How Simplicity Teams with Creativity for Public Affairs Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Clever Phrases Woo the Ear, Stick in the Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Addressing Skeletons in Your Closet Before They Tumble Out

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

The chaotic state of political affairs in Virginia is a good reminder that skeletons in the closet have a nasty habit of popping their head out of the door.

Closet skeletons are a dimension of crisis preparation that is frequently overlooked in the mistaken judgment that what happened long ago will never be uncovered. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Virginians and the rest of America who pays attention to the news have discovered, that’s just not true. An obscure medical school yearbook picture can come back to haunt you.

An old skeleton liberated from the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, as Northam’s fumbling reaction illustrated. It is like an ambush interview on steroids. You have to address the unexpected surfacing of the skeleton and be judged on how you handle the surprise. As with any other crisis, being surprised is a big problem in responding credibly.

To err is human, as Alexander Pope observed, and to forgive is divine. The trouble is the vast majority of people need a reason to forgive. The unprepared politician, corporate executives , celebrity or nonprofit leader is ill-equipped to ask for forgiveness. Being prepared doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, but it helps.

Rummaging around in your past life in search of old skeletons may be uncomfortable – and unsettling for family members, friends and colleagues. But discomfort and private embarrassment seem like a small price to pay in the face of public disgrace.

The rummaging can have salutary benefits by revealing unacknowledged attitudes that present teachable moments. Using Northam’s situation as an example, if he had recalled the yearbook – or, more important, his earlier flippant attitudes about blackface, he could have turned his “surprise” into an epiphany. Admitting he failed to realize how blackface offended African-Americans, Northam could have displayed a capacity to open his eyes and mind to new realities, much like Virginians have had to face up to the reality that many confederate statues were erected as imposing Jim Crow-era reminders to black Virginians to “know their place.”

People running for public office should conduct thorough personal audits to identify any problematic skeletons in their past – or present. They should start by listing the transgressions before leaping to justifications. This is not really all that much different from a candid and thorough issue audit organizations should undertake to prepare crisis communications plans. The main difference is ranking probability.

The owner of a skyscraper should consider an elevator accident in an issue audit, but probably doesn’t need to worry all that much about an elevator crashing into the basement. Political candidates and officeholders can’t discount anything, as Northam’s yearbook page attests. The emphasis for candidates and officeholders is to brainstorm how to respond if their skeleton is exposed. 

Northam again proves illustrative. After his initial equivocation, Northam has earned some respect by dedicating the remainder of his gubernatorial term, assuming he gets to serve that long, to addressing issues of racial justice. If he had thought about the possibility of this blackface skeleton tumbling out of his closet, Northam could have responded more surefootedly and powerfully. His lack of preparation also showed through over the weekend during a relatively sympathetic interview with Gayle King of CBS News when she corrected his reference to Virginia’s racial past of importing “indentured servants” by saying, “You mean slaves.”

Changing times and norms have made behavior tolerated in the past intolerable in the present. In reality, sexual abuse and racial insensitivity were never okay. Victims were ignored or even punished. What’s really changed is that the spying eyes of social media make it harder for perpetrators to laugh off their bad acts. Victims have the tools to expose and punish them.

Like it or deplore it, you would be smart to prepare for it. Closet walls aren’t what they used to be.

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

 

Choose Your Idioms Carefully to Avoid Audience Confusion

Idioms can be great verbal short-cuts, communicating a lot with a few words. They also can confuse or distract an audience unfamiliar with pithy phrases that originated in the past when telephones had hooks, cars had cranks and only opium users had pipe dreams.

Idioms can be great verbal short-cuts, communicating a lot with a few words. They also can confuse or distract an audience unfamiliar with pithy phrases that originated in the past when telephones had hooks, cars had cranks and only opium users had pipe dreams.

Idioms can be an effective way to communicate a thought in a few pithy words. They also can be puzzlers that baffle some members of your audience, especially younger people.

Many colorful idioms remain familiar in our everyday lexicon, even though their origins have been forgotten or blurred. Most contemporary Americans understand the meaning of idiomatic phrases such as “easy as a piece of cake,” “it’s not rocket science” and “shoot the breeze.” Only a few would know – or could guess – how the phrases came about.

“Piece of cake” as something sublime and easy can be traced to an Ogden Nash poem; “rocket science” gained credence as the United States put a turbo-charge into its space program; and “shoot the breeze” dates back to the 19thCentury when “breeze” was slang for rumor. Shooting the breeze these days means casual conversation.

The source of idioms may not matter as long as the current meaning isn’t too far astray of the original meaning. We talk about “twisting someone’s arm,” but really don’t mean actually twisting their arm, even though that’s likely how the phrase arose. What we mean to convey is a gentler form of persuasion. 

Stabbing someone in the back” strikes a strong note of betrayal, not a death stroke.

“Raining cats and dogs” is on its face a meaningless phrase, which we can have come to associate with a drenching rainfall. The phrase may actually be a perversion of the Old English word “catadupe,” which meant waterfall. The Old English word may have been a knock-off of the Greek expression “cata doxa,” which translates as something hard to believe.

“Pipe dream” to modern ears translates as an improbable aspiration, not like the original mean of the hallucinations of people in opium dens.

Technology has wrecked a lot of expressions, though some of them hang on in common use. Back in the day, we literally “hung up” phones and “dialed” phone numbers. With smart phones, we can hang up and dial with our voices. 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of idioms and colloquialisms, which are matched by a seemingly equal number of books about different kinds of idioms. Google “idioms” and see for yourself.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of idioms and colloquialisms, which are matched by a seemingly equal number of books about different kinds of idioms. Google “idioms” and see for yourself.

When someone is sick, we often say they are “under the weather.” We’ve lost track of the phrase’s seafaring origin when the number of sick crewmen exceed the number of sick bays, forcing some ailing sailors to suffer out in the cold, rain or sun. We still refer to “rolling down” the windows in a car even though we push a button instead of turn a crank.

“My neck of the woods” can be another puzzling idiom, in part because we think of necks as something to hold up our heads, not a small stretch of wood or marshy areas. “Thick as thieves” conveys to contemporary ears something vaguely collaborative, not the 18th Century meaning of “thick” that meant aligned in a conspiracy with criminals. 

The word “sucker” is part of a number of idiomatic phrases. The notion of gullibility fits with “a sucker born every minute,” but is slightly off key with the phrase “sucker punch” that is delivered to someone who isn’t looking or deserving of a blow.

That should be enough examples to make speakers wary of relying too heavily on idioms. They should be even more leery of using colloquialisms that hail from discrete regions.  Such as “table tapper” (amateur preacher, North Carolina); “slicky slide” (playground slide, West Virginia); “sewing needle” (dragonfly, Michigan); “spiedie” (marinated meat sandwich, New York); and “dope” (dessert topping, Ohio).

In CFM’s media training, we encourage speakers and presenters to paint vivid and familiar word pictures to connect and resonate with audiences. Visual storytelling in the form of familiarity is a tried-and-true way to imprint your message on your audience. Idioms can play a role, but make sure it is positive role that builds understanding, not confusion.

The English language is a marvelous treasure trove of words and phrases. However, many people aren’t students of language and range from befuddlement to anger when confronted with language they don’t understand or perceive as elitist. Your language, especially swollen in idiomatic expression, can infuriate audiences and make you seem out of touch or unempathetic. That doesn’t advance the object of your speech or presentation. 

The best advice you can get is to choose your words advisedly and wisely. Idioms can be a powerful ally as well as a puckish companion. If you want to use an idiom, study it carefully and understand the facets of meaning it can convey. Weigh the risks versus the rewards. Know your audience and put yourself in their seats. The goal of a speech or presentation should be too important to sacrifice at the altar of clumsily selected words and phrases. Indifferently employing an idiom isn’t worth alienating the rapport with your audience.

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 You Save Is Your Best Friend in a Crisis

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.

The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.

The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.

Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:

Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.

Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.

Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.

Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.

Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.

Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone. 

Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation. 

Maintain Current Contact List

Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.

Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.

Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.

Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.

Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.

Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.

There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.

[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Accidents Can Be Eye-Popping Moments of Discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

 

Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

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.

Talking on Your Feet in Impromptu Moments

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you know how funny improvisational humor can be. But when you are forced to make impromptu comments at a company meeting or in a public setting, funny usually isn’t your goal.

“Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech – perhaps even more so,” says speech coach Allison Shapira.

The same rules apply. Don’t meander into your message. Be sensitive to your body language. Make a single, solid point. Know when to stop. 

The same cautionary notes apply, too. Be wary of jokes. Avoid sliding into jargon or gibberish. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Remember brevity is better than boring.

Easier said than done, you say, especially if you are caught off guard by a request to speak. True, but the possibility of being called on should disabuse anyone they are just spectators at a meeting. As Shapira advises, “Be present.” Pay attention. Stay off your iPhone. Engage in the topic.

A trick to keep your mind alert is thinking about a question you could ask. Thinking about a question can get you into an answering-frame-of-mind. Even better, train yourself to think about what you could say, whether asked or not.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

Silent participation can be read by others as disinterest, timidity or lack of anything worth contributing. Those aren’t the traits that lead to job promotions. 

Shapira says speakers can prepare for formal presentations and impromptu opportunities. Leaders, experts or people in the middle of a controversy should definitely develop and practice impromptu speaking skills.

Media training, especially for crisis communications, can prepare speakers to deal with surprise questions and unexpected issues. Think of a request to make an impromptu comment as roughly the same as an ambush interview. You may be caught off guard, but don’t be caught unprepared.

Practice the skill of condensing what you say to a single key message and offering two or three supporting points. This approach requires discipline and focus, which happen to be exactly what you need when speaking without prepared remarks.

Experienced speakers, especially ones who have the scars from previous impromptu boo-boos, may venture into light humor and even storytelling (especially if a story is the request). However, be careful. If someone asks for your opinion, giving them a story may not seem responsive – and may not convey the real point you want to make. Self-deprecating humor has its place, but probably not when responding to a question in business meeting.

Speaking clearly is a requirement for effective communication in writing, presenting or speaking. You can practice clarity when you write emails or memos or when you create a PowerPoint. Clarity requires diligent editing, self-restraint and a genuine concern for your audience. If you want your audience to read or hear what you say, make it easy for them to know what you are saying.

The stakes may be higher than you realize. Your ability to talk on your feet can earn your esteem in the eyes of others, including bosses or critics.

“Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients,” Shapira says. “How you communicate in those impromptu interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.”

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 Deflation of “I’m Sorry” in the Economics of Apologies

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

We may have entered an era when a simple “I’m sorry” has little currency to the recipient of an apology. You might do better offering some form of compensation.

Effective apologies have become a mainstay topic when discussing crisis communications. Crisis counselors, including us, have encouraged sincerity buttressed by demonstrable actions to correct the wrong that required an apology. But a recent study hints that might not be enough to regain or even maintain a level of trust. 

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a  Freakonomics podcast  about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a Freakonomics podcast about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Benjamin Ho, an economics professor at Vassar who studies apologies, teamed up with Uber to test a variety of apologies following a ride gone bad. Apologies that included a commitment to do better in the future often backfired, especially when there was another subpar ride. The apologies that worked best involved monetary compensation.

If Ho was a psychologist, he might have explored why an apology tied to money was a better palliative than an apology tied to a commitment to do better. My dime store interpretation: People have become increasingly cynical. They doubt whether a promise about better behavior in the future will be – or can be – kept. Immediate gratification, like a $5 coupon for a future Uber ride, is more satisfying because it’s more tangible.

Tangibility is the key here. People expect an apology. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. But the apology isn’t enough. What counts is the action that follows. The more tangible the action, the better. Or as Ho put it, “Show me the money, basically.”

The Uber example focuses on money, but compensation isn’t the only tangible value apology recipients may desire. If a new water reservoir construction site suffers a major slide, neighbors will be less interested in money than concrete assurances the problem has been fixed. If your bank has been hacked, depositors will want protection from theft.

The phrase “action speaks louder than words” applies. Apologies are something you say. Actions are something you do. Saying you are sorry is important, but it’s best to prove your sincerity through meaningful, relevant and tangible actions. What you say and do after the apology is what counts.

You can’t overlook the economics of apologies. As Ho explained to NPR, “We tested apologies with or without a coupon. We found basically the most effective [Uber] apology, the ones that increased revenues, were just with a $5 coupon.”

Ho’s findings suggest apologies can be transactional. However, as any husband has discovered when bringing home flowers when he forgets an anniversary, the gesture only gets temporary love. You might earn forgiveness, but you don’t build trust with money or flowers.

Trust is the true goal of an apology. Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and public agencies need to realize the point of an apology is to regain trust that is lost or tested – and, when possible, to burnish a reputation. Trust and an enhanced reputation typically aren’t built on cash; they are earned by credible, demonstrable actions, which may include restitution. 

The underlying message of Ho’s study is that ordinary, pro forma apologies aren’t enough now, if they ever were. If you face a crisis, big or small, treat it seriously and put on your work boots to do what’s necessary to earn trust. 

Doing anything less is worse than a waste of time; it is a lost opportunity. And the loss could be permanent.

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.

 

Timely Wisdom from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Bomb threats aimed at political leaders and a mass shooting at a synagogue have left the nation stunned once again and in desperate need of some wisdom. What better source than Mister Rogers.

Bomb threats aimed at political leaders and a mass shooting at a synagogue have left the nation stunned once again and in desperate need of some wisdom. What better source than Mister Rogers.

This is a day in the neighborhood when we could use some wisdom from Fred Rogers, who grew up a few blocks away from the Pittsburgh synagogue that was the scene of the latest American mass shooting.

Here is a sampler of Mr. Rogers’ gentle wisdom assembled by Chris Higgins.

“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression."

“It always helps to have people we love beside us when we have to do difficult things in life.” 

“Peace means far more than the opposite of war!”

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

“Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It's something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength and other words – like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.”

And from the speech Fred Rogers gave in 1999 when inducted into the Television Hall of Fame: 

“Fame is a four-letter word; and like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.

I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn't matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen – day and night!

The conductor of the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl grew up in a family that had little interest in music, but he often tells people he found his early inspiration from the fine musicians on television. 

Last month a 13-year-old boy abducted an eight-year-old girl; and when people asked him why, he said he learned about it on TV. 'Something different to try,' he said. 'Life's cheap; what does it matter?' 

Well, life isn't cheap. It's the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that ... to show and tell what the good in life is all about.

But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own--by treating our 'neighbor' at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.

Who in your life has been such a servant to you...who has helped you love the good that grows within you? Let's just take 10 seconds to think of some of those people who have loved us and wanted what was best for us in life – those who have encouraged us to become who we are tonight – just 10 seconds of silence.

No matter where they are – either here or in heaven – imagine how pleased those people must be to know that you thought of them right now.

We all have only one life to live on earth. And through television, we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways." 

Combatting the Crisis of Competition

Businesses should prepare for crisis involving an environmental spill, financial fraud, cyberattacks or sexual misconduct. They also should plan for an eventual crisis of competition, especially a disruptive idea that topple a business from a mountaintop to a scrap heap.

Businesses should prepare for crisis involving an environmental spill, financial fraud, cyberattacks or sexual misconduct. They also should plan for an eventual crisis of competition, especially a disruptive idea that topple a business from a mountaintop to a scrap heap.

Years ago, a Tektronix executive burst out of his office brandishing a report showing the company had achieved a 99 percent market share in analog oscilloscopes. He beamed at what he viewed as a sign of world domination.

However, the executive missed the subtle signal in the report that the market – and Tek’s competitors – had moved on to digital oscilloscopes. Tektronix had corralled the lion’s share of a vanishing market. It wasn’t world domination as much as a crisis of competition.

When we consider crisis in terms of business, our minds naturally think of environmental spills, financial fraud, cyberattacks and sexual misconduct. We forget about a crisis of competition, which can be an existential battle, not just a bad headline. People get fired and businesses pay fines in most crises, but in a crisis of competition a once-thriving company may cease to be relevant or even exist.

RCA was the biggest thing in vacuum tubes and actually did pioneering work on semiconductors, long before they made vacuum tubes obsolete. RCA executives apparently thought semiconductors never would amount to much, let alone replace their bread and butter. They failed to see their crisis of competition in the glare of their own success.

A crisis of competition deserves the same forethought, careful planning and strategic preparation as any other kind of crisis. Perhaps ironically, the best time to plan for a crisis of competition is when your business or organization is on the top of the mountain. Think of it as the most strategic view to see what everyone else is doing that may affect your standing – and eventually your bottom line.

Competition can take many forms – lower prices, better marketing, new technology or a wholly different approach. A competitor may be a business you know and watch, someone who comes out of left field or a galaxy like Amazon. Like RCA, the next bright idea could be shining in your own lab or workshop.

Unlike more common forms of crises, an apology or clever social media post won’t do much good in a crisis of competition.

Keep in mind success invites company and competition isn’t spontaneous. That means you know competitors are coming after you and you have a head start – not a bad position to begin crisis of competition planning, but also not a moment for complacency.

While market research is good for revealing what customers like, dislike and want, it isn’t the right tool to search the universe for innovative new competitors or disruptive emerging ideas. This takes a vastly different mindset to see the world of potential competition less like a vector and more like an erratic line.  

Market research for automakers didn’t stumble onto the idea of car-sharing. Market research for Folgers Coffee never anticipated Starbucks. Market research for multi-family housing developers left unexplored the idea of adult dormitory living. The strategic lens for crisis of competition planning isn’t looking for trends; it is looking for trendsetters.

Canvassing the arena of ideas to see which ones make economic sense, which ones could be disruptive and which ones are most likely duds is the business of crisis for competition planning. And just because an idea initially looks and behaves like a dud doesn’t mean it is permanently a non-starter. The investors on Shark Tank frequently wave off ideas that go on to be entrepreneurial successes, despite their misgivings.

Companies must realize they have a built-in bias for their product or way of doing things, which can result in their downfall. (Think of the progression of cameras from boxy things on a tripod to a button on a smartphone.) They need to fertilize their own thinking with outside views. Be curious. Follow some promising trails. Talk to people with unconventional viewpoints. Talk to you customers about what their next frontier looks like so you are better prepared to take the journey with them.

Back to Tektronix for a moment. There was an engineer who walked through the corporate cubicles carrying a small disk with wires sticking out both sides. For anyone willing to listen, the engineer would say what he held by his fingers could do everything that one of Tek’s large laboratory oscilloscopes could do – only cheaper, faster and anywhere. A lot of people thought he was crazy. What he was carrying around was, in actuality, a digital oscilloscope.

Make a point of listening to the contrarian in your midst. He or she might not be crazy. They may be on to something. They may show you how to avoid the crisis of competition by discovering the road to your own breakthrough. That breakthrough might eventually put you out of the business you’re in, only to set you up in the business you could be for years to come.

Gestures Can Make or Break Your Speech

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

If you want to make a point in a speech or presentation, your gestures can help – or hurt. Gestures can reinforce your message or distract your audience. Gestures can convey emotions or project a lack of confidence.

While most gestures are spontaneous, effective speakers and presenters devote time to eliminating gestures that may be naturally counterproductive. For male speakers, it can be sticking their hands in their pockets. For female speakers, it can be swaying as they talk with their hands behind their backs.

Like words, gestures have meaning. There may not be a gesture dictionary, but people know their definitions. Crossed arms signals defensiveness. Hands on hips connotes condescension. Hands in pockets betrays nervousness. Hands crossed in front suggests timidity. Thumbs up shows agreement. A fist warns of anger.

When you consider that people listening to a speech or presentation remember 80 percent of what they see and only 20 percent of what they hear, gestures take on greater significance. Your words might be brilliant, but your gestures can cause an audience to start looking at their smartphones.

Media training can help. Media training can help you with your words, while also making you aware of annoying gestures and off-putting verbal tics. There is nothing as chastening as watching yourself speaking and gesturing on video. Unless you are a total narcissist, you will become your harshest critic.

Self-criticism must be harnessed into purposeful practice to get rid of annoying gestures and focus instead on gestures that connect you with your audience and reinforce your message. Be like successful athletes and train your body to perform smoothly and effortlessly. Develop a lean style with movements that matter.

You can learn a lot by practicing in front of a full-length mirror. It’s just you and your reflection. No pressure.

You should emulate stand-up comedians who take their routines on the road, testing gags in front of real audiences. (Telling jokes into a mirror never produces any laughs.) Practice your speech in front of friends, family or coworkers. Encourage them to be candid, telling you what you did well and not so well. Ask them to comment specifically on your gestures.

For major speeches, presentations or a TED Talk, consider hiring a media trainer or speech coach. Give yourself enough time before appearing on stage to make adjustments and practice. 

Because gesturing is a normal human behavior, be conscious of your body language in everyday circumstances. Self-awareness is the first step to improving the physical dimension of your communication. You can practice your moves at low-pressure social events and family gatherings. 

Gestures tend to reflect inner thoughts and fears. You may need to practice some psychology on yourself to disguise nerves, control angry outbursts, avoid giddy laughter and stop flailing your arms.

Study powerful speakers in person, on television or in church, making special note of how they use their hands, how they stand and how they establish and maintain rapport with their audience.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all set of gestures. Your gestures need to be authentically yours. Whether tall or short, old or young, use your assets to their greatest advantage.

And, don’t forget, the most endearing gesture you can make is to smile. You don’t need a coach to practice smiling. You don’t need media training to know a smile can delight an audience better than anything else.

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.

Kavanaugh Defense Serves as Crisis Communication Case Study

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

As crisis communications cases go, there is no better example to study than the defense mounted last week by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters, including President Trump who nominated Kavanaugh, praised his fiery demeanor as appropriate for someone who feels unjustly accused. Critics said his emotional, defensive and at times partisan performance raised questions about his judicial temperament.

No one can dispute there was a sharp contrast between Kavanaugh’s hot defense and the cool, measured testimony of his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that Ford, who admitted she was terrified to testify in public before a national television audience, exceeded expectations as a credible witness. She calmly gave her testimony, answered questions clearly, admitted what she couldn’t remember and showed deference to her questioners. She politely asked for a promised break.

Some commentators summed up the hearing as a “she said/he said” moment, and from an evidentiary point of view, it was. However, on a perception scale, Ford looked credible as an accuser, while Kavanaugh came across as ticked off as the accused. It was a hearing with two “victims.”

The most cogent post-hearing analysis was that Kavanugh offered a Trumpian rejoinder. He denied the accusation of sexual misconduct and focused on what he called the “search and destroy” nomination process, which he blamed on Democrats and left-leaning news media. Maybe “search and destroy” was a clever sound bite Kavanaugh came up with himself, or more likely it was a sound bite recommended by Trump, who used the phrase himself in a tweet after the hearing ended. Senator Tom Cotton repeated the phrase in his appearance Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with sound bites. However, Kavanaugh (and whoever advised him) may have seriously misjudged the tenor of the moment and what a large part of the audience watching wanted to see and hear in response to Ford’s allegations. That misjudgment earned Kavanaugh a follow-up background check by the FBI, which Trump and Senate GOP leaders had previously denied.

Kavanaugh’s miscalculation is the crux of the crisis communications case study. He indulged in what he wanted (or someone wanted him) to say, rather than exercising the discipline to deliver an appropriate message.

We can argue over what an appropriate message would be in this circumstance. No one would have faulted Kavanaugh for expressing frustration over the nomination process, but his main job at the hearing was to declare his innocence and show respect for Ford and her claim. That was in his remarks, but it got lost in the ashes of his incendiary comments. Whatever respect he attempted to show Ford was negated by his disrespect for Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar when she asked him about his blackout drinking. 

A key principle of crisis communications is to project you are in control, even if you aren’t. Kavanaugh failed to do that. If anything, he seemed mad that he had to appear to defend his “good name.”

Another principle is to show empathy. Kavanaugh’s attempt at empathy fell flat. He said he believed Ford may have endured an attempted rape “by someone, at some time and in some place.” That was a barely cloaked way of saying Ford could not corroborate he was her assailant, even though she said she was 100 percent sure it was him. His denial also had the ring of a talking point when GOP Senator Lindsey Graham used the same phrase, with the same, perhaps unintended, dismissive conclusion.

One of the hardest things for someone to do in a communications crisis is to admit wrongdoing. Kavanaugh lawyered up and didn’t admit to anything other than he liked beer as a teenager and still does.

Kavanaugh’s shortcomings as a crisis communicator were amplified by Ford’s performance. She remained under control despite the sensitive nature of her allegation and her previous attempt to tell her story out of the limelight. She readily admitted gaps in her memory. Surely Kavanaugh’s training as a lawyer made him aware that nothing occurs in a vacuum. The hearing was set up, perhaps unintentionally, to hear two sides of the same story – and assess the veracity of both storytellers. He didn’t need to convince his supporters; he needed to have an impact on his doubters.

Maybe the biggest gaffe by Kavanaugh was failing to perceive how the back-to-back testimony would be viewed, especially by women. Ford had nothing to gain by testifying; he had everything to lose. Ford’s detailed account had the ring of authenticity – being shoved into a bedroom, thrown on a bed and “grinded upon” by Kavanaugh as he and his buddy, Mark Judge, laughed – even though some details were blurry or missing. Kavanuagh’s denial was absolute and he acted as if he never knew Ford. He talked a lot about how he “worked my butt off” to get good grades and play sports. He projected an image that raised more doubt about him than her.

Regardless whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent and the victim of a “smear campaign,” there is plenty of room to question his approach to the hearing. If his nomination was assured before the hearing, his performance raised or underscored doubts. Ford can look forward to returning to her life as a college professor. Kavanaugh has to pray he can hold onto his reputation and his nomination.

Without changing any of the facts, Kavanaugh could have emerged from the hearing no worse off or possibly even in a strong position. He could have used a good crisis counselor.

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 Deep Web, Social Media and Malicious Misinformation

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

The underbelly of the internet is a puzzling and poisonous place, where illicit drugs are sold and malicious misinformation is peddled. Fake news and incendiary memes launched from the deep web can bedevil consumer brands as easily as political campaigns.

Traditional communication responses to social media laced with lies is a lot bringing a fingernail clipper to a knife fight. New techniques are needed to fight back.

Richard Edelman, CEO of his eponymous PR firm, wrote a recent blog titled, “Understanding the Deep Web.” In it he advised, “In the battle for truth, a company must make its voice heard as quickly as it can. It’s a necessity to get out in front of a situation rather than play from behind.”

However, even a quick response may not be an adequate defense. In his blog, Edelman shares observations about fake news from Sharb Farjami, CEO of Storyful, which bills itself as a “social media intelligence agency.”

Storyful’s website offers an apocalyptic vision of contemporary social media: 

“Social media is not what it was eight years ago. The landscape is more complex and volatile, the stakes are higher, and the needs of business and media increasingly diverse. The weaponization of bots and misinformation, the impact of disinformation on elections and businesses, the threat eyewitnesses face when they capture and share current events –these are only a few of the features of the modern social landscape.”

We can argue over how things got this bad, but it is more productive to consider how to cope in this treacherous environment. Here are some of Farjami’s suggestions, as shared by Edelman:

  • Fake news often reaches traditional media via “feeders” lurking in the Deep Web, including on “fringe networks such as Gab, 4Chan and 8Chan.” Farjami quotes Wired as noting there may be “480,000 alt-right provocateurs [just] on the Gab site.”

  • Online provocateurs like to newsjack high-profile events to use as conduits for misinformation or an excuse to bash a brand. Within 48 hours after Nike launched its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, “racially charged memes” appeared on 4Chan and later gravitated to Facebook.

  • A favorite technique of Deep Web denizens is to make up controversies, such as falsely linking the 5G network to cancer and vaccines to birth defects.

Edelman says active brands aren’t able to avoid controversy involving political, social or cultural issues. They don’t need to step out into the conversation; the conversation can find them through the Deep Web.

While this may seem like a problem affecting only big brands, it isn’t. Much misinformation is transmitted in words, but the ability to show out-of-context or doctored video is quickly evolving. What people see in picture or video can quickly transmogrify into mischievous misinformation. With virtually everyone possessing a smartphone, the threat extends well beyond the Nikes and Starbucks of the world.

A new dimension of social media engagement may be social media intelligence gathering so you know when a tsunami from the Deep Web is headed your way and you still have some time to react.

 

Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

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

Effective Communication and Simple Truth

There is a direct connection between simplicity and effectiveness in communication. You can inform and persuade an audience by giving them the simple truth.

There is a direct connection between simplicity and effectiveness in communication. You can inform and persuade an audience by giving them the simple truth.

The distance between noise and purpose in communication can be measured in the gap between confusion and persuasion. Effective communication boils down to sharing the simple truth.

Simplicity is easy when the subject is simple. However, complex subjects tempt speakers into explosions of details that bewilder rather than inform listeners. Complex subjects are exactly the ones that demand simplicity.

The art of simplicity is elegance of expression, not patronizing people’s intelligence. Elegant expression requires discipline to focus on the essential, not the extraneous. Simplicity is not insulting; it is imperative to help people understand what you mean to say. For many exasperated audiences and reporters, a concise, well-framed argument is a welcome relief.

In earlier times, people would sit for hours listening to lectures, speeches and debates. But in our times, with television, the internet and social media, attention spans are much shorter. Getting to the point quickly and clearly are critical to gaining and retaining people’s attention. In earlier times, a great speaker was entertainment. In our times, longwinded, meandering discourse is tuned out as noise.

Making something complex seem simple takes skill and knowledge. You have to master your subject thoroughly so you can explain it simply. You need to know what is essential and what is just interesting. Giving your audience or interviewer the essence of your subject is elemental to getting your point across to an audience or your key message quoted in a story.

Admittedly, simple expression can be a conduit for slick-talking conmen, which is why it is important to simplify what you say without leaving out essential details that vouch for your credibility and validate what you say. Propaganda also can be alluringly simple, so your simplicity should take into account healthy skepticism. Make the proof of what you say simple to grasp, too.

Simplicity in communication becomes an art form when speakers paint word pictures, draw on familiar themes or create musical cadences in their sentences. Instead of providing unpacking instructions, effective speakers show what the finished product looks like when fully assembled. Don’t forget, pictures, videos and easy-to-understand charts can transport your audience to your point, too.

Speaking simply is situational. If you are giving an interview with a television reporter, you need to winnow down your key message to less than a sentence so it can fit in a 12-second on-air quote. If you are speaking to an audience consisting of experts on the topic, you can introduce more complexity while still keeping your expression economical. All audiences appreciate the favor of simple truth.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Further Thoughts on Framing, Reframing and Spin

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

Genetics research shows the evolution of life on earth is less like a tree and more like a virus. Evolving life doesn’t sprout new branches; it swaps genes between species.

This radical notion stuns our brains. What we thought we knew is undercut by a new way of understanding. We haven’t changed, but the frame through which we see something has changed. Instead of seeing evolution as a tree, we now see it in the shape of a web.

Frames are the mental structures that shape our view of the world, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and progressive activist. In his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” Lakoff argues that our frames match our values. There also is evidence that our frames mirror our beliefs. We select events and facts for our frame that confirm what we believe.

If you think illegal immigration is a scourge, you watch Fox News for stories that confirm your belief. If you think the Trump administration is corrupt, you devour Vox online stories to prove you are right.

For issue managers, this is a brave, migraine-inducing new world. Facts aren’t necessarily facts if they don’t fit within your frame. Our training to traffic in factual material with credible validation seems outdated – or at least outgunned.

The so-called post-truth era is actually the propaganda era. You don’t win with facts; you win with spin. A key to spinning is how you frame an issue. However, framing isn’t just about spinning; framing also is an essential way to break through the fog of people’s beliefs.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “ Don’t Think of an Elephant! ” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

Lakoff says how you say something is as or more important than what you say. That’s a startling statement. Lakoff’s view relies on research in the 1980s by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that shows humans are consistently irrational, in part because of mental shortcuts that process information by sorting it according to existing frames.

This explains the frustration of rival partisans who can’t understand why their opposing counterparts don’t see things the same way as they do. They have different frames. Two people in the same house can have radically different views if one looks out the front window and the other looks out the back window.

Changing people’s minds becomes difficult because of radically different frames between the would-be persuader and his or her intended audience. We tend to argue from our moral viewpoint, which may be wholly inconsistent from the people we seek to convince.

In his book, Lakoff details how political conservatives have spent untold amounts of money over several decades to come up with powerful frames intended to solidify a political base and force opponents to debate on their turf.

Good examples are “partial-birth abortion” and “gay marriage.” Both terms were designed to shift the conversation about reproductive rights and marriage equality to frames consistent with conservative thinking. They replaced terms such as “pro-life” and “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Forcing people to defend certain kinds of abortions blocked a discussion of whether the state should overrule decisions made by women and their doctors. Employing the word “gay” before marriage was a clever way to summon up stereotypes about gay men and women.

A framing battle is warming up over the word “socialism.” Polling shows a rise among Democrats in support of socialism. Republicans scorn socialism as the opposite of capitalism. However, as Paul Krugman discusses in a series of tweets, “socialism” has become an intentional frame (or wedge) to cast suspicion on raising taxes to maintain Social Security and Medicare, or what some political conservatives call “entitlements” and Democrats refer to as the “social safety net.”

One of the better issue framers of our time is our current President. Through tweets and campaign rallies, Donald Trump creates and reinforces frames (Crooked Hillary, witch hunt, failing New York Times) that he believes give him political advantage by forcing others to rebut him. As we’ve seen, the rebuttals tend to solidify the viewpoints of his supporters. Trump’s claim that he can murder someone on the streets of New York and not lose a vote is compelling evidence he knows what he’s doing.

Those of us in the persuasion business spend time thinking how to frame issues to best advantage. We do our best work when we recognize existing frames and capitalize on them. When necessary, we try to find ways to reframe an issue so discussion can be in a more favorable mental arena.

Framing and reframing, especially on persistently contentious issues, isn’t easy or even obvious. It takes hard work. It demands understanding the moral perspective of the audience you seek to influence and creating arguments and imagery that fit within that frame.

Reframing can be as straightforward as convincing someone accustomed to looking out the front window to spend a moment looking out the back window. Same house. Same landscape. Same neighborhood. Different perspective.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. However, in the face of a bewildering public arena that stretches from backyard patios to digital clouds, simplicity can be a guiding virtue.

Keep that Tangled Tree argument of evolution in mind. People who don’t believe humans evolved from apes may be shocked into listening when you share evidence that 8 percent of human genes come from bacteria, plants and other animals and may be the key to our survival and dominance of our planet.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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

Angry Yimbys Make More Housing a ‘Religion’

After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

After years of not in my backyard argument, younger adults are becoming aggressively supportive of new housing developments, even when they threaten to displace traditional minority communities.

In what has a man-bites-dog vibe, Millennials are driving a YIMBY movement to promote more housing in big cities as a way to combat rising rents and housing shortages.

The “Yes, In My Backyard” upwelling comes in direct response to years of success employing “Not In My Backyard” arguments. Yimbys believe tight housing conditions are the result of stymied housing developments, causing an imbalance between jobs and places to live.

“The [YIMBY] movement is fueled by the anger of young adults,” according to The Guardian. “Rather than suffer in silence as they struggle to find affordable places to live, they are heading to planning meetings en masse to argue for more housing – preferably the very kind of dense, urban infill projects that have often generated neighborhood opposition from NIMBYs .”

YIMBYs have popped up in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver, BC, and Sydney, Australia. San Francisco is the birthplace of the YIMBY movement, which isn’t a surprise when you learn the city added 307,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2013, but only built 40,000 new housing units. A chapter in Portland can’t be far away.

In what seems like an echo from the NIMBYs of yore, the head of the San Francisco-based YIMBY movement told The Guardian, “It’s clear there is a housing shortage – and the answer is to build housing. You generate policy by yelling about things.”

Sonja Trauss, 35, a San Francisco resident who helped galvanize the movement, dismissed housing shortages in big Western cities as financial or technical issues. “The cause of our current shortage,” she says, “is 100 percent political.” California’s large, influential tech community agrees with her and is providing financial backing for YIMBYs.

YIMBYs associate with progressives by favoring dense development near transit service. However, they have come under attack by liberal groups as “stooges” for housing developers by criticizing “space-hogging” single-family development and favoring gentrification of traditionally minority neighborhoods.

Ground Zero for this class struggle over housing is the Mission District in San Francisco, a lower-income enclave of Latino residents, who are now being displaced by large housing developments, with YIMBY encouragement. Trauss, who is being pushed as a local political candidate, says any new housing is better than no new housing, even if it is for wealthier people and contributes to gentrification. Latino activists say YIMBYs are disrespecting them and their concerns for being priced out of their current housing.

For better or worse, there is a new dynamic in front of elected bodies. Where once only opponents showed up for hearings on housing developments, now YIMBY proponents appear to voice support. And it is having an effect. According to The Guardian, the California Assembly approved a “sweeping legislative package,” with YIMBY support, to spur more affordable housing.

The movement isn’t just a US phenomenon. Vancouver YIMBYs are shaming officials for okaying sprawling developments with few homes. Australian YIMBYs are pushing local officials to allow homeowners to rent out attics and lofts. A YIMBY political party has formed.

Josh Lehner, the Oregon state economist who follows housing issues closely, just posted a new blog indicating the Portland metropolitan area is adding more housing units, but shortages persist throughout Oregon. Affordability, he says, remains a big problem and could get worse as interest rates continue to creep up.

YIMBYs versus NIMBYs may not produce nuanced public policy that recognizes the need for economic development and more housing on one hand, but also greater income equality and affordable housing on the other to avoid displacing families with nowhere else to go.