Major League Baseball and the Fine Art of Selling Hope


The grass on baseball fields in Florida and Arizona is getting lush right now, ready for the annual rite that is Major League Baseball spring training and those sunny exhibition games. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to see the appeal of getting a taste of the warmer months ahead, if only by clicking on an online video for a few seconds or catching a game on television.

And you don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the marketing machine behind a game that has to put millions of fans in ballpark the seats from April through September. To get a feel for what a marketing challenge this is, let’s look at the numbers.

An MLB season consists of 162 regular season games, not counting playoff and World Series games for the lucky few, and not counting rainouts for the unlucky few.

When you consider there are 30 MLB teams, that’s 2,430 MLB games scheduled for 2020. According to, the average attendance at an MLB game in 2019 was 28,317.

This means that if MLB is to match last year’s numbers, it has to draw over 68.8 million fans this year. And that doesn’t count broadcast television contracts, and the audience targets and advertising revenue that must be generated.

That’s a lot of pressure, especially for a league where only 10 teams make the playoffs, which includes those one-and-done Wild Card teams.

So, what must Major League Baseball do to consistently meet such lofty marketing goals?

They must sell hope

Hope that your team has a chance to be one of those 10 teams to make the playoffs after a 162-game, six-month grind through thousands of miles of travel, injuries, bad weather and constantly changing rosters, not to mention the noise of 24/7 sports media, social media, and blogs like this one.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: A Case Study

The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of baseball’s more storied franchises. The club has won five World Series championships and nine National League pennants.

The problem is, it hasn’t won one in 41 seasons. For comparison, the gap between its 1979 championship and the previous one was eight years. And the gap between the 1971 championship and its previous one was 11 years.

But from a performance standpoint, it’s much worse than a championship drought. Since 1993, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost more than half of all of their games with the exception of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons, which in hindsight now appear to be an almost calculated anomaly. Those were the years the franchise kept some of its better players for a time to win games.

Long-time Pirates fans now feel that the Pirates can win if they want to, but for some reason they choose not to. That’s a very real sentiment.

To take that sentiment deeper, the fans feel that current ownership has fine-tuned the art of selling hope to them, playing on emotional bonds formed with a team in childhood, hoping that someday, they will get to relive moments of consistently winning baseball in their city.

This isn’t speculation on the fans’ part. It’s simple observation of a long pattern of business decision-making.

The key ingredient is hope

If the front office can convince fans in the Spring that the Pirates have a chance to field a winning team, has a chance to make the playoffs, and with a little luck it can go all the way, it’s done its job.

To do that, it must make a series of off-season moves that create the perception that they care about winning. But if they want to save money and continue to maintain the second-lowest payroll in all of Major League Baseball, they can’t do what teams committed to winning actually do, pay good players.

So, instead, they typically take excellent players they’ve groomed in the minor leagues and bring them up to the big leagues, and then hype them to the fans. There is a long list of players who broke into the league as Pirates but who went on to greatness with other teams. Does the name Gerrit Cole ring a bell?

At this same point in the year, they take a player who’s just on the cusp of fulfilling his potential and trade him for a couple of “utility players” and usually some minor league prospects.

This is where that hope starts to enter the picture

When you add young players and prospects to the mix, you are managing fan expectations that it’s really not about this season. It’s about the future. It’s sending a message to the fans that this team has a future. “Just stick with us,” the moves seem to say.

But now after decades of this pattern, the fans have caught on to the method to the Pirates’ madness. The future is the past. The front office is doing now what it did ten years ago, promising a bright future and then trading the future away just when it looks like it might require some significant investment on their part.

Regardless of salary caps, broadcast contracts or other business issues, winning professional sports franchises invest in doing the things it takes to win. This is a risk because there are no guarantees. You can pay players a lot of money and still not win. But one thing every success story demonstrates is that the ballclubs that eventually do win decided early on to take that risk. As a result, they have been rewarded with playoff victories, championships, and from a business perspective, fans in the seats and the revenue increases needed to sustain a winning culture, in the clubhouse and in the stands.

Pirates fans have learned by what they see, that ownership cannot really mean what they say. That the club isn’t selling competitive baseball. It is selling the hope of competitive baseball.

Selling hope during the season

As the season progresses, the marketing strategy has to change. It’s no longer about off-season moves. It’s about winning ballgames. So, the club tends to give the fans what they want. They field a healthy, competitive team, treating regular season games with the intensity of playoff games. That brand of baseball is easy to support, and enthusiasm can be contagious.

But when you’re playing with a group of players who are usually over-matched, the club is fortunate if it can stay just above .500 going into the mid-season All-Star Break. By then, the club likely has met half of its business goals.

Attendance numbers are respectable. The media is speculating on the club’s post-season chances, and fans start to watch the standings, though no one is foolish enough to declare the Pirates are in the hunt just yet.

Around this time, injuries start to take their toll. Batters fall into slumps. Pitchers’ arms get tired. The bench isn’t very deep, and the manager has to do the best with what he’s got.

The All-Star Break can’t come too soon

After the break, the team may win a few games, but usually they start to lose more than they win. That’s when the marketing of hope takes on a new dimension.

It’s time to take whatever good players you have and trade them to teams that now have a realistic chance of making the playoffs this year. The cycle starts all over. Good players are traded for prospects and young players.

The marketing shifts its focus to the future once again, this time to 2021. “Just stick with us,” the front office seems to say.

And the ballclub kicks the proverbial can down the road to another season.

In 2019, the Pirates’ average regular season game attendance was 18,413, about 10,000 lower than the league average. They hosted about 1.5 million fans at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park last season.

To meet and exceed those numbers in 2020, the ballclub needs to sell an awful lot of hope in 2020. The big question is, when will the fans quit buying that message?

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Tim O’Brien is a long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fan and a veteran corporate communications consultant who can help you address some of your own communications questions. Feel free to call him any time the Pirates aren’t playing a game. 412.854.8845 or email


Ricky Gervais Dishes Cold PR Advice at the Golden Globes

On Sunday, January 5th, comedian Ricky Gervais got the New Year off to a hot start in Hollywood by using his platform as host of the Golden Globe Awards to roast the Hollywood celebrities sitting in front of him.

That he would make some people uncomfortable was to be expected. In all of the pre-event media coverage, the award show’s publicists actually hyped the event by showcasing Ricky Gervais’s unpredictable and irreverent nature. It seems safe to assume no one imagined just how irreverent he’d be.

The most shared video clip of the night on social media was when the host played the role of brutally honest PR counselor and told his celebrity-packed audience:

“If you win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech,” he advised the stars during his opening monologue.

“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

Needless to say, more than a few award winners would later reject Gervais’s unsolicited advice and did use the stage for political speech.  But the headlines the next day mostly centered on backlash Gervais received in Hollywood for his cold candor.

Vanity Fair reporter Mark Harris’s tweets the next day were representative of the backlash:

“Here’s my Ricky Gervais problem,” he said. “The idea that celebrities are not only pampered babies but hypocrites who cause the problems they make speeches deploring and should therefore shut up and act/sing/be grateful is a right-wing talking point, and an especially stupid one.”

“It’s not an act of speaking truth to power or of bravery to attack celebs on that front—it’s a tired way of scolding people into silence because you don’t like what they’re saying, and saying that he’s ‘calling out’ the hyper privileged is just the same thing in a new guise.”

Gervais took to Twitter to give his side of the story, and in his own unintentional way, offer some PR insights:

“Simply pointing out whether someone is left or right wing isn’t winning the argument. If a joke is good enough, it can be enjoyed by anyone. It’s not all about you. Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

Whether you agree with Gervais’s humor, laughed at it or tuned it out, Gervais made a few points that from a PR perspective are worth considering, whether you or your organization is ever the target of humor or some other perceived slight in the public arena. In the world of corporate communications, we like to call this crisis communications or issues management.

While I’m more diplomatic than Gervais might be, when I meet with crisis management clients who’ve been the target of public ridicule in some way, it is important to remind them that as painful as the criticism may be, even on a personal level, the motivation for the attacks may not be personal at all. That’s not a defense of the critic, but it’s an important starting point to start to obtain the clarity needed to make sound decisions on exactly how to respond in a crisis. Chances are, your first instinct at times like this is driven more by emotion than rational thought, and that’s not a good basis.

The most important thing is to gain a real understanding of what emotional and attitudinal place the attacks may be coming from, and more importantly, why some of them may be ringing true for the public.

Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right

As Gervais deadpanned, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

The value in that comment is that before you can correct public opinion, you have to know as much about where that opinion is rooted and how it has taken shape in this way. Only then in crisis communications can you start to address the factors that will turn things around.

Given the reaction of Hollywood to Gervais’s comments, it would appear that many of the celebrities would do well to step back and work to understand why Gervais’s unlikely PR advice resonated with so many in the public.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click Here, complete the form and then please check your email.

Senior Level Counsel: Arm Yourself with the Right Questions, Not Just Answers

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in the business of communications happened to me when I was a young account executive at a global PR firm. My client was the CEO of a logistics company. To describe him as tough-as-nails would be an understatement.

He’d taken on investor groups, regulators, unions and competitors with a bare-knuckle approach to business. If you screwed up, he was the first to tell you, and in a way you would never forget.

There was a method to his old school madness. He managed a lot of people. In his mind, if he had to repeat himself, he wouldn’t get anything done and his companies would fail. He had a reputation for choosing not to have to repeat himself, which meant if you were the target of his wrath, you felt it.

When it was my turn

I remember when I discovered this dynamic for myself.

The CEO was in the midst of the emergency shutdown of a major operation to meet the expectations of his investors and keep the rest of the company from sinking under the weight of the failing division. Times were changing. Competition was intensifying. This division had already lost.

It all came to a head on a Friday night in the meeting rooms of a small chain hotel in a crossroads town, where the failing division was headquartered.

The company’s senior managers and consultants were all in the main conference room, waiting their turn, each expected to stand and deliver their plans for their role in the transitionary process. The CEO sat in the back of the darkened room, behind a blinding light coming from the Powerpoint projector. He peppered every presenter with questions.

First went Finance, then Accounting, then HR, then Legal, and then it was my turn, Communications.

You would think that after having watched the CEO verbally destroy everyone who presented before me, I might have learned something.

I didn’t, until I did.

Every presenter was expected to cover what his or her respective function would do to facilitate the shut-down of the division with as little impact on the larger company and its people as possible. Every presenter took the stage with a plan that tried to anticipate every one of the CEO’s questions and preemptively answer them. In other words, we all thought we were expected to have all the answers before we presented our plans.

This is hardly unusual. Anyone knows that if you have to give a presentation to any CEO, you want to be as buttoned down as possible.

So, when it was my turn, I started to lay out our communications objectives, strategies, targeted audiences, key messages, timeline, and a plan for implementation of a communications strategy. Like the others, I didn’t get too far into my presentation before the CEO started laying into me from behind the bright projector light hitting me in the face.

Question after question for which I didn’t have the answers. Most questions were ones no one could answer because none of us could predict the future, I thought.

Maybe it was the time of day at the end of a long week and I was tired. Or maybe it was because I couldn’t actually see his face, or that to get to this meeting I had just driven through a blinding snowstorm, passing tractor-trailers stranded snow-deep in ditches. Whatever the case, my own patience was as tapped out as his.

So, as respectfully as possible, I mustered up the pluck to start asking him questions. I asked him what he viewed as the best possible outcome. I asked him how he thinks this project would be perceived once implemented, and what he felt was the best-case scenario or a worst-case scenario.

There were two company managers to my right waiting their turn to speak. The expressions on their faces told me I was taking a risk. You just don’t put this guy on the spot, was the conventional wisdom.

That’s when something totally unexpected happened. He calmed down. He answered my questions reasonably and thoughtfully, and in such a way that I wondered what had happened.

Then it hit me, he didn’t want us to have all the answers.

This was a working meeting. It should have been a collaborative environment. As important as it is to have ideas on what to do, it’s just as important to tap the power of the collective mindshare in the room, especially the CEO.

He didn’t want to have to tell us what to do. That was certain. But he didn’t want us telling him wat to do. He wanted us to come into the room armed with ideas and plans, but above all, the right questions. He wanted to know that we recognized that some things couldn’t be decided until we, as a group, discussed some of the most pressing challenges and asked the right questions.

Somewhere in the course of my time in the room, we were able to hash out an actionable communications plan, one that was realistic and had the best chance for success. We couldn’t prevent the closing of a division, but we were able to communicate that this was a last-resort measure designed to save the larger company and those who depended on it.

The lesson for me going forward was and is that there are times when we can’t be expected to have all of the answers, but the most important thing we can do is to go into these critical moments armed with the right questions.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click here, complete the form, and then please check your email.

What You Don’t Know about “Polemic” Media Coverage Can Hurt Your Organization

Even if you aren’t one to use words like “polemic,” you are likely to be familiar with the meaning behind the word itself, since it’s pervasive in society today. A “polemic” is rhetoric that is not intended to advance an idea or an argument on its own merits, but rather to “win” by aggressively undermining an opposing position. You don’t have to be right, in fact you can be dead wrong. The opposition doesn’t have to be wrong, in fact the opposition can be dead right. All that has to happen for a polemic to work is to effectively paint the opposition as “bad,” in such a way as you define it.

A polemic can be the embodiment of using a double-standard with mal-intent. For ages, politicians on every side of the aisle have mastered the art of using polemics. What may heighten this art form, however, is social media and its relationship with traditional media.

For better or worse, every time you log on to Twitter, chances are you’ll find more than a few examples of polemics. It’s a short leap for someone aggressively undermining the opponent’s position on an issue to attempt to undermine the opponent at a personal level, attacking character and assigning fictional motives and intents.

The Challenge for PR People

What makes this pattern a challenge for today’s public relations practitioner is when journalists actively engage in polemics, taking a position on an issue and pursuing a story polemically, trying to undermine the subject of the story, for no other reason than to marginalize that subject of the story.

This is often accomplished by publishing selected facts, working to connect events or facts that are unrelated. And then to imply nefarious intent when the worst thing that might have happened was an honest mistake or an innocent oversight, if that.

I’ve run into this a few times but one situation that stands out was a time when a client was covered by a reporter whose tweets indicated his disdain for my client’s industry that reached an almost religious fervor. Since my client was a group of environmental activist groups and energy companies, this reporter sharpened his polemic axe.

The first thing he did was pour through a series of blog posts and social media posts, and then selectively pull those he felt he could recast out of context. He never contacted the subject of his story for comment. His reporting was published as news analysis, not opinion, yet it made simple bias look like child’s play.

What were my client’s “crimes?” They were working to find common ground to create public dialogue that would lead to holding energy producers to a higher standard of environmental stewardship. This reporter clearly preferred an us-versus-them dynamic where energy companies could be painted as the enemy, and no such thing as dialogue or common ground would be possible.

I’ve seen this dynamic to varying degrees in other situations. As a result, I myself have made a habit of studying the social media posts reporters who cover my clients. This is one of the simplest windows to a reporter’s feelings about certain subjects, and it sometimes provides a good indication of just how professional that reporter might be when working on a story involving you. You can do this, too.

Is this just a one-off?

I wish these situations are rare, but it appears an increasing number of communications pros at organizations now have to face polemic media coverage. As some news media organizations identify the ideological leanings of their bases, they tend to play to the base to build and preserve their followings. So, rather than attempt to educate and inform, they play to confirmation bias.

They identify the emotional biases of their largest numbers of followers and seek to reinforce those biases, and not to correct any that might be inaccurate or unfair. In some cases, the confirmation bias itself has become a part of newsroom decision-making, so editors and producers themselves see such a narrow reality that they aren’t open to alternative points of view enough to give those views a fair hearing. To do so would be to disrupt a somewhat un-challengeable assumption.

It is within this context that we in the corporate communications operate and navigate with our organizations and clients.

I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get your copy. Click Here

Authenticity: Mister Rogers, Dennis Miller & Pittsburgh

Not many people are as purely and kindly honest as Fred Rogers, who was better known as Mister Rogers. When he said, “I like you just the way you are,” he was at once emphasizing the need for authenticity long before the word became trendy. He was telling his young viewers that they didn’t need to be anyone else, they just needed to be themselves and they could feel good about it.

To be sure, Fred Rogers was raised in Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, and he made his life-affirming mark on the world from studios in the shadows of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. I think in the context of this discussion about authenticity, location matters.

I would argue that you can’t completely separate the values of the truly good and decent man that Fred Rogers was from the common values that have pervaded the region from which he hailed. Western Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh in particular, tend to value genuineness above most else.

The ‘Brutally Honest’ Take

Another Pittsburgh native, Dennis Miller, has made a name for himself through a different sort of genuineness. Let’s call it brutal honesty. He has had his own take on Pittsburghers’ affinity for keeping it real.

“The good thing about Pittsburgh,” he said, “it’s a good place to be raised … it doesn’t tolerate assholes … You’re either a good guy or you’re a bad guy … When I’m in Los Angeles having these incredibly surreal moments where nobody’s saying anything and everybody’s talking incessantly, I always have that Pittsburgh voice in my head – shut up, smile, get the job, move on.”

I think it’s a safe bet that Mister Rogers wouldn’t have said it that way, and he may have cringed if he heard Dennis Miller’s way of saying it, but on this they both would seem to agree. Being true to yourself and putting it out there is a good thing, but not just a good thing, it’s a Pittsburgh thing.

Having been raised in Pittsburgh, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. Pittsburghers have a highly developed radar for people who are faking it. They don’t like it, and they’ll let you know pretty quickly.

The alternative is to be yourself and take ownership of it. And that’s where other qualities the region embraces come to play. That strong work ethic that the region is known for sits on a foundation that is based on carrying your load and being accountable for it. For being the best you can be, and being proud of it.

How to Connect with Pittsburghers

If you want to connect with Pittsburghers, these are the values you need to fully understand and embrace before they’ll let you into their hearts. But once they do, you’re a friend for life.

Ironically, Hollywood – a place best known for pretending to be someone you’re not – has discovered the heart of Pittsburgh in the form of a biopic on Fred Rogers.

The latest Tom Hanks motion picture where he plays Fred Rogers is set to launch for the Holiday Season and early reviews are that “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” will capture the imagination of millions who grew up with Fred Rogers on TV, and it just may kindle the imaginations of a new generation who may not know him all that well.

You may go to see the film, and if you do, I’d recommend you look for our regionally rooted values to emerge, not only through the star character, but also in the supporting cast and in the story lines.

In my first episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast, I decided to make that episode the only one with a monologue, and in that brief session, I recounted a time I had a one-on-one business meeting about a public relations issue with Fred Rogers. That meeting reinforced everything I had hoped about him. I found that the man we saw on television was exactly who he was. He was the real thing.

And if you ever make it to Pittsburgh, you may come away with liking the region but not quite being able to put a finger on just why. If that’s the case, I’ll give you a little help. It’s because the people you meet will be as real as it gets because that’s what’s important to them. And they’ll accept you for who you are so long as you are true to yourself.

Outside of public relations, my home town is one of my favorite things to talk about. Please feel free to get in touch.

PRSA #EthicsMonth Twitter Chat – Sept. 24, 2019

We had a great conversation on Twitter near the end of #EthicsMonth at PRSA. With this in mind, I wanted to share some of my posts and give them proper context. It would be very easy to take one or two tweets out of context that would create the wrong or inaccurate perception. That said, please feel free to read my contributions, and let me know if you want to talk about a PR question!

Here is a link to the full thread of my posts in PDF form:

Twitter Chat – 9-24-19 – #EthicsMonth PRSA

Why You Don’t See More People in PR Using Wheelchairs

If you and I were to meet in person, you’d have a good idea where I’m coming from on this topic, but if you were to read just about everything I’ve ever written, or if we only know each other remotely, this may come as a surprise to you. I have a disability.

Its onset happened gradually in my 40s and then it stopped. It didn’t reverse. It just stopped getting worse.

The doctors never did figure out the cause, or for that matter, the diagnosis. Though I don’t use a wheelchair, that left me with a new appreciation for the word “idiopathic,” canes, lower leg braces, and a blue and white parking placard.

To be sure, any disability brings certain limitations, but this one has not inhibited me from doing the thing I love most, which is my work as I have always done it. This is why I made the intentional decision early on not to integrate it into my public persona online or in my firm’s marketing.

Along the way, however, I have noticed those non-verbal cues you get when meeting someone in person for the first time, telling me I probably should have given them a heads up. That way, they would have known why I wanted to meet them here not there, or now not then.

So, I decided to get my firm certified by the United States Business Leadership Network, which has rebranded itself to become Disability:IN. That organization certified O’Brien Communications as a Disability Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE).

The purpose for doing it wasn’t to become more eligible for federal or state government work, though it does help. Rather, its purpose was simply to go slightly public with my status on my web site and in other more subtle ways to minimize the element of surprise when I meet people in person for the first time.

Still, I haven’t decided to specialize in disability communications, though I do have some strong thoughts in this area, honed through experience both as a senior level communicator and as someone with a disability. And I don’t identify as a “disabled communications pro.” In fact, that line at the end of the first paragraph of this blog – “I have a disability” – is one I’ve so rarely uttered in my life, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually said it, including the two times I’ve mentioned it here.

This is not to say I don’t empathize with others who may be in a similar situation and take a different approach. I’ve learned not to argue with whatever works for the individual.

About those Missing Wheelchair Users in PR

To this point, I’ve given you a sense of my experience and my mindset, which was important to cover before getting to the meat of the issue of why I believe there aren’t more people in PR who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices and technologies.

In my experience, over decades, the public relations field is a youth-oriented profession. Look around the ranks of most PR agencies and you’ll find the average age of the practitioner is under 40, and in many cases under 30. People at that age, generally haven’t suffered any physical setbacks in their lives.

PR work, particularly for young people, can be physically demanding. Setting up trade show exhibits, doing media tours, coordinating special events and press conferences, carrying, stacking, traveling and oftentimes running, to get a project done and meet deadlines.

While some of the most high-value characteristics of a good communicator do not involve physical labor – strategizing, creative conceptualizing, media relations, writing, social media execution – a good number of the job requirements for entry-level candidates do.

This narrows the number of opportunities in the profession for new college graduates with disabilities.

You have no idea how much I wish I could stop here, because everything I’ve said to this point is relatively easy to understand, if not accept, on why we don’t have more disabled people in the PR ranks.  But there is a deeper truth.

In my interactions with people throughout the PR profession, there is what I see as an unintentional bias against people with disabilities. Though, it’s not quite a bias against the people themselves, but it is an always unspoken attitude that their physical limitations will hold the group back.

Public relations is inherently a social business during the work day and afterward. People want to deal with others who can keep up in the office, on the golf course, at that team-building retreat in the mountains, or simply when hopping from restaurant to a club when the day’s work is done. People don’t want to ponder the question, is he able to do what I want to do? Can she keep up with us?

So, as a profession, firms opt to hire not only the best and the brightest, but usually those with no obvious physical limitations.

And the Winner Is…

There is an obvious irony that not infrequently comes at awards ceremony time, when our professional organizations honor PR teams who’ve done great work. Quite often, the themes of the winning programs center on some form of compassion a company or organization displayed through a program centered on the “disadvantaged” and many times people with some form of disability.

When you see the award-winning team on stage with their trophies, however, chances are the line-up will be a group of able-bodied young people who share nothing in common with the beneficiaries of their work. In fact, if you dig into the content of much award-winning PR work, you’re likely to find a series of clichés rather than meaningful, needle-moving messaging. It wins awards because like-minded able-bodied pros are the judges, all presuming they know what works for people they really don’t understand.

While this in itself is not the worst thing, it can be a form of profession self-deception. We tell ourselves we’re nice people and we’re compassionate. We care.  And we probably do. We tell ourselves that people with disabilities need us and they should be grateful for our efforts.

But the industry’s hiring patterns suggest otherwise. If the PR business truly wants to take the lead when it comes to empathy and compassion in business, it can start by staffing its teams with people who actually have a shared experience with the groups they serve or the audiences they target, particularly when it comes to various forms of disability.

In the process, the industry might just find it will do better work because the messaging will be more credible to the people who know better. Many people with disabilities have become accustomed rolling their eyes after being pandered to and patronized by campaigns built around cute ways to use the root term “able” with other phrases to create tag lines and hash tags, while never getting at, or sometimes skirting the bigger issues.

Thanks to technology and a general desire to do the right thing, I think the PR field can change the tide, but it can only happen one hire at a time. Nothing can improve until you make that next hire and make it an exceptional one.

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If this is blog post made you think, or if there is anything that’s on your mind, please feel free to share on social, or more to the point, send me your thoughts directly via email or phone –, or 412.854.8845.



Let’s Take this Blog Off Road

This blog post is a departure from the norm for me. Usually, my posts are a bit on the wonky side, exploring certain communications issues to the degree I like. This post is an experiment of sorts, so if you like it, maybe I’ll do more, but more than anything, I won’t waste your time.

That said, it’s an update on what we’re up to here at O’Brien Communications. We continue to do what I think is great work for clients. It usually involves some combination of strategic thinking and planning, media relations and writing, marketing, and not uncommonly crisis and issues management.

For this reason, business isn’t cyclical. Crises and issues don’t take summer breaks. So, this summer is like any other. We have clients with needs and are happy to address them.

I saw the term “passion project” in something else I read today, and that term may describe our podcast called Shaping Opinion. I really love doing it. It’s a ton of fun, it’s a creative outlet that I enjoy, and I have gotten to know a lot of very interesting people who I otherwise would never have met without the podcast.

But it serves a business purpose. O’Brien Communications has gotten more visibility as a result, one by winning an award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil competition, and also with the kind of reach it has gotten. The number of people who listen to the podcast is proportionately and consistently higher than anything else we’ve done, which includes this blog. But maybe the best thing is the feedback I’ve gotten from people I already know and have worked with. Your ideas, feedback and thoughts have been an invaluable part of the experience.

On a different front, I’ve done some work for a non-profit that I care about on a personal level, and that has been rewarding.

And my activity level within PRSA has increased in a good way. If you’re in the business of public relations and aren’t a member, please get in touch with me. I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have.

In addition to that Bronze Anvil recognition, named O’Brien Communications one of the top PR firms in Pittsburgh for the third year in a row, and I’ve had the chance to speak to some college classes who represent the next generation of PR folk.

I think that’s where I’ll stop, and just throw this out to you. If you have a topic you want me to address in future blog post, or for that matter our podcast, just let me know. We’ll call the Summer of 2019 the time when we took things “off road” for a bit.

As always, thanks for reading.

A Podcast that Covers What They Don’t Teach You in PR Class

One of my favorite books is from Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” In the book’s first paragraphs he explains, “The best lesson anyone can learn from business school is an awareness of what it can’t teach you – all the ins and outs of everyday business life.”

I had this line in the back of my mind from the moment the idea came to me for what has become the Shaping Opinion podcast.

The podcast, I thought, should be the answer to that question your mother-in-law asks you every Thanksgiving, “So what do you do in public relations?” Still, it should hold you even if you don’t really care much about the public relations field. Most importantly, if you do care about communications, and you want a successful career in it, I wanted the podcast to have a secret sauce that wouldn’t be overtly advertised but it would be the unifying thread for every episode – context.

To be sure, not every episode even mentions PR, and quite a few may not make your mother-in-law more PR savvy. But if you listen for a common thread in every episode, you’ll find elements of history and communication, and you’ll feel their combined impact on attitudes throughout our culture. This is context.

Without context you have sensational news stories today that seem to have forgotten or ignored the contradicting information that came out yesterday, and the cycle will be repeated tomorrow as the media and some communicators seem to have forgotten the lessons of what happened today, not to mention last year, or 10, 20 or 50 years ago. You have media and communicators reacting to everything they see with seemingly no understanding of the past and how the current or future circumstances could have been or could be shaped.

The “people, events or things that have shaped the way we think” that we talk about are sometimes so well known or so unknown that we don’t even think about it. Yet, there was always that person, that event or that thing that has had a major influence on how we see some aspect of society or our own lives.

Take the Emoticon…

The emoticon. You may use it without thinking about it. You may see it every day and not care, yet its very existence has in some way influenced the way you communicate or receive communication. How can something like that even come about? And can it be repeated on purpose? That’s what we talked about when we interviewed the AI scientist who first created the emoticon as a joke decades ago.

We talked to Nike’s former marketing chief when they launched “Just Do It.,” and learned how an advertising line can become part of a company’s culture, and then drive that culture, and then have a major influence on how society sees athletics and how millions see themselves as athletes.

Speaking of ad lines, did you know an ad woman in Philadelphia who herself never married was the genius behind the line, “A Diamond is Forever?” She helped create the common expectation that an engagement isn’t official without that diamond ring. This was the topic for Episode 16.

We revisited the day President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin with Sheila Tate who was press secretary in the White House with the First Lady at that moment. And we talked to the former FBI agent who handled crisis communications in Somerset, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.

We’ve had conversations with doctors and even a Nobel scientist on such things as the opioid crisis, the now global concussion protocol, and a human’s ability to manipulate proteins to “direct evolution.” These complex topics explained in our relatable conversations all have had some impact on how you and I see the world and its possibilities.

When you listen to Shaping Opinion, you will hear a conversation with someone who knows something special about the topic at hand. In the course of every episode, you’ll hear what it’s like to get that critical context needed before true understanding can happen and how this can create broader understanding and connections in society.

See it Through Their Eyes

Each interview is similar to that initial conversation I’ve had with those with whom I’ve worked on a communications matter over the years. It’s that opportunity to see things through their eyes, and in turn, it tends to bring out some of the stories and issues that must be considered before we can really connect with others.

It’s been my favorite part of a long career in public relations, and this podcast is my effort to share what I love most about communication with you. The learning. The context.

The Shaping Opinion podcast doesn’t fit into any neat genre that podcatchers like. It’s not true crime, it’s not a cooking podcast, it’s not politics, it’s not history, and it’s not pop culture or music. But at times, it’s all of the above.

It’s not a how-to podcast for public relations, yet every conversation is designed for professional communicators and others who find the dynamics that shape public opinion fascinating.

It’s a conversation where you’ll probably learn little something, perhaps become inspired in some way by one of our guests, and in the end feel a little better, a little stronger, and hopefully, a little more curious about the world around you.

One thing you can be sure of is that after every episode you will have context that you didn’t have before, which will help create better understanding.

♦  ♦  ♦

The Shaping Opinion podcast was the recipient of the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation in 2019.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet is credited with saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The Poynter Institute may have been reminded of these words of wisdom last week when it published its list of 515 news sites that it considered “unreliable,” effectively blacklisting sites long considered legitimate (albeit conservative) media.

As a result, the Institute felt the backlash and was forced to apologize and remove the index from its own site last Thursday.

The Poynter Institute has built a strong reputation over the years as it says, championing “freedom of expression, civil dialogue and compelling journalism that helps citizens participate in healthy democracies.”

The Poynter report that has since been taken down off of the Web, included a number of distinctly conservative media outlets, such as Daily Signal, Daily Wire, Drudge Report, Free Beacon, Judicial Watch, PJ Media, the Blaze and the Washington Examiner.

This sparked outrage from the right.

Under the Poynter umbrella, the people behind the index were the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Southern California, Merrimack University, PolitiFact, Snopes and Chris Herbert, described as a “data designer.” Poynter said that the index drew from “fake news” databases managed by these organizations.

The reason for removing the index from its site, Poynter said, was “weaknesses in methodology.”

Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen said in a statement on Poynter’s site:

“Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others. We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report.”

She later said, “We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication. We pledge to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards.”