Is Your Review and Approval Process Killing Your Results?

I got an email today from a respected consulting organization that provided details on a recent ransomware attack that occurred over the July 4th weekend.  The rather polished e-news alert was robust in its information, but there was a problem. It’s two weeks too late, and I’ve already gleaned all of the information in the article from other sources when the news first broke.

Keep in mind, I don’t fault the communications team behind the e-newsletter. I’ve been there many, many times. The problem is cultural, and it’s one of the most common reasons why organizations don’t get better results from their communications programs.

Their systems are clumsy

Let’s start with the piece, its purpose and what it does right. The e-news alert goes out to friends and clients and others, including media and analysts. It’s on brand and on message. It’s the kind of thing that if you’re the communications team member responsible, you can insert it into your portfolio and it will help you get your next good job. You can share it with your mom or dad or mother-in-law, and they will think you do important things.

Clients of the firm are reminded that the firm is thinking of them even if the information in the piece is a little stale. But that’s about it.

Why it doesn’t work

So, now let’s turn to why the piece doesn’t work and how that can seriously hinder larger communications efforts.

I’m sure the communications team worked as fast as they could to get this out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the moment the ransomware attack happened on July 4th weekend that the communications team were already working on it, instantly.

But then it’s likely that the corporate culture took over. First, they may have had to run the idea for the topic up the chain and find the right subject matter expert. Even if they knew who that SME was at the time, it was a holiday weekend. Perhaps they had trouble connecting, or they didn’t even try until everyone was back at work on the 5th or 6th.

At that point, someone had to research and write the e-news alert. If they only started after the holiday weekend, that took at least a couple of days. Then it had to be circulated for reviews and approvals. That probably took a day or two at best.

Throughout, there were likely conference calls and meetings to discuss. Among the discussions were likely, “Is this even an issue we want to touch?;” “What are the downsides?;” “Is he the right SME?”

Along with those discussions, there was the meeting with the graphic designer to discuss layout, artwork, timing and scheduling. You have to allow time for that.

Once the draft of the piece is inserted into the design, again, that has to be circulated for review and approval.

Then, of course, there is the meeting with the database person to make sure the e-news alert goes out to all the right people and none of the wrong people. Add a day.

Late in this process, someone in communications may have asked whether the firm should limit itself to an e-news alert, and whether a news release should be added to the mix, along with some media outreach. It’s now well more than a week after the fact, and the greenlight is given to pitch the media.

Everything goes as efficiently as possible, under these common circumstances, and an e-news alert about a three-week old event arrives in my inbox, and that of thousands of other recipients. At this point, publicists are reaching out to news reporters on a story that is now firmly into the “old news” category. But there was no effort to counsel leadership or manage expectations from the communications function in the planning process, so the publicists are charged with selling a story well past its expiration date.

In the end, the firm has an e-news alert and a news release to demonstrate output and, for the record, “timely” response to breaking developments. But in reality, the firm achieved nothing because its culture is slow and stilted, and it’s not alone.

How it can and should work

Throughout the pandemic and beyond, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a great client that has a stable of SMEs on a variety of topics, most notably, all things pandemic.

As the story broke and evolved in real time, our SMEs became used to the drill. They were same-day responsive to media requests and became quite adept at adjusting their messaging to the needs of particular journalists and media outlets.

The pandemic response media relations effort quickly became a well-oiled machine. And to top it all off, as that effort gained momentum, more potential SMEs saw the attraction of the effort and wanted to be a part of it, expanding our offerings to the media and increasing our effectiveness.

As we ease away from the pandemic and pandemic-dominant stories, the process is the same, and the program includes everything from same-day interviews to op-eds and opinion pieces on a wide range of matters.

Recently, one of our SMEs noticed a breaking news event in California and proactively drafted an op-ed for a daily in the region as the event was still unfolding. Our SME knew the drill by then. He knew how many words the op-ed had to be based on our prior experience with him, and he knew the tone it had to strike. He already had the data he needed to make his argument, which centered on the societal challenges around the event and how future events like that could be avoided.

Before the day was over, we had a solid draft to send to targeted opinion editors in the area, and we did. We submitted an op-ed on the breaking news event and what it means before the initial 24-hour news cycle had finished.

That was key.  The piece was accepted for publication quickly and it ran the following day.

While an op-ed is a quite different project than an e-news alert, both examples show illustrate the difference culture makes in getting results.

Subject matter experts need to be identified before something happens, not afterward. Subjects for possible content or publicity need to be identified in advance, if not by the entire team, by the SMEs themselves.

The team needs to be able to connect with each other and SMEs in real time to jump-start the process for pursuing real-time communications opportunities.

Scrap your traditional review and approval procedures

The typical approval process needs to be scrapped. Yes, scrapped. The world and the media aren’t waiting for you to get it right. They aren’t waiting at all.

You have to get it right before something happens and in real time so that your SMEs have the answers when the public and the media want them, which is now.

Am I advocating elimination of the approval process? Not at all.

I am saying that the drafting of content, the identification of targets and tactics, and the decision-making on approvals have to happen simultaneously.

Whomever needs to sign off on a draft need to be notified in advance that something is in the works and they will need to provide immediate attention to it and be prepared to turn it around in less than an hour, ideally.

The whole process needs to be compacted into a 24-hour window if that is possible and feasible if the effort centers on generating publicity. If the effort centers on producing a timely e-news alert or something similar, your grace period may be up to 48 hours, but beyond that, you’re pushing the limits of timeliness.

This is important because at the end of the day, the communications function is judged by the results it achieves, not its good intentions or outputs. To get those results, you need to get things done and out while the public still cares and is paying attention.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

 

Don’t Surrender in the Battle of Word Choice

It’s one of the most effective and common ways activists win public debates these days. They change the language. Whatever words or terms you are using today, they will change the words tomorrow and the words you say today, will not only be obsolete, but they will likely be deemed to be offensive. That means when you are quoted from anything you’ve said historically, you are not only wrong (according to their fluid standards), but you will likely be framed as morally and ethically bad, or at least uncaring.

How does this work?

I’ll use an issue close to home to illustrate my point. I recently engaged in a very respectful and productive dialogue with a fellow public relations colleague on the issue of how to communicate policies around service dogs in the workplace.

The colleague was advised or read something that informed her to avoid any mention of “disabled” or “disability” in conjunction with another employee’s requirement for a service dog. She seemed to feel that such a mention would create a stigma around the employee.

But the fact is, the employee’s requirement for a service dog fell under the accommodations framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, for all intents and purposes, the primary reason for the service dog and the associated accommodations completely centered on the workplace policy on disabilities.

As far as I know, there is not organized movement to avoid use of words like “disability,” “disabled,” or “disabilities.” So, when we work to avoid using them for fear we could offend or stigmatize a disabled person, we are doing exactly the opposite of our intentions. We are assigning a stigma to the “D” words. For that reason alone, if there was a movement to assign negativity to these words, I’d object.

Once you change the descriptive language in this case you are stigmatizing the employee. And then you are creating a new problem with the language. What words are we now to use? And how long will they last before someone decides they, too, are stigmatized?

There are many other situations where the language becomes a moving target. From other diversity and inclusion contexts to social contexts.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between the natural evolution of language which tends to happen gradually over time, and an overnight redefinition of common words by a small group of activists or activist organizations.

What should you do?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s time to stop. Stop engaging on the activists’ intentional or unintentional terms where they assign victimhood to those who can help them advance their agendas.

The primary reason activists change the meanings of words or symbols is to create disorder and chaos, not clarity. Once they create more confusing terminology, and that terminology is commonly accepted, it becomes more difficult for you to make your own case or to effectively counter their case, simply because you’ve embraced the confusion.

Don’t adopt the latest language that comes at you. Don’t accept the premise that the words are wrong or bad or inaccurate or whatever.

If your organization is faced with addressing a complex issue, and your critics are changing the language to suit their arguments, all the more reason not to adopt their language. If you do, you are accepting their premise, surrendering any intellectual and possibly ethical merits of your own case, and fighting a losing battle on their turf. You can’t win.

The strategy of changing the language – and it is a strategy – is designed to ambush you, so the moment you start to engage on their terms, you’ve already lost.

Instead, communicate as clearly and candidly as possible. Be honest. Use the words that apply. Use precise words, even if your critics and opponents are trying to give new meaning to those words. If need be, explain the true meaning behind your word choice and why your opponents have it all wrong.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

Should Your Company Take a Position on a Highly Charged Social or Political Issue?

We have to get real on this. If you’re wondering why you’re seeing major corporations or brands take stances on highly charged social and political issues, it’s unlikely that they’ve all simultaneously discovered their socially aware or politically activist convictions that no one knew existed before.

The crisis and issues manager in me that’s been around for a few decades tells me something else. I think it’s more likely that someone with significantly more power and influence than a grassroots activist group has decided to send a message to certain CEOs to tell them which positions they are to publicly take. It would have to be someone with enough power to get the C-suite’s attention so that the downside of not taking a public stance would be worse than the downside is if they do.

So, now a few Fortune 500 companies and other brands are assuming positions on some highly charged issues that they never would have even commented on before.

At the same time, it is also true that this trend can lead to certain curiosity at other companies and brands that may be wondering if they, too, should take public stances on some issues. CEOs at those firms may turn to their senior level communications counsel for their input.

If you are that communications person, and you want to be prepared, here are some factors to consider before you tell your leadership to go all in:

  • Determine if it’s a corporate fit In other words, if your company makes sneakers, and the social issue is labor conditions for sneaker manufacturing plants overseas, then it probably is an issue you should consider. But if you’re from the same company, and the issue is not directly tied to your business, don’t be so quick to jump into the fray. Outside of following all legal and ethical standards, and treating your stakeholders with respect, you are not obliged to join any social campaign. In other words, you should always do the right thing, but not every social or political issue is as altruistic as initially advertised, and even when some start with the best of intentions, many have the potential to devolve into something you never wanted for your company or brand.
  • Know your purpose Is it to shore up relations with customers, consumers, vendors or some of your employee groups? Can you shore up those relationships without taking a public stance, or without following the crowd? It’s almost always best not to follow the pack just to follow the pack. “Everyone else is doing it,” is one of the worst motivations for doing anything in PR and often ends badly.
  • Consider the downsides if you do it If you can’t think of any, you haven’t thought this through, and you haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening to other firms and brands. Every public issue, particularly in 2021, carries with it some significant risk to your corporate and consumer brands, your reputation, your stakeholder relationships, and your business. Take the time to identify those downsides and properly examine them.
  • Consider the downsides if you don’t do it I have to include this point, but I can assure you that in most cases, the downside of not taking a position is much less when compared to the downsides of taking a position. Even if you feel pressured to take the position because you fear that you will be attacked if you don’t. More often, not taking a position – even if it brings with it a certain degree of negativity on social media or from some other place – likely won’t be significant enough to harm your business. On the flip side, there is the very real possibility that taking a public position could hurt your business.
  • Make sure you’re not doing this just to get attention If your company makes frozen meat products and you decide you’re going to try to embarrass a leading scientist on Twitter by overtly inferring that the scientist is not as scientifically savvy as you, you’re in over your head, and you’re being disingenuous. You should not be tangoing in this way. By the way, this true story is a good example of what not to do. Not all publicity is good publicity. And doing silly things to get clicks and shares is usually not “marketing genius,” because often as not, it doesn’t do a thing for sales.

In 2021, it can be self-deceiving to presume that when companies take stances on highly charged social or political issues, their motivations are organically driven. All the more reason to think twice and be very deliberate before you wade into waters that are new to your company. Perhaps they are waters you never should be in to begin with.

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Tim O’Brien, founder of O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh, is a veteran corporate communications consultant with particular experience in crisis and issues management, along with other C-suite priorities. You can reach him at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Workplace Communications: The Downsides of Vaccine Mandates

One of the most basic tenets of crisis communications is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. With that in mind, through my work, I’ve been looking at the potential downsides of employer mandates of vaccination for the COVID virus.

If you read the news coverage, reports on vaccine effectiveness are generally positive, yet we are starting to see anecdotal stories of people who have had negative reactions which were more than temporary and that still remain. Are they one-offs? We don’t know.

Compounding this are stories we may hear in our own lives from friends or family members who have had similar experiences.

On social media and the Internet, our 21st century town square, it can be difficult to assess just how widespread these incidents may be, because the big digital platforms have adopted policies to suppress or dismiss on face value any posts that report negative experiences, labeling them “misinformation” or “disinformation.”

All of this combines to put the crisis communicator in a position of “flying blind” without reliable and current information. Since the COVID vaccine is still in its experimental phase, and no medical treatment is without some side effect, no one really knows for certain what to expect in the short-term or long-term.

That’s why you hear advocates of vaccination hedge when they describe vaccination as “90 percent effective” instead of “90 percent safe.”

Talking to Lawyers

So, in the course of my work, I talked to a trial lawyer I’ve known for many years. Trial lawyers make their reputations successfully suing people, usually large organizations, oftentimes over controversial issues. I asked him what the chances are that an employer could get sued if it mandates that employees be vaccinated for COVID.

In short, he said it’s unlikely that the employer could face much liability in litigation, but he does expect (and is preparing for) an uptick in worker’s compensation claims due to negative and possibly lasting effects of vaccination among some people.

Look for an Uptick in Worker’s Compensation Claims

That told me what I needed to know for my purposes. The most likely scenario for crisis communications is not likely to be a lawsuit, but rather, lost time and productivity, and increased expense tied to a rise in worker’s compensation claims.

This can have a ripple effect if enough people are off the job in critical departments or functions within an organization.

Another lawyer I talked to said that this is why most employers she advises decide to make vaccination a voluntary measure. While the employers tend to encourage their people to get vaccinated, they do not require it as a condition of employment.

From a crisis management perspective, that is probably the best approach as well. If we’ve learned anything from the past year it is that there is a myriad of ways to keep organizations operational and functioning through effective mitigation efforts, such as masking, social distancing and remote work, which do not involve forcing or coercing employees to assume a perceived or real risk tied to vaccination.

It’s at this point, I can hear someone saying about those who are hesitant to be vaccinated, “Just get the jab. Save lives. Your resistance to vaccination is selfish.”

From a workplace communication perspective, that is overly simplistic and tone-deaf messaging. No medical treatment is cookie-cutter, one-size fits all. The truth is, a small percentage of people very well may have negative and lasting effects of an invasive vaccine, so the possible negative consequences of forcing that upon them is something to take seriously. We know these same individuals can reduce risk to themselves and to others simply by following non-invasive and proven mitigation measures.

If you say you respect employees, you have to respect their perspectives and their rights, particularly when it comes to assuming any level of health risk. While no one has a right to put others at risk of COVID infection, there are many policies and non-invasive mitigation processes that have been put into place over the past year. Keeping this in mind could prevent a communications crisis, one that could stem from negative social media buzz about your organization, among other things.

No one likes to be forced to do anything, and if they have personal, health or even religious concerns over an invasive medical treatment, forcing them to take it or face a penalty can cause a level of resentment and distrust that will last long after the current pandemic has passed.

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Feel free to get in touch with Tim to provide your thoughts or talk about anything you’d like to discuss. Email him at timobrien@timobrienpr.com, or call 412.854.8845.

 

Free Speech: How “Misinformation” is Used to Deny Your Right to Hear

When you ate your meals in a high chair, chances are your mother or someone else spoon-fed you for a time. That was because you were incapable of discerning what was good for you and what could harm you. Eventually you learned to feed yourself and distinguish between food and the spoon itself.

Imagine if today if your mother would decide that all of the information you receive would be spoon-fed to you. Sadly, that may now be a thing.

The fact is, lots of things can harm us, but part of growing into maturity and adulthood is developing an ability to distinguish between that which can cause harm and that which cannot. This does not mean everyone makes good choices. None of us do so completely, but for the most part, once into adulthood we are trusted to make decisions for ourselves.

One area where the founders trusted us to make decisions for ourselves has been in the area of speech. And that trust has carried forward throughout the generations to today.

Free speech, of course, is a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That right extends to both the messenger and the receiver. What quickly gets overlooked is that not only do we have the right to speak, but we also have a right to hear.

This rationale for freedom of speech can be best summed up in the word “discernment.” Adults are trusted to make decisions for themselves. In a free society, freedom of choice, or freedom to discern is assumed. It’s a fundamental and core value.

The movement against the free flow of information

That’s what makes an emerging movement against the free flow of information perplexing.

Based on the premise that information can harm you, a burgeoning school of thought has emerged to encourage you to rely on third parties to tell you what information to trust and what information not to trust. At the end of the day, they want to spoon-feed you. They are saying, “Trust me, don’t trust yourself to discern.”

From the time of America’s founding, the First Amendment has protected citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. Those rights have been put to the test for almost 250 years in numerous court cases rising to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Without getting into the details of each case, an obvious pattern has defined the court’s rulings. Speech is to be unregulated, uncensored and protected regardless of how offensive or often inaccurate it may be. From the burning of the nation’s flag and the naming of a music band, to the protection of hate speech, the court has sided with freedom of expression.

Those court rulings are based on the premise that the cure for offensive or misinformed speech is more speech. In the marketplace of ideas, bad ideas and information must be countered, not suppressed.

Based on this, the First Amendment does not allow for government regulation of speech.  To be sure, the First Amendment centers primarily on government powers, but it has shaped American society to foster the free flow of information in all sectors, from individuals and private businesses, to nonprofits, community and other organizations.

In my public relations work over decades, I’ve learned to appreciate that First Amendment. Without it, so many interests, people and organizations I have seen would not have had a voice, and society would have suffered terribly.

What is concerning today is the gathering momentum of the notion that speech is harmful to a degree that it must be regulated, either by government or outsourced to private industry. That Americans must be protected from some speech. That adults should be treated as children and are not to be permitted to right and opportunity to discern.

Freedom to speak v. freedom to suppress

There is a common assumption among some that freedom of speech is only tolerable if it’s speech that they agree with or they can easily suppress or discredit. Speech that challenges their assumptions is “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Speech that defies their own worldview should not be permitted a platform.

Proponents of this mindset think nothing of framing speech they fear as dangerous or harmful, whether that speech be political in nature or centered on such hot issues as the environment or health policy.

There are two quotes I’ve found good to revisit at times like this. The first is from historian and social critic Noam Chomsky: “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

That gets at the messengers and our requirement in a free society to allow them a platform, but what about the idea that content itself can be harmful? What about those seeking relief from the mere exposure to unwelcome thought, all in the name of our well-being?

Look no further than founding father Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”

What visionaries could not anticipate

I’m not one to argue with great thinkers, but even they probably did not anticipate a world where government wouldn’t be the dominant force in the removal of the free flow of information, the denial of the opportunity to discern.

What we now see is that such freedoms are lost incrementally, day by day, through complicity, silence, or when growing numbers delegate discernment to others.

Enter the arbiters

And that’s where the arbiters come in. “Fact checkers” and “trust ratings” for websites and news sites. Anonymous reviewers in the bowels of some big tech company, and non-human algorithms designed to filter some information out and ensure that some information is filtered in. The arbiters promise to do the heavy lifting by providing their own context. In other words, the one person they does not trust to make discernments for you is you.

This movement uses a tacit strategy of communication. You are told it’s not about you, it’s about other people. That’s right. It’s not about protecting you because you’re too savvy to need such protection. It’s about protecting other people who are not as sophisticated as you. Unsophisticated people who may be exposed to “misinformation” or “disinformation” and actually believe some of it. The solution, you are told, is that others must be protected through a new form of information prohibition.

The truth is that no matter what organization or service decides to get in the business of fact-checking or filtering the information you receive, it will create a criteria and algorithms based on a very specific ideology. If that service is left leaning, it will prescribe only trusted left leaning media. If it is right leaning, it will prescribe only trusted right leaning media.

Still, the service you choose will lean one way or the other. It will play favorites.  You will be told these oppositional media sites are guilty of spreading misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. That in itself may be a lie.

Opinion is just that – opinion. When opinion is now branded “misinformation,” that’s a good sign to start questioning the motivations of the accuser.

A new age of Prohibition

With these mechanisms in place, third parties, which include big tech, now serve as society’s arbiters for what is deemed “harmful” speech and what is not. You are not permitted to discern for yourself.

Keep in mind, it wasn’t long ago that something had to be dubbed hate speech to receive similar treatment. The bar has dropped dramatically and quickly from that standard to now cover anything that those in power deem to be nebulously “harmful.” This, you are told, is for your own good.

Yes, it may not be the government doing it, but it is the wholesale restriction of the free flow of information in a democratic society.

Is this ethical?

During my career, I’ve adhered to my industries’ codes of ethics, from journalism to public relations. I’ve seen and read many other ethics codes as well, and while the content may vary, the core principles are often the same.

In the PR field, one of our codes is based on the premise that the public interest is best served when several values are protected and adhered to, including serving as responsible advocates for those we represent, and honesty and accuracy in the content that we generate.

The codes also frame certain core values as integral to communication in a healthy society, including the free flow of information and the disclosure of information.

I have had some troubling observations as I’ve noticed others in my field who don’t see a problem with the denial the right to discern, along with the undermining of the values that comprise our codes of ethics.

My concerns are that we can’t be effective advocates if the case we want to make, meaningful as it may be, is deemed harmful by a third party and therefore denied a platform. We can’t be honest if in doing so we run afoul of a third party that believes our honesty is harmful to their own version of reality or their agenda.

We can’t count on a free flow of information if an entire industry takes a hard stand to filter information out. We can’t assume that all of the most critical information we need to maintain a healthy society is even being disclosed if the gatekeepers are in such tight control, are not transparent and cannot be held to account.

This is a new age of information prohibition. It’s defined by subjective and sometimes agenda-driven claims that certain speech must not be heard. That adults can’t be trusted to discern for themselves what speech is acceptable and what speech is not. What does it say about a free society when opinion is deemed dangerous? Information is power. In 2021, it’s never been more powerful or priceless. This is not the time to let others to do the thinking for us.

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Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by Expertise.com. It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms. 

Apologies: Cancel Culture Does Not Forgive

There is a common assumption, particularly in public relations circles, that there is such a thing as a good apology. And by “good apology” they mean one that works on several levels. It is genuine. It satisfies the anger of your critics. It mends fences and brings a return of unity. Or, at the very least, it causes your critics to back off.

As humans, we are conditioned to believe that a good apology’s goal is to seek forgiveness.

This may be true in our personal lives. It may be true in our marriages. It may be true in our friendships. It may even be true in a one-on-one, offline customer service situation. But it is a myth when it comes to cancel culture and the current climate of mob aggression.

The fact is, whether you are at fault or not, once the cancel mob decides to humble you or your organization, there is no such thing as forgiveness. If the mob decides you must pay, you will pay insofar as the cancel mob can help it.

This theory that apologies do much to provide cover when under attack by cancel culture is often a fool’s errand.

So, You Should Never Apologize?

That’s not at all what I’m saying.

You should always do the right thing, regardless of how it looks or even if no one ever finds out. In sports there is a mantra I like: “Champions are made when no one is looking.”

The same holds true in life. Good people and good organizations do the right thing when no one is looking or when it really doesn’t make a difference. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing and that’s enough.

When you apologize, that’s why you apologize. Because there is a legitimate reason for it.

Quite frankly, a lot of demands for apologies we see online and in the media are not themselves genuine. The amount of faux anger driving so much of the discourse we see is incalculable. These dynamics, by design, lead to real, mass anger that only serve the purposes of those driving it. Some who demand an apology aren’t even self-aware enough to realize that they themselves won’t accept any apology. They expect contrition without a willingness on their part to forgive, and that presumes their ire is justified, which quite often it is not.

The notion that in a public relations sense a genuine apology will make a difference is misguided. If you only apologize after demands for an apology are made, no apology will be seen as genuine. It’s apology-on-demand, and that’s inherently disingenuous. Better to focus on corrective actions, transparency and communication.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is an art to an apology, particularly when cancel culture dynamics are at play. There isn’t. Cancel culture does not forgive, no matter how you apologize, or how often. Your communications strategies must keep this top of mind.

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Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by Expertise.com. It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms. 

 

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.

 

 

 

Tesla Eliminates Its PR Function: People are freaking out

There’s a good chance this is one controversy you haven’t heard about involving Elon Musk. It centers on reports that Musk’s automotive company Tesla has cut its public relations function.

As the New York Post reported, the company has decided it no longer wants to deal with the news media, so it has eliminated its global PR team. This, we are told, means that the media now “has no formal point of contact at the world’s most valuable automaker.”

According to that report and others, all of those who had worked in Tesla’s PR department have either moved elsewhere within the company or left it.

What has made this situation worse is that while Musk enjoys rock star status across a lot of demographics, but especially among Millennials and Gen Z, he’s become widely unpopular in traditional media circles for his criticism of the news media.

In May of 2018, he tweeted: “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,”

As a result, Musk openly drew battle lines between the media and himself, and presumably the companies he runs.

This has put some journalists in an awkward position. The nature of Musk’s work is extremely appealing to the media. Electric cars, rejuvenated interest in space travel, private start-ups saving international space programs. That’s some pretty cool stuff.

Not to mention that Musk is also known to go counter-culture on occasion, like the time he smoked weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast. In a media climate consumed with celebrity culture, Elon Musk holds all of the ingredients of a media darling. So, the fact that he rejects the news media’s narrative is a slight many can’t accept.

But let’s go back to that tweet of Musk’s. He wasn’t the first to point out the media has lost some of its mojo.  Every year, the mega PR firm Edelman, releases its “Trust Barometer,” and through it we have been able to track the slide in trust between the public and the news media. While the Trust Barometer may say it more gently, it pretty much says the same thing that Musk said in his tweet. The news media is in a crisis of trust.

Communication is Still Happening

So, with regard to the current status of Tesla’s PR function.

The truth is, Tesla does continue to make public disclosures through its Investor Relations department but not a public relations function. To be sure, the disclosures are about as brief and terse as is legally possible, but there is still a function and a process for communication.

Tesla is hardly alone in this. Many companies operate with little to no formal public relations department. I’ve been the de facto PR department for more than a few clients. This is nothing new or unusual.

The key difference here is that Musk doesn’t seem to be masking his dislike of the media.

For their part, some in the PR profession have their noses out of joint over Tesla’s shift away from a formal PR department. The common refrain is that this sets a dangerous precedent, a blow to transparency, an attack on the free flow of information, and the devaluation of the public relations profession as a whole. These concerns hint at the notion that Tesla may be doing something unethical.

Relax

With all due respect to my fellow PR colleagues, relax.

Tesla is not a governmental agency subject to sunshine laws. It’s a private entity and can run itself any way it sees fit. There are no laws that say businesses must have public relations departments. I would agree that Tesla is making a bad business decision, but that’s all it is.

At the end of the day, Elon Musk can run his companies any way he likes, and if he makes a mistake, he will face the consequences, be it from a regulator, the marketplace or, of course, the media.

In my experience, enterprising reporters know how to get information about a company without going through a public relations function. In fact, some of my biggest challenges over the years have been in dealing with reporters who refuse to let a company tell its side of the story. Musk seems willing to take that risk.

Reporters will call analysts, competitors, vendor companies, investors, activist groups and others. They will pour through public reports and disclosures. They will attend trade shows and events and usually aren’t bashful about approaching company representatives or others on the spot. They will follow social media accounts.

While many in the PR field, myself included, can see the danger in letting the media drive the process and the narrative, that doesn’t mean a company like Tesla that is willing to take that risk is hurting anyone but itself.

So, Tesla may have gotten rid of its PR function. This isn’t the sign of a trend or the end of times for the PR business. It’s not the death of transparency. It’s Elon being Elon. It’s another reminder that the news media remains in a crisis of trust.  The world will go on.

Ethics Are Not Situational: They must be standard

One of the curiosities in society, from the business sector to government and nonprofits, is that while there is common appreciation for the need for ethical behavior, we see far too many instances of unethical behavior.

Through my work in crisis and issues management, ethical decision-making is the number-one driver, not only because doing the right thing is, well, the right thing, but also because it’s the smart thing. The enemy of effective crisis communications management is inconsistency.

If you deviate from principled behavior, you likely start down a path you’ll have difficulty explaining later. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to inconsistent behaviors and explanations. Such inconsistency kills credibility, and lost credibility kills trust.

No matter who is important to your organization, from customers and donors to investors or employees, you can’t accomplish anything meaningful without trust.

So, what do we mean by ethics?

The professional definition is that ethics involves a value system by which a person or organization determines right from wrong, and then uses that determination to dictate behavior.

At least that’s the common understanding. But leave it to the intellectuals to create confusion on the simple issue of right versus wrong.

I once had a lengthy discussion with someone who was paid by a large company to be the guardian of ethics in the company. He had the word “ethics” in his title.

As we talked, he described ethics as not being a simple matter and that ethical standards can vary from organization to organization, or culture to culture. Ultimately, he said it’s not for us to judge others based on their ethical codes, or to expect others to follow our own ethical standards.

What the literature says

There is academic literature to support this, though as you’ll see, it’s fundamentally flawed in its assumptions. It believes there are three types of approaches to ethics.

Deontological Ethics

Deontological Ethics are based on a standard moral code. Some behaviors are considered “good,” while others are considered “bad.” If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s probably the approach to ethics your parents took when raising you. Heck, it’s probably the same approach you use when training a pet. Good actions are rewarded. Bad actions are punished. Good behaviors are incentivized. Bad behaviors are discouraged.

The intellectuals say this does not take into consideration the consequence of the action, however good it may be.  Deontological ethics define something as ethical even if it generates negative outcomes because the both the intent and the behavior was deemed “good.”

An example of this might be when a cashier makes a mathematical mistake and inadvertently gives a customer too much change. The cashier owns up to the mistake and the employer decides to recover the lost money from the cashier’s next paycheck.

Teleological Ethics or Utilitarianism

The second school of thought on ethics is called Teleological Ethics or Utilitarianism. This school teaches that true ethics should be assessed based on the impact of the action, rather than on the action itself.

In other words, as Machiavelli might say, the end justifies the means. If you subscribe to this way of thinking, something will be ethical to you if the outcome is deemed good.

An example of this might be when a manager tells a struggling employee that he is a valued member of the team with a bright future, when in fact, the manager realizes the employee probably will never earn a promotion. But the justification for the “white lie” is that the manager does not want to demoralize a valued employee who is urgently needed right now to complete an important project for the entire organization and its people.

Situational Ethics or Ethical Relativism

The third type of ethical thinking is called Situational Ethics or Ethical Relativism.  This way of thinking says that ethics are determined on a case-by-case basis. There is no standard moral guide for all situations. For that reason, situations are deemed “ethical” based on how they reflect current social norms. Since social norms change from one year to the next, or one culture to the next, there are no ethical standards for all.

Advocates for Situational Ethics believe that they best respect cross-cultural differences and diverse value systems. Many recognize that this system of ethics is reliant on a dominant mainstream culture that changes and never clearly defines the essential rightness or wrongness of a behavior.

The 2020 dilemma

Chances are if you have spent any time thinking about ethics in your personal life, you’ve operated from the standpoint of Deontological Ethics, the system of thought your mother taught you.

Yet, we often see that the waters on when it comes to ethics can get muddied. But of the three schools of thoughts for ethics, the most problematic may be the third one – Situational Ethics. The reason being that it is a house over a sink hole of poor logic.

Situational Ethics advocates recognize cultures may have different value systems, yet for this theory to work it’s still reliant on a single, dominant culture. That’s a huge contradiction. Situational Ethics advocates believe you can’t have standards in principle but they expect standard behaviors.

How should we be graded?

I ran into this issue once when I spoke to a group of MBA students at an elite university.  I have spoken there many times and had come to expect that these students would not ask questions to learn from my words, but that they would ask questions to test me, and learn through the give-and-take.

So, one asked me, simply, “Is it ever OK to lie?”

To which, I responded, “No. It’s never OK to lie.”

I further elaborated that in the real world, matters of opinion, conjecture and debate are often a mix of truths, half-truths and total misrepresentations of the truth. But as a matter of policy, we need to start with the acceptance that it is not OK to lie and to adhere to that basic code as a basis for all communication.

The student then told me that in his home country, it is OK to lie, and that America is wrong to establish honesty as a universal ethical principle.

So, I posed this scenario to him and the rest of the class.  “If your professor tells you at mid-term you will definitely get an A as a final grade, and then when you get your final report card and see that you got a C grade, is that acceptable?”

One hundred percent of the hands in the group, including my interrogator, said, “No,” that is not OK. They laughed a little sheepishly, because they realized that this thing we’re calling Situational Ethics is only the right system if we ourselves are not negatively affected.

Standards should be standard

The lesson for the group and for anyone taking a hard look at ethics is that the code for behavior must be standard.  Yes, it may be uncomfortable for some who resent the sense that someone else’s standards are being applied to them, but the value of adhering to ethics is when standards are shared. Effectiveness is only realized when everyone has the same understanding or right from wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable.

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Tim O’Brien is the founder of O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based corporate communications consultancy. He’s an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America and follows its Code of Ethics. He’s also a member of PRSA’s national Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.