PR will be at the Intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

The World Economic Forum (WEF),  one year ago, identified the nine most pressing ethical issues we face as artificial intelligence (AI) transitions from science fiction to our everyday reality.

This matters in public relations, because inevitably we will find ourselves at the intersection of AI and its effects on people. We can expect much of the conversation to center on the ethical issues at play.

Here are the nine ethical issues the WEF identified:

  1. Unemployment. What happens at the end of jobs?
  2. Inequality. How do we distribute wealth created by machines?
  3. Humanity. How do machines affect our behavior and interaction?
  4. Artificial Stupidity. How can we guard against mistakes?
  5. Racist Robots. How do we eliminate AI bias?
  6. Security. How do we keep AI safe from adversaries?
  7. Evil Genies. How do we protect against unintended consequences?
  8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?
  9. Robot Rights. How do we define humane treatment of AI?

Every one of these questions is serious, real and provocative. These are issues that will present themselves whether our leaders address them preemptively or not. Anyone who has “public relations” or “communications” in his or her title will be required to explain what it all means.

You may be that person.

For this reason, it may be worth examining how the climate for communications could take shape. Obviously, no effective communication can happen without a solid grasp of the technologies at play. Further, it will require a mastery of ethics at several depths, from basic human ethics and morality, to the ethics of behaviors in business, in government and in communications.

But before we even try to wrap our heads around all of that, we will need a fundamental centeredness that begins with our own individual moral compass. Personally, we need to have a clear idea about right and wrong, and an instinctive sense of pragmatism. Or to put it more simply, I’ll use the words of my late father: “You need to use the good common sense God gave you.”

Common Sense and those Nine Questions

The underlying theme or the premise of each WEF question relies on the belief that we can control all of the variables that will determine the outcome. Since we don’t, and therefore we can’t, the common sense answer to all nine questions above is, “You don’t.”

AI is man-made but once it starts to take on a life of its own, control over its evolution will become much more fragmented and difficult to achieve. Of course, society must do everything it can to influence positive outcomes, but for those of us in charge of communications, the first mistake we can make is to agree with what appears to be the WEF’s premise that a singular group or body is qualified to define what’s right and wrong for everyone else. But perhaps just as importantly, even if there was one, that it could deliver.

“End of Jobs?”

AI visionaries predict that employment as we know it will end. They are probably right in the same way as those who might have predicted an end to transportation jobs when blacksmiths were replaced by automobile mechanics, or when telephone operators were replaced by automatic switches, or when elevator operators were replaced by … buttons.

It is probably true that society will need to brace itself for yet another revolution in the way we work, perhaps on a par with the transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and then many decades later to an informational one. But “end of jobs” sounds a bit melodramatic.

Our role in public relations will be to assess at every step the impact of AI on the work force and help explain not only how that impact is taking shape, but also where the new opportunities may be as work itself continues to evolve. We’ve done this many times before. It’s one of our strengths and probably the one area where the communications profession is most prepared to step in and pave the way for AI.

Who gets to define “inequality?”

We learned in history class or political science class or economics class about the basic systems for governing and economics. Some are pretty straightforward. Under dictatorships or monarchies, the lines of inequality are pretty clear. You have the few who make all the decisions on “wealth distribution,” and then you have everyone else who are not deemed as “equal” or deserving.

Under communist and socialist regimes over the past 100 years you had what was written on paper, and then you had those theories put into practice, which usually ends up in some form or fashion like what I just described in the previous paragraph.

Because a free and democratic society is founded on the rights individuals possess, there is a key distinction between rights and outcomes. Economically, we have a right to work or start a business, but it’s on us to go out and earn. The system (in the U.S.) is structured to assure us the right to earn, but not the entitlement to receive. Of course, governments have certain entitlement programs, but the economic engines that drive growth, prosperity and feed tax coffers rely on income- and revenue-generation. With this in mind, it is largely assumed that the distribution of wealth is self-determined and based on all of the factors that go into making a living.

For PR pros, the major issues with the question about how to distribute wealth created by machines is to accept the premise that an individual or a small group of individuals should be given the power and authority to decide on how to allocate wealth and to whom. There will most likely be public relations professionals on all sides of these issues.

Machine Impacts on Human Behavior

Perhaps the most common and pressing issue that public relations professionals will face as AI is integrated more deeply into our daily lives will be the impact those machines will have on our own human behavior and interaction.

All you have to do is sit in the food court of any shopping mall and you’ll see the how machines are changing human interaction. Watch a bunch of teens stare at their phones instead of talking to each other, or stroll by the increasing numbers of empty storefronts in the mall thanks to the rising dominance of ecommerce.

At every turn in this evolution, it will be PR’s job to educate, persuade and inform on the full range of issues where new technologies continue to change the way humans interact with each other.

Artificial Stupidity: Guarding against mistakes?

This, we know. AI is only as good as its makers, and its makers are human and therefore imperfect. It’s not hard to imagine a world reliant on self-driving cars, where some of those cars kill people. It’s equally easy to envision an AI-controlled drone every now and then falling from the sky, putting people’s safety at risk. And did I mention invasion-of-privacy issues?

Over the decades, society has learned to accept certain trade-offs with increased automation. Goals are usually to minimize mistakes with the understanding that perfection is not attainable. What makes this issue even more challenging is the scale of power and influence AI has the potential to wield. Grids can be affected. Entire cities and regions. Millions of people can be more readily impacted by a singular event.

For communicators, one major dynamic will change – accountability.

Until now, human accountability has always been the cornerstone of ethical decision-making and behavior. When something goes wrong, we immediately and innately look for the humans in responsibility to address the issue. And to do the right thing, those humans rely on their own survival instincts, from something as basic as wanting to physically survive a crisis, to the more common motivations of fear of being criminally prosecuted, fear of being sued, or fear of being fired from a job.

AI removes all of these emotions and dynamics and puts a disconcerting buffer between responsible humans and decision-making. This presents big challenges for communications professionals, who will still be required to look for accountable parties, people who will be held responsible when machines make bad decisions. PR will have to play a role in sorting that out.

AI and Bias

The WEF points out that Google had some problems of its own with AI and how it was used to predict future criminals. Apparently, Google’s AI showed bias against African Americans.

Before getting into the bias of the technology, it’s worth asking a more fundamental ethics question: Who gave Google the right to predict criminal behavior based on appearances?

At the moment, it’s assumed AI is not our justice system and that we have a right to expect assumptions of innocence until guilt is proven. In other words, we have a highly regulated justice system of checks and balances, which is designed to be slow and deliberate.

So, a reliance on algorithms to predict criminal behavior based on appearances can lead to all sorts of issues that can create or perpetuate AI-driven stereotypes across all demographics in any number of situations.

As a result, it’s quite possible that in the future when AI is involved, one of our most important roles may be to give voice to the concern that an organization may be relying too heavily on value judgements made by machines.

Keeping AI from Adversaries

The WEF is concerned that evil people may see AI as a powerful new weapon in their arsenal. This concern is not only valid but probably as serious as conventional policies to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the bad guys. The problem is, AI may eventually be so ubiquitous that to try to “keep it” from adversaries may not be realistic.

In the PR profession, our role may be to sound the alarm on issues as they relate to policy. This will allow decision-makers to better create policies that favor the good AI can do for the world, while not underestimating the bad it can do in the wrong hands.

What if AI Turns Against Us?

Mary Shelley wrote the iconic Frankenstein story in 1818, 200 years ago, and it’s even more relevant today when we contemplate the power and the risks of AI.  In that story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that eventually turns against him, its creator. No longer science fiction, today scientists are creating machines that learn and decide and learn again. They control other machines and the many mechanisms that allow society to function.

The WEF cites one of the most classic concerns of science fiction authors: What if the machines turn against us?

Rather than assign nefarious motives, the WEF points to the real possibility that through some sort of glitch or misunderstanding in programming, a machine could misinterpret stimulus, data, an image or the very presence of a human, and make an errant decision causing harm.

As with other scenarios, it may the role of communications professionals to speak up when they see the potential for human risk and how that risk could play out.

What if the Machine Becomes Smarter than Us?

The difference between humans and all other beings on Earth, says the WEF, is our intelligence. So, the ethical question becomes, “What could happen if the machine becomes ‘smarter’ than its creator?”

This question appears to raise the issue of whether technology policy-making in the future will call for a figurative “kill switch” to be built into any AI technology to serve as a means to shut down a system before it can do much damage.

Public relations professionals will play an important role in the debate over how such policies should be crafted and enforced, and eventually implemented.

What if Machines Develop Feelings?

The final WEF question entertains the extreme notion that robots could (should?) have rights not unlike human or animal rights and that machines could deserve “humane treatment.” To give this question serious consideration, we would have to accept the premise that machines are “living” beings with feelings.

At the moment, and with so many other higher priorities when it comes to AI, assigning feelings to machines and then assigning them the same rights as humans may be a bridge too far. It’s probably best to let the next generation of PR pros deal with that.

So, what do you think? What are the most pressing communications issues we could face as AI continues to penetrate our daily lives?

This is How Your Critics Try to Define You

There’s an old saying you may have heard as a child:

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Moms and dads would say this to remind their children not to get too rattled when other kids are mean to them. But as we see every day in the media and in social media, names and words and language can be used quite effectively to hurt individuals and organizations.

Your critics know this, and they know how to marshal strategic messaging and all of the media channels at their disposal to hurt you until you submit and do what they want, or you just plain lose.

Of course, that old saying was right to a certain extent. Names in and of themselves can’t hurt you. And a lot of pressure that critics try to apply to you oftentimes can’t hurt you unless you let it. The main thing to know is critics can only really hurt you in a PR sense if you let them define you. Here’s how they do that.

They Frame You

When the word is used as a verb, we often think of being “framed” as when someone is set up for a crime he or she did not commit – a false charge against a person. That’s not precisely what we mean when we talk about your critics try to frame you, but it is in the right neighborhood.

When your critics frame you, they are simply framing their message so that how they want to define you becomes the most common perception of you, whether it’s true or not. Effective framing means to give the public a simple and clear picture of who you are through simple words, images and symbols, all that work to define you. The frame is the intellectual structure within which you are defined.

How They Frame You

Values – Your critics may have many techniques, but one of the most effective ones centers on the use of common values that everyone shares, but spun so that you are defined as not caring about or having complete disregard for those values. In the process, your critics define themselves as caring, and you as the one who does not. Do you care about the environment, safety, the community, your employees? Maybe you do, but if you have critics, these are the kinds of values they may say you don’t care about.

Metaphors – Metaphors are powerful tools for taking complex ideas and simplifying them in such a way that people get it quickly. If your critics are waging a campaign against you, saying you don’t care about your employees, they may choose the metaphor of the giant, saying you don’t care about “the little guy.” That’s an image and in idea most everyone can readily understand and remember, which makes it an effective metaphor.

Statistics – Statistics are often used to substantiate any argument, and they are effective because they convey a sense of indisputable fact. Of course, stats can be manipulated to support every side of an issue. By rearranging some stats, excluding others, and interpreting them any way your critics see fit, they can use stats against you.

Solutions – This is the call to action, but it’s often offered as a reasonable solution. The minimum wage issue is a classic example of how the solution is used to garner public support. Who doesn’t want to make more money, right?

The current number of $15 per hour is the more common “solution” offered, but the proponents of that wage never discuss the bigger problems it potentially creates. The City of Seattle learned the hard way on this.

When employers have to raise the minimum wage, that money has to come from somewhere in a small business. That means while everyone may make at least $15 per hour, each employee may have to give up more hours. Full-time workers with benefits may be cut to part-time and lose their benefits. More people working fewer hours with less benefits, all so that the hourly wage can be raised.

The hidden problem in the debate is that raising the wage does not raise revenues to cover the increased wage. In fact, if the store owner has to raise prices to pay for the wage increase, that could hurt retail sales, reducing the amount of cash available to pay employees. In short, the wage increase forces employers to give away money it doesn’t have. That could hurt jobs and the workers lose.

The point for this discussion is be prepared to address those simple “solutions” offered by your critics.

Stories – People like stories. We have since we were kids and that’s never changed. It’s why we like books, TV shows and movies. The power of story is in its ability to aid our memory. Think of your own life, your own memories. You may not remember what grade you got on every assignment, but you probably have many stories of teachers and classmates over the years, stories you will never forget. The same is probably true of your college years, your family, your partner or kids. Stories.

How it All Adds Up

In the end, your critics will use all of these tools and many more to define you. They will come up with values they can turn against you. They will create or collect data that can be used to define you. They will offer solutions that put you in a no-win position, and they will come armed with all sorts of stories that while they may not even be true, will place you negatively into the narrative. For your critics, that’s mission accomplished.

They will tell the public or other third parties why this should matter by reminding them of shared values – values they say you don’t care about. They will detail their case against you through the use of metaphors, statistics, stories.

They will take care to show what you are doing wrong, or that you are wrong for not doing.

And they will offer a solution that is likely to persuade people to see you the way your critics want you to be seen.

What can you do about it?

The first thing is refuse to be defined. Have a clear idea of who you are and what you and your organization stands for, and have your own set of values that everyone understands when they think of your brand. Have your own set of metaphors, statistics and stories that further define your reputation should it ever come under attack. And have your own set of solutions that persuade people to understand that what you are doing is right, for the right reasons.

That’s just a start. If you want to talk about what to do when your critics try to define you, let me know.  I’ll be glad to chat.

The 4 Things That Will Happen When You Get Sued

There are three reasons people sue, typically. One is that they truly were damaged in some way, either financially, physically or some other way, and they decide to seek compensation for damages. Second, whether you did anything wrong or not, someone has decided they have enough of a case to squeeze money out of you in court, but more than likely through an out-of-court settlement. And third, someone may sue you for the attention.

That attention may serve a purpose, such as helping draw attention to a cause, an event, or a campaign of some kind. In this third scenario, even if the case is thrown out, by virtue of generating publicity for simply filing a claim, they’ve already achieved their objective.

If you or your organization is targeted with a lawsuit, be prepared for the plaintiff’s lawyers for the plaintiff to use some over-the-top PR strategies to put you on the defensive even before your lawyers have the chance to read the complaint.

“We have yet to see the complaint.”

Very often, the plaintiff’s lawyer will share the complaint with the media before or simultaneously with actual court filings. In this situation, there is a good chance the media will have more time to review the filing than you will. In fact, there is a chance that your first indication that a suit was filed is when that first reporter calls you asking for a comment. Where plaintiff’s lawyers gain the most momentum is during this period where they drive media coverage, while you and your legal counsel are still working to obtain an actual copy of the complaint to see what’s in it.

The Complaint Focuses on the Most Sensational and Bizarre Allegations

I once saw a situation where a disgruntled former employee sued his former employer over what he argued were unfair grounds for his firing. The fact that he had a substance abuse problem that affected his job performance was not mentioned in the complaint.

What was mentioned was the company’s “strict in-office bathroom policies.” The complaint characterized the work environment as “hostile” because the plaintiff was regularly questioned for his long absences from his work station. The other major fact excluded from the complaint was that management suspected he was engaging in most of his workday substance abuse activity in the restroom.

Of course, the media could only base its coverage on what it knew, so this case became known as the “bathroom policy lawsuit.” What made it even more difficult for the employer to engage in the media was that it was forced to adhere to its own policy of respecting employees’ and former employees’ privacy on personnel issues, and because the matter was now subject to litigation.

The Media will Believe the Initial Narrative First, You will be on Defensive

Anyone who works in the media, or even consumes it on a regular basis, understands that while in a court of law you may be “innocent until proven guilty,” but in the “court of public opinion” you are more than likely to be considered guilty until proven innocent.

This means you may have to prove a negative, which is often impossible. You may have to defend yourself in the media. So, while in the court, the plaintiff may have to actually prove you did something wrong, in the media, the plaintiff is not so hindered. Whatever they say you did, it is perceived you did it until you can prove otherwise.

The Legal Process Provides a Publicity Timeline

Once the initial filing is made, the legal system has its own built-in timetable, which may include everything from discovery and depositions, to publicly accessible court dates. These public hearings and trials are oftentimes treated as media events by plaintiff’s attorneys, meaning you have to approach the case as though it’s a communications campaign, in addition to a legal case, with a beginning, middle and end.

The most important steps you can take if you are ever faced with a lawsuit is to work closely with your own legal counsel to make sure all of your communications are in support of and in synch with the legal strategy. You must also be fully aware of the systems your organization has had in place and has in place to prevent the very thing your organization is being accused of in the legal complaint. The key is to make sure that even in the event the suit against your organization has some merit, it is the exception and not representative of something deeper, more systemic.

If you have any questions about litigation PR, get in touch. I’d be glad to talk.

With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

September 11, 2001: Never forget

The following blog post originally ran on September 5, 2011, ten years after 9/11:

It’s been ten years and a common question these days is, “Where were you on 9/11?”

My memory is probably less interesting than most, but for that matter, I remember being in a meeting with a colleague right next to the Pittsburgh airport. The air traffic outside became a distraction over the course of the hour we met. By the time we finished, as I was leaving, an administrative staff member asked me if I had a plane to catch. I said, “No.” She said that was good because all of the air traffic was backed up due to a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I hustled to my car and listened to the latest on the radio. By that time, it was being reported that two planes had hit the towers and one of them may have been from Delta. I have a niece who is a flight attendant stationed in Boston at the time. I spent the ride calling my sister to see if my niece was okay. She was fine. By the time I got back to home base, like everyone else, I was fixated on the live TV coverage the rest of the day.

A few months earlier, I had been on the 93rd floor of one of the towers in a meeting with people from Fred Alger Management. This was in my prior position just before starting my own business in May of that year. I wondered how the people I had met were doing on that day.

In the days to come, like so many others, I gained a new appreciation for so many things and continued to watch the news more carefully than I already had been doing.

Eventually, an article in a business publication reported that 35 of Fred Alger’s 39 employees at the World Trade Center had lost their lives on 9/11.

This past week, National Geographic has been running a series of compelling documentaries centered on 9/11, focusing on how leaders at that time felt and dealt with the minute-to-minute decisions they had to make.

If you have the chance to spend an hour or so watching, you won’t regret it. It’s a very good way to step back and reflect on how 9/11 changed this country’s worldview.

 

Can You Really Enjoy Working on a Crisis?

In a brief recent exchange with a former crisis communications client of mine, it dawned on me that it may be possible to enjoy a crisis experience. But you can be sure, I won’t let a comment like that sit without proper context.

First – the exchange. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Couldn’t be better,” and then he mentioned that he had “really enjoyed” working with me.

We all like to hear that from time to time, but his use of the word “enjoy” caught me by surprise.  When we worked together, the nature of the crisis was such that I couldn’t have imagined him enjoying that unwanted experience at any level. I could think of many words he might use to describe that experience, but “enjoy” wasn’t in the top 10.

To be sure, the situation was handled well and things worked out, and now it’s years later and everyone has moved on. Still, it may be worthwhile to explore this issue of whether it’s possible to enjoy a crisis experience. Here are some things to consider:

You’re Not Alone

Once the crisis communications team is established, strategies and decisions are explored as a team. Crisis situations are not a time to posture and position. People who would otherwise hold back in meetings are forced to be more direct and candid. There is a lot on the line. People get real. Good crisis communications teams form and function well due in part as a response to the pressures they face. Once this happens and the team gels, almost every single member of the group starts to feel that he or she is not an island facing this crisis, that they are not heading into uncertain territory by themselves. There is comfort in that.  In some of the crises I’ve experienced, that’s what I remember most.

Bonds are Formed in Adversity

Nothing builds the strong bonds of camaraderie like facing adversity together. Soldiers come back from battle with “brothers” and “sisters” they never even knew before they entered battle together. That sort of dynamic, though not life or death in many crisis communications scenarios, feeds the nurturing of strong bonds that can be formed through a crisis.

A Sense of Humor Doesn’t Hurt

I’ve found that there are times when a well-timed quip or comment can ease the tension in the room when certain sensitive issues and subjects are at the center of discussion and it just feels too intense. Keep in mind, though, ill-timed comments can totally backfire. Be careful with humor, especially in crisis situations when people are already on edge and it doesn’t take much to light someone’s fuse. Still, if you have the right perspective and know how to ease the tension in the right way at the right time, you not only will play a vital role on the crisis team, but you really will contribute to creating an experience that someone someday may remember as having had its encouraging moments.

Doing the Right Thing Gives Peace of Mind

In almost every crisis situation I’ve seen, generally speaking, I’ve found people want to do the right thing. The types of obstacles that may complicate decision-making could be legal, regulatory or business-driven. Still, the job of a crisis communicator is to help management teams do what they know they must, while staying true to all of their other business and legal obligations. In simplistic terms, you may find that doing right by one stakeholder group can have a potentially negative impact on another, so you have to help the organization find balance. Through it all, the communicator must be a calming force, serving as counselor, sounding board, hand-holder, and sometimes the honest bearer of bad news. In the end this can give clients peace of mind and sometimes the confidence needed to make tough but sound decisions. Later, they see their crisis communicators as invaluable catalysts in that process.

You’ll Laugh Later

Every crisis is a story in itself, and it is often the mother of countless other stories. Like the time I was misquoted in a news article and a fellow crisis team member decided to prank-call me immediately after, pretending to be an angry shareholder. Funny.

Or, the time a group of us were hashing out a statement in a hotel room on deadline. Someone moved a very hot floor lamp over to where we were working. Unbeknownst to all of us, it was right under a sprinkler head and sensor. Luckily, the heat only triggered flashing lights and sirens, not water. The visual still etched in my memory is two members of that team trying in vain under flashing strobe lights to use a hotel couch as a launching pad to jump up to hit the sprinkler’s kill switch.

Some of the funniest stories I have from working in public relations emerged from crisis situations. I think it’s because of the natural tension that serves as the backdrop for the scene, which only makes the unexpected that much more compelling of a story later.

So, can you enjoy a crisis?

Answer: No one enjoys what causes a crisis or the fact that an organization is in crisis. All too often some stories emerge from crisis situations can break your heart.

But it is this understanding that makes the good things we see, hear and experience that much more meaningful when we look back. It’s the relationships and sometimes the friendships we sometimes form with people – facing adversity together and doing our jobs in good conscience – that we come to treasure.

Ultimately, yes, we can look back and find there truly were some things we did enjoy.

Finding a PR Lesson in the Halls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum first opened in September 1995 in Downtown Cleveland, and it took me until just recently to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to visit it. The visit was as much underwhelming as mesmerizing, which is why it may be worth looking at it from a public relations perspective.

While some major renovations are planned for later this year, I’m not sure they will be the medicine the Hall of Fame may need.  Let me explain.

The building is a museum in the 1980s sense of the word, obviously conceived before the Internet, before smart phones, Google, YouTube, and of course, all social media. The elaborate and largely primitive displays have long been outdone by that smart phone in your pocket.

The notion of standing at a kiosk to watch a bunch of dated documentary-style vignettes and use touch-screen to read factoids is dull. There has to be a better way to connect visitors to rock and roll.

I can only imagine what a Disney Imagineer would think when he or she walks through this museum, or what one might do, if given the budget and resources, to change this place.  I’m thinking interactive holograms, animation, experiential exhibits, surround screens and surround sound, and that’s just a start.  No one should come away from this museum underwhelmed.

The other notable omission was an actual “Hall” of Fame, where we can see something representing every inductee since the Hall of Fame was created.  Roughly 60 miles to the south of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where the busts of every NFL inductee sits in a room that has an almost church-like feel.  To be sure, we wouldn’t expect the same atmosphere at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in fairness to the inductees, there should be a place for visitors to note and reflect on what each and every inductee’s contribution to music has been.

Why It’s Worth the Trip

But enough of the critique. The power of this museum and why it is still worth the trip is what this museum has that no other place in the world has, and that’s the stuff.

Regardless of which is your favorite music genre or no matter what your age, you will find at least one thing that just transfixes you and takes you back to a time in your life. It will make you wonder what life would have been like without this contribution to rock and roll.  Not only for you, but maybe for our culture.

For me, there were a couple of things. One was Johnny Cash’s desk, sitting humbly in the middle of a hallway, behind glass, yet no more than 18 inches from me. It looked and felt accessible. This was where the legend wrote, and presumably created some of his best work, and maybe made a few of his worst mistakes.  It’s like it is just waiting for him to come back into the room in a few minutes.

Or, there is the actual Mellotron organ, a very primitive synthesizer, the Beatles used to create that eerie sound on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and others. That sound has been imitated by others in many genres ever since.

Just like Cash’s desk, the Mellotron sits simply under glass, in the middle of foot traffic, and maybe 12 inches or so from us. No fancy lights glorifying it. No ropes to keep us away. Just there, waiting to be played…again. I couldn’t help but think of the stories this thing could tell of Lennon and McCartney hovering over it, experimenting to bring their own musical vision to life.

The simplicity IS the power of some of these exhibits.

If there is a common thread throughout the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame –  and I’m not sure this is intentional – it is how simple and primitive were the tools, the instruments, and the outfits that legendary performers used and wore as they created something entirely new to become cultural icons. This speaks completely to their own talents.

Innovation.

It’s the theme of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter what the time period or genre, Rock and Roll has always been about pushing the envelope, doing something that has not been done before. This hall is all about the innovators.

The lesson for the rest of us is that it’s not about the tools, the “accepted” or traditional formula for success, the trappings, or the timing.

Ultimately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pays homage to those individuals who were compelled to be who they were regardless of what other people thought of their chances for success. It fittingly salutes those who put passion before pragmatism. And it shows us that no matter what your goal and your limited resources, if you have a dream and the right amount of creative drive, you can fulfill it.

My PR Take

If most of these legends asked the public to tell them at the time what kind of music to create, there would never have been rock and roll. Sometimes, it has to start with you, the honesty that’s in your message, and your own understanding on how to use your medium to the fullest.

Are PR People Control Freaks?

The question came to mind a few times over the years when I have worked on some seemingly inconsequential PR matters where some of the parties involved may have considered my attention to detail a pain in the … ahem … a bit much.

To be sure, if you don’t work on PR matters every day you may come away thinking that PR pros can have a tendency to be control freaks. After all, it’s just public relations, right?

In defense of my colleagues (and myself) I think some ‘splainin is needed.  If you think your PR person may be over-thinking or over-reacting to something that may never even happen, it may be worth a closer look at what we all recognize as PR mistakes.

PR mistakes often make front page news, or the wrong kind of news, or sometimes no news at all.  Sometimes PR mistakes lead to crises of leadership, reduced stock prices, employee defections, general embarrassments, or grandstanding opportunities for competitors and critics. And that just scratches the surface.   To prevent such PR disasters, you probably want your PR person to be extremely mindful of what could go wrong, and what is required to go right.

One of the first things we learn in public relations is that most everything is beyond our control.  We can’t tell the media what to write or how to report.  We can’t tell the public how to react to what our organization says or what we say.  We can’t tell people to believe us and just expect it to happen.  And no matter what we do to increase sales, calm the public, or clarify an issue, there are simply no guarantees of the outcome.

So, it is the job of the PR professional to try to control what can be controlled on the theory that the more variables we do control, the less the chance that things will get out of control. That increases the chance that the outcome will go as well as can be expected.

This takes an unbelievable amount of attention to detail, planning, planning and more planning.  In the process, we think of what can go wrong and plan for that. We think of what can go right, and plan for that. We think of what can go wrong even when things go right.  In other words, we plan for when everything goes exactly according to plan, but somehow the end result is misunderstood.

This involves a lot of scenario analysis. A lot of “what ifs.” And a lot of “then whats.”

All of this gets even more intense in crisis and issues management.

I’ve had the good fortune to have seen a lot of PR efforts go right, and as a result I have become a big believer that in PR it’s not a bad thing to be considered a little excessive when it comes to control issues.

With all of that in mind, here are a few misconceptions about PR “control freaks” that may need to be clarified.

PR people think they can control everything – Not true.  It’s more the opposite. We know better than anyone we cannot control everything, so we try to control what we can.

PR people don’t like it when things don’t go their way – Yes, we don’t like it when things don’t go right, and we recognize that some of the biggest mistakes are made in the planning process, when certain possibilities aren’t taken seriously enough.  It’s more about taking every detail seriously long before it becomes a factor in the outcome.

You can’t let go – Not true.  The fact is, most good PR people know that the time to let go is when you’ve thought of everything you could think of and done everything you could do.  It’s at that point where it comes time to let go and let events happen. Most good PR people know then that even if things don’t work out perfectly, the thing to do then is to learn and move forward.

Expertise.com Ranks O’Brien Communications One of the Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA, January 11, 2017Expertise.com has ranked O’Brien Communications one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” in its most recent rankings. According to the national web site, it reviewed 88 firms from throughout the Pittsburgh region and selected the top 14 for its rankings.

Expertise.com bases its selections on a survey of the field to “find every business that provides service in the city, and to filter out any that fail to meet our definition of an expert.” After that, the site uses software to grade each business on 25 variables across five criteria that include: reputation, credibility, experience, availability, and professionalism.

About O’Brien Communications

Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; Communications Coaching, and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups. For more information, call 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Where do I start when writing a speech for my boss? Should I ask a newspaper to print a correction?

This is the second installment in what’s becoming a series of responses to reader questions.  The two questions selected for this blog are ones I’ve received over the years.

Question #1:   My CEO wants me to write a speech for him to give to an industry group. I’ve never written a speech before. Where do I start?

– Ashley M.

Response:  The best place to start is to have a meeting with your CEO if possible. At that meeting, come armed with as many questions as possible.  In order to do that, you need to do your homework first.  Find out when the speech will be, how long is it expected to take, who is the audience, the format (speech, keynote, panel, formal or informal, etc.), if visual aids are expected or required, if your speaker likes to read from a script or note cards, and what guidelines the host has provided in terms of speech topics and themes.

If other speakers will be at the event, find out who they are and what they will be speaking about.  The more you know about the venue and the context, the more you can hone in on your approach.

In your initial meeting with the CEO, work to determine what areas of focus should form the substance of the speech draft.  Play the role of reporter, asking questions and posing scenarios to get the CEO’s input.  It’s best to have a recorder with you so that you can gather the information most efficiently and better focus on covering all of your questions.  Later on playback, you can study the speaking style and word choice that comes most naturally to the CEO.

The next step is one not every speechwriter follows, but I do. I like to personally transcribe the recording from the meeting. It’s tedious work but for me it helps me truly immerse myself in the subject matter and better pick up on the tone and feel of the speech from the start.  Usually by the time I’m done with this task, I have a feel for how I’d like to approach the speech creatively.

Other tip is to study any videos of your CEO from other speeches.

Next, start writing.  Create an outline and develop that into a first draft. Don’t let the lack of certain details keep you from writing as complete a first draft as possible.  Just bookmark spots where you think data, statistics, stories and anecdotes may better fill out and humanize the speech at that point.

This is your “Swiss cheese draft,” which will not be ready for review until you’ve gone back and done the necessary research and thinking to fill in those holes.  From there, you will need to go through an arduous editing process, until you are most comfortable with the feel of it. Keep in mind, you are writing for the ear and the eyes of the audience.  Keep your words short, direct and active.  Create visuals through active verbs and strong imagery.  And above all, humanize the speech with stories the tie directly to the speech’s theme.

That’s an overview.  If you have any specific questions on this, feel free to let me know off line and I’ll be glad to respond.

Question #2: A newspaper recently ran a story based on an interview one of their reporters did with a senior manager at our organization.  The published story seemed to infer that a comparably sized competitor of ours is bigger than us.  My boss wants me to request a correction in the newspaper.  Will they run it?

– Michelle D.

Response: Probably not, and even if they would, the correction itself is not likely to be seen by many of those who saw the original article, making little difference.

At the same time, the one group of people who will notice this gesture are a few editors and reporters in the newsroom, who may react in different ways.  One or two may respond the way your organization hopes and realize the story may not have been as accurate as it could be. But others may not react as constructively.

Any time you interact with the media, the best approach is to think of the long term.  Determine how “egregious” the immediate story may be, and then decide if it’s worth adding any tension to the relationship between your organization and the news organization involved.  Just as we constantly work to build positive relationships with the media, some organizations have a tendency to undermine that when they become unnecessarily demanding or critical of certain news organizations.

In cases where the error is truly damaging to the organization, such as alleging or implying unethical behavior on the part of senior management with no substantiation, then you may be obligated to demand corrective action from the news organization.  But in this case, the nature of the offense does not seem to warrant spoiling the waters of your relationship with the news organization.

If you have a question you’re like to discuss one-on-one or see addressed in this space, please get in touch.