New ‘Shaping Opinion’ Podcast Focuses on People, Events and Things that have Shaped the Way We Think

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Pittsburgh, PA, April 16, 2018 — O’Brien Communications has launched a new episodic podcast called Shaping Opinion.  The podcast features conversations between host Tim O’Brien and guests, where together they tell the stories of people, events and things that have shaped the way we think.

The first five episodes have already been posted to podcast feeds, in addition to the ShapingOpinion.com web site.  In the first episodes, Shaping Opinion shares the stories of a business meeting with Mister Rogers; the time Beech-Nut Packing hired PR pioneer Edward Bernays who in turn created America’s iconic bacon and eggs breakfast; some things you not have heard about the time Prince decided to change his name to a symbol; the PR magic behind the Goodyear Blimp; and how the deaths of seven people after taking Tylenol in 1982 ushered in a new era for how companies and organizations respond to crises.

Subjects may range from sometimes the well-known, to forgotten, little-known, or under-appreciated stories, but always, they represent change. A turning point that marked a significant shaping of the way we think.

Shaping Opinion’s initial guests are: Mary Barber, Robin Teets, Elizabeth Flynn and Dan Keeney.

Get Shaping Opinion

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play and where you find your favorite podcasts. You can follow Shaping Opinion on Twitter @ShapingOpinion, on Facebook and on LinkedIn, and you can get Shaping Opinion in your inbox. Show note pages at ShapingOpinion.com include bonus content, links and detailed information on each episode.

About O’Brien Communications

In 2017, Expertise.com recognized O’Brien Communications as one of the top 14 PR firms in Pittsburgh. 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; and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups.  Learn more: @OBrienPR, www.OBrienCommunications.com

Facebook Privacy: A 2009 PR Strategist Article had a Point

In 2009, I wrote a piece for PRSA’s Public Relations Strategist on the dawn of social media and privacy issues. At the time, it made the rounds in PR ethics circles, but given the recent Facebook crisis, I thought I’d revisit it, nine years later. It still holds up, perhaps more now than ever:

PR Strategist – Ethics and Social Media – Spring 2009

“Social networking media are essentially a virtual gold mine for marketers and professional communicators. While social networking media platforms have created opportunity by enabling individuals and organizations to connect in exciting new ways, the offshoot of this activity — mountains of data — presents major new challenges for communications professionals, all rooted in the issue of privacy. The purpose of this is not to provide all of the answers, but rather to raise important questions about the issue of privacy so that the PR profession can lunge into this new era without blinders.”

 

 

How Private People Use Social Media

As PR people go, I may be more privacy-minded than most. Yes, I’m on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  I have this website and this blog and a Vlog.

For the past few decades, I’ve spent most of my waking moments trying to get my clients, my organizations and sometimes myself visibility in the media and other places.

Yet for me there has always been a constant, which is that I’ve maintained very clear lines between my personal privacy and my work life.  To be sure, the arrival of the digital age has challenged that balance from time to time. Still, for the most part I can’t complain, and I know there are many, many people just like me.

That’s why it can be a huge mistake on the part of professional communicators to make snap judgements about demographics, consumer tastes, or public attitudes on certain issues primarily on the basis of what they see on social media. Unfortunately, many communicators base their decision-making on what’s trending on social media.  Unbeknownst to them, for all the analytics and machine-learning that’s out there prying into our online habits, there is still a vast amount of information you don’t see online and will never see.

With this in mind, using myself as a point of reference, I think I can tell you a little about how private people use social media.

We don’t post pictures.

I have one official photo of myself for all social media. It’s me in a suit and jacket with a tie. While I hardly ever wear a tie, you wouldn’t know that from my photo, and I’m fine with that. It’s a good photo, it’s accurate, and if we meet in business, that’s how I will look to you.

What you won’t see are photos of my family, of my vacations, of my Father’s Day party. As much as I admire people who post these things on their own social media pages (I really do), I find that as a private person, less is more for me. Along these same lines, I’ve become notorious among friends and family for making sure they “un-tag” me from any photos they post online.

While most of my reasons are rooted in my personal comfort level with privacy, I have also learned that in my line of work, some duplicitous orgs are not beyond searching the social media pages of their targets and their targets’ PR consultants to fabricate a narrative and create propaganda.

We don’t share personal tastes online.

Over the years, I’ve posted thousands of tweets, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of LinkedIn and Facebook posts, and any number of blog posts, and if that’s how you know me you probably won’t know my favorite foods, music, vacation spots, beverages, celebrities or movies.

What you will learn from my social media feed is I’m all about communications and business and to a lesser extent pop culture as it intersects with communications and business. I like football, baseball and college basketball. And every now and then, usually around a holiday, I’ll wax sentimental about my country, American history, Irish heritage and family.

I’ve been told that when I use social media to spout off about the terrible season the Pittsburgh Pirates are having, that’s called “social signaling.”  In other words, it’s there to let you know I have a life, too.  That sounds about right.

Private people don’t share tidbits from our own conversations or encounters.

Private people value our privacy so much that we wouldn’t think of repeating things other people say to us or around us.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a social feed of a business person who apparently thinks it’s cute to share things he’s overheard at his workplace – usually comments that border on tastelessness.

That’s the kind of thing that makes private people like me a little queasy on a number of levels. First, even if you don’t attribute the words, you’re positioning yourself as a gossip, and your gossip is not reflecting well on you or your work environment.

Second, what seems harmless and fun to you on social media (outrageously funny?), can easily offend people you’ve never met but may want to meet some day. Is a little snark and crudeness worth turning off that potential client or employer without you ever knowing it?

But third and most important, our most valued currency is trust. Our clients, our coworkers, our management teams and other colleagues have to know they can trust us, and they’re more likely to trust those who practice discretion.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Privacy on social media is all about discretion. And discretion is all about trust.

So, why are private people on social media, anyway?

I’ll give you my answer in the hopes it’s on par with many other private people who use social media. While everyone’s reason may vary, this may provide some insight.

Because I’m in the public relations business, I do it because it’s my work. I need to know as much as possible about how social media works even if I’m not a fanatical “broadcaster” on social media myself. More importantly, I need to have a solid understanding of human behavior online. This is critical to what I do for a living.

I have found news feeds to be tremendously helpful at staying abreast of the latest news, information and trends.  I keep up with others, I keep up with my industry, with new developments, with my clients’ industries and competitors. Oftentimes when I post, I’m actually experimenting with a  strategy, a message or an approach.  I’m gauging reaction to what I post.  And not all of my posts are from my own accounts. I am very active on social media as the operator of other accounts.

So, the next time you see that Facebook headshot of the guy in the suit and tie, or the woman in business attire at a conference, consider this. Maybe, just maybe, they are not all-work-and-no-play. It’s quite possible that they believe the best stuff is kept offline. Sometimes a photo doesn’t say more than a couple of words, and that’s for the best.

Whose Truth Is It, Anyway?

I had an interesting interchange with a colleague, Karen Swim, President of Words for Hire in Detroit, on social media recently. The thing that prompted our discussion was her posting of this article from Forbes about a new analytics program called Protagonist which is claimed to help “better manage communications strategies.”

That sounds good, and if it does what it says it does it could be very meaningful, but I have my concerns for one simple reason. Computer programs are only as objective and (ironically) as analytical as the programmers who create them. If the creators have a very specific worldview, that worldview becomes the benchmark against what all other data will be analyzed and judged.

While I have not used the program in question, my point to Karen was that the red flag for me was that the program was described as being “free from bias.”

Karen’s thoughtful reply: “The issue is not in having biases, we all do, but acknowledging them and allowing for differing perspectives and opinions.”

Yes!!!

In recent weeks, I’ve seen countless articles on what were the big stories of 2017 and what were people’s predictions for 2018. I’ve learned not to try to predict, but there are some trends worth watching. One of them will be the continued evolution of technologies that are designed to replace human analytical thinking.

Consider artificial intelligence and machine learning. From self-driving cars to robots that can enter hazardous environments, sparing human lives. These all show great promise.

But before we surrender too much of our thinking to our digital minders, I’d offer this. When we start to dive deep into the development of communications strategies, when we have to identify biases, issues and concerns, in the end, we have to confront our own biases, our own worldviews and factor them into our own analysis of the data that’s before us.

This all starts with the acceptance of the notion that no one has exclusive claim to the truth. A respect for other points of view can be very situational, and very much based on emotion, morals and ethics in ways a software program cannot adequately take into account.

From there we can create context, the kind of context our clients and organizations need to make informed decisions. Not just factually informed decisions based on algorithms and what attitudes seem to be trending online. Rather, the best communications decisions are ones that are informed by offline factors such as emotion, experience, common sense, empathy and an understanding of human nature that all still rely on skilled and experienced professionals to interpret and manage.

A PR Clinic in the Snow: Christmas Lessons at 6th and Grant

I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.

For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.

As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.

Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.

After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.

But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.

There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.

That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.

Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.

Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.

At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat.  There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.

He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.

So, what does this all mean to PR?

My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.

To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.

That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Healing Holiday

The following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the parts where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity. In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.
Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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?

Public Relations Society of America Recognizes Pittsburgh PR Consultant’s Contributions to National PR Field

Pittsburgh, PA, October 12, 2017 – O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh public relations consultancy, has announced that the national Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and its Independent Practitioners Alliance (IPA) have presented Tim O’Brien with its “Indie Award.” The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the nation’s independent practitioner community in the public relations field.

The Indie award was presented at PRSA’s International Conference in Boston on October 9, 2017. In presenting the award, the PRSA cited O’Brien’s role as author of PRSA’s “State of Independence” column that is published in the organization’s PR Tactics monthly that is distributed online and in print to all PRSA members in North America. In addition, he was recognized for his active participation in and contributions to the Solo PR Pro forum, a national community of PR consultants.

He is a veteran professional communicator and an accredited member of PRSA, having served on its Pittsburgh board of directors. He is an alumnus of Duquesne University, and in addition to writing for PRSA, he is a regular speaker before industry and college groups. He is also a monthly columnist for Muck Rack Daily, a national digital media property that serves the country’s journalist and public relations communities. He was featured in the Harvard Business Review Press’s “The Essentials of Corporate Communications and Public Relations,” and he contributed a chapter to PR News’s “Crisis Management Guidebook.”

About O’Brien Communications

In 2017, Expertise .com recognized O’Brien Communications as one of the top 14 PR firms in Pittsburgh. 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; and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups.

Issues Management: It Won’t Stop Unless You Beat It Back

Crisis communications and issues management are often conflated because there is a certain degree of crossover. Take the NFL’s problem with National Anthem protests. It’s become an acute crisis because the president’s outspokenness on the issue led to a near revolt by players in three days, which led to an actual revolt by fans instantly.

It was s simmering issue but then it became a crisis. Inevitably, the crisis phase will fade at some point, though it’s highly unlikely that the issues at play will go away easily. Some crisis pros like to call these issues “long-burning” or “smoldering” crises that seemingly never end and could flare up again with the slightest gust of wind.

The NFL has made a series of bad decisions since 2016 which created the tinderbox that erupted last week, so reputationally speaking its wounds are largely self-inflicted.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

If your organization is mired in an issues management situation, it can feel like you will never get rid of the issue unless you make your critics happy. But by virtue of their label – “critics” – there is a good chance they will never be happy, at least in a way that benefits you. On the other hand, the things that may make them happy could very well make you unhappy.

This is the crossroads where many managers find themselves in issues management.

  1. Do I try to please my critics?
  2. Do I appease them so they will go away?
  3. Do I try to strike just the right balance?
  4. How can I just get this behind me and avoid further turmoil?

This line of thinking usually ignores the real dynamics at play and all too often makes the PR mess worse, because the fundamental problems and issues that are at play were never really confronted and were never resolved.

Who are your critics?

First, let’s take a look at your critics. Are they your customers? If so, you’ve got a real problem and you’d better listen (In the NFL fans = customers). Are they investors? Ditto. Your employees? This is where it starts to get complicated. Chances are when your employees have a problem, you have a problem, like it or not. But there are times when certain employee groups may not have the organization’s best interest in mind. Communication could be a problem. That’s where you have to lead the way.

In the current environment, it’s more likely that your more vocal critics won’t be customers, investors or employees. They’re most likely to be outsiders, who as critics are doing what they do best, and that is attack organizations on issues, real or contrived.

The usual suspects are politicians, activists, social media instigators, all individuals and groups that may be dedicated to making noise to get attention and support for their own agendas.

Should you appease them?

No.

If I’m one of your critics, the primary driver behind my attacks on you and your organization is to pressure you to try to appease me. Once you do that, I will change my demands and make them impossible for you to meet. I will keep doing this until you quit. I don’t just want you to pay, I want you to pay dearly and quite visibly. I want you to be distracted from your day-to-day business. I may want you to stop doing one thing, or start doing another. I want you to fire people. I may want you yourself to resign or be fired. I want heads, because that’s how I keep score.

So, my first goal as a critic is to get you to think that appeasing me based on my initial demands will make me go away. Of course, what you don’t know is the fun is just getting started.

Your strategy of giving into my initial demands is the first big mistake you can make, and once you realize that, you will already be far enough down the path of poor decision-making that each additional decision going forward will be even more complex and challenging until you’ve put yourself into a corner and there is no easy way out. As your critic, that’s how I win and you lose.

How can I find the right balance?

At this point, you may sense a running theme, but I will reiterate. Your critics are dug in. They don’t want balance. They’ve already structured the issues management battlefield so that the outcome is winner-take-all, and since they typically lay the situational ground rules, the field is usually tilted in their favor.

Out in the world people are watching, people who aren’t critics. Perhaps when you think about trying to find the right balance you are thinking of them, not your critics. You are trying to find a way to appeal to the masses.

You may believe they want balance, but consider this. Have you ever gone to a sporting event hoping for a tie? A tie would be perfect balance, wouldn’t it?  Not really.

The point is everyone wants a decision. Your critics want it to be in their favor. You may want it to be in yours. Observers, however, they just want it to be the right decision, and they are looking to you to define that for them. But in the end, when that decision is made they want it to be a decisive victory in their favor.

How can I just put this to rest and avoid further turmoil?

This may be the most important question because it’s at the root of all the others. As much as no one wants to find themselves at the center of controversy, once you’re in the middle of one, attitudes that revolve around dread, frustration, and even defeatism can be the kinds of distractions that will create entirely new problems. With this attitude, you can be your own worst enemy.

Once you are confronted with a smear campaign, a campaign based on criticism, baseless allegations and unrealistic demands or expectations, you have a choice – the instinctual decision between fight or flight. If you are not prepared to beat the issue back, you are in for a long and miserable journey and an unsatisfying outcome.

If you really want to put the issue to rest, do your homework, know what stakeholders are most important, what they want to know, what they need to know, and what you can say. Know what’s true and what isn’t. As soon as possible, get a handle on the real end-game of your critics.

Once you’ve done all of this, be prepared to beat the issue back. Make your case confidently, positively and completely. Be honest, be transparent, but most importantly, be unapologetic and fearless in the face of confrontation. If you are being pressured on an issue and you truly believe you are in the right, then conduct your communications campaign in precisely that spirit. Your tone does not to have the same brute force as your critics, but it should send the message that you are confident and committed to your position.

If you want to talk issues management, let me know. I’d be happy to talk.

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.