The 4 Things That Will Happen When You Get Sued

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

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

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

“We have yet to see the complaint.”

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

The Complaint Focuses on the Most Sensational and Bizarre Allegations

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Legal Process Provides a Publicity Timeline

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

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

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

With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

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

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

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

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

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

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

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

Give Your Critics a Forum

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

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

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

Appease Your Way to Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2001: Never forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When Emotions are Weaponized Against You

If you step back and look at patterns in content and coverage that you see in digital and traditional media, you’ll find that the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the emotional as opposed to the factual.

Before the Houston flood waters receded last week, MarketWatch, (the financial media site), tweeted and featured a story by a New York Post writer that focused on the style of shoes the First Lady wore when boarding Air Force One on the way to Texas. Clearly, the intent of the story was to further inflame emotional feelings against and in support of the current administration.

You may wonder with good reason, “What do the First Lady’s shoes have to do my financial health or the nation’s business and economic well-being?”

The quick answer is “nothing,” but stories like that do two things. First, they enrage readers on both sides of the issue and that means traffic, the life-blood of any media organization, digital or otherwise. Second, they feed the echo chamber of social media, where “shares” and retweets further accelerate the constant movement of eyeballs from one page to the next. The highway for all of this traffic is emotion.

With this in mind, here are some tips for effectively engaging when simply laying out the facts does not seem to be as effective as emotion in making your case:

Pay Attention to Optics

Optics are symbols and visuals that you can use to send the right message, or that critics use to taint your reputation. The First Lady’s shoes, though trivial in a factual sense, gave the administration’s critics fodder to frame it as out of touch. While the story was clearly overshadowed by so many other Hurricane Harvey stories, this example serves as an illustration that in big and small ways, optics can become issues unto themselves.

As important as it is to consider optics when planning a communication or event, it is equally important to be prepared to respond to attacks from critics who seemingly can turn the most mundane visuals into a negative statement about you if that’s how they want to portray it.  If your critics are dead set towards finding something about you to make an issue, they will do so.  You just need to be prepared for it and know, at least in general, how you will respond. The one mistake to avoid is to automatically accept the premise of the criticism.

Exaggeration is King

From click-bait social media headlines to sensational TV news teasers, media thrive on exaggeration. Often, when you present most developments as accurately as possible in the proper context, it can be quite boring.  This is because when you communicate clearly, people get an understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Once they get the context, they are not as likely to be alarmed. If they are not alarmed, shocked surprised or angered, they won’t respond at an emotional level, which means they may not respond at all.  In media terms, this means they may not click, read or watch.

Generating an emotional response through exaggeration is highly effective. The tabloids have been doing this for decades. By exaggerating and selectively omitting certain aspects of a story tabloids sell newspapers.

Did you ever click on a headline about an explosion in a factory or a nasty car accident only to find out buried deep in the story the fact that no one was hurt? Those are common examples of how exaggeration is used to get you to click. If you knew no one was hurt from the headline, you may not have clicked on the story from the start.  Buried or missing facts are often by design.

It’s much easier for originators to create caricatures of people and simplistic “good” versus “bad” scenarios rather than to delve into the complexities and nuances of a situation. These are major ingredients to creating an emotional response.

Critics will Attack Anyone Associated with You

In the jungle, the lion will chase after the herd until the weakest member of the herd falls away and becomes easy prey.

This same law of the jungle comes to play when critics use social media and traditional media to smear their targets. They don’t try to bring down the entire organization all at once, but rather, they will seek to find out as much as possible about individual employees, consultants, customers, consulting firms, partner firms and associates, anyone who has a relationship with the critics’ larger target.  They will then try to paint that individual or firm as a villain to generate an emotional response.

I once saw an activist group pour through the innocuous social media posts of a consultant who worked with an organization that was targeted for vilification. The activists took a select few social media posts so completely out of context it reached a level of all-out duplicity.  The group then featured those comments in a malicious document they passed off as an “investigative research report.” Their goal was to marginalize the consultant (and others) as part of the larger effort to discredit their main target.

The strategy was – one by one – to pick off anyone who might be associated with the larger target of a smear campaign with no basis in truth. It also sent a chilling message to anyone else who might have been considering working for or with the targeted organization.

Peer Pressure and the Social Media Mob

Thanks to social media, the peer pressure dynamics you thought you left behind in high school are still with us. Peer pressure relies on emotional dynamics to work. You must want to be popular, liked or accepted in order for peer pressure to have effect. If you have thick skin and are more resistant to peer pressure, it is much less effective.  Where this becomes complicated is if others in your organization are easily swayed by such pressure.

In many situations where public relations is involved, the desire to be liked and accepted is a fundamental premise. For this reason, we see an increasing amount of peer pressure used in support of and against our clients and brands.

When peer pressure is used against an organization or brand, it is oftentimes combined with shame. Critics will campaign to shame a targeted organization through a “social media mob.” Typically these groups and online communities are well-organized and calculatingly assembled, yet to many they appear as spontaneous, grassroots eruptions.  These sophisticated organizers seek to overwhelm a targeted organization into submission – again, through emotionally driven messaging and tactics.

What takes this dynamic to a higher level is that the “mob” may not simply want you to be quiet. Rather, the organizers may even seek to force you to endorse their position on a given issue even if that position is at odds with your own value system or best interests. The implied message is, “You either publicly endorse us or you’re our next target.”

Maybe the social media mob took its cue from Godfather movie mob boss Don Corleone when he talked about making “you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Know Your Core Values

In this environment, it is more important than ever to know what your organization stands for. What are the core values that you consider uncompromising?

Steve Jobs once described Apple as more than a company that sold computer boxes. He said that Apple is a company that exists to help those who think they can make the world better do so.

Most often, when you hear executives talk about their organizations’ core values, they’re speaking in platitudes that drive marketing and other routine business functions. Perhaps it is most important to be aware of your core values when your organization is under fire for sticking to them.

As we see every day, it doesn’t take much for digital media and traditional media to latch onto some superficial concept that uses emotion to draw you or your organization into potentially controversial and viral situation.

There can be tremendous pressure to compromise on your organization’s focus and core values, and to cave into the expectations of others who seek to use your organization as an example of how they can inflict their will. The kneejerk response is to quickly appease and concede in the hopes your critics will move on to another target. More often than not, this action tends to embolden the critics, not soften them, leading to a situation where the critics demand more than they did originally. The stakes get higher.

Many organizations succumb to this because managers themselves can get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Keep in mind, average news cycles usually last 24-48 hours. At the very least, your organization needs to be able to get through that period as responsively and responsibly as possible without hastily over-reacting, causing the kind of fallout you have to live with when the spotlight is no longer on your organization.

Remember, your critics may represent a small minority and not the majority of people’s perceptions. Your job is not to change their point of view, but rather, to make sure your most important stakeholders are aware of your position.

When you have a strong set of core values, and you unapologetically stand by them and the responsible decisions you make that are in keeping with them, you will win at an emotional level that drives to the very core of what really matters to most people.

Why Emotional Language is More Powerful than Facts

In more and more situations of late, I have found myself counseling clients that the facts can’t speak for themselves, and that we need to frame facts in the proper context with a little help from emotion. It would seem that in today’s communications environment, one person’s fact is another person’s opinion.

What does seem to break through is anger, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and trust, though some emotions seem to dominate more than others.

ESPN’s Emotional Decision Leads to Overwhelmingly Emotional Reaction

Consider the recent decision ESPN made not to have Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee call an upcoming University of Virginia football game in September. At the center of the decision was the fact  that Robert Lee, the announcer, shares a name with the late Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That would seem to be all that they have in common.

An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com the rationale was based on what SI.com described as the possibility of “potential mockery that could come from doing the game.”

In a statement, ESPN said, “We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

Needless to say, the social media backlash was immediate, viral and quite emotional.

Don’t Make Decisions Based on Emotion

Notice that in explaining its decision, ESPN said “in that moment it felt right.” That’s hardly a justification for any decision. In fact, just about every mistake we make as imperfect human beings can be traced back to such a statement.

“In that moment it felt right.”

What this reinforces is that when making decisions, leaders and managers must do so devoid of emotion while maintaining a sense of the emotional impact of those decisions.

Use Emotions to Influence

The ESPN case illustrates how an emotional narrative drove the network to make an ill-advised decision that in the end brought on the network the very thing it was trying to avoid.

If you want to influence somebody, use emotion. Sellers do this every day. Cars are not sold on the basis that they run better than other cars. They are sold because of the emotional statement they make about you. You are successful. You care about the environment. You are fun. The car you choose makes a statement about you.

The same can be said for the kind of beer you buy, the clothes you wear, the vacation destinations you choose. Each decision you make is based at least in part on how that decision makes you feel. Your emotions.

With this in mind, the language you choose to convince others should consider the facts for the sake of credibility (something ESPN should have done), and then communicate in emotional terms. Here are some examples:

Ultimately, both emotions and facts have their place in the decision-making and communications process. The key is to know when and where to rely on facts, and when messages must be delivered at an emotional level to truly connect.

O’Brien Communications conducts research and programs to help clients find the right balance between emotions and facts in the messaging and language they feature in their communications and marketing programs.

Can You Really Enjoy Working on a Crisis?

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

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

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

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

You’re Not Alone

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

Bonds are Formed in Adversity

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

A Sense of Humor Doesn’t Hurt

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

Doing the Right Thing Gives Peace of Mind

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

You’ll Laugh Later

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

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

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

So, can you enjoy a crisis?

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

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

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

Are PR People Control Freaks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About O’Brien Communications

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

You Want to Know How to Create a Powerful Key Message? Try this.

hint-its-not-about-business

In my media training work, I once worked with a colleague who liked to handle the portion of the workshop on key messaging. That segment included classroom lecture followed by an independent exercise.

She would “click” to the Powerpoint slide that featured this question:

“What is the meaning of life?”

Then she would ask the group to spend a few minutes writing their own individual and personal answers to the question. She’d remind them, “There are no wrong answers. Please take a few minutes to think about this and after a break we’ll discuss your answers.”

Most of the time the break would start quietly as people would contemplate their answers. Sometimes a few stand up and get a cup of coffee or just stretch their legs, and they would talk to each other informally about the question, seemingly as a way to prep themselves for open discussion of such a personal topic.

After I saw my colleague do this in a few sessions, I learned to expect the same group behaviors every time.

When the break was over, group discussion would follow a round-robin format with volunteers reading from their notes. One might start with, “To me, the meaning of life is golf and sleeping in on Saturdays,” which  would predictably get a few laughs from the group.

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But pretty quickly, the tone would get serious, and some very simple and short concepts that had almost universal appeal and understanding would emerge:

“My family.”

“Faith.”

“Country.”

“Health.”

Consistently, it didn’t take many words or much time for people to answer the question, and very rarely was there any confusion or self-doubt. Almost to a participant, there was tremendous conviction behind the words or sentences.

At the end of the exercise, my colleague would tell the group that what they just did was come up with their own key messages. Then she would tell them what makes for a powerful key message.

If I may paraphrase my colleague, she would tell the group that good key messages are simple, clear and direct. They represent universal qualities that targeted audiences readily understand and appreciate.

She is no longer with us, but if my colleague were here, I know she’d add that a good key message is credible and believable because it isn’t just a set of words, at its core it’s honesty.

Let me know if you’d like to talk about key messaging.

Communications Inbox: How to Start a Solo Practice; When to Communicate During a Crisis

shutterstock_52853291-questionsWithout any encouragement in recent weeks I’ve gotten some questions via email from some people who’ve become regular readers of this blog (Thanks!).   The questions have ranged from how to start a solo practice, to how to structure a business plan.

With that in mind, and with the permission of the questioners, I thought I’d pick two of those questions and respond to them on this blog. Should you have a question you may want to see addressed in this space, just let me know. From time to time, I will feature them here.

Question #1: I’m presently working in the corporate department of a large firm.  I have no agency experience.  What steps should I take if I want to start my own solo practice?

– Nathan B.

Response:  Nathan, this is one of the more common questions I get from people in the PR field, mostly due to the fact that my business has been established for 15 years and I have a monthly column in PRSA’s Tactics called State of Independence.

The main thing I’d tell you to do is to create a thorough and detailed business plan. There are many books on the subject, and many good articles to be found online. It’s not as important that you follow any one structure over another. What’s important is that you find one that suits you, and that it is exhaustive in its detail.

Chances are you will encounter several points in the process of creating a business plan where you don’t have the answers. Take that as a sign you need to do more homework, or in some cases, get more experience. If you have agency experience, the transition to starting your own solo practice will be a little easier because you should be already familiar with the business development and administrative processes that work behind the scenes to create a structure for effective client service.

But until you’ve actually started your business, it’s very difficult to imagine the difference between self-employment and working for someone else in an agency or another kind of organization.  The process for creating a sound business plan is probably one of the most significant steps you can take to determine if starting an independent practice is right for you.

Question #2: There have been times when smaller crises have occurred within my organization and my supervisor was reluctant to communicate. His position was to wait to see how people would react before communicating. Is that the best approach? 

– Jennifer K.

Response: No. Usually, when you wait for the worst, you increase the chances that the worst will happen because you’re surrendering control to others and circumstance.  In any crisis, the first and most important thing to do is gain a clear and accurate assessment of the damage and potential damage to the organization’s reputation.

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That means doing your own internal reporting and identifying potential vulnerabilities, not only to the organization’s reputation, but to the organization itself.  Waiting to do this or to plan a crisis response can lead to operational problems that can hinder the organization’s ability to function at its best.

Once you have an idea of how big the crisis is or what could happen in a worst-case scenario, the next step is to prepare. Draft strategy documents, identify crisis team members, and begin to draft the full suite of documents and materials you may need should the crisis unfold.  Make sure your channels are in place for communicating to all important stakeholders. This includes conventional means and digital.

This kind of preparation is invaluable even when organizational leadership is reluctant at the moment to communicate on the issue.  No one will complain if you are prepared when the time comes to mobilize and communicate.

Strategically, the reason it’s best not to wait is that when you do, you give others a chance to shape the story for you, and the way they shape it may not be in your best interest. It may be inaccurate, irresponsible, or it may be agenda-driven, such as when a competitor spreads rumors or gossip.

If you have a question you’d like to see featured here, please let us know.