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Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy War of Words

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan picked a smart spot to respond to an Oregonian article that claimed Portland’s two largest Catholic high school football squads have become “artificial all-star teams.” Hogan's response illustrates when and how to respond to negative press.

Andrew Nemec, who describes himself as a “recruiting reporter” wrote: “Scan the rosters of both programs, and it’s startling jut how much talent has been sloshed off programs desperately in need of better athletes just to stay competitive.” He added “there’s nothing holy” about the so-called Holy War when Jesuit plays Central Catholic because “the rivalry is more artificially enhanced than baseball’s steroids era.”

Charges that Jesuit and Central Catholic poach players from other schools is hardly new. But Nemec took the charge to a new level by mentioning specific players and the high schools they would be playing for “if not for their departures to private schools.” While acknowledging private schools across the country have advantages, he singled out Jesuit as the top athletic program in the nation after winning state titles in football, girls volleyball, girls swimming, girls soccer, boys swimming, baseball, softball, boys tennis and girls track.

Interestingly, with all that talent, Jesuit is ranked second in Oregon’s big-school Class 6A football rankings. West Linn, a public high school, is number one. Nemec wrote that after losing to Jesuit in the 6A state final last year, West Linn added two all-state players from Wilsonville and a tight end from Tigard. “The arms race has begun to infect top public schools, too,” he concluded.

Hogan was among the commenters on Nemec’s article. He also shared his thoughts in a post titled "Fact Check" on the school's website. Noting his educational background as an English teacher and an editor, Hogan proceeded to shred Nemec’s thesis. The Oregonian reporter directed tweets to a handful of Jesuit football players, asking in what public high school boundary area they lived.

“In two cases, Mr. Nemec apparently did not know that the students he contacted had attended Catholic schools since preschool and had every intention of remaining in the parochial system for high school,” Hogan wrote. Another student mentioned in the article enrolled in Jesuit after his family moved to Oregon.

“Jesuit High School offers no scholarships or financial aid based on merit or talent,” Hogan said. The $2.85 million in annual financial aid is parceled out based on family financial status as determined by an out-of-state independent evaluator.

His biggest zinger was disputing Nemec’s claim that after Jesuit’s senior class suffered a winless freshman season, the school went on the recruiting trail to land the “state’s top talent.” Hogan said the current senior class is the largest in Jesuit’s history. Only three transfer students gained enrollment at Jesuit the year following the winless football season – and none were in-state football players.

Hogan cited Tim Massey, who was an assistant coach for the freshman team when the current Jesuit seniors lost all nine games of their season. “That 0-9 season, and its aftermath, is one of the most cherished memories in 33 years of coaching," Massey said. "Those guys could have given up or gotten down on themselves or simply found other things to do. Instead, they gutted out that season, hit the weight room and kept after it. And they got stronger and better.” As it turned out, a lot better. Several players have committed to play NCAA Division I football.

Hogan’s response was well played and provided a factual rebuttal to aspects of Nemec’s article. His comments won’t sway some people who dislike schools like Jesuit, but he pushed back against points that Nemec couldn’t substantiate so the online record is balanced.

He jabbed Nemec for failing to call him to check facts or get Jesuit’s side of the story, another key point to have on the record.

Responding to unfavorable stories requires strategy and savvy. The smartest place to push back is on factual errors or the lack of balance in a story. That’s what Hogan did. He was restrained and respectful, but firm. He also took the high road.

“If someone at The Oregonian wants a real story,” he said, “I suggest they write about the amazing, powerful ‘purple-out for CCA’ fundraiser that Central and Jesuit’s student body conducted at the big game last Friday night.” Then he invited to Nemec to join him at a student mass and “discover the true source of Jesuit High’s success.”

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.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Need a case example of how lying can cost you dearly? Look no further than Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte whose fabricated story about an armed robbery in Rio led to the loss of four prime endorsements by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, skin care firm Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker airweave.

Lochte reportedly earned $2.3 million annually from his Olympic swimming sponsorships leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Washington Post. One expert estimates Lochte's lifetime lost earnings from the four dropped sponsorships could be as much as $20 million.

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Lochte took responsibility for the incident involving three other U.S. Olympians following a night of reverie that took a pit stop at a Rio gas station. Lochte admitted he was intoxicated and damaged a bathroom door. He was less definitive about other damage in the bathroom.

Lochte, who returned his hair to its normal shade of brown, also admitted “over-exaggerating” his encounter with a security guard who pulled his gun and pointed it at him. Lochte initially said he and his fellow swimmers were yanked from a cab and robbed at gunpoint. Now, he says, the guard confronted them after hearing loud noises in the bathroom and drew his weapon after Lochte acted aggressively. Lochte claims he was still drunk when he spun his robbery story.

While Lochte managed an apology to Brazil for not telling the truth, Brazilian authorities and news media are understandably not satisfied. Lochte’s untruthful tale touched a nerve in a country highly sensitive about its chronic crime rate. They correctly note Lochte only confessed to lying after surveillance camera video showed what really happened – or didn’t happen.

Intermixed in his apology, Lochte said some of the right things. But probably not enough of them. For one, he failed to say how it would make the situation right. That would require more than paying to repair the damage. It might take an act of attrition or a contribution to a cause dear to the heart of Brazilians. (Speedo said the company is donating $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children, which will direct the money to add Brazilian children.}

Ralph Lauren removed Lochte's image from its website congratulating U.S. Olympians it sponsored. The company said Lochte’s deal was for the 2016 Olympics and wouldn’t be renewed.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has warned that punishments may lie ahead for Lochte.

At age 32, Lochte’s Olympic career is probably over anyway. His actions, which he described as “immature,” have put a serious dent in his reputation as well as his pocketbook. In the trade, he would be called “damaged goods.” Self-inflicted damaged goods.

Lochte may recover his reputation, and we sincerely hope he does take steps to do that. But his actions and prevarications are a stark reminder that reputation matters – and take only a few seconds to blow up.

Actions Speak Louder Than Reputations

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

Your reputation should shadow your reality, not precede it. When reputation gets out in front of reality, you are courting scrutiny to see whether the two match up – and scorn when they don’t.

Remember, actions speak louder than reputations. Actions guided by solid values enhance reputations.

It is all about the difference of earning a reputation versus projecting a reputation. There are tangible dimensions to an earned reputation as opposed to the airy lightness of a projected reputation.

A useful exercise is to measure the gap between your reputation and your reality. This gap analysis can affirm an earned reputation or expose a hot-air projected reputation. If the perceived gap between reputation and reality is significant, you have a credibility problem.

“Effectively managing reputational risk begins with recognizing that reputation is a matter of perception,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. “When the reputation of a company is more positive than its underlying reality, this gap poses a substantial risk. Eventually, the failure of a firm to live up to its billing will be revealed and its reputation will decline until it more closely matches the reality.”

“To bridge reputation-reality gaps, a company must either improve its ability to meet expectations or reduce expectations by promising less,” the HBR article continues. Some companies panic and resort to financial tricks, sleight of hand or outright fraud to mask the gap, which can result in an even greater fall. Think Enron.

Because your reputation is your most valuable asset, managing your reputation should be a top priority. Reputation management should be based on actions, not promises. Actions to build or defend your reputation should center on actions that align with your core values and who you want to be.

When clients ask me about how to respond to a crisis situation, I advise to start by thinking about the organization's core values and let them be the guide for action. If you say your customers come first, then act like it when responding a crisis that may put customers at risk. If you say you want to be a good neighbor, then act like a good neighbor.

A brand promise – such as healthy, locally sourced fresh food – is only as good as the actions to fulfill that promise. Chipotle discovered the hard way that a brand promise rings hollow unless you ensure that locally sourced fresh food is also healthy food.

One of the best ways to earn a reputation is by solving other people’s problems. Another reputation-burnishing effort is to undertake steps that eliminate problems down the road, as Tillamook Cheese did when it chose to eliminate use the growth hormone rBst in its dairy herds.

The 2016 presidential election has highlighted reputations and realities that are out of sync. Jeb Bush was deemed the GOP frontrunner before winning a single primary. He raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions on the basis of his reputation, but when the voting started, his reputation imploded. He became the proverbial hollow suit.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has campaigned as highly competent, but she has been tagged for her handling of classified emails on her private server as extremely careless. GOP nominee Donald Trump touts himself as a winning businessman despite a record of bankruptcies, failures and a continuing lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University. Not surprisingly, a majority of voters view both Clinton and Trump as either untrustworthy or unfit.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio offer some sterling examples of men and women who have paid the price and earned their glory in the pool, on the track and in other venues. Some Olympic stars have to live up to their reputations, while most Olympians earn their own reputations based on their performance. Some win medals. Others compete and never get to the award podium. Still others are indelibly imprinted on our memories because of their actions.

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Abbey D’Agostino, a 24-year-old Dartmouth graduate, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin were total strangers before running the 5,000-meter race in Rio. Twenty minutes into the race, their legs crossed and both fell to the track. Instead of worrying about their medal chances, the two women helped each other to their feet and hobbled to complete the race, finishing far behind other competitors. In an instant, they showed their true mettle by reflecting the traditional Olympic spirit of good sportsmanship.

Two days earlier, in the men’s 10,000-meter race, Mo Farah fell after his feet and got tangled with Galen Rupp’s. Perhaps sacrificing his own medal chances, Rupp slowed down to be sure Farah, his friend and long-time training partner, was okay. Farah gave him a thumbs up and went on to win his second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event. Rupp put his values and his actions ahead of his reputation, and by doing so he ended up enhancing his reputation.

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.

Failure, Messy Innovation and Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disarming Genius of Crowdsourcing Questions

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler exemplified his engaging leadership style by crowdsourcing questions to ask finalists for the position of executive director of the Portland Development Commission. One fresh question could make all the difference.

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler exemplified his engaging leadership style by crowdsourcing questions to ask finalists for the position of executive director of the Portland Development Commission. One fresh question could make all the difference.

Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler showcased his leadership style by asking his Twitter followers for questions to pose to the three finalists to become the next executive director for the Portland Development Commission.

Crowdsourcing questions for candidates for public office – or other high-profile subjects – can be a disarming tactic that ultimately helps validate the final choice. It also demonstrates an open mind and a willingness to listen to a wide range of concerns.

Wheeler asked Mayor Charlie Hales to let the next mayor select the head of the PDC, but Hales pushed ahead anyway. Then, when Wheeler won the mayor’s race outright in the May primary, Hales agreed to involve him in the decision-making process.

The field has been narrowed to three people – two with ties to the PDC and a third who manages a Detroit development group. Kicking off the conversation, Wheeler tweeted, “If you were interviewing candidates for PDC head, what questions would you ask?”

Open-ended invitations like this typically fetch a mix of serious and not-so-serious responses. But asking for questions creates a dialogue that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and it flushes out questions or concerns that might have gone unasked or unnoticed.

There is also another advantage to crowdsourcing questions: you have someone else to blame for a loaded or tough question. Some people are good at asking confrontational questions, but most of us aren’t. For a position like this, tough questions are necessary and shouldn’t be avoided because of sheer awkwardness.

When a final decision is made, those who hired him or her can say that final interviews explored questions that people wanted asked and answered. Some of those answers can be cited as the reason the person was selected.

Some leaders feel they are smart enough to frame their own questions. That can be both true and lame at the same time. Asking constituents, stakeholders or the general public for questions, comments and ideas isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence, though. It is simply a sign of openness and a reflection of self-confidence.

Suggested questions may track exactly with what a leader had in mind anyway. Nice to know. But the possibility of discovering a line of inquiry you hadn’t thought of makes the exercise invaluable. Tapping into mass intelligence also can make you look brilliant for just asking.

Instead of thinking you are the smartest person the room, you may actually be the best informed person in the room.

#SpeakerSelfie Tells a Different Story Than He Intended

Speaker Paul Ryan’s happy selfie showing him with more than 100 white GOP interns turned into a self-inflicted wound online as one commentator said he had to don sunglasses to look at the photo. (Photo Credit: Speaker Ryan's Instagram Account)

Speaker Paul Ryan’s happy selfie showing him with more than 100 white GOP interns turned into a self-inflicted wound online as one commentator said he had to don sunglasses to look at the photo. (Photo Credit: Speaker Ryan's Instagram Account)

House Speaker Paul Ryan managed this week to turn a selfie into a self-inflicted wound when he posted a picture of himself in front of a sea of GOP interns that one commentator cracked was “so white that I had to put on sunglasses.”

To Ryan’s chagrin, his happy Instagram photo turned into a viral parody of GOP diversity. The online ridicule was widespread and intense.

Someone described Ryan’s selfie as an “unforced political error.” But that misses the point. The selfie was fine. What it depicted, not so much. One online critic accused Ryan of being “racially clueless.” Others were even less charitable: “Crayola is officially changing the name of its white crayons to Ryan Selfie."

It’s possible Ryan wanted to convey the message embedded in his selfie. More likely, it never occurred to him how a general audience might react to seeing more than 100 all-white interns in one picture. Under the hashtag #SpeakerSelfie, Ryan tweeted, “I think this sets a record for the most number of #CapitolHill interns in a single selfie.” “And the award for the least diverse selfie in history goes to @SpeakerRyan,” responded Matthew Cherry.

When you are already in the spotlight – or might soon be thrust into that position – it pays to be aware of your surroundings. You can try to excuse the fuss over a single picture, but it is hard to dismiss the more profound story the picture tells.

We lecture young people to exercise caution about what they post on social media. The same admonition applies to older adults. Think before you hit the “post” button. You might know what you want to say, but do your words, images and video convey that or something else?

In the realm of social media, mulligans don't exist. Once you post something, you are stuck with it. So think first. You may post something controversial to provoke sharp reactions. Fine. But don’t post something that boomerangs and express surprise at the response when a happy photo morphs into a hapless shot in your own foot.

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.

The Online Newsroom in the Public Square

Building a website is no longer a daunting, bank account-busting undertaking. Creating online newsrooms can be even easier still.

An online newsroom is a website, but without all the bells and whistles that many websites need to have. Online newsrooms economically package online content much like a media operation would for easy viewer access.

Online newsrooms were originally conceived as convenient outlets to share content with the news media. As time went on, they morphed into neatly packaged online tools to share content with anybody.

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

Building and managing online newsrooms is one CFM's unique services. Online newsrooms allow our clients not only to better connect with the media but to exhibit transparency through often challenging or large public projects. 

In the public affairs space, online newsrooms typically serve as hubs for useful background materials and news updates on big-time policy issues or large public projects. They become case exhibits for transparency, making relevant information, links, presentations, pictures, videos, blogs, a Twitter feed and news updates readily accessible.

Unlike websites, which can require group decision-making and some coding expertise to change, online newsrooms are posted using off-the-shelf platforms that are easy and inexpensive to update or modify.

What you can put on an online newsroom is only limited by your imagination. But the key is the same as for websites – understanding and delivering what your likely viewers want to see.

Building a quality online newsroom involves the same process of assessing the interests and information needs of your anticipated or desired viewer persona. In the case of public affairs, the viewer isn’t a customer, but a reporter, supporter, opponent or influencer.

The homepage for  ocgcannexation.com , an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The homepage for ocgcannexation.com, an online newsroom CFM recently built for a client.

The questions to answer include: What would be of use to news reporters? What would proponents of an issue or project want? What would address concerns or questions by opponents? What would be useful for an influencer to know and how can that information be validated?

The simplicity and nimbleness of online newsrooms make it easy to adjust to unanticipated support or opposition or capitalize on an event that sheds light on your issue or project.

Like anything described with the word “newsroom,” online newsrooms need to adhere to basic journalistic integrity. They should be written in AP Style, like news articles. They should provide information with a point of view, without being in-your-face opinionated. They should reason not rant. They should contain content that is useful and possibly even a little entertaining rather than dull, boring soapbox speeches.

One of the great benefits of digital media is its shareability. Online newsrooms act like publishing houses and broadcast outlets in allowing you to share information focused on a specific issue or project and curated specifically for the audiences interested in them.

When you think about it, the information you share with the news media is the information you would like your audiences to know. Online newsrooms are an efficient, cost-effective way to speak to everyone in one place while earning respect from supporters and detractors alike.

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.

Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

Jim Lukaszewski, who bills himself as “America’s crisis guru,” says crises breed “mindless commentary” by the media and often other PR professionals. “They didn’t act fast enough.” “They didn’t have a crisis plan capable of responding to something of this magnitude.” “The response should have been executed much more cleanly with fewer hiccups.”

“Total nonsense,” Lukaszewski says. “Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding.”

His point: Forget the criticism, which is inevitable, and focus on reacting fast and communicating. Make what you say rise above “bloviation,” focus on victims and share the truth.

Some of the most tempting bait for crisis response ridicule is how long it takes for remedial action. Lukaszewski pointed to the 120 days it took BP to shut off its Gulf of Mexico oil leak, which invited criticism from the highest levels. In the absence of credible and frank crisis response, news agencies hired their own underwater teams to capture images of the leak.

Wishing it would take less time isn’t an effective crisis response. Explaining as honestly as possible what and how long remediation will take would have been the most appropriate approach, even if it still courted criticism. Better yet, perhaps BP should have hired the underwater crew to monitor its response, missteps and all.

The most immediate response that matters, according to Lukaszewski, is caring for victims. You can earn a lot of goodwill for sensitively addressing crisis impacts on neighbors, employees or customers. These are actions you can show with real-time tweets, video and live streaming that counter negative imagery arising from the crisis. There are almost the only actions you can control in a crisis.

Lukaszewski warns against going silent when a crisis hits.  “Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice,” he says. “There is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage,” even if the crisis response is “splendid."

The Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier serves as a good local example of what Lukaszewski calls "bungled crisis communication.” A UP spokesman issued a timely statement that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the derailment, which resulted in burning overturned railcars and an oil spill into the Columbia River.

The word “inconvenience” appended to an apology seemed woefully inadequate. UP failed to mention damage to Mosier’s water and sewer systems. Sewers were shut off and the water system was dry. UP also failed to acknowledge the disruption to the community, which was scary for a nearby school and costly for local merchants.

There was no way UP could escape scathing criticism for the derailment and subsequent oil leaks. But it could have gained some respect by an early acknowledgement of the damage that had been done and its commitment to make things right. Instead, UP’s actions seemed more intent on clearing the track to resume train traffic.

A good strategy would have been to have people with UP jackets or vests omnipresent in Mosier, listening, monitoring teams assessing damage and doing whatever possible to demonstrate regret for the accident, not just the inconvenience caused by the accident.

A glance at UP’s Twitter feed revealed no tweets about the derailment or Mosier cleanup efforts. Instead there were tweets about UP’s online Railroad Trivia, including who was president of the railroad in 1906.

As Lukaszewski says, it is hard to plan for a major crisis. They always stumble in unexpected directions. But what you can plan for is dealing with the crisis as honestly, quickly and with as much care as possible. That doesn't take training or a crisis play, just guts and determination. 

Turn Your Voice into Thought Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live Streaming Crisis Response on Twitter

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter is a crisis response standby to provide real-time updates. Live streaming on Twitter offers the opportunity to put your viewers on the scene to see your crisis response, hear from direct witnesses and understand what’s happening in an authentic way.

Twitter has become the recognized social media platform for crisis response, and its greatest potential may lie in the expanding capabilities for live streaming video through tools such as Periscope and twitcam.

This capability, which has been used so far for marketing purposes and video selfies, has the potential to give crisis response teams their own Tweetcasting channel where they can show how they are responding, assessing impacts or alerting people to dangers. Twitcam and Periscope are also coupled with a chat function to allow interaction with viewers.

Twitter recently announced plans to shut down twitcam on June 7, but don’t interpret that as a shift away from streaming tools. In fact, it comes at a time when the company is enhancing Periscope’s integration with smartphones and tablets on the Android system, the fastest-growing mobile platform in the world. Twitter announced the same plan for Apple's operating system in January.

The underlying value of Twitter is as a real-time communications platform that can be managed through the use of hashtags. The news media already hangs out on Twitter, where they promote their own stories and look for leads. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has demonstrated how tweets can “trump” the rest of the news and dominate a news cycle.

Periscope launched just last year, promising to become a popular tool among journalists with an eye on expanding live coverage of major events, press conferences and disasters. A recent University of Washington study on how people use Periscope in crisis responses shows the tool’s central role in the exchange of information surrounding three national stories from 2015.  

“Qualitative and quantitative analyses of tweets relating to the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, Baltimore protests after Freddie Grey’s death, and Hurricane Joaquin flooding in South Carolina reveal that this recently deployed application is being used by both citizens and journalists for information sharing, crisis coverage and commentary,” the researchers found. “The accessibility and immediacy of live video directly from crisis situations, and the embedded chats which overlay on top of a video feed, extend the possibilities of real-time interaction between remote crowds and those on the ground in a crisis.”

Honing in on one reporter’s coverage of the Freddie Grey riots, the study showed Twitter users are especially attracted to live video updates from the scene.  

“Paul Lewis, a Guardian correspondent, made particularly heavy use of Periscope to cover the event, authoring 26 Periscope tweets, including 10…that contained active streams,” the report reads. “His tweets were retweeted 296 times, and he was mentioned in 166 other tweets.”

Live streaming of content adds another dimension to real-time communication. It effectively puts viewers at the scene, allowing them to see events unfold and hear from direct witnesses, which conveys authenticity and can create positive impressions of crisis response.

Twitcam assigns live streaming videos with their own URLs, which make them easily discoverable when they are posted on a crisis response website or online newsroom. The thread of real-time Twitter updates will be greatly enhanced by corresponding video records.

Live streaming on Twitter could be useful for issue managers as well. Live streaming can generate content that acts like B-Roll video, providing interviews, visual explanations or on-the-scene coverage that can be shared in real time, then stored online for later use. This gives journalists – especially TV reporters – something else to flash on screen during their stories other than protesters with placards, costumes and over-the-top props. Well done live streamed videos may even change the arc of the story.

Of course, live streaming has all the intrinsic pitfalls of a live broadcast. You can’t control every variable in a crisis, so you won’t be able to anticipate every problem in your live streaming video. Successful live streaming takes foresight. You need someone who can be the director, someone skilled enough to shoot the video you want and a team that views live streaming video as a valuable asset, not a risky gimmick.

The future of live streaming looks bright for the business sector. A number of business-oriented apps are already available for live streaming video. But here’s something everyone should keep in mind: You don’t want a crisis to be the first time you’ve used a live streaming service. Take some time to become familiar with the technology. Practice live streaming and work through the kinks before you find yourself on the spot responding to a real crisis.

The good news is that technology has made shooting quality video a lot easier and much cheaper with digital cameras, including that tiny one on your tablet or smartphone. The cinema vérité appearance of what is shot can evoke immediacy and authenticity and is mostly a plus, not a minus. 

Journalistic ethics can’t be ditched. This isn’t a movie where you can take license with the truth. You need to provide a fair view of what’s happening and how you are responding.

For organizations still muddling around on whether they need a crisis plan, live streaming may seem like a reach. But that doesn’t need to be so.  Coming at crisis preparation with a fresh perspective may make it easier to embrace concepts such as live streaming video and serve as an enticement to get that all important crisis plan done.