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A Reimagined Version of Local Newspaper Storytelling

The New York Times  shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

The New York Times shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

It is common knowledge newspapers are wheezing on their deathbeds. But before you pronounce the last rites, take a gander at The New York Times special report on how the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was barely saved from a massive fire.

The special report is a combination of journalistic storytelling, eye-popping imagery and informative animation. You really forget you are viewing a “newspaper” as you scan spectacular photography of the fire and learn through animation how close the roof came to collapsing. There are even artistic scenes from a firefighter’s notebook that would make Leonardo DaVinci applaud. 

And it’s all in a newspaper.

Granted, The New York Times isn’t just a garden-variety newspaper. But it does produce daily editions in print that land on people’s doorstep, including mine, just like hundreds of other daily newspapers around the nation. The Times has grander resources than virtually any other American newspaper, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination.

The digital revolution may make the printed page obsolete, but that doesn’t have to extend to the concept of newspapering. The digital page can extend the reach of a physical page and is bounded only by the limits of ingenuity.

Having worked for small daily newspapers, I understand the sense of limitation that can exist in newsrooms. But just as small dailies innovated with offset and color printing, so can newspapers of any size innovate with new digital tools. 

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

While working for The Daily Astorian, we covered stories about the Columbia River estuary, a sprawling and highly sensitive ecosystem that extends from the mouth of the river all the way upriver to Bonneville Dam. In retrospect, we wrote stories about the estuary in segments – fisheries, marine transportation, pollution from runoff and recreation. We presented great photography in full-page spreads, but never connected the dots. Frankly, we didn’t think about it.

If I was in my same job today as then, I would propose to the daily newspapers in Longview, Vancouver and Portland a collaborative project that would tell the complete and coordinated story of the estuary of one of America’s most important and seminal rivers. The story could live online as well as on print. It would be an ongoing story that charts changes in the river and the evolution of issues affecting the river and its constituents.

Without websites and digital tools that perform on laptop computers, telling the rich story of the Columbia River estuary would be hard to imagine. With those tools, the story could be told with a wealth of visual imagery that brings text and statistics to life – and to kitchen tables, coffee shops and school classrooms.

Newspapers are undergoing existential change as they struggle to monetize digital platforms and content. Subscribers who want local coverage will also want quality content. The Times special report on Notre Dame Cathedral points the way for presenting significant content in a compelling fashion.

To carry off this sophisticated level of presentation will require different skills than my staff and I had at The Daily Astorian in the 1970s. But many journalists today are digital natives who interact and think differently about content acquisition. Challenges that my age-cohorts would view as insurmountable may only be road-bumps for the new generation of journalists.

This form of deep-information storytelling fits well with “solutions journalism” by offering more than a superficial, fragmented and intermittent picture of serious topics. Readers/viewers will appreciate and benefit from the effort. They may not get the same small-town thrill as reading the police log to see if their neighbor was arrested as a peeping Tom. However, they will be able to engage – at their convenience – with a story with informational depth, visual reinforcement and entertainment value.

As The Times reportage demonstrates, you don’t have to know Paris, French culture or Catholic history to be enthralled with the story about how an iconic building nearly collapsed because a newly hired security guard went to the wrong building and courageous firemen took a risk to save the building and its invaluable treasures. The only thing missing was Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.

The future for newspapers – and perhaps for public affairs – will be in telling complex stories – and perhaps some little understood common stories – with some digital flair that marries a visual world of storytelling with newspaper reporting integrity. You can’t get that reliably on social media or cable news. You could get that kind of storytelling from a reimagined version of local newspapering.

Don’t forget, the Times special report was fundamentally about a fire and the skill of firemen, which exist in every city large enough to have a newspaper.

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.

 

Spotting and Calling Out Big Piles of BS

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation is everywhere. Wary citizens aren’t sure how to combat the misinformation surrounding them. Now there is a class for that.

University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a course titled “Calling Bullshit” that is designed to identify and call out misinformation “cloaked in data and figures.” For those unable to enroll in college, you can check out @Callin_bull account on Twitter, where you can find videos of course lectures and examples of revealed bullshit.

The core idea Bergstrom and West are pushing is critical thinking, which seems as rare at times as misinformation is abundant. They offer clues for non-mathematicians on how to detect fraudulent and misleading “information,” such as checking sources, looking for logical coherence and testing statistical relevance. The same techniques that require careful scrutiny apply to detecting fake videos.

Their college course has snagged the attention of at least 70 universities that have asked to borrow course materials. Bergstrom, who is a computational biologist, and West, a former graduate student of Bergstrom’s, are working on a public version of the course. “We wanted to show our students that you don’t need a master’s degree in statistics or computer science to call bullshit,” Bergstrom told The Washington Post.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Research indicates the group most likely to be fooled by and share fake news are older adults over 65 who align as political conservatives. 

Bergstrom and West honed their skills of spotting misinformation by reading professional papers and sniffing out statistical flaws and illogic. They realized misinformation – especially when propelled by social media echo chambers, created with artificial intelligence and carried on websites dedicated to conspiracy theories – is a far larger problem. Careless academic research is one thing; intentional efforts to mislead to sell products, push a political candidate or defame someone by deception is quite another.

They aren’t the first crusaders against bullshit, noted Post science writer Ben Guarino. “Journalist Darrell Huff wrote ‘How to Lie With Statistics in 1954. Astronomer Carl Sagan published “The Demon-Haunted World” in 1995, in which he offered to readers a ‘baloney detection kit.’”

In his story, Guarino includes a practical example of how an anti-BS examination works and the results it can produce. A Bates College student challenged claims that Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city with a high percentage of Somali refugees, was “dangerous.”

Using crime statistics provided by Lewiston police, the student generated graphs showing that Lewiston’s crime rate between 1985 and 2017 had actually declined. More than 20 other cities in Maine, she showed, had higher crime rates.

Her findings, which she printed on fliers that were distributed, surprised many in Lewiston, a town that saw its mayor resign after his racists text messages were leaked. Local police asked for a copy of the flier, recognizing a lower crime rate was an unacknowledged compliment for their work.

West called it a “thoughtful correction,” but also an instructive guide on how to combat misinformation, whether intentional, inadvertent, malicious or simply sloppy.

 

 

Fake Videos Are a Reality, Not Just a Threat

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a high-profile victim of altered video intended to embarrass her for slurring her speech as if drunk. The technology for doctoring photos and videos has become commonplace, but the tools and techniques to detect and defend against visual forgeries is not as widespread. It should be.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a high-profile victim of altered video intended to embarrass her for slurring her speech as if drunk. The technology for doctoring photos and videos has become commonplace, but the tools and techniques to detect and defend against visual forgeries is not as widespread. It should be.

The threat of fake or doctored videos is officially no longer a threat, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can attest. The doctored videos of her that surfaced last week weren’t the first time detractors manicured video content to embarrass her.

While the doctored videos of Pelosi were spotted and outed quickly, it is fair to say that the technical ability to create deepfake videos is far ahead of the practical ability to spot them. Experts say virtually anyone with a laptop could have doctored the Pelosi videos.

Even when fake or doctored videos are outed, they still can circulate widely on social media, in some cases with a push from influencers – or a President of the United States. The fake video of Pelosi has been viewed millions of times on Facebook. 

As we noted in an August 2017 Managing Issues blog, desktop technology exists to edit video and audio to make anyone say almost anything. In the Pelosi video, her natural speech pattern was distorted so she sounded drunk.

If fake videos were just the innocent stuff of parties or a good-natured roast, we could just sit back and laugh. Unfortunately, they aren’t just for fun. They are weapons to destroy a reputation or cut down a political opponent. In the partisan silos of today’s news media, fake videos can quickly become “fact.”

Circulation of political fake videos is calculated. Trump likes them because they share well with his aging political base. They also are red meat opportunities for Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, who frequently airs them. Some fake video creators defend their handiwork as “entertainment” that engages people who otherwise would shy away from politics.

High-profile individuals, corporations or politicians can’t ignore the need for 24/7 media monitoring. If there ever was a doubt, the specter of fake videos should squelch any hesitation. The task of media monitoring is no longer as simple as having someone read newspapers and clip relevant articles. Media monitoring now spans online news, social media, blogs, message boards, video channels, broadcast TV, radio and print – not just in the United States, but also internationally.  There are ample commercial choices that can provide some or all media monitoring.

Forensic tools exist to spot doctored photographs and videos. The Global Investigative Journalism Network posted this  tutorial  on techniques and tools to ferret out fake visuals, manipulated data, twisted facts and out-of-context information.

Forensic tools exist to spot doctored photographs and videos. The Global Investigative Journalism Network posted this tutorial on techniques and tools to ferret out fake visuals, manipulated data, twisted facts and out-of-context information.

Being aware of coverage that affects you isn’t enough when it comes to video content. You or someone on your behalf needs to view it forensically to ensure the video is authentic and editing is contextually accurate and fair. This can be complicated that goes far beyond detecting a jump cut in a TV interview. In anticipation of an altered video scenario, you should add a new section to your crisis plan that identifies media monitoring options, go-to resources and potential responses. 

Upon detecting a fake or doctored video, you need a capability to address it and its fallout. Unfortunately, you can’t simply raise your hand and call foul. Depending on the seriousness of the fake video content, you may need to mount an aggressive response. 

An aggressive response should include:

  • Third-party verification that a video is fake or doctored.

  • The source video that is altered.

  • Identification of the responsible party who doctored the video, if known.

  • Calling out websites or channels that are promoting the fake video.

Political figures have little protection from slander, but they can ask surrogates and supporters to out the fakery and its malign motivation. Their communications staff can request traditional and mainstream media to write editorials or accept op-eds that condemn such political tactics. In Pelosi’s case, Facebook refused to ban the fake video of her. Twitter continued to allow it to be shared. YouTube said the fake video violated its standard of ethics. A spliced video of Joe Biden’s apology about inappropriate touching of women took just 19 hours to go from its originator’s keyboard to the Trump Twitter account. 

Individuals and business leaders enjoy a little more legal protection from slander and can pursue legal remedies to have the fake video content taken down from its origin and a public statement admitting it was doctored. An apology would be nice, too.

Be aware that political or business figures willing to commission and post visual forgeries like to play rough and loose with the rules of fair play, including passing the blame on who is responsible. Responding in kind is a fool’s errand. But exposing such dirty tricks and affixing blame is perfectly fair – and smart if you have facts down cold.

Pelosi chose to shrug off the video and Trump’s reference to it. This wasn’t a strategic, not casual decision by Pelosi’s camp. She has accused Trump of self-impeachment, a coverup and in need of a staff intervention. Pelosi’s needling led Trump to call her “Crazy Nancy” based on “slurred words” in the fake video. Pelosi scored points with her political base and her fractious House Democratic caucus on both counts.

Whether a fake video response is frontal or subtle, a clear-eyed decision is required on how and when to respond. No response isn’t an option. It’s just like a trademark – you have to monitor and defend it against infringement or see your trademark devalued.

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.

A Primer on Public Affairs

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

We have been asked more than once what public affairs involves. Our best answer is a communications challenge that occurs in the shadow of a public issue.

Public issues can loom over marketing, media relations or crisis communications. Public affairs to address a public issue can take the form of strategic communications, marketing plans, crisis counsel or advocacy – and often involves some combination.

Public affairs professionals, at least the ones who know what they’re doing, typically have experience in the public sector or dealing with the public sector, such as a reporter who covers government or the courts. One way or another, they have the scars and skills earned through managing – or muddling through – a public issue.

At its core, public affairs is like any other form of marketing. You need to understand your audience, condense your message and tell your story with effect, whether in writing or orally and whether you have 30 minutes or 30 seconds. That’s why knowledgeable public affairs professionals know the value of research and have a working knowledge of what type of research matches specific challenges.

Some public affairs professionals are attorneys, but all good public affairs professionals have a solid working understanding of the law, legal procedures and judicial language. Public affairs professionals frequently work side by side with attorneys because their respective disciplines overlap. Sometimes the best solution to a public issue is legal; other times it requires changing a law or regulation. 

It is fairly easy to grasp that public affairs involves managing a public issue through direct engagement (open houses, town meetings, door-to-door visits), media outreach (press releases, op-eds, white papers) and social media (explanatory videos, infographics, charts). 

It is less obvious that public affairs centers on reframing or clarifying a complex, contentious public issue. The ability to reframe a contentious issue and clarify a complex one is what sets apart a skilled public affairs professional from someone who simply has ‘public affairs’ on their business card.

Another overlooked attribute of a skilled public affairs professional is the ability to anticipate a public issue and the arc of its evolution. Managers and clients would be wise to listen to warnings from public affairs professionals and their recommendations on how to ward off an impending public issue or at least mitigate its dire consequences.

Public affairs professionals are an important part of any team attempting to advance a major project, respond to a crisis, engage the public on a significant initiative or pass legislation. Public affairs professionals know the lay of the land, media contacts and elected officials and their staffs. Chances are good that an experienced public affairs professional has worked on a similar project or faced an analogous challenge and, as a result, can add valuable perspective of what to do – and not to do.

Effective public affairs depends on who you know and what you know. Experienced public affairs professionals have a lifetime of contacts they can tap for information or attempt to influence. They have watched the wheels of government grind away, followed the footsteps of men and women on planning commissions up to congressional committees and synthesized confusing events into 10 to 12 revealing paragraphs. They have a vertical understanding of public issues that enables them to see the depth of an issue and know where to dig for a solution.

Of course, knowledge has a shelf life. People move on from government, newspaper and nonprofit jobs, so connections need to be refreshed continuously. Communication techniques and channels morph and change. Almost every communications plan worth its salt these days includes a website, social media and video content. As recently as a decade ago, that wasn’t so.

Processes and practices evolve, too. The days of building rapport by taking someone to a professional sporting event or a pricey dinner have ended in the public affairs space, thanks to stricter ethics laws and reporting requirements. Public affairs professionals have adapted by pursuing other ways to build and maintain relationships. Integrity matters more than ever.

One thing hasn’t changed. Public affairs remains a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on form of communication. Personal contact, authenticity and compelling presentations are still what makes public affairs effective. Knowing what you’re doing is important, too.

(Since its founding in 1990, CFM Strategic Communications has been regarded as a leading public affairs firm in the Pacific Northwest with experience guiding major projects, developing and executing strategic communications plans and providing crisis counsel.)

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Editor’s Departure Is Reminder of Local News Value

Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

 

Mark Katches, editor of The Oregonian since 2014, is leaving for a similar job in Florida. The owner of New York’s The Daily News laid off half of its news staff, including the editor. Should we care? You bet we should.

Local newspapers have personalities and quirks that help to define their communities and contribute to what makes them unique. “Our local newspaper” is more than just an idle phrase. It is part of a community’s DNA.

It is no secret the business model of local newspapers is in serious trouble. The conversion of print publications to digital platforms that generate revenue has been rocky. As a result, newsrooms have shrunk. There are fewer reporters to gather local news. Stories of local interest go unnoticed and unreported. Enterprise and investigative journalism suffer. So does the community.

Katches came to The Oregonian in 2014 from the nonprofit Center of Investigative Reporting. Despite financial pressures, he emphasized “deep-dive journalism” that tackled stories about lead dust, senior care facilities and a teacher with an unchecked history of sexual abuse. He also pushed narrative stories, such as the award-winning series about a hand-raised polar bear at the Oregon Zoo.

Even though he frequently wrote bylined pieces, Katches is not a household word among the general public in the Portland metropolitan area, or even among readers of The Oregonian. Despite his relative anonymity, oregonlive.com under his watch grew its online audience by 70 percent. Katches created a video unit that earned six regional Emmy nominations this year, and he pushed watchdog journalism.

To some, The Oregonian is still the “local rag.” But, more significantly for the community, it is still here as a general circulation newspaper and doing its job of covering local news. Not all communities can say as much. The absence of a common, continuing source of information with known biases denies communities a collective sense of identity and self-reflection. You can hate your local newspaper – and say so in a letter to the editor.

The fundamental value of a local newspaper is that it covers local news, carries advertising with a local slant and comments on local issues. That’s a combination unavailable anywhere else.

Smart local newspapers, including The Oregonian, have established media partnerships with local TV stations and public broadcasting to share coverage and leverage the unique advantages and audiences of each channel. Little wonder there are former Oregonian reporters and editors working at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Split-week home delivery, embarrassingly thin editions and all-to-frequent typos can cause consternation. People may disagree with editorial positions, dislike the mix of columnists and miss their favorite cartoon. Some of us wish there was more bandwidth to cover important stories that now go unreported. But online and on doorsteps, The Oregonian delivers a news package that no one else does.

That is not to slight the Portland TribuneWillamette WeekThe Skanner or Portland Mercury that add significantly to the mix and diversity of local news coverage, often by their own enterprise reporting, investigative journalism and unique perspective.

Democratic societies go hand-in-hand with the maxim that all politics is local. To sustain functional institutions, we need to know about local news., as well as national and regional news. And we need to know more than just “breaking news” and snarky exchanges on social media.

You may not know Mark Katches, but he deserves our collective thanks for doing his best to make sure local news coverage, warts and all, still exists in Portland.

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.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words in Post-Truth Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary-Conkling.jpg

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

The Power of Perception Over Reality

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Perception and reality are not automatically the same. And often perception packs more punch than reality, as the presumptive presidential candidates learned in recent days.

Former President Bill Clinton trots across an airport tarmac to chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch who is on the threshold of deciding whether to indict Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, already suspected of sympathies with white supremacists, sends a tweet bearing an image viewed by many as anti-Semitic.

Bill Clinton said he just exchanged pleasantries with Lynch. Trump denied being anti-Semitic, noting his son-in-law is Jewish. Both claims may be true, but neither is very believable. Perceptions overrule reality.

There is a shortage of trust in American politics today, so perceptions of wrongdoing or tone deaf behavior have fertile soil to sprout regardless of reality.

Perceptions don’t just pertain to incidental behavior. Hillary Clinton suffers from long-term suspicion that she has played fast and loose with the rules, including use of a private email account and server while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey’s statement excusing Clinton from a criminal charge, but accusing her for carelessly handling classified material only added to long-held perceptions about her.

The power of perception to cloud a reputation or tarnish a good act cannot be denied. Yet, leaders plod along without thinking of how their actions might be perceived as opposed to how they are intended. Pleading ignorance or lamely saying you were misunderstood doesn’t cut you much slack. In fact, it may  deepen perceptions you are a lunkhead.

Wishing people who hold negative perceptions could know the “truth” is much like pinning your hopes on miracles or the tooth fairy.

The advent of social media has raised the stakes of thoughtless or clueless behavior. What might have eluded the traditional media rarely escapes the ever-peering eye of social media, as PBS discovered when it failed to note it was inserting footage from previous Fourth of July fireworks displays into its broadcast of this year’s Capitol celebration that occurred under ominous clouds. No big deal, but it still produced a news cycle full of stories about the “deception."

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know perceptions can crowd out reality in people’s minds. Perceptions have a habit of becoming their own reality. Chronic perceptions ossify into major barriers for making a fresh impression. Think of how hard it will be to convince people that Congress can be productive.

Building trust is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by leaving behind perceptions that undermine trustworthiness. You may never have a chance to climb out of the hole you dig for yourself.

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

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Profound Transition of the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with All Generations

 

Working with colleagues from a different generation presents a number of communication challenges. But with a few key principles, it's possible to bridge the generation gap in the workplace.  

Working with colleagues from a different generation presents a number of communication challenges. But with a few key principles, it's possible to bridge the generation gap in the workplace.  

While working with multiple generations in the office and with clients is nothing new, the digital era constantly brings about new challenges in communication.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Generation X (early 1960s-early '80s) prefer emails and face-to-face communication, while Millennials (roughly 1982-2004) text and use social networks, like Twitter and Instagram, and messaging apps like Snapchat to communicate. 

There seems to be a new social media tool emerging every day, and while Millennials seem to instantly understand them, older workers often feel overwhelmed. In reality, too much reliance on one method can alienate coworkers and clients, making it difficult to communicate with someone from another generation with a different preference.  

There is a generational difference in formality, too. Suits have turned into jeans – and not just on casual Fridays. Abbreviated stream-of-conscious communication is replacing anguishing over a letter or email.

In many workplaces, the traditional at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday at your desk has been replaced with telecommuting. Measuring productivity now involves judging the quality of your work product rather than how many hours it took you to do it. 

So, in today’s fast changing workplace, how can coworkers from different generations work effectively with each other and their clients? Here are some tips. 

1. Understand work styles. Rather than assuming your communication style is best, notice how different coworkers and clients prefer to communicate. 

Does someone come to your office to talk instead of texting? Does a client respond to your phone call by email? Learn how others like to communicate and use it. If you’re not sure, just ask.  

2. Share perceptions and values. You can often avoid generational conflicts by learning one another’s perceptions and values. 

A Boomer may find the lack of formality and manners of a Millennial offensive, while Millennials may feel their opinions are not considered or appreciated. 

3. Be willing to learn. As an older Gen Xer, I tend to dismiss the newest social media tool by telling myself “it’s a waste of time” or “ it’s just a fad, so no need to learn it." 

But don’t be fooled. Older workers should always be willing to learn new communication tools since they will need them when working with younger clients. Don’t be afraid to ask the younger workers in the office for help. 

The opposite is true for younger workers. Abbreviations and short, incomplete thoughts are fine between friends, but that’s not a good way to communicate with clients. Learning how to write well is a trans-generational necessity, so be willing to learn from others on what makes a good writer.  

4. Realize the strength in all generations. The best communicators are comfortable with all generations of communication tools, and they aren’t afraid to try out new ones. Since most clients will be multi-generational, valuing the strengths of each generation’s communication style guarantees the best value to one’s client – and a more cohesive workplace.  

Seizing Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

The Seattle Seahawks showed insensitivity by linking the team's dramatic comeback victory with the civil rights legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it shouldn't be an excuse for companies to avoid social media.

The Seattle Seahawks showed insensitivity by linking the team's dramatic comeback victory with the civil rights legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it shouldn't be an excuse for companies to avoid social media.

The Seattle Seahawks staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL playoff history over the weekend. Then they blew it on Monday.

An over-ventilated person in the Seahawk PR department thought it would be great to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day and commemorate at the same time the team's never-give-up-hope victory. Clever idea. Bad decision.

The football team's Twitter account posted "We shall overcome" along with a picture of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson accompanied by King's famous "Take the first step in faith." Social media reaction was swift and slashing.

One tweet called it blasphemous to equate a football game victory to the civil rights struggle led by King.

The Seahawks responded quickly and smartly by removing the tweet and posting an apology admitting poor judgment. "We apologize for poor judgment shown in a tweet sent earlier. We did not intend to compare football to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King."

The episode is a further reminder than social media is not a parlor game. It is serious business, with serious consequences.

However well intended the Seahawks tweet was, it reflected the kind of poor judgment that usually results from a non-existent vetting system for social media posts. If a group of people had looked at and thought about the proposed post before it was published, a more mature judgment would have prevailed and it would have never seen the light of day.

The post also shows the hazards of newsjacking. To someone excited by the Seahawks comeback win, tying it to MLK Day seemed like a perfect way to extend the euphoria. Instead, it exposed a blind eye to the sensitivity that remains today as the nation celebrates King's role in the ongoing battle to win and keep civil rights. Football mattered on Sunday. Something else far greater mattered on Monday. 

Some jaded company officials will point to this example as the reason not to have a social media presence. They couldn't be more wrong. Companies need to share their voice on social media, as well as the real communities in which they operate. If nothing else, this level of engagement affords them a chance to see how their views measure up outside corporate headquarters.

An occasional slip-up, while regrettable and often avoidable, shouldn't be an excuse to dodge direct contact with the world through Twitter or any other social media platform. 

Jousting on Social Media

A recent story about a political race zeroed in on rabid social media exchanges between staffers in opposing campaigns. Most people ignore the exchanges as nothing more than inside political baseball. Cybernauts aren't so generous when brands joust with customers.

JetBlue made a bad situation worse when it quarreled on Twitter with a passenger who said she was barred from boarding a delayed flight. The would-be passenger says someone made an off-handed comment about a "fully stocked bar onboard," which the JetBlue pilot interpreted as an accusation that he was intoxicated.

Irritated, the pilot ordered all passengers off the plane while he underwent a precautionary sobriety test, which proved negative. Lisa Carter-Knight, the passenger ultimately prevented from the flight, said she didn't make the comment and was punished for tweeting about the episode. 

Don't Equivocate; Tell Your Story

The nagging question that won't go away is whether it is too risky to tell your side of a controversial story before someone else tells theirs. It is a question that has already been answered and punctuated by the realities of social media and 24/7 news cycles.

Hesitating to share your narrative leaves the door wide open for your opponent or antagonist to share his first. That automatically puts you on the defensive. You have to tell your story around the corners and crevices of your opponent's story.

"I know, but I don't want to ignite a story that may never see the light of day if I say nothing" is a common concern. The "lie low" strategy has a long and pocked history. It works sometimes, or at least for some time. Eventually the dirt under the rug is unearthed.

The unearthing process has become a whole lot more prevalent with the advent of smartphones that can capture your words or actions when you think nobody is listening or watching. They can be accidental captures or intentional, but when shared on social media they can become embarrassing moments for the whole world to see. 

Instead of fretting over whether to tell your story, spend your energy deciding how best to tell it. What should you say that will convey your facts in a credible context? Where should you say it? What additional information or links can you provide that reinforce your story? 

Ringing in New Year of Media Relations

Media relations hasn't disappeared, but it is evolving along with media itself, requiring successful story pitchers to be nimble, adaptive and creative.Media relations hasn't gone away, but it has changed as media has multiplied and evolved. There are more outlets to monitor and pitch, including your own self-publication platform.

Even the press release has managed to survive in a faster-paced, highly segmented media world, but it also has assumed new shapes and purposes.

The overlapping crazes of social media and content marketing have lost some momentum here and there, but they also are adapting and adjusting.

So the key is not to arrange eulogies for positions and tactics. Instead, be alert for change and learn how to capitalize on new circumstances. Most important, concentrate of delivering quality, useful information with sharp story hooks, which remains the hallmark of attracting media attention

Twitter for a Crisis

Twitter is emerging as a critical crisis management tool. Los Angeles Police and airport authorities used Twitter skillfully to provide timely updates on unfolding events following a shooting at LAX. 

  • The tweets reached a far wider audience much more quickly than typical press briefings.

  • They gave the LAPD and LAX a proactive posture in getting out the news.

  • And they allowed authorities to focus on what they viewed as the most significant information, effectively allowing them to control the message while the crisis persisted. 

These are all valuable commodities in a crisis, which should encourage more companies, nonprofits and public agencies to add Twitter to their crisis management plans. 

Since its growth in popularity, social media has been viewed in a defensive light. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites were places to monitor for criticism or reveal some breaking, potentially embarrassing news and comment as necessary. 

The emergence if Twitter as a news segregator — where bloggers and reporters highlight their new posts and stories — makes it an ideal setting for crisis managers to share targeted updates. 

Media eyes are already paying attention on Twitter and, through the use of hash tags, a crisis manager can talk to a larger online group of interested bystanders, including travelers wondering how the shooting would affect their flights.

Pope Francis and Issues Management

Okay, I was just kidding about applying for the job of Pope. But I would like to apply for the job of issues manager, which is a position Pope Francis should create right away.

The former Argentine cardinal of Italian descent has created an appealing first impression with both Catholics and non-Catholics. But that won't shield him from enormous challenges ranging from sexual abuse to financial mismanagement to eroding congregations in Western Europe to restive congregations in the United States.

The conclave of cardinals that chose Pope Francis are banking on the evangelical zeal stirred by the first Vicar of Christ from the Americas and the Global South, which are now the bedrock of the Catholic Church. However, evangelism isn't the answer to the Church's problems any more than talking louder is the way to silence critics.

Pope Benedict XVI made headlines by tweeting on an iPad. But using social media is a tactic, not a strategy.

Pope Francis faces a sea of people, both in and out of his religious flock, who are more cynical and distrustful. His challenge is to find ways to engage people and rebuild trust, much like anyone employed in the business of issues management.

That won't be easy because some of the issues to manage include the role of women in the church, homosexuality and gay marriage, a shrinking clergy, contraception and abortion and economic justice, a topic Pope Francis is already well versed on.

Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

Snark Gone Viral

Social media's individual empowerment, immediacy and ability to embarrass are evident in Applebee's firing of a server for sharing a diner's snarky comment on Reddit. 

The incident has generated apologies, policy restatements and tons of online comment that threaten to keep the PR firestorm aflame for days or longer. 

It started when a pastor of a St. Louis church took members of her congregation to Applebee's after an evening service. When the pastor got the bill, with an 18 percent tip automatically added for the party of more than eight people, she crossed off the tip and wrote, "I give God 10%, why do you get 18%."

The server snapped a picture of the receipt and comment on her smartphone and later posted it online, where it went viral. 

The pastor was upset because the picture of the receipt included her signature, as well as the snarky comment. She demanded Applebee's fire the server responsible. Applebee's responded on its Facebook page, saying it was against restaurant policy to reveal diner personal information. The company's CEO apologized, the local Applebee's franchise operator apologized and the server was apparently fired.

Then all hell broke loose.