CEOs: Get Political at Your Own Risk

Note Taking at EventA recent article in the Los Angeles Times featured the results of a Weber Shandwick study on the impact CEOs may have on their companies’ performance when they take public positions on political or controversial issues. The headline didn’t say it all, but it was pretty accurate: “CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren’t buying it.”

Before getting into detail on the article and the study, it’s worth noting that no matter what a CEO does in terms of communication, there has to be a good business reason for doing it. Otherwise, the entire proposition is based on ego and not the principles of good business. It is also important to know that “doing the right thing” is never mutually exclusive from doing business the right way.

When an organization meshes social responsibility with other business initiatives, we call it corporate social responsibility. When marketing is driven by the same motivations, we sometimes call it cause-marketing.  But when a CEO builds a communications program around his or her own positions on issues, it can get personal and now emerges as “CEO activism.”

The Weber Shandwick Takeaways

Here’s what Weber Shandwick found:

  • 36% of consumers polled said they felt media attention was the primary reason some CEOs take public positions on political or social issues. According to the LA Times piece, the three most recognized CEOs who do this were Starbucks’s Howard Schultz, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and’s Marc Benioff.
  • 21% of those surveyed felt CEOs took public stands to build their own reputations.
  • 14% of the people questioned thought CEOs actually took public positions did so to “do what is right for society.”
  • 40% of survey participants said they were more inclined to buy something from a company if they agreed with the CEO’s views.
  • 45% of those questioned responded that they are less likely to make purchases from CEOs if they disagree with the sentiments.

The Weber Shandwick study polled 1,027 adults.

Lessons for Other CEOs and Companies

The questions a CEO of any company needs to ask when considering taking a public position on a political or controversial issue are:

  • What is the risk to sales?
  • What is the risk to existing and potential customer relationships?
  • Will not weighing in on the issue cost my business?
  • Is my position on the issue in sync with those of my customers, clients and other important stakeholders?
  • Do I and my organization have credibility on the issue? Or, put more bluntly, is this any of my business?
  • What do I have to gain?
  • What do I have to lose?
  • And perhaps, most importantly, is my position really the only way to go, or is it just one side of an issue … just my opinion?

The last question gets to the core of it. Controversies and political issues by nature can be polarizing. When a CEO takes a strong position on an issue, it can be assumed to alienate up to half or more of a company’s employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.

How Should a CEO Use the “Bully Pulpit?”

Then there is the issue of the “bully pulpit.” This goes beyond simply trying to appeal to employees or risk alienating them.  President Theodore Roosevelt used the term to describe how he used his position of power as president to push his agenda.

Power comes in three parts: compensatory, conditioning, and condign. A CEO has all three at his disposal.  He can incentivize and reward those who agree with him through compensation.  He can condition those who work for him through a range of persuasive techniques. And he can punish those who disagree with him.  Employees at every level know this.

So the ultimate question becomes: Is advocating a particular position on an issue a wise use of a CEO’s leadership capital?

The question is inherently situation-specific, but there is no doubt that once a CEO does decide to venture into CEO activist waters, there is risk, and all too often there is no turning back.

If you have a specific question on this or would like to discuss, please feel free to get in touch.

The Night a Future Star Brought Down the House in South Park

Cowboy HatIt was a Friday night a good number of years ago. My wife and I went to one of the free concerts as part of the South Park Summer Concert Series. We joined my brother-in-law and sister-in-law that night.

The weather was nice, the crowd was decent in terms of size. We had brought our coolers, and sat in our lawn chairs enjoying the summer night.

I forget who the opening act was, but it was great background music for our conversation. That’s usually how we feel, particularly if we don’t know the headline act. We sit far enough back to talk and hear each other.

So, after the opening act finished, there was a longer-than-usual break between bands.

A relatively unknown country artist was supposed to come next. My wife and I like country music, and we had heard of this guy but not much.

A county parks staffer walked up to the mic and told the crowd that the next act was in transit. He had trouble with flights, and if my memory serves me, we were told he wasn’t even on the ground in Pittsburgh yet.  But we were assured, he is on his way and he will perform as soon as he gets here.

With that, close to half the crowd packed up and quietly made their way to their cars.

It was around 8 p.m. on a nice summer night, so we stayed. We were having enough of a good time that we didn’t really notice how much time had passed, but after a few updates from a conscientious county parks employee on the stage, the main event arrived in a couple of those buses performers use.

Not long after that, the country singer took the stage to sound check. After about as genuine an apology and explanation as you would expect from a young country singer, he tested all the equipment as he normally would do in rehearsal right in front of his audience.  Still, he didn’t waste any time.

Soon, he started singing, and playing, and talking, and then rocking the place. Throughout it all, he kept reminding the people who stuck around, he was going to give them more than they bargained for.

Since admission was free, that part was a low bar, but that didn’t matter to him. He played fast songs that got people dancing. He played ballads.  He mixed it up and kept it up, and just kept playing.  Clearly he was determined to make it up to his audience.

He played at least one encore, but I want to say two. And before he left the stage he made everyone of  us feel we just saw one of the best country concerts we may ever have seen, free or not.

Normally, these events wrap up around 9:30 p.m., but as we made our way back to our car near midnight, we couldn’t stop talking about how great a performer this guy was, and what a nice guy he seemed to be.  And we were definitely glad we stuck around to see his show.

The singer was Kenny Chesney. Kenny comes to Pittsburgh this weekend.  Let’s hope it’s another great day for him and for Pittsburgh.

The PR lesson: Always do more. People won’t forget.

Make Sure Your Communications Program Isn’t Flying Blind

O’Brien Communications now has a YouTube channel.  This is part of our effort to broaden our platform for communication and to leverage video as it gains traction with the continued explosion of mobile.

The video below, at just over one minute in length, is one of the first we’ve produced for YouTube.  In this installment, we cover the basics of a communications health check-up, or communications audit.  It will help make sure you’re communications program is not flying blind.

Check out this and other videos like it on our YouTube channel.  And if you have any questions about this, or ideas for future topics, just let us know!


When a Crisis Hits You Can’t Rely on a Template


As with any professional discipline, the way crisis communications is practiced can follow different approaches, or different schools of thought. This is particularly the case when it comes to crisis communications planning.

Just recently, I told a group of college students an old story for me of how I once had to rewrite a crisis communications plan where there was so much tutorial information up front that its Table of Contents appeared on page 36!

As a point of reference, imagine if the emergency manual at a power plant was equally packed with background information, so that when an accident occurs, the emergency responders would have to plow through 36 pages of background before they could even tell what was in the plan.

This is rare, of course, but it was a sign of things to come.

This old crisis communications plan had something in common with so many others, though, which was that it was also dense with volumes of hypothetical press releases and statements. There was a template news release in the event of workplace violence, another one in the event of a flood impacting operations, and another in the event of a product recall.

That’s a school of thought that persists.

For some organizations such template documents give them a sense of comfort that they feel they have thoroughly anticipated every possibility and are prepared. This can be a false sense of security, to be sure. Yes, the effort to think through and develop all of this content is often distracting and wasteful of time, money and resources. But perhaps worst of all, organizations can tend to feel so burdened by the crisis communications planning process that managers look for every excuse not to participate, which can have a direct impact on the organization’s readiness when a crisis hits.

The truth is, you cannot anticipate every possible crisis situation in advance to the point where you can write a passable first draft of a news release. Once the crisis happens, there are usually so many distinguishing factors tied to time, place and the people affected, among other things, that you have to start all over. If the template release is helpful at all, it may be in the first five minutes of the crisis, and after that, the many hours spent on developing, editing and approving it are quickly devalued.

What then matters is that a solid communicator be in the loop directing that part of the crisis response process. That there is a team involved in information-gathering and strategic planning and response. That a reliable spokesperson has been designated to assure the organization speaks with one voice.  And that an organizational commitment is made to responsible communication and accountability.

Just as with anything done right, it just can’t be handled with a template. Rather, the sense of security has to come from knowing there is a quick-start process in place, that the organization is practiced in it, that it’s tied to the way the organization already works and makes decisions, and that good people are involved in the crisis plan’s implementation.

Hollywood’s Dangerous Assumptions about People with Disabilities

You could say I have a certain empathy for people with disabilities. That’s why, based on some of the publicity surrounding the movie “You Before Me,” I think this is one I will not see.

The film centers on a young man who is a quadriplegic as the result of an accident, effectively ending life as he knew it. In his new life, he takes on a caregiver, and in true Hollywood style, they fall in love.

It’s not much of a spoiler when the trailer of the movie and all of its pre-publicity lead us to the ending. Apparently, the disabled young man has to decide if he will live for his love or commit suicide.  His newfound love has a decision to make.  She can convince him that life is worth living, or she can support his state of mind that life is not worth living due to his disability and help him end it all.  We can guess how it ends.

News reports are that that some of the able-bodied movie critics walked out of the screening crying, moved by the gloominess of it all.

That’s a summary of what I know based on the coverage and reviews I’ve seen, and for me that’s enough. Enough to determine that I don’t want to see this movie because I just don’t find the subject matter entertaining (even if it is billed a romantic comedy, which it is). But perhaps even more importantly, I don’t like the message it sends or the dangerous assumptions it makes.

At the core of this film is the question: Is life worth living if it is sometimes far less than perfect?

For most of us, there’s something inside that responds adamantly, “Yes!” It’s called our survival mechanism.  But some with disabilities may be on the fence.

I’d hate to think of what might happen if a few with disabilities watched a film like this, and in some way it helped them suppress their own survival instincts.

This is not to say that all entertainment should be hopelessly idealistic. But the coverage surrounding this film and others like it indicates that Hollywood is well along the path of embracing, if not pushing a worldview that undermines the very core of all of the systems, programs and support infrastructure that serves millions of people who have some sort of disability.

It tells them, their lives are not as valuable as others. That they and the world might be better off if they were not here. Perhaps more scarily, that those closest to them would be better of if they were not here.  That is some serious stuff. To be sure, it’s not entertaining. It’s not escapism, and it’s not hypothetical.

In the public relations profession, at some point we have to decide if we can support a message on a personal level, and if we cannot then we cannot do the PR project justice.

Often as not, our criteria is based on our own personal concerns and values. Will our work support delivery of a message that is beneficial to or harmful to society?  For this reason, not only could I not watch this movie, but I’d not take an assignment that would endorse the philosophical basis for a movie like this.

Instead, I prefer the uplifting statement made by the very real and not fictional Katie Breland on her wedding day. She is paralyzed, but she made a much different choice than the make-believe characters in a novel or a movie. Her story may bring a tear to your eye, but I can assure you it will be a happy one.

For more information on Katie Breland’s story, please visit this link at the Today Show.

For more information on Katie’s trainer, and other unprecedented work he has done, visit Barwis Methods.

CrowdParenting & Digital Shaming: Lessons for PR

teenager in hoodieIt’s no longer that unusual to see a parent, at wit’s end, turn to the Internet or social media to make a point to a child. The latest is a case where a Florida father put his son’s car for sale on Craigslist after the father discovered his son was missing work and smoking pot in the car.

While not completely unheard of, stories like this are still rare enough to garner national headlines and go viral on social media. The narrative here is pretty predictable.  Thousands of fellow parents cheer on the dad for “taking a stand.”

On the flip side, the son is likely to have his own interpretation of events, and so will the boy’s friends, his wider social circle and others in his world.

From a parenting point of view, it’s valid to wonder whether such an extreme measure will have the desired effect or if it will backfire. In today’s social media climate, it’s feasible for a teenager to find himself at the center of a storm like this and come out with more notoriety and respect among his peers (more emboldened, not less) than before.

At the same time, events like this can have a long-term effect on the father-son relationship.

It’s these considerations that provide communications lessons for those of us who make a living in the business of public relations.

Any experienced and even semi-reasonable manager knows that public shaming can bring with it serious consequences. It can have a lasting effect on the employee or employees directly involved.  It can send a message to other employees that could create barriers to relationship-building.  Should this management style become known outside of the workplace, customers, vendors and others could make value judgements that are not to the benefit of the company.  Not to mention exposure to possible litigation.

That’s why we rarely see an employee made a spectacle in so obvious a fashion. That’s not to say shaming doesn’t happen in less obvious ways.

Let’s go with the concept of crowdsourcing. In the workplace, crowdsourcing is often used to spread work and responsibility across a larger swath of the work force to accomplish a task. The concept may not be new, but the trendiness of the term suggests the increased popularity of tapping an undefined “crowd” instead of trusting the individual or smaller team trained and assigned the specific responsibility to tackle a particular kind of challenge.

To be sure, crowdsourcing can be used very effectively under the right circumstances. Thanks to newer technologies and management tools, the concept of “two heads are better than one” can be scaled in power and effectiveness to unprecedented levels.  But as with anything, crowdsourcing can be a crutch for some managers.

Imagine a military commander telling a Special Forces unit to stand down in preparation for a critical search and rescue operation while they all wait for the results of a crowdsourcing effort before making any decisions.

In other words, when some managers turn to “the crowd,” they risk disenfranchising the very specialists or experts they’ve originally tabbed to maintain ongoing responsibility for dealing with certain issues.

The lesson for internal communicators and PR pros is not to automatically assume that the current trend towards asking the crowd to solve certain problems will not have lingering effects.

Just like the father who uses the Internet to make a point, a manager who instinctively turns to the crowd is likely to have work to do in mending some very important one-on-one relationships.

How Not to be “That Guy” with your Twitter Profile

2 wormen looking at phoneThe topic came up recently among a bunch of professional communicators and PR people, many of whom get paid quite a bit to help clients establish their social media presence.

The issue at hand was social media profiles and how “that guy” describes himself. The discussion centered on how some men and women get so self-absorbed in their personal branding efforts that they create profile descriptors that are more likely to turn people away than make visitors actually want to connect.

So, if your goal is for people to like you enough to want to follow you and connect, maybe even engage, here are some words, terms and phrases to avoid:

  • “Visionary” (Let others call you this, it backfires when you use this word to describe yourself.)
  • “Prophet” (Unless there’s a couple of pages in the bible devoted to you, it might be best to find another word.)
  • “Activist for humanity” (Humanity says, “thanks, but we’re good.”)
  • “Success addict” (There’s a cure for that, it’s called failure.)
  • “Passionate influencer” (aka “Smotherer.”)
  • “Mentor” (Let the people you mentor call you by this title, then it’s believable.)
  • “Charismatic leader” (This is a term reserved for the likes of JFK, MLK [in a positive way] and cult leaders [in a negative way]. Which one describes you? I know, probably none, which is why it’s best to avoid this.)
  • “Dream maker” (Most self-help books continue to describe dreams as our own to make, and make come true. We kind of know you don’t have the inside track on this so it’s not worth saying.)
  • “Futurist” (Unless you actually wrote a book on the future, you’re just like the rest of us when it comes to the future.)
  • “Wealth whisperer” (Wealth wants you to speak up. It can’t hear you.)

Perhaps the best approach is to find a concise way to describe yourself to someone who either knows you already or will come to know you warts and all. Then when you develop your profile for Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, just be true to yourself and them.

Where Branding Begins

EZTDBW croppedI once had a client which had an internal mantra that was usually only visible sporadically in company offices, or buried in the content of internal company newsletters. It was the acronym, “EZTDBW.”

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

It stood for the words, “Easy To Do Business With.” In spite of its poor grammar, the term and its acronym was the heart of a very successful and well-loved company.

“Easy to do business with.”

It wasn’t an ad slogan. It wasn’t on the side of the company’s vehicles or plastered throughout company facilities on banners and posters.   I first noticed it on the desk of one company manager in the form of a 1950s-style desk name plate.  His name wasn’t on the plate. It was the EZTDBW acronym stenciled in an everyday Arial font, white on faux wood grain.

“What’s that mean?,” I asked.

My client told me it’s their company philosophy. Everyone in the company, from the CEO to the loading dock workers are expected to do everything possible, every day to make their company “easy to do business with.”  Internally, everyone in the organization was expected to make working with each other “easy to do business with.”  This was their one uncompromising rule.

It was that simple and that brilliant, mainly because the organization lived it.

It didn’t matter that the acronym wasn’t branded in ways we’re used to seeing – four-color posters, professional graphics, design and photography, online pages and groups, or a tie-in to an external marketing campaign. These are all reliable, effective and can be required tools of the branding trade.

But what this company understood was that before all of that, it had to be committed to putting quality service, responsiveness and flexibility.  Its premise was that if it could do this with consistency, it could build and maintain a strong work force and an infrastructure that ensured client satisfaction to drive business growth. It did all of that and more.

The company was unique in its sector, defying industry norms in the way it managed its work force and served its customers. As a result, it became a leader for its innovation, service quality and growth.

The lessons for me had mostly to do with where true branding begins. It starts with an organization’s operating philosophy and its discipline in staying true to that philosophy.    To build the brand, the philosophy had to be integrated into everything the organization did without exception.

The customer had to see it and feel it, even if not aware of the actual words or acronyms used to coalesce the work force behind the vision. Other constituents and stakeholders had to also see the benefits.  Internally, employees had to see the philosophy as a genuine commitment to everyone and everything the organization touched.

For any organization, that is where branding begins. From there, all graphic identity, marketing, internal communications, online and digital, external marketing, investor relations programs must reinforce this brand.  All must work together to bring that philosophy to life – real, strong and powerful.

For a strong brand, a strong operating philosophy is at the core, and it must drive all efforts to define that brand for all internal and external stakeholders.

What They Don’t Teach PR Majors in College

Tshutterstock_124981016his past week, another class of PR majors graduated from their respective colleges and are now doing their best to transition into the work force, or as their parents like to call it, “the real world.”

As has been the case for decades, regardless of generational label, some will do better than others. Millennial graduates who succeed will more than likely do the same things that successful Gen-X graduates and Baby Boomer graduates did.

On the other hand, some graduates will have relied only on their coursework to prepare them for a career in public relations, and if they did they are already behind. Unfortunately, too many still receive their diplomas without having had a PR internship, which is often the first way to get practical communications experience and exposure to the way things really get done.

Yes, they took all of the requisite communications courses (and probably not enough on journalistic writing). Yes, they took a semester in Europe.  And yes, they are digital natives, meaning social media is second nature to them.  Their resumes are filled with mentions of how they served on campus organization committees and dance marathons, but no matter how those experiences make the graduates feel about themselves and their public relations talents, those experiences more often than not did not teach undergraduates how to work within standing organizations and companies with their own protocols, processes and missions.

In short, what college did not teach these PR graduates is what it could not teach – the soft skills of PR. So what are they?

The Simple Things – Be on time for work, be early for every meeting, listen before speaking, and sometimes do not speak, especially when you disagree or think you know better.  Wait for the right time and the right place.   Know that when you call off or miss a meeting, you may miss an opportunity.  Accept the consequences of your actions.  Don’t be known as a complainer. Dress the part of who you want to be.  Don’t stay after work for show, it’s obvious. Don’t leave important work unfinished at the end of the regular work day.  That’s just as obvious.

Know that the Workplace is not a Democracy – Whether it’s a large company, PR agency, or a small nonprofit organization, management hierarchy requires a chain of command. This is for communication, decision-making and accountabilities.  While various organizations and managers may have a wide range of styles, some more people-friendly than others, all adhere to the assumption that the boss’s decision (or the client’s decision) is final.  There is no second-guessing the decision-maker once he or she has made that decision.  Your only choice is whether you will meet those expectations or not.

Don’t Take Criticism Personally – One of the most difficult transitions new PR hires often make is taking criticism personally.  In fact, the criticism you get may be very personal in every way but one – context.  You may be told about your appearance, your energy level, your listening skills, your writing skills or your analytical skills. All are almost inseparable from your personal style, so for that reason, it can feel very personal. But the main thing is to know that all of it is coming your way in the context of how it affects your work.  What you are really being told is that the basis for all criticism is to get you to modify your approach to be more effective as a professional and within the organization.  Rather than take the criticism personally, embrace it as an opportunity for change and self-improvement.    Once you do that, future criticism won’t have the same sting, and you’ll probably find you receive less of it.

Don’t Expect Anything – Once you join a company or PR firm as an employee, it’s not up to that organization to meet your expectations.  It’s the other way around. It’s up to you to meet the expectations of your organization’s customers, donors, managers, other employees and other constituents.  If you work in PR or in the communications function, you must be effective at media relations and other disciplines.  Don’t expect recognition or praise. Don’t expect a promotion simply because you have a year’s more experience than the next person. The PR business is merit-based, meaning  you have to earn praise, recognition and promotions. And even then, they may not come when you think you deserve them most.  Learn how the organization works and follow the unsaid rules. Be persistent. Be patient. Be smart. Focus on delivering quality work and results.  Put the client’s needs first.  That’s how you’ll get what you want and what you think you deserve.

Revisiting the Core Values of the St. Patrick’s Day Brand

This year will be the seventh Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade where I’ve handled PR and communications, and it’s a labor of love, to be sure.shutterstock_255701698

Over the past seven years, I’ve been reminded of something we often preach in communications. “Let’s get back to the core values of the brand.”

Brands all over have a tendency to stray from their roots, particularly as they grow in popularity. The growth takes on a life of its own.  The brand evolves with its appeal.  Consumers or the community at large come to redefine the brand on their own terms.

St. Patrick’s Day is a good example of this. For many, particularly in America, St. Patrick’s Day is all about the wearin’ o’ the green and a party.  All too often, the holiday plays upon a negative stereotype of the Irish that is unapologetically perpetuated on T-shirts, buttons and hats sold in stores from coast to coast.

So, it is with this in mind, that I thought now might be a good time to revisit the core values of the St. Patrick’s Day brand, simply by learning a little more about the man who started it all. Saint Patrick Himself.

  • At 16, he was abducted from his home in Scotland and trafficked to pagan Ireland to be a slave in 406 A.D.
  • He worked as a shepherd slave, and it was during this time, he became a devout Christian.
  • When he was 22 years old, Patrick, or Padraig as he was known, escaped his captivity. He traveled 200 miles on foot to the Irish coast, and then made his way home by boat.  Once home, he became a student of his faith.
  • At one point, Patrick said he had a dream where God told him to return to the land where he was a slave to serve the people in a new way.
  • Patrick returned to Ireland and spent the rest of his life there, preaching the Christian Word to the people.
  • As a result, thousands of Irish people became Christians. More than 1,000 Christian clerics were trained.  Over 700 churches were established.  In the process, Patrick, a former slave, became one of the world’s first outspoken critics of slavery.

His words: “Before I was a slave I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and Jesus came and in His compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on top of the wall.”

The Ireland of St. Patrick was a land of oppressed peoples, and he gave them hope. Over the centuries, his story and his example have been synonymous with hope and faith.  That is the Saint Patrick brand.

It is no wonder then, that even today in a sea of Kelly green, parades and floats somehow that part of the brand has survived. St. Patrick’s Day is a happy day, a day of hope and promise.

How we celebrate it is up to each of us, but the beauty of it is we are unshackled in how we do it. And the “brand” lives on. Erin Go Bragh.