‘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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Responding to Crisis from the Heart and Head

When facing a crisis, should you respond with your head or your heart? A PR colleague argues for both, and with good reason.

A stiff response or an overly emotional response can erode, not build, trust — which is the critical measure of success in crisis communication. An effective response must combine a caring reaction with a rational set of actions. 

Joan Gladstone, who gives strategic communications counsel to clients from her San Diego base, says people affected by a crisis want more than timely, transparent information. They want to know you care. And they want to know you are doing everything possible to end the crisis and prevent it from recurring. They want assurances you are treating the victims with respect.

This requires a response from both the heart and the head.

Empathy can go a long way toward establishing a bridge between the crisis response messenger and the people paying attention. The absence of empathy sends an even louder message. Failing to express sympathy or remorse can be seen as uncaring, disregard or indifference. A simple phone call to victims or their family members can speak volumes.

What You Say in Public Is Public

What you say in public is public, whether you think so or not.

Mitt Romney's comment at a private fundraiser and Donald Sterling's private comments to his girlfriend were captured on digital devices and turned into very damaging public issues. Trying to explain away their comments by where they were uttered would be pointless and irrelevant. You said them, someone heard them and they were posted for all the world to see and hear.

The best way to avoid an embarrassing disclosure is not to say anything in an unguarded moment or outside a secure location. With smartphones everywhere and the prospect of an army of drones overhead, secure locations may be increasingly hard to find. That argues for keeping some thoughts to yourself.

If you have any illusions about keeping information or comments confidential in an open setting, get rid of them. It really is a delusion.

A better assumption to make is that everything you say is being recorded by someone — from a government spy to a teenager randomly shooting video to while away time. This assumption should chasten you to be disciplined in what you say.

Disciplined speech doesn't mean constrained, boring speech. You just need to think before you speak. You can be informative, engaging and even funny. Just not stupid or careless.

Look for Bright Spots, Not Red Lines

President Obama and his red line has proven once again the truth of the parental maxim, "Be prepared to carry through on the threat you make."

Parents frequently threaten a child with a timeout or, later, taking away their smart phone or curbing driving privileges. Be careful what you threaten. Some times, many times, children will test you. If you don't follow through on your threatened punishment, the child knows he or she can push the limits with impunity.

That's the logic Obama used in warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons in his battle to retain power. Now that Assad by all appearances has tested Obama and his red line, Obama faces the politically awkward choice of administering a military spanking. The President is in a box of his own making.

Business leaders frequently paint themselves into a similar corner. They make threats about layoffs or even shutting down and moving elsewhere, only later to back down.

The lesson is to bite your tongue when you feel a threat ready to pop out. There are smarter ways to handle touchy situations.

It may be too late for Obama to retract his red line and try something else, but here are some suggestions you might use:

1. Listen

Before threatening, try listening to opponents and see if you can detect areas of agreement or concerns you can alleviate. The act of getting off your high horse and talking directly to people is disarming. Even if some opponents remain abusive, stay clam and stress you are there to listen and learn. Your opponents will get the message.

2. Collaborate

Another tried-and-true way to disarm opponents is to recommend some sort of collaboration. This could be on a community project that would be funded if your proposal is approved or it could be a study of potential impacts. It may even take the form of mediation. Getting you and your opponents around a common table is a way for you to assess the mettle of your opponents and to build a basic level of trust.

3. Innovate

People may be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see a greater good. One way to offer up a greater good is to innovate. Maybe it is an innovative community engagement process. Or an innovative community investment. Accompanying your project with an an innovative element could turn potential opponents into dedicated advocates.

4. Communicate

Once you have engaged opponents, keep talking. Don't let your communications lapses become pauses that breed doubt and suspicion. Think of communication as the proof of your transparency. Tell the truth and tell it often.

5. Execute

Nothing builds trust more, even amid lingering disagreement, than diligent follow-through. Do what you say. Do it on time. If in doubt, do it more than you promised. Nobody ever gets mad when you do more than say you will do. But you give opponents opportunity on a platter when you don't do what you say.

Leave the red lines to someone else. Instead find the bright spots and cultivate them.

Integrity is Imperative, Not Optional

Facebook is red-faced about its failed attempt to use a PR firm to plant stories critical of Google's privacy policies. It should be. The PR firm that took the work from Facebook should be more than embarrassed.

While most finger-pointing is directed at Facebook for violating its own rules of transparency, a lot of blame should be heaped on Burson-Marsteller for agreeing to slink around on Facebook's behalf.

Burson-Marsteller is an excellent PR agency, but apparently the account manager who accepted this assignment forgot the Public Relations Society of America credo that says, "I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public."

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst." A spokesman for Burson-Marsteller said it approached Christopher Soghoian, an Indiana University graduate student who blogs about online privacy and security issues, asking him to write about how Google's Social Circle collects and uses data about its users.

"The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission," one of the Burson-Marsteller emails said.

Burson-Marsteller didn't disclose the name of its client and Soghoian declined the suggestion. Instead, he blew the whistle, which led Facebook to admit it should have been upfront about what it was doing, as it requires of users on its own social media site.

However, the situation never should have gotten that far. Burson-Marsteller knows the rules and should have pushed back on Facebook, even if it meant not getting the gig. Better to be right than on the wrong side of a publicity backfire.

Facebook faces its own critics on privacy. Burson-Marsteller would have served as better strategic counselors by advising Facebook to deal with its own privacy issues, so it could talk about its improvements, not Google's alleged shortcomings.

In a statement, Burson-Marsteller admitted it erred by accepting the work. "Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of this principle."

Our colleague, Jim Hoggan of Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver, B.C., is writing a new book tentatively titled "Duped" that explores how the PR industry has gotten off track, contributing to deeper public skepticism. Hoggan, whose first book is titled, "Do the Right Thing," believes PR professionals need to rediscover their compass and perform the service our profession was created to deliver – giving sound advice to sustain and build reputations over the long term.

Great effort goes into PR campaigns to engage customers, stakeholders and employees. But genuine engagement is undermined when PR professionals aid and abet their clients in dissembling, deflecting criticism and dissing critics or competitors.

As Hoggan says, doing the right thing isn't always easy, but in the long run clients and the public are better served.

[Hoggan & Associates is a member of Pinnacle Worldwide, a network of independently owned and operated public relations agencies in key markets around the world. CFM Strategic Communications President Gary Conkling is president-elect of Pinnacle Worldwide.]

Lessons from a Chilean Mine Disaster

Rescued miner Florencio Avalos (left) hugs Chile's president Sebastian Pinera. Photograph: Hugo Infante/Government of Chile/ Rex FeaturesAfter 10 weeks trapped underground, 33 Chilean miners safely emerged one-by-one in a capsule aptly named Phoenix. There are a lot of valuable lessons to learn from this disaster-turned-miracle, including how to manage a serious crisis.

In its blog, Crenshaw Communications listed eight crisis management lessons, which we would like to share in ours:

Reputation is a Journey, Not a Pit Stop

Johnson & Johnson may have to use some of its Band-aids to fix its bruised reputation concerning recent faulty product recalls.Johnson & Johnson, the company held on a pedestal for its unequivocal, bold response to tainted Tylenol in the 1980s, is being hauled back in front of Congress to defend its current record on faulty product recalls. It serves as a reminder that maintaining your reputation is a journey, not a pit stop.

The company in recent months has engaged in a phantom recall of Motrin and recalled over-the-counter drugs such as liquid Tylenol, millions of contact lenses and tens of thousands of artificial hips, all made by separate units of Johnson & Johnson.