Let’s Take this Blog Off Road

This blog post is a departure from the norm for me. Usually, my posts are a bit on the wonky side, exploring certain communications issues to the degree I like. This post is an experiment of sorts, so if you like it, maybe I’ll do more, but more than anything, I won’t waste your time.

That said, it’s an update on what we’re up to here at O’Brien Communications. We continue to do what I think is great work for clients. It usually involves some combination of strategic thinking and planning, media relations and writing, marketing, and not uncommonly crisis and issues management.

For this reason, business isn’t cyclical. Crises and issues don’t take summer breaks. So, this summer is like any other. We have clients with needs and are happy to address them.

I saw the term “passion project” in something else I read today, and that term may describe our podcast called Shaping Opinion. I really love doing it. It’s a ton of fun, it’s a creative outlet that I enjoy, and I have gotten to know a lot of very interesting people who I otherwise would never have met without the podcast.

But it serves a business purpose. O’Brien Communications has gotten more visibility as a result, one by winning an award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil competition, and also with the kind of reach it has gotten. The number of people who listen to the podcast is proportionately and consistently higher than anything else we’ve done, which includes this blog. But maybe the best thing is the feedback I’ve gotten from people I already know and have worked with. Your ideas, feedback and thoughts have been an invaluable part of the experience.

On a different front, I’ve done some work for a non-profit that I care about on a personal level, and that has been rewarding.

And my activity level within PRSA has increased in a good way. If you’re in the business of public relations and aren’t a member, please get in touch with me. I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have.

In addition to that Bronze Anvil recognition, Expertise.com named O’Brien Communications one of the top PR firms in Pittsburgh for the third year in a row, and I’ve had the chance to speak to some college classes who represent the next generation of PR folk.

I think that’s where I’ll stop, and just throw this out to you. If you have a topic you want me to address in future blog post, or for that matter our podcast, just let me know. We’ll call the Summer of 2019 the time when we took things “off road” for a bit.

As always, thanks for reading.

A Podcast that Covers What They Don’t Teach You in PR Class

One of my favorite books is from Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” In the book’s first paragraphs he explains, “The best lesson anyone can learn from business school is an awareness of what it can’t teach you – all the ins and outs of everyday business life.”

I had this line in the back of my mind from the moment the idea came to me for what has become the Shaping Opinion podcast.

The podcast, I thought, should be the answer to that question your mother-in-law asks you every Thanksgiving, “So what do you do in public relations?” Still, it should hold you even if you don’t really care much about the public relations field. Most importantly, if you do care about communications, and you want a successful career in it, I wanted the podcast to have a secret sauce that wouldn’t be overtly advertised but it would be the unifying thread for every episode – context.

To be sure, not every episode even mentions PR, and quite a few may not make your mother-in-law more PR savvy. But if you listen for a common thread in every episode, you’ll find elements of history and communication, and you’ll feel their combined impact on attitudes throughout our culture. This is context.

Without context you have sensational news stories today that seem to have forgotten or ignored the contradicting information that came out yesterday, and the cycle will be repeated tomorrow as the media and some communicators seem to have forgotten the lessons of what happened today, not to mention last year, or 10, 20 or 50 years ago. You have media and communicators reacting to everything they see with seemingly no understanding of the past and how the current or future circumstances could have been or could be shaped.

The “people, events or things that have shaped the way we think” that we talk about are sometimes so well known or so unknown that we don’t even think about it. Yet, there was always that person, that event or that thing that has had a major influence on how we see some aspect of society or our own lives.

Take the Emoticon…

The emoticon. You may use it without thinking about it. You may see it every day and not care, yet its very existence has in some way influenced the way you communicate or receive communication. How can something like that even come about? And can it be repeated on purpose? That’s what we talked about when we interviewed the AI scientist who first created the emoticon as a joke decades ago.

We talked to Nike’s former marketing chief when they launched “Just Do It.,” and learned how an advertising line can become part of a company’s culture, and then drive that culture, and then have a major influence on how society sees athletics and how millions see themselves as athletes.

Speaking of ad lines, did you know an ad woman in Philadelphia who herself never married was the genius behind the line, “A Diamond is Forever?” She helped create the common expectation that an engagement isn’t official without that diamond ring. This was the topic for Episode 16.

We revisited the day President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin with Sheila Tate who was press secretary in the White House with the First Lady at that moment. And we talked to the former FBI agent who handled crisis communications in Somerset, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.

We’ve had conversations with doctors and even a Nobel scientist on such things as the opioid crisis, the now global concussion protocol, and a human’s ability to manipulate proteins to “direct evolution.” These complex topics explained in our relatable conversations all have had some impact on how you and I see the world and its possibilities.

When you listen to Shaping Opinion, you will hear a conversation with someone who knows something special about the topic at hand. In the course of every episode, you’ll hear what it’s like to get that critical context needed before true understanding can happen and how this can create broader understanding and connections in society.

See it Through Their Eyes

Each interview is similar to that initial conversation I’ve had with those with whom I’ve worked on a communications matter over the years. It’s that opportunity to see things through their eyes, and in turn, it tends to bring out some of the stories and issues that must be considered before we can really connect with others.

It’s been my favorite part of a long career in public relations, and this podcast is my effort to share what I love most about communication with you. The learning. The context.

The Shaping Opinion podcast doesn’t fit into any neat genre that podcatchers like. It’s not true crime, it’s not a cooking podcast, it’s not politics, it’s not history, and it’s not pop culture or music. But at times, it’s all of the above.

It’s not a how-to podcast for public relations, yet every conversation is designed for professional communicators and others who find the dynamics that shape public opinion fascinating.

It’s a conversation where you’ll probably learn little something, perhaps become inspired in some way by one of our guests, and in the end feel a little better, a little stronger, and hopefully, a little more curious about the world around you.

One thing you can be sure of is that after every episode you will have context that you didn’t have before, which will help create better understanding.

♦  ♦  ♦

The Shaping Opinion podcast was the recipient of the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation in 2019.

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion Podcast Wins PRSA Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation

Pittsburgh, PA, May 1, 2019 — O’Brien Communications announced that it has been awarded the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA’s) Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation for its 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.

For more than 45 years, the Bronze Anvil Awards have recognized the best of the best in public relations tactics — the use of social media, video, blogs, podcasts, annual reports, digital newsletters, websites – that contribute to the success of overall programs or campaigns.

Judging is performed across the United States by teams of PRSA members and others with expertise in the specific categories.

The podcast was launched in April of 2018 and has featured a wide range of guests, from Apple’s first marketing guru and Nike’s head of marketing when they launched, “Just Do It.,” to a Nobel prize winner, an NFL super-agent, and numerous authors, researchers, doctors and other pioneering, national and international experts.

Shaping Opinion resides at the intersection of history, communication and culture.

Get Shaping Opinion

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. You can follow Shaping Opinion on Twitter and Instagram at @ShapingOpinion, on Facebook and on LinkedIn.

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

Advertiser Boycotts: Does Your Team Have an Experienced Crisis Manager on It?

If you haven’t noticed by now, there’s an advertiser boycott template and it goes like this. Activists select a television show, a radio program, a network, or a show host to boycott, and then they wait for something they can use as a justification for the boycott they have planned all along.

The goal is to get the show cancelled, the host fired and an opposition voice silenced. Secondarily, the purpose is to send a message to anyone who support those who challenge them that they could be the next target.

Once the activists identify something to be outraged about, such as a comment or an interview guest who they’ve framed as undesirable, the activists will post a list of that target’s advertisers on web sites and on social media with a call to action that is squarely aimed at advertising agency media buyers, account executives, agency owners and corporate chief marketing officers.

“Don’t advertise here, or else.”

The consequence of not adhering to their demands could be a steady and growing drip of social media posts attacking your brand, or a full-blown “Twitter storm” that conflates your brand’s decision to advertise with an endorsement of everything said on the programs where you advertise.

Traditionally, the lines between programming or content and advertising have been clear. Producers and program hosts have been free to run their shows as they wished. Advertisers determined whether or not they sponsored certain programs based on ratings and an ability to connect with highly valuable targeted demographics that certain shows can deliver. In other words, the relationship was completely transactional, and one the public and the show’s audience clearly understood.

Program hosts and producers knew to expect no efforts to influence content by advertisers. For their part, advertisers have always been seen as independent of the programming in which they advertise.

Advertisers are Skittish

What’s changed is that activists behind these sophisticated campaigns have identified what they perceive as the weak link in this process, which is the skittishness of advertising decision-makers. The activists know that advertisers are often conflict averse and can tend to overreact at the slightest whiff of controversy.

If you’re one of those decision-makers, they want you to respond to their tweet with a tweet of your own that distances your brand from the program on which it is advertising. That’s just their first step in a series designed to drive a wedge between you and their target.

They want you to rethink your entire advertising presence on the program. They want you to wonder if advertising on this particular show is worth the hassle. They want you to pull all of your advertising within days and to do so publicly so that enough pressure is applied to cancel a show or fire a host or both.

Activists do this because at least in the short-term it works. They know advertising and marketing professionals are not in the crisis and issues management business. They know that in the normal day-to-day world of advertising and marketing, the best pros are keenly sensitive to the slightest shifts in consumer sentiment and feedback, prepared to change course and strategy to seize new opportunities and avoid possible catastrophe.

While these heightened sensitives can be huge assets in the marketing process, they can be vulnerabilities that activists know how to exploit through an advertiser boycott.

An Advertiser Boycott is Not an Advertising Issue

The first thing to recognize about an advertiser boycott is that it’s not about advertising. Once it starts, it’s a crisis and issues management scenario.

Think of it this way. If you’re a marketer and you get sued, do you decide to handle it yourself, or do you bring in an attorney? Or, if the IRS comes knocking on your door for an audit, do you handle it yourself, or do you call your accountant?

Keep these things in mind before you decide to take a DIY approach to managing the next advertiser boycott you may face.

To be sure, while the battleground for an advertiser boycott is most certainly the marketing arena, the decision on whether to continue advertising is issues management. Yes, any and all decisions made here will have an impact on the success of your marketing program. But the criteria for making decisions has been intentionally, calculatingly and effectively muddied by the activists.

An objective crisis or issues manager will help to triage the factors that must be considered to ensure you do not overreact, and you do not make overly emotional decisions. Tied to this, a good counselor will help you best frame for the public any decisions you ultimately make.

If you’re an advertising agency leader, you may be thinking, “What does a crisis manager know about advertising?” The truth is not as much as you, which is why your role in the process remains critically important. But it doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

You may be surprised at what a true crisis and issues manager can do for you.

A good crisis and issues manager has become accustomed to telling clients what they need to hear and what they don’t want to hear, and if need be is willing to get fired for it. Wouldn’t it be better to have the crisis manager take the heat so that once the current crisis passes, you still have the account or your job?

The value an experienced crisis manager brings is a battle-tested point of view who knows what works, what doesn’t, and how things are likely to play out, from a best-case scenario, to a worst-case one. The crisis manager follows a process for making and framing these tough decisions just as you do for marketing.

Of course, the time to add a crisis manager to your bench is not after the Twitter storm against your brand has already started. The best time is long before an activist decides to make an example of your brand.

Thinking About Using Science to Make Your Point? Think Again

You may be familiar with these quotes about statistics. It was Mark Twain who said, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

And even if you don’t know Benjamin Disraeli, you may have heard his comment that, “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies and statistics.”

If Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli were around today, they’d probably be quite interested in reading the 2019 State of Science Index from 3M and may consider including “science” in their comments.

3M’s State of Science Index is a survey that studies perceptions of science around the world. This is the second year for the survey, which drew its conclusions from 14,000 participants in 14 countries.

Some of the topline findings this year were that 35 percent of those who responded to the survey said they are skeptical of science. This is an increase of three percent over 2018.

A little more than 25 percent of global participants said they are suspicions of the role science will play over the next 20 years. In America, the number is higher, closer to 33 percent.

One other key finding was that 45 percent of participants said they only believe in science that fits within their own worldviews or personal beliefs. The study’s authors believe this causes “unconscious skepticism.”

If we are to go with these findings, it would seem that science has joined the list of tools advocates use to advance their agendas, sometimes questionably.

We can speculate on why perceptions of science in general have shifted in this way, but certain things are true from any perspective.

It is now a standard strategy in the communications toolbox for advocacy groups to point to science as the basis for some of their arguments. Quite often, the spokespersons for these campaigns are scientists, selected for their perceived credibility and neutrality on the issue. Apparently, such campaigns could be starting to backfire.

The lesson for communicators for the moment is simply to be aware that when you start pointing to “scientific data,” “scientific research,” or the almost oxymoronic “scientific consensus,” you need to make sure that scientific accuracy comes before all else in order to retain credibility.

PR Careers: Public Relations is Not All About Standing Out or Self-promotion

I’ll be speaking at a student career day in a few weeks, and while I have some ideas I’d like to share with the students, I thought I’d do some online research to see what others in the PR business are telling students about the public relations field.

In the course of that, I ran across a particular blog post that out of respect to its author I won’t attribute his name here, but I will take a few minutes to counter a running theme in it.

The theme is, “In PR, we should stop trying to fit in with everyone else. We need to stand out.” Tied to this, the PR pro advocated heavily for self-promotion as a way to get your career moving.

First, in the public relations field, yes, the goal is not to strive for sameness. Differentiation is often a strategic facet of what we do, but it’s not the mission or mantra. Even then, there are certain ways to stand out when that’s important. Keep in mind, people often behave in many ways that get attention, but all too often it’s the wrong kind of attention.

This is not a new mindset. Back in the days of ink-stained editors in smoke-filled newsrooms, stereotypical publicists had a mantra: “It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they spell my name right.” It was a fallacy then and it is now.

To be sure, the writer of the post I cited spends his days in marketing communications within the confines of an ad agency that focuses on consumer marketing. In that narrow niche, it’s not uncommon to rely more heavily on standing out for attention’s sake.

Why?

Oftentimes, you’re selling a commodity against other commodities. The transaction is consistently simple. You’re always selling something. It’s always to the masses. And in the end, the thing you’re selling at its core is no different than the competition.

In those cases, the only things that will make your product stand out are the packaging, the marketing, the art, the social, the gimmicks, the taglines. Do anything to get noticed. It’s all about just getting noticed.

But the truth is, in the decades I’ve worked in PR, “getting noticed” has never been the overarching mission even when the purpose of the program has been to sell something. Effective marketing is smarter than that.

More often, the mission is to make credible and productive connections with the right people who can help our organizations achieve some business or organizational objective.

In a crisis, the mission may be to make sure everyone is safe after an accident, and to make sure all of the right people know what’s happening.

In the workplace, the mission may be to make sure every employee has a full understanding of the competitive pressures a company faces and what each person can do to help the company achieve the larger goals.

Even in our most common discipline, media relations, the goal isn’t always just to get noticed. Oftentimes, it’s to connect with the news media’s viewers or readers on matters much more comprehensive than selling a commodity product. Not too long ago, a media relations program I handled on was centered on educating the public on energy and environmental issues.

The point is, if I were a student reading the blog post that I cited at the start of this post, I would come away with a very narrow view of the PR field as nothing more than creative grandstanding. That’s a narrow and amateurish view of PR.

When the writer advocated for self-promotion as a means to get ahead, he didn’t couch it. Apparently, he believes no-holds-barred self-promotion is the way to go, most likely because it has helped him. I’d venture that he may not realize the number of times he may have hurt himself in this way.

The truth is, while we all have to establish ourselves in our careers and create a “personal brand,” if you will, shameless self-promotion is a sure way to alienate coworkers, managers, some existing clients and more than a few potential clients.

In the end, a career in public relations is not all about self-promotion and trying to be different just to stand out. It’s about connecting with people using proven means, or coming up with new and creative ways if that’s what’s required to get the job done.

If you’re considering a career in PR, the most critical thing to know is that public relations is not all about, “Look at me!”

More to the point, it’s better to adopt the belief that if you’re my audience, it’s all about you.

When is it Time to Bring in a Solo PR Consultant?

This is a question I see every day. An organization has the staff it needs for its day-to-day business, but not everything goes as planned. Some projects take more time and resources than expected. New demands pop up.

The C-Suite just changed your priorities. And here you are, having to do everything you planned to do, and a little bit more.

It’s times like these that organizations entertain the notion of bringing in an agency to provide support. Sometimes it makes sense. Agencies can throw a lot of bodies at a challenge in a short period of time. But they can blow budgets out of the water in the process, and it can take time to get everyone up to speed and stay on the same page.

There are times you just don’t need or want all of that. What you need is someone who can get up to speed quickly and help out as needed. Hopefully, someone who’s been there.

Media relations, writing, social media are three common areas where organizations turn to solos, but in all reality, whatever the need may be, there’s a chance a seasoned solo practitioner is available to help.

Of course, short-staffing is only one reason solos like me get phone calls. Another factor is having the right experience or expertise in a given specialty, like speech writing, media training, or crisis and issues management.

Whatever the case, if you have a need, and for whatever reasons you can’t adequately address it with the staff on hand, may not have to go the route of RFPs and agency searches. All you may need is a one-person agency in the form of a solo consultancy.

If this sounds like you, just let me know. If I can’t help, there’s a very good chance I know someone who’s right for you.

When You’re Tapped to be the Company Spokesperson

Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.

What do you do?

Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.

But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?

Messaging

The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?

Questions and Answers

Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.

Coaching and Simulation

If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.

Resources

As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers.  And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.

These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.

What Keeps Americans Up at Night? Pew Survey Gives Some Insights

 

In a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in January, Americans said they are most concerned about “the economy, health care costs, education and preventing terrorism.”

Pew said this is not a major change from a year ago, but there are some slight shifts.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said that improving the economy is still a high priority but not as dominant as it was in previous years. A likely explanation for this is that since the economy has gained strength over the past two years, economic issues are less of a concern, and other concerns have risen higher.

When the recession was still fresh in peoples’ minds in 2011, 87 percent of survey participants then said the economy was the highest priority. Based on this trend, should the economy continue to improve, it would appear to us that concern over the economy will likely lessen.

Case in point, 50 percent of those surveyed by Pew said concern over the employment situation is a high priority. This as unemployment rates have fallen significantly. Back in 2011 when unemployment levels were much higher, so were employment concerns. Pew said it found that in 2011 87 percent considered employment a high priority.

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed told Pew that defending the U.S. from possible terrorist attacks remains a high priority.

Other priorities cited by Pew:

  • Reducing health care costs (69 percent said it’s a high priority);
  • Improving the educational system (68 percent said it should be a high priority);
  • And Pew said that “about two-thirds also say that taking steps to make the Social Security (67 percent) and Medicare (67 percent) systems financially sound are top priorities for the country.”

Pew said it conducted the survey from January 9 to 14, 2019, and received responses from 1,505 adults.

Public Relations Implications

While the Pew survey captures the national mood in a broad sense, its findings can also help companies and other organizations better understand what’s on the minds of their employees, customers and other important stakeholders.

When talking to employees this year, for example, while employers may have good news with regard to performance and employment opportunities, it will be equally important to communicate with employees on what is being done to better manage and control health insurance costs.

That’s just one example. What are your thoughts? Tweet to us at @OBrienPR.

The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.