Want to Encourage People to Get Vaccinated? Here are some tips.

If you’re like a lot of communicators right now, one of the challenges you may face is trying to encourage employees and others to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them.

As the distribution of the vaccine continues and ramps up, your stakeholders will have the opportunity to get vaccinated, which can have a beneficial impact on them, their families and your organization.

Still, many are wary of vaccines, and this one in particular may give them pause due to the fears many may have over the COVID virus itself, the newness of the vaccine or other factors.

With this in mind, here are some tips to prepare the way for access to the vaccine.

Tap the power of modeling

Lead by example. If you want others to get the vaccine, if you meet the health requirements for getting one yourself, get it. Leaders need to be role models. It’s one of the most persuasive strategies for communication. When people see other people exhibiting model behavior, they are more prone to follow it.

Showcase peers and colleagues who are getting vaccinated

This is an extension of modeling, but it delves deeper into the organization. While you don’t need to make a show of someone actually receiving the vaccination, testimonials from across the organization from individuals who plan to get vaccinated, or who have been vaccinated can be very effective. This is not to say you should pressure employees to be vaccinated. Quite the opposite. Create a positive and encouraging environment, respectful of individual choices and factors, while at the same time showcasing those who are vaccinated.

Emphasize the benefits of vaccination

When you emphasize the benefits of vaccination, you provide real incentive for people to want to be vaccinated. When people get vaccinated, they can go to the workplace with more confidence, meet with others, spend time with friends and family they haven’t seen in a while, feel better about their own health, know they are protecting others, and know that they are doing their part to help your organization and society get back to a sense of normalcy.

Acknowledge specific concerns

Some may have health or religious concerns over being vaccinated. It’s important not to minimize these concerns. Recognize them and respect them. To be sure, many people have a history of a certain sensitivity to drugs or medical treatments and may not want to risk adverse health effects by taking the vaccine. Even if the organization has a vaccination mandate in place, the law in most states makes certain exceptions. It’s important to be sensitive to these exceptions.

Provide vaccine perks

You may be able to offer time off to be vaccinated or as a reward for being vaccinated. You may be able to conduct a raffle for anyone who has been vaccinated. Within the boundaries of good taste and ethics, you can incentivize people to get vaccinated in the same way you would promote any workplace safety program.

Of course, there are other ideas, but these are a few to get started. If you’re wondering how you can promote vaccination in your organization, I’d be happy to talk with you. Feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or sent an email to timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

What was Said in 2020 Stays in 2020

Are you ready for 2021? I am. There is no small list of things that I won’t miss about 2020, including some words and terms that are cringey reminders of what we’ve all just been through.

So, in 2021 I vow not to waste time on a few of them. These are a few words and terms I intend to leave behind me in 2020:

The New Normal – Let’s face it, the “new normal” is abnormal and will always be abnormal. I prefer normal or even better-than-normal. I don’t like the new normal or the sub-normal. So it is that  I choose to leave “the new normal” here in 2020. Instead, I will pursue “normal” in 2021. Others may feel differently, and they are free to do so. But don’t expect me to join them.

Social Distancing – Yes, I know. We may have to keep a safe distance for a time after the New Year, but I’m done with the term. I’ll do what I need to do but I’m leaving this language in 2020. If you want to talk about “social distancing,” how to do it, who’s doing it, who’s not doing it, and who should do it in 2021, find someone else.

Lockdowns – They happened in 2020. As more data and analysis comes out, lockdowns seem to have worked, particularly in those first 15 days to slow the spread of a virus. After that, even experts are  divided on their effectiveness.  One thing we do know, lockdowns have had devastating effects on the economy, families and communities. With all that we continue to learn, combined with the new treatments, a new vaccine, and now the use of commonly understood mitigation efforts, you could say I’m done with discussing lockdowns.

Dr. Anthony Fauci – I never knew who Dr. Anthony Fauci was before 2020, and nothing against him personally, but I look forward to a time when I forget his name.

Reimagine – In my work, I’ve always been extremely sensitive to terms that are propagandist in nature and have worked really hard to avoid them. This is one of those terms. When an artist says he wants to reimagine impressionist theory, I’m cool with that. Or, when an architect says she wants to reimagine the family living space, I say, “Go for it.” But when the word “reimagine” is used to justify arbitrary budget cuts, unnecessary elimination of jobs, destruction of industries or organizations, then you’re not reimagining anything. You’re tearing it down or tearing it apart. Be honest.

Remote work/remote learning – Prior to 2020, I really liked these concepts. In fact, I’ve worked from a home office for many years and love it, and I have no intention of changing it. But the work-from-home craze that erupted out of the collective response to the pandemic is getting old. While I recognize that remote work and remote learning are going to effect larger change in the way organizations function, I look forward to seeing how it will work out for those who actually like it. And for those who don’t like it, I look forward to a time when they can go back to the office or the classroom wherever they are most happy. I have the sense that when everyone is where they want to be, we’ll all be a little bit happier.

Misinformation or disinformation – The words aren’t new but they took on new meaning in 2020. Ironically (but not coincidentally), they are terms more commonly associated with propaganda strategies, but the words themselves are now used to drive propagandist tactics. The words have been weaponized by those who want to discredit someone else’s opinion, facts, or thoughts.

In short, while misinformation is described as the unethical deceptive use of information, often as not in 2020, when someone accused someone else of spreading misinformation, it was they who armed the word to deceive.

In 2020, if someone didn’t like what they heard or who delivered the message, they may have resorted to calling the content “disinformation” or “misinformation.” In other words, if you agree with me that’s truth, that’s fact. If you disagree, well, that’s misinformation. In my work in public relations, these are fad words. As long as I’ve been in the PR business (and before that in the news media), I’ve seen how people have been coming up with words and terms to discredit those they oppose.

Because this is an issue that will likely demand more of my attention in 2021, I most likely will have more to say on this in other contexts, but one thing you can be sure of, you won’t catch me using these words in the normal course.

Curation – Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? Museum directors are curators. They catalog dinosaur bones and taxidermied wildlife or insects. Sometime in the last five years, someone discovered this word and dusted it off as a way to describe how the big social media platforms “should” take an active interest in our social media posts. When they “curate” they pass value judgements on content to determine who should or should not have a digital voice. Curation is editing at best, censorship at worst. I’m sure this word will gain traction in 2021, but for me, its life cycle ends on December 31st.

As I look ahead to 2021, I think I’m going to replace some of these terms with words like freedom, and faith,  and privacy, and a few others. When I think about this little plan, it already has me looking ahead in a way that reminds me that as hard as 2020 tried to defeat me, it lost.

Here’s to a Happy Holiday season and a really great New Year to you and yours!

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Tim O’Brien is a veteran corporate communications consultant and crisis communicator who operates O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh. He’s worked with organizations from Fortune 500 companies, to start-ups and nonprofits. He is honest when others aren’t, he uses words that others won’t, all to help organizations connect in ways they haven’t. He’s also the creator and host of the Shaping Opinion podcast. Reach him at timobrien@timobrienpr.com or on Twitter @OBrienPR.




The Reason Media Relations is Not Transactional, It’s a Process

For people who haven’t managed public relations programs much, one of the more common points of confusion is over how much control we have in the media relations process, and ultimately how some stories get into the news and some do not. It’s the age-old issue of newsworthiness.

In my experience, the root of the confusion often traces back to the notion that PR is a transactional process. We have an important story. We feel that it’s so unique and so relevant that any good reporter will want the story based on its merits. The assumption is, we’re giving them news for free, they should welcome it.

That’s not how it works. That’s how advertising works, only you pay for that. When you advertise on any platform, from old-fashioned newspapers to Google ads, you pay for the exposure, so you can control the message. It’s transactional. Quid pro quo. Money for visibility.

PR is different. One thing that hasn’t changed in public relations for the past several decades is that in order for something to be deemed newsworthy by a journalist is that you must answer two questions.

Why Do a Story? Why Do it Now?

Most everyone charged with managing a public relations program seems to have a ready understanding of the answer to that first question, why do a story. If someone wants PR exposure, they usually know what they’d like to see at the center of the story.

But many people, even PR veterans, can sometimes lose sight of the need to answer that second question. And if you can’t answer that, you really don’t have a story.

Think of it this way. A good news story is perishable. It has an expiration date, just like that gallon of milk you bought this morning. If you don’t consume the product before the expiration date, it goes bad. That expiration date creates a sense of urgency for the consumer.

So, when we pitch a news story to a journalist, we not only have to convince them that the story is meaningful to their readers, listeners or viewers, but if they don’t get to the story right now, they’ll miss an opportunity. It will be lost. For their part, journalists have to meet the same expectation for their audiences. They must demonstrate that the reader must read, the viewer must view, the listener must listen, all before the subject matter becomes old news.

If the Powerball jackpot today is now up to $500 million and the drawing is tonight, you have the answer to both questions. Do the story because the jackpot is huge and anyone in your audience can win. Do the story now because tomorrow may be too late. There is a narrow window of opportunity.

News Cycles are Short

We often hear terms like “news cycle” and that’s what this is all about. All media follows a news cycle. Journalists only want to spend time on stories their audiences care about now, this week. So, if a story is just as important today as it will be in a month, or it could have been done last month, and there no other defining characteristics that stamp an expiration date on it, it’s not newsworthy.

So, to make a business story newsworthy for the media, we have to put in the work up front. We have to make it newsworthy, and you don’t do that through words alone.

A few years ago, I helped a client launch its organization and its brand. The client was in the energy space and offered many constructive solutions to a range of environmental issues. We were able to tie the client to several hot-button issues that were also the subject of legislation in Washington, D.C.

By identifying pending legislation that was on its own timetable, we were able to position my client and its work in line with that timetable that had a life cycle of its own. This created a sense of timeliness and urgency for journalists to feature my client in their coverage.

At the end of the day, this illustrates that in order to generate media coverage, you have to earn it, you don’t buy it. Media relations is not transactional like advertising. It’s earned by having a full understanding of what news decision-makers need to do to build their own audiences. Then give them more than content. Give them a story to tell and an expiration date to create a sense of urgency.

It’s 2020: Time to Take Charge of Your Narrative

If you want a snapshot of the state of the media today, consider this. Kylie Jenner has 181 million Instagram followers. Her sister Kim Kardashian-West has 176 million Instagram followers. Their sister Kendall Jenner has 132 million Instagram followers. Three sisters who are famous for being famous – just three – have a combined 489 million Instagram followers.

Now, compare that to every single U.S. daily newspaper and add it all up. According to Pew Research, “the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2018 was 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday, down 8% and 9%, respectively, from the previous year.”

Okay, let’s go back. Just three of many “influencers” – 489 million followers. All major U.S. newspapers combined – 30 million subscribers.

Based on this, I could decry the state of our culture, but that’s not our purpose here. Our purpose is to explore what you can do in the current media environment to craft and deliver your own narrative, regardless of the current strength of traditional media.

It’s clear that the days of relying primarily on mass media to tell your story are fading. It’s not that newsrooms are losing their clout, because many are not. But the news business is changing fast.

Right now, newspapers are dying, but many news sites and blogs are going strong. They feed social media with fresh content all day long, and the social sites for their part serve up shared content and original content to millions who can’t seem to get enough, mostly on their smart phones.

That content is the written word, video and audio in the form of podcasts, mostly. There are now one million podcasts, by the way.

TV news is undergoing a metamorphosis of its own. Local TV has always catered more to a blue-collar audience for the most part, but in recent years demographics are skewing older.

Meanwhile, formerly agnostic big digital platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook have increasingly decided to filter content based on algorithms and sometimes manual intervention to apply their own increasingly controversial value judgements. This transforms “big digital” from platform to publisher, and it has caused no small amount of angst on the part of some industries and organizations who worry the larger system could be working against them and their message.

Taking Charge of Your Narrative

In this environment, how can your organization craft and deliver its content on a consistent basis to your own stakeholders?

The first thing to do is not to lean too heavily on traditional media relations or publicity as a primary means to get your message out. Gone are the days when that one newspaper article could change your fortunes.

How can you sustain your message?

Be your own media organization. Build a communications infrastructure that does not rely on others to tell your story. Create your own narrative. Tell your own story, and do it smartly and strategically so that you can sustain it. Keep it fresh and relevant and credible.

It can’t be another form of advertising or one-sided promotion. To be effective, it must place the information consumer as the highest priority, not the organization, but in the process you build the trust and confidence with the people your organization needs most.

Does your organization have a news production capability?

Here’s what it takes.  It takes a good organizational web site that serves as a digital storefront. This is the place people go to when they want to find out what you’re all about, whether they are potential employees, investors, customers, clients or business partners.

But when they get to the site, if it never changes, they won’t come back once they feel like they now know all about you.

So, what can you do to build and sustain a relationship with them?

Use that website as a hub that supports your news production infrastructure. Make sure you have and truly leverage an organizational blog site, that you are constantly adding news and relevant information for stakeholders. Share your content on social media. Engage with your stakeholders on those platforms, but not just for engagement’s sake. Forge stronger relationships based on trust through social media.

Create an online news page, if you will, with original content. Include stories not only about your organization, but about its industry or issues and topics that matter to both you and your constituents.

In short, make your news page a media site that includes words, photos, video and audio.  Aggregate news from other sources and link to them. Generate eNewsletters and push them out to individual stakeholder groups. Form alliances with business partners and industry trade groups to share content and amplify each other’s content.

Ultimately, create your own news and information destination, and fill the void left by the declining media landscape that currently exists. It has to be more than a simple “media center” or “newsroom” tab on your website. It can’t look like an afterthought or something just for the news media. It has to be a platform dedicated to the growing number of news consumers who no longer get their information from newspapers, television or other traditional news organizations.

In the process, not only will you take control of your own narrative, but chances are pretty good the systems and processes you are creating will also feed your own traditional media relations and publicity efforts.

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For your own free consultation on how to take control of your narrative call or email: 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Having Trouble Sleeping These Nights? Same here. That’s why I’m trying 10 o’clock office hours

This is going to be a short blog post.

This is not for everyone, but it may be for you. Given all of the challenges of late, there is a good chance that something is keeping you up at night with regard to your business.

We know how you feel. The people I partner with and I have had numerous conversations about the current challenges our clients face and the ones we all face together. It’s more difficult than ever to put today’s events into perspective so that you can make tomorrow better.

That’s why I’m going to experiment with something as long as is practical – a non-video one-on-one initial teleconference, free of charge to people I think I can help. That may be you, it may not, but we won’t know unless we start the conversation. For now, let’s call this our “June Event” and it’s all about turning things around and getting them back on track.

So, here’s how it works.

  • Based on availability and whether I believe I can help, I will pre-schedule a free 10 p.m., consulting audio-only teleconference with you. Times are Eastern.
  • Each call would be a maximum of 30 minutes long. Please know I will need to give careful consideration beforehand as to whether I think I can help, and that depends on what you can tell me.
  • The subject matter must be of a business or professional nature with a communications element to it.

My core strengths are strategic communications planning, corporate communications, media relations and public relations, writing and content development, marketing communications, and crisis and issues management. I am not a personal counselor, a career coach or a therapist and cannot help in those areas.

If you have a business/communications matter keeping you up at night, just get in touch at 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Maybe we’ll both sleep better.

Is Now the Time for a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

The pandemic has changed things. States are reopening, businesses have already begun the process of returning to operation. It’s time to regroup and identify the challenges that lie ahead from a communications standpoint. There are questions:

  • How do our stakeholders feel right now? What are their plans? What’s their comfort level doing the things for which they rely on us? How can we best help them now?
  • How confident are our customers in buying from us right now?
  • Where so we stand? What are out plans? What’s our leadership’s comfort level looking ahead? What about our own people? What do they need to hear? What do they want to know?
  • What should our communications priorities be?
  • Where do we need to focus right now?
  • What resources do we have, which ones do we need?
  • Has the pandemic created any new opportunities to better connect with our stakeholders?
  • How can we rebuild in a communications sense?

These are just some of the questions that may be on your mind and those who come to you in your organization in need of communications guidance during this transitionary time where there as much we have yet to learn as we know already.

While there may not have been proven a process in place for what we’ve all just gone through before that happened, there is a process to get organized and manage the change that lies ahead.

Businesses and organizations are in varied states of disrepair right now. Some are looking at filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the lengthy shutdown of the economy and the disruption to their businesses. Others have thrived in unexpected ways and may be looking at integrating these newfound strengths into their ongoing business models. And still others simply need to refocus, regroup, rebuild.

What’s a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

We’ve looked at some of our prior consulting work in this area of communications assessments and have modified it in light of current circumstances to create what is best termed a “Pandemic Impact Assessment (PIA).”

Working with you, we can help you regroup by first assessing how the pandemic changed your organization temporarily, what changes have more long-term impact and the role communications will play in helping your organization get back on solid footing.

If this is something that interests you and you’d like to know more, please call me at 412.854.8845 or email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Bankruptcy Communications: One Question, 31 Answers

If the entire country opened up for business tomorrow without any restrictions, the residual effects of the shutdown on local economies throughout the nation would last for months to come as no small number of businesses come to terms with the fact that this hole is far too big for them to dig out of simply by opening their doors again. More than a few firms will have to turn to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to give their businesses a fighting chance to survive.

In my work in bankruptcy communication, I’ve found that this type of crisis scenario is unique when compared to other crisis situations because the number-one question on the part of just about every stakeholder group is the same:

How will this affect me?

But what further makes it unique is that there are roughly 31 or more answers to that same question. The reason is that once you start addressing the self-interest of your company’s various stakeholder groups, the answer changes, even slightly, by each group and sub-group.

All employees are not the same. That goes without saying, right? Well consider the fact that your firm could have hourly and salaried employees, union and non-union, full-time and part-time, headquarters and field offices, R&D and operations, vested employees and non-vested, customer services employees and sales representatives. And then of course, you may have retiree groups to consider. And all of that may fall under just the “employee” umbrella.

Companies that enter the bankruptcy process have their share of concerns, but one of them need not be the possibility that they mishandled communications by taking a one-size-fits all approach to the communication process.

Another common mistake they make is that they can spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to announce a Chapter 11 filing without planning for the ongoing communications process during the reorganization and eventual emergence from bankruptcy protection.

Because I’ve gotten calls on this already, I’m going to offer a free initial consultation on this process. If you or someone you know have questions about communicating prior to and during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, please feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Don’t be a “Holiday Inn Expert”

Surely, you’ve seen that series of Holiday Inn Express TV commercials. There is the one where a would-be surgeon is called out by a colleague in the operating room just after surgery.

“You’re not Dr. Stewart,” another doctor says to him after he removes his surgical mask. To which he responds matter-of-factly, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Cue the tagline: “It won’t make you smarter, but you’ll feel smarter.”

The series has been hugely popular for any number of reasons, one of which most likely because there is some element of truth in it.

We all know that person who has all of the answers even before the question is even asked. But, is it my imagination, or are we seeing a rise in people who may have a bit of an over-confidence problem?

I’ll tell you where I see it most often.

I’ve been a communications consultant for decades, and like so many who’ve worked to master certain aspects of the profession, I have been very careful not to overstate my areas of expertise.

The areas I claim as strengths fall under corporate communications and C-suite work that include strategic planning and senior level counsel; marketing communications; public relations and media relations; content development and writing; and crisis and issues management.

On the other hand, I always make a point of telling prospective clients I do not claim expertise in consumer public relations, nor do I present myself as a social media expert, even though I’m active on a daily basis across several social channels. I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know and I say so, which is in everyone’s best interest.

Back to this trend I’m seeing.

Increasingly, I’m seeing more bylined articles, speeches and quotes in other articles from communications professionals with no crisis experience offering up crisis management advice. I know this because it’s quickly apparent to me through their rote words and cookie-cutter comments that they’ve likely never managed an actual crisis.

The most common scenario is when a celebrity or major brand find themselves at the center of controversy in social media. Reporters then do a round-up of interviews with social media professionals to ask them how the brands should handle the crisis.

That’s a mistake on the reporters’ part. If they want crisis management insights, they should interview people who’ve actually handled crisis situations. Another mistake is one the interviewees make. They should know where their own expertise begins and ends.

I’m not trying to characterize this intentional deception. Actually, it could be worse than that. Some would-be experts who’ve read their share of articles on crisis communications believe they really do have that expertise. The end result is that when they comment on matters beyond their comfort zones, it makes them look bad, and the PR profession takes a reputational hit.

It’s not just in the media.

Other times, I see presentations, speeches, webinars and even a keynote or two, from industry influencers talking about crisis communications. Once again, while some of these individuals are highly accomplished in other areas, they probably aren’t the best people to be speak on crisis management.

Even some professional media trainers, whose primary experience is from working in TV news, can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they know how to manage a crisis because they’ve covered a few. I’ve seen some of these trainers give advice that’s more likely to serve the needs of the media and not the client organization.

Across the board, my concern is that all of these individuals downplay the importance of having had the experience of sitting across the desk from CEOs and boards to tell them things they definitely didn’t want to hear at usually the most inconvenient times to hear them. The dynamics are heavily influenced by managerial, legal, operational, regulatory and other factors.

Crises are by definition complex situations. The nuance and dynamics at play are easily missed by the casual observer. And some of these dynamics can only be understood by insiders or people who have been there.

This pattern is far from limited to crisis communications. The communications field has its share of people with little-to-no social media, influencer marketing and media relations expertise claiming all of it.

Why is this happening now?

The problem is, I think that as people become more sophisticated in personal branding, they’re more prone to exaggerating their expertise on any given subject. It’s almost like, “If I say it online, it is so.”

Case in point. I know a freelancer who couldn’t get a job two years ago after he graduated from college. To this date, he’s never worked for anyone but himself, and his only formal training were his classes and other college experiences. He was never mentored, he’s never actually provided the full range of public relations services to anyone.

What he did was build a small freelance business centered on video and audio production, along with related digital support. That’s it. That’s all of it.

But when you visit his web site, he’ll tell you how he’s able to address the full range of communications and business challenges his clients face. Topics include public relations, business leadership, entrepreneurship and others. He has a nice web site, and a blog and has given a few speeches. To an untrained ear, he may sound like he may know what he’s talking about. He now bills himself as a keynoter.

Keep in mind, this is someone who’s never even written a news release or conducted media outreach for a client.

In one conversation with him, I had to remind him that there is a difference between public relations and publicity, that publicity is only one aspect of public relations. His response? He essentially said, “We can agree to disagree.”

Regardless of changes in technology and the manner in which people consume media and use digital media, it probably isn’t too much to expect that when communications professionals talk as experts, they actually know what they are talking about based on some real-world experience.

Otherwise, it may be worth re-considering that Holiday Inn Express ad line, “But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” Instead, we can validate anything we’d like to say simply by adding, “But I did read a blog post about that.”

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter at @OBrienPR, or send me an email at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.


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.

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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