what was intended to be a six-second video, but her infectious dance and narration after taking a sip convinced the soda’s brand managers to convert it into a full-fledged ad. It was captured in one take with mostly impromptu comments.

    Unscripted moments aren’t always the best moments to dramatize an issue, but straight-laced, dull commentaries may not grab anyone’s attention. It never hurts to be spontaneous – or allow yourself to recognize a meaningful, useful impromptu moment. Impromptu is hard to stage, but don’t be blind when you see such a moment that can convey your story.
     
  3. Winchel says early promotion can result in a big payoff. Doritos and Amazon set up audiences for their Super Bowl commercials by providing sneak peaks on social media and even on traditional news media before the game’s first kickoff. Winchel says the “Doritos Blaze vs. Mtn Dew Ice” ad accumulated almost 29 million views before game time.

    Teasing out commercials is akin to leaking tidbits of information. The idea is to generate buzz. The default position for many issue managers is to wait as long as possible to announce a potential project or initiative. That is sound thinking, but there can be exceptions when a slow drip announcement can create interest and enthusiasm, without spilling the beans too soon.
     
  4. Winchel’s last piece of advice should be music to the ears of issue managers. Quoting Mad Men’s Don Draper, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” Winchel says that’s what the Tide commercial accomplished by spoofing other brand commercials. In four spots that ran in each quarter, Tide ad narrator David Harbour basically says if you saw people in other ads, they were really Tide ads because everyone’s clothes were clean.

    The Tide ads have a humorous tone and reference familiar ad memes. They naturally pulled conversation in their direction. Switching the narrative on a serious issue isn’t easy, but Winchel’s advice is a good reminder that it can be done. If issue managers don’t explore this option, they may be overlooking an avenue to pursue for proactive, positive conversation.

Super Bowl ads produced another valuable lesson – think twice before you step across a cultural boundary. Dodge and Ram trucks faced a fury of feedback from their well-intentioned, but short-sighted ad about the benefits of service. The ad is graced with a Martin Luther King voice-over excerpted, with permission, from one of his speeches. Critics questioned the appropriateness of using King’s voice, especially since in another part of his speech he condemned commercial exploitation in advertising.

This is just the latest example of stumbling into a culture war. The use of King’s voice probably was sold by an ad agency as a masterstroke. In reality, it was an unforced error. For example, there are many country music artists who have established foundations to provide disaster relief, care for foster children and housing for families with children battling cancer. Any one of them would have been inspirational and a better match for the occasion – and the demographic of who buys Ram trucks.

 

Think More, Talk Less to Be Heard

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

In communication, less is usually more than enough. Brevity is the soul of wit – and quite possibly the only way to get your point across to audiences addicted to mobile devices and plagued by shrinking attention spans.

Executive coach Greg Salciccioli instructs presenters to deliver “clear, concise and compelling content.” His advice applies to any form of communication, especially media interviews.

A client asked me why a TV reporter totally missed his key message after he gave an in-person interview. I told him he drowned out his message by offering too much information. The reporter needed something quotable; he gave a lecture.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Salciccioli cited research by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, that indicates full-time workers focus on their jobs for only six hours a week – or roughly 15 percent of their time at work. He also notes a 2016 Nielsen report that says US adults spend more than 10 hours per day interacting with electronic media. These two data points are not unrelated. Statistics like that underscore why simplicity and scintillating content are necessary to grab attention.

Simplifying what you say is not the same as dumbing down what you say. Simplification means conveying what you want to say in as few words as possible. Or as Joseph McCormack, author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, advises: “Think and speak in headlines.”

Headlines are basically the same as sound bites – short, catchy phrases that convey a lot of meaning in a few words. Presenters and spokespersons may balk at reducing their brilliance to sound bites, but they do so at the peril of their key messages, like my client. If you want to be heard, you have to do what’s necessary to be heard.

Catering to your audience isn’t an act of surrender. If people are interested in a subject, they will ask for more information. However, pepper-spraying an audience – or a reporter – with a lot of information all at once only serves to push them away. That TV reporter interviewing my client couldn’t wait to beat a hasty retreat.

Contemporary audiences don’t view long orations or debates as entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who participated in seven 3-hour debates with Stephen Douglas, gave his most inspirational and enduring speech at Gettysburg. It lasted only three minutes and consisted of just 272 words, punctuated by the riveting line, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s memorable remarks followed a 2-hour “keynote” speech that has been largely forgotten.

People with a lot to say tend to put up the most stubborn resistance to brevity. But their vanity can’t overcome – and might actually contribute to – the lethargy and apathy of an audience. As humbling as it might be, people listening to a speech or media interview will remember more of what they see than what they hear. How you look and present yourself can make up 80 percent of an audience impression. All the more reason to choose your words carefully to maximize that other 20 percent of retention.

Speaking effectively and efficiently, as Salciccioli recommends, can earn you credibility with an audience or a reporter. Your preparation, organization and succinct delivery makes listening easier. Audience members don’t need to struggle to figure out what you mean to say. A reporter doesn’t have to scramble to find 12 usable seconds of tape, the average length of a quote in TV stories.

Salciccioli titled his LinkedIn blog, “The Power of Getting to the Point.” He is absolutely right that straightforward, brightly expressed commentary puts you in the driver’s seat because you are commanding the narrative. When you wander around and drone on, you muddy and bury the story you mean to tell. You leave it to the audience or a reporter to decipher what you said.

My baffled client told me proudly he gave the TV reporter enough material to fill 30 minutes of air time. Sadly, the reporter only needed 12 seconds of good sound for her story. The 12 seconds she chose wasn’t his key message, which we had worked on for two hours before the interview. My client blamed the reporter. In reality, he had no one to blame but himself.

If you want to make your point, take the time to chisel it into a phrase or sentence that people can hear, comprehend and remember. Think more and talk less.

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.

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.

Engagement is an Attitude, Not a Box to Check Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complementary Engagement Partners

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

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

Media Training, Crisis and Self-Confidence

Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

The value of media training isn’t in memorizing what to say in advance, but achieving the confidence to say what needs to be said in an actual crisis situation.

Media training includes tips on how to craft and deliver a key message in a media interview. Trainees learn about crisp phrasing and avoiding jargon. They see themselves on video so they can self-correct distracting mannerisms and weed out excessive “ums” and “likes” in their speech. They recognize the benefits of practicing instead of winging interviews.

However, the most profound value of media training is building self-confidence. The most common comment I receive after media training is, “Now I feel confident that I can do it."

Being a spokesperson is not rocket science, but it can be nerve-racking. The best words and clearest delivery can be undone by a shaky countenance or an inappropriate facial expression – failures usually attributable to a lack of confidence.

Being a spokesperson is like being an actor. No matter how marvelous the script and staging, what counts is your performance. And great performances usually flow from actors who have meticulously prepared and go on stage with the relaxed confidence to awe an audience.

Actors spend time in front of mirrors to master how they look and practice their lines so the words fall off their tongues naturally. Spokespersons should follow suit. Media training gives them the basics. Their self-confidence carries them to the higher plateau of success.

Self-confidence can easily migrate to over-confidence. One successful interview doesn’t guarantee another. A self-confident spokesperson remembers what gave them self-confidence, even up to and including follow-up media training. You can never be too well prepared.

A key part of self-confidence is being comfortable with your role, and spokesperson roles aren’t monolithic. Giving an interview to a print reporter can be very different than giving one live to a television reporter. Appearing on a news talk show or an online forum are very different experiences and require different kinds of preparation to build confidence.

The variability of spokesperson roles is a cue to seek customized media training that offers a realistic experience like the situation you will face. We have provided media training to public officials who routinely were subjected to ambush interviews, to high-profile business leaders who speak in a wide range of settings and to nonprofit  executives appearing on talk radio shows.

While the challenges vary, one thing is always the same – you want to leave a media training session with the confidence you can be the spokesperson who does the job.

To be honest, sometimes trainees realize after the experience that they can’t do the job. That’s important to know, too. It takes a lot of self-confidence to have the courage to say you aren’t the right person to be under the hot lights. 

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.

Why Attorneys and PR Counselors Should Play Nice

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to a crisis is balancing lawyerly advice about courtroom liability with PR counsel about the court of public opinion.

Avoiding or minimizing legal liability can come at the expense of tarnishing or losing a reputation. For some clients, losing a reputation is more costly – and more permanent – than an adverse verdict.

Advising clients to say nothing can be a safe legal position, but a precarious reputational position. It is incumbent for attorneys and PR counselors to respect what each other does and offer clients constructive counsel that protects their full set of interests.

Wise attorneys recognize the power of words, so they carefully shape their messages. Experienced PR counselors understand the judicial process. That should form the basis for mutual respect and a healthy working relationship.

Attorneys and PR counselors are both advocates, each with a different target audience and parallel lenses to view the crisis. Judges and juries – not to mention opposing legal counsel – are a key audience. But so are the people affected by or interested in the crisis and its cause, which can include coworkers, neighbors, customers, regulators and, of course, the news media.

In law school, attorneys are taught how to parse words in cases and frame arguments. They don’t always learn the power of what is not said – or of not saying anything.

Journalists and PR professionals typically get a superficial picture in their training of how the legal system works. Most never spend time in an actual courtroom, watching a trial or diving into briefs supporting lawsuits. Few have covered a criminal or civil matter from beginning to end for a news outlet. Some have never heard of attorney-client privilege or appreciate its significance to protect clients and communications.

Clients deserve fulsome advice, even to the extent of differing views. An attorney and PR counselor may have sharply varying viewpoints on how much the client should say and when to say it. Dispensing their counsel in a respectful, professional manner gives clients a fuller view of their options and the risks and opportunities attaching to those options.

Self-confident attorneys and PR counselors serve their clients well when they collaborate and do their best to arrive proactively at a consensus that doesn’t equate to stonewalling or self-indicting confessions.

One of the most vital conversations is what can be said or done that provides reassurance to the people most impacted by a crisis. Earning trust in the heat of a crisis depends on meaningful actions and clear statements. This is as valid to consider as the ultimate liability for the crisis.

Despite coming from different universes, attorneys and PR counselors can be good teammates. And for the good of their clients, they should be.

In a crisis, clients already have enough stress. The last thing they need is a pair of squabbling advocates. However, attorneys and PR counselors don’t always play nicely together in the sand box. They have been called the “oil and water team.” Attorneys discount PR counselor understanding of the law. PR counselors think lawyers are rigid impediments to clients telling their story. Clients facing crisis shouldn’t settle for either stereotype. There are attorneys and PR counselors who know how to work together in the best interests of their collective clients.

An important part of crisis planning and preparation is to ensure your attorney and PR counselor have track records of collaboration and mutual appreciation that winning in court, but losing in the court of public opinion still equals a loss.

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.

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

Surprise

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

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

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

First Impression

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

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

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

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

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

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