What was Said in 2020 Stays in 2020

Are you ready for 2021? I am. There is no small list of things that I won’t miss about 2020, including some words and terms that are cringey reminders of what we’ve all just been through.

So, in 2021 I vow not to waste time on a few of them. These are a few words and terms I intend to leave behind me in 2020:

The New Normal – Let’s face it, the “new normal” is abnormal and will always be abnormal. I prefer normal or even better-than-normal. I don’t like the new normal or the sub-normal. So it is that  I choose to leave “the new normal” here in 2020. Instead, I will pursue “normal” in 2021. Others may feel differently, and they are free to do so. But don’t expect me to join them.

Social Distancing – Yes, I know. We may have to keep a safe distance for a time after the New Year, but I’m done with the term. I’ll do what I need to do but I’m leaving this language in 2020. If you want to talk about “social distancing,” how to do it, who’s doing it, who’s not doing it, and who should do it in 2021, find someone else.

Lockdowns – They happened in 2020. As more data and analysis comes out, lockdowns seem to have worked, particularly in those first 15 days to slow the spread of a virus. After that, even experts are  divided on their effectiveness.  One thing we do know, lockdowns have had devastating effects on the economy, families and communities. With all that we continue to learn, combined with the new treatments, a new vaccine, and now the use of commonly understood mitigation efforts, you could say I’m done with discussing lockdowns.

Dr. Anthony Fauci – I never knew who Dr. Anthony Fauci was before 2020, and nothing against him personally, but I look forward to a time when I forget his name.

Reimagine – In my work, I’ve always been extremely sensitive to terms that are propagandist in nature and have worked really hard to avoid them. This is one of those terms. When an artist says he wants to reimagine impressionist theory, I’m cool with that. Or, when an architect says she wants to reimagine the family living space, I say, “Go for it.” But when the word “reimagine” is used to justify arbitrary budget cuts, unnecessary elimination of jobs, destruction of industries or organizations, then you’re not reimagining anything. You’re tearing it down or tearing it apart. Be honest.

Remote work/remote learning – Prior to 2020, I really liked these concepts. In fact, I’ve worked from a home office for many years and love it, and I have no intention of changing it. But the work-from-home craze that erupted out of the collective response to the pandemic is getting old. While I recognize that remote work and remote learning are going to effect larger change in the way organizations function, I look forward to seeing how it will work out for those who actually like it. And for those who don’t like it, I look forward to a time when they can go back to the office or the classroom wherever they are most happy. I have the sense that when everyone is where they want to be, we’ll all be a little bit happier.

Misinformation or disinformation – The words aren’t new but they took on new meaning in 2020. Ironically (but not coincidentally), they are terms more commonly associated with propaganda strategies, but the words themselves are now used to drive propagandist tactics. The words have been weaponized by those who want to discredit someone else’s opinion, facts, or thoughts.

In short, while misinformation is described as the unethical deceptive use of information, often as not in 2020, when someone accused someone else of spreading misinformation, it was they who armed the word to deceive.

In 2020, if someone didn’t like what they heard or who delivered the message, they may have resorted to calling the content “disinformation” or “misinformation.” In other words, if you agree with me that’s truth, that’s fact. If you disagree, well, that’s misinformation. In my work in public relations, these are fad words. As long as I’ve been in the PR business (and before that in the news media), I’ve seen how people have been coming up with words and terms to discredit those they oppose.

Because this is an issue that will likely demand more of my attention in 2021, I most likely will have more to say on this in other contexts, but one thing you can be sure of, you won’t catch me using these words in the normal course.

Curation – Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? Museum directors are curators. They catalog dinosaur bones and taxidermied wildlife or insects. Sometime in the last five years, someone discovered this word and dusted it off as a way to describe how the big social media platforms “should” take an active interest in our social media posts. When they “curate” they pass value judgements on content to determine who should or should not have a digital voice. Curation is editing at best, censorship at worst. I’m sure this word will gain traction in 2021, but for me, its life cycle ends on December 31st.

As I look ahead to 2021, I think I’m going to replace some of these terms with words like freedom, and faith,  and privacy, and a few others. When I think about this little plan, it already has me looking ahead in a way that reminds me that as hard as 2020 tried to defeat me, it lost.

Here’s to a Happy Holiday season and a really great New Year to you and yours!

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Tim O’Brien is a veteran corporate communications consultant and crisis communicator who operates O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh. He’s worked with organizations from Fortune 500 companies, to start-ups and nonprofits. He is honest when others aren’t, he uses words that others won’t, all to help organizations connect in ways they haven’t. He’s also the creator and host of the Shaping Opinion podcast. Reach him at timobrien@timobrienpr.com or on Twitter @OBrienPR.




Tesla Eliminates Its PR Function: People are freaking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communication is Still Happening

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reason Media Relations is Not Transactional, It’s a Process

For people who haven’t managed public relations programs much, one of the more common points of confusion is over how much control we have in the media relations process, and ultimately how some stories get into the news and some do not. It’s the age-old issue of newsworthiness.

In my experience, the root of the confusion often traces back to the notion that PR is a transactional process. We have an important story. We feel that it’s so unique and so relevant that any good reporter will want the story based on its merits. The assumption is, we’re giving them news for free, they should welcome it.

That’s not how it works. That’s how advertising works, only you pay for that. When you advertise on any platform, from old-fashioned newspapers to Google ads, you pay for the exposure, so you can control the message. It’s transactional. Quid pro quo. Money for visibility.

PR is different. One thing that hasn’t changed in public relations for the past several decades is that in order for something to be deemed newsworthy by a journalist is that you must answer two questions.

Why Do a Story? Why Do it Now?

Most everyone charged with managing a public relations program seems to have a ready understanding of the answer to that first question, why do a story. If someone wants PR exposure, they usually know what they’d like to see at the center of the story.

But many people, even PR veterans, can sometimes lose sight of the need to answer that second question. And if you can’t answer that, you really don’t have a story.

Think of it this way. A good news story is perishable. It has an expiration date, just like that gallon of milk you bought this morning. If you don’t consume the product before the expiration date, it goes bad. That expiration date creates a sense of urgency for the consumer.

So, when we pitch a news story to a journalist, we not only have to convince them that the story is meaningful to their readers, listeners or viewers, but if they don’t get to the story right now, they’ll miss an opportunity. It will be lost. For their part, journalists have to meet the same expectation for their audiences. They must demonstrate that the reader must read, the viewer must view, the listener must listen, all before the subject matter becomes old news.

If the Powerball jackpot today is now up to $500 million and the drawing is tonight, you have the answer to both questions. Do the story because the jackpot is huge and anyone in your audience can win. Do the story now because tomorrow may be too late. There is a narrow window of opportunity.

News Cycles are Short

We often hear terms like “news cycle” and that’s what this is all about. All media follows a news cycle. Journalists only want to spend time on stories their audiences care about now, this week. So, if a story is just as important today as it will be in a month, or it could have been done last month, and there no other defining characteristics that stamp an expiration date on it, it’s not newsworthy.

So, to make a business story newsworthy for the media, we have to put in the work up front. We have to make it newsworthy, and you don’t do that through words alone.

A few years ago, I helped a client launch its organization and its brand. The client was in the energy space and offered many constructive solutions to a range of environmental issues. We were able to tie the client to several hot-button issues that were also the subject of legislation in Washington, D.C.

By identifying pending legislation that was on its own timetable, we were able to position my client and its work in line with that timetable that had a life cycle of its own. This created a sense of timeliness and urgency for journalists to feature my client in their coverage.

At the end of the day, this illustrates that in order to generate media coverage, you have to earn it, you don’t buy it. Media relations is not transactional like advertising. It’s earned by having a full understanding of what news decision-makers need to do to build their own audiences. Then give them more than content. Give them a story to tell and an expiration date to create a sense of urgency.

Domino’s Shows What to Do When Someone Tries to Cancel You

Domino’s, the pizza chain, recently put on a tutorial on how to handle an attempt to cancel you in the current communications environment.

Political influencer Rick Wilson targeted Domino’s on Twitter, where he has over one million followers, with a tweet that criticized a positive response from the company to current White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Apparently, Wilson took issue with the fact the company’s tweet was positive in nature, and decided to frame the social media exchange as the pizza maker deciding to wade into the current political fray.

Wilson tweeted to Domino’s, “You just killed your brand,” in an obvious attempt to cancel Domino’s by creating guilt by association. Below his comment was an earlier tweet from the company to McEnany thanking her for complimenting them on their pizza.

Here’s the problem. The tweet exchange Wilson took issue with was from 2012, eight years before her current public role.

For its part, the Domino’s response was genius.

“Welp. It’s unfortunate that thanking a customer for a compliment back in 2012 would be viewed as political. Guess that’s 2020 for ya.”

Immediately, the Twitter tide turned against Wilson for his obvious attempt eight years after the fact to cancel a brand for an innocent exchange.

Domino’s is a Model for Effective Crisis and Issues Management

That Domino’s responded so effectively should not come as a surprise. The company ushered in the age of the social media crisis in 2009 when two of its employees posted video of themselves to YouTube tampering with food in one of the franchise chain’s kitchens. Quickly, Domino’s identified the employees and the store, and the company took swift and decisive action, while communicating candidly about the whole situation.

In 2017, animal rights groups tried to pressure Domino’s into adopting stringent restrictions on the company’s suppliers of meat and eggs that would have placed significant hardships on farmers.

At the time, company spokesperson Tim McIntyre summed up the company’s unapologetic refusal to cave in to activist demands. “Farmers know best,” he said.

And now this. Against the backdrop of  “cancel culture,” as it’s become known, Domino’s is showing other companies and organizations how not to be cancelled.

The strategy is simple, but simple is not always easy to do. It’s three-pronged:

1) Decide not to be bullied.

2) Push back in self-defense.

3) Slow things down.

In a conflict-averse culture, it’s almost a default position on the part of many organizations and their communications teams to avoid conflict at any cost. The thinking is you should accept the premise of the criticism, acknowledge the merits of your critics and their criticism and apologize.  You should make whatever changes your critics insist upon, even if the allegations have no basis, and that will make the situation go away.

That’s why on the basis of a single digital video with a few thousand views, a major company or brand can reactionarily change course quickly with no strategic decision-making involved. Corporate leaders make hasty decisions on an emotional basis out of fear of being cancelled. Anyone in the first year of business school would learn that this way of making decisions dramatically increases the risk of failure on several levels.

#1 – Stand up to bullies.

Basic human dynamics can be all you really need to know when someone tries to cancel you. In effect, when someone is out to cancel you, they use bully tactics. And the only way to deal bullies is to stand up for yourself without fear and with resolve. Domino’s has demonstrated time and again that this is an effective strategy.

#2 – Push-back is self-defense.

The second strategy is to push back. It’s one thing to stand up and not give your critics what they want, but that may not be enough. If someone tries to cancel you, you may need to act in a sort of communications self-defense.

When Domino’s responded to Wilson’s tweet, the company clearly surprised him with Domino’s lack of contrition, and by politely framing the issue in such a way as to expose Wilson’s cancellation attempt for what it was.

Domino’s knew that it couldn’t put out a bland statement about company values or policies in response. Otherwise, they would have accepted Wilson’s premise and legitimized his criticism, making matters worse for the company. And yet so many companies and organizations do this very thing when faced with cancellation attempts.  Domino’s may have known they wouldn’t have silenced Wilson. They would have emboldened him and others like him.

So, instead, they reframed the issue accurately.

One characteristic of the Domino’s-Wilson Twitter exchange that worked in the company’s favor was that an inconsequential eight-year-old Twitter exchange was the basis.

#3 – Slow things down.

There is a third strategy that I alluded to earlier.  Had the attempt to cancel Domino’s been based on something more current, even if it was as trivial as Wilson’s allegations, you can’t assume the public would see it for what it is. So, there is a third strategy to consider.

The worst thing you can do in any crisis situation where you are targeted for cancellation is to act too hastily and too emotionally. Chances are you have processes in place for when and how to make major decisions and major changes.

When someone attempts to cancel you, fall back on those processes. Time is built into the process for proper deliberation so that as an organization, you do the right things for the right reasons in the right time. This is not to say you should never change, or that  you should never listen to your critics.

It is to say that in order to effectively handle a cancellation attempt, your third strategy is to be patient. Let matters settle to the point where you and your management team can see things more clearly and that you are following a proven process for analysis, and if need be, change.

Companies and brands are less likely to fail if they exercise disciplined patience in the face of cancellation attempts than they would if they too hastily give their critics what they demand in the heat of the moment.

What do you think? Do you ever worry that your organization could be targeted for cancellation through no fault of its own like Domino’s was? Get in touch. I’d love to chat.

It’s 2020: Time to Take Charge of Your Narrative

If you want a snapshot of the state of the media today, consider this. Kylie Jenner has 181 million Instagram followers. Her sister Kim Kardashian-West has 176 million Instagram followers. Their sister Kendall Jenner has 132 million Instagram followers. Three sisters who are famous for being famous – just three – have a combined 489 million Instagram followers.

Now, compare that to every single U.S. daily newspaper and add it all up. According to Pew Research, “the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2018 was 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday, down 8% and 9%, respectively, from the previous year.”

Okay, let’s go back. Just three of many “influencers” – 489 million followers. All major U.S. newspapers combined – 30 million subscribers.

Based on this, I could decry the state of our culture, but that’s not our purpose here. Our purpose is to explore what you can do in the current media environment to craft and deliver your own narrative, regardless of the current strength of traditional media.

It’s clear that the days of relying primarily on mass media to tell your story are fading. It’s not that newsrooms are losing their clout, because many are not. But the news business is changing fast.

Right now, newspapers are dying, but many news sites and blogs are going strong. They feed social media with fresh content all day long, and the social sites for their part serve up shared content and original content to millions who can’t seem to get enough, mostly on their smart phones.

That content is the written word, video and audio in the form of podcasts, mostly. There are now one million podcasts, by the way.

TV news is undergoing a metamorphosis of its own. Local TV has always catered more to a blue-collar audience for the most part, but in recent years demographics are skewing older.

Meanwhile, formerly agnostic big digital platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook have increasingly decided to filter content based on algorithms and sometimes manual intervention to apply their own increasingly controversial value judgements. This transforms “big digital” from platform to publisher, and it has caused no small amount of angst on the part of some industries and organizations who worry the larger system could be working against them and their message.

Taking Charge of Your Narrative

In this environment, how can your organization craft and deliver its content on a consistent basis to your own stakeholders?

The first thing to do is not to lean too heavily on traditional media relations or publicity as a primary means to get your message out. Gone are the days when that one newspaper article could change your fortunes.

How can you sustain your message?

Be your own media organization. Build a communications infrastructure that does not rely on others to tell your story. Create your own narrative. Tell your own story, and do it smartly and strategically so that you can sustain it. Keep it fresh and relevant and credible.

It can’t be another form of advertising or one-sided promotion. To be effective, it must place the information consumer as the highest priority, not the organization, but in the process you build the trust and confidence with the people your organization needs most.

Does your organization have a news production capability?

Here’s what it takes.  It takes a good organizational web site that serves as a digital storefront. This is the place people go to when they want to find out what you’re all about, whether they are potential employees, investors, customers, clients or business partners.

But when they get to the site, if it never changes, they won’t come back once they feel like they now know all about you.

So, what can you do to build and sustain a relationship with them?

Use that website as a hub that supports your news production infrastructure. Make sure you have and truly leverage an organizational blog site, that you are constantly adding news and relevant information for stakeholders. Share your content on social media. Engage with your stakeholders on those platforms, but not just for engagement’s sake. Forge stronger relationships based on trust through social media.

Create an online news page, if you will, with original content. Include stories not only about your organization, but about its industry or issues and topics that matter to both you and your constituents.

In short, make your news page a media site that includes words, photos, video and audio.  Aggregate news from other sources and link to them. Generate eNewsletters and push them out to individual stakeholder groups. Form alliances with business partners and industry trade groups to share content and amplify each other’s content.

Ultimately, create your own news and information destination, and fill the void left by the declining media landscape that currently exists. It has to be more than a simple “media center” or “newsroom” tab on your website. It can’t look like an afterthought or something just for the news media. It has to be a platform dedicated to the growing number of news consumers who no longer get their information from newspapers, television or other traditional news organizations.

In the process, not only will you take control of your own narrative, but chances are pretty good the systems and processes you are creating will also feed your own traditional media relations and publicity efforts.

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For your own free consultation on how to take control of your narrative call or email: 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Having Trouble Sleeping These Nights? Same here. That’s why I’m trying 10 o’clock office hours

This is going to be a short blog post.

This is not for everyone, but it may be for you. Given all of the challenges of late, there is a good chance that something is keeping you up at night with regard to your business.

We know how you feel. The people I partner with and I have had numerous conversations about the current challenges our clients face and the ones we all face together. It’s more difficult than ever to put today’s events into perspective so that you can make tomorrow better.

That’s why I’m going to experiment with something as long as is practical – a non-video one-on-one initial teleconference, free of charge to people I think I can help. That may be you, it may not, but we won’t know unless we start the conversation. For now, let’s call this our “June Event” and it’s all about turning things around and getting them back on track.

So, here’s how it works.

  • Based on availability and whether I believe I can help, I will pre-schedule a free 10 p.m., consulting audio-only teleconference with you. Times are Eastern.
  • Each call would be a maximum of 30 minutes long. Please know I will need to give careful consideration beforehand as to whether I think I can help, and that depends on what you can tell me.
  • The subject matter must be of a business or professional nature with a communications element to it.

My core strengths are strategic communications planning, corporate communications, media relations and public relations, writing and content development, marketing communications, and crisis and issues management. I am not a personal counselor, a career coach or a therapist and cannot help in those areas.

If you have a business/communications matter keeping you up at night, just get in touch at 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Maybe we’ll both sleep better.

Is Now the Time for a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

The pandemic has changed things. States are reopening, businesses have already begun the process of returning to operation. It’s time to regroup and identify the challenges that lie ahead from a communications standpoint. There are questions:

  • How do our stakeholders feel right now? What are their plans? What’s their comfort level doing the things for which they rely on us? How can we best help them now?
  • How confident are our customers in buying from us right now?
  • Where so we stand? What are out plans? What’s our leadership’s comfort level looking ahead? What about our own people? What do they need to hear? What do they want to know?
  • What should our communications priorities be?
  • Where do we need to focus right now?
  • What resources do we have, which ones do we need?
  • Has the pandemic created any new opportunities to better connect with our stakeholders?
  • How can we rebuild in a communications sense?

These are just some of the questions that may be on your mind and those who come to you in your organization in need of communications guidance during this transitionary time where there as much we have yet to learn as we know already.

While there may not have been proven a process in place for what we’ve all just gone through before that happened, there is a process to get organized and manage the change that lies ahead.

Businesses and organizations are in varied states of disrepair right now. Some are looking at filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the lengthy shutdown of the economy and the disruption to their businesses. Others have thrived in unexpected ways and may be looking at integrating these newfound strengths into their ongoing business models. And still others simply need to refocus, regroup, rebuild.

What’s a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

We’ve looked at some of our prior consulting work in this area of communications assessments and have modified it in light of current circumstances to create what is best termed a “Pandemic Impact Assessment (PIA).”

Working with you, we can help you regroup by first assessing how the pandemic changed your organization temporarily, what changes have more long-term impact and the role communications will play in helping your organization get back on solid footing.

If this is something that interests you and you’d like to know more, please call me at 412.854.8845 or email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

The Missing Ingredient in Most Media Training Today

Let’s Change the Recipe

Over the years, I’ve done my share of media training, and in the course of that, I’ve gotten very familiar with how other media trainers operate and what we all have collectively accepted as conventional wisdom when it comes to media training.

For instance, find one media trainer who does not teach you to speak in sound bites, and I’ll … well … I don’t know what I’ll do, but whatever it is it will be unlikely, because media trainers teach you to speak in sound bites.

Further reinforcing this “wisdom” is the reason many clients come to us for training. More often than not, when someone has come to me for media training it has been because:

a) they were faced with an imminent crisis;

b) they were faced with a probable crisis; or

c) they were faced with a possible crisis.

Of course, there is a d) which is when some organizations keep a list of things they need to do periodically with new leaders, managers, or as part of annual workshops or meetings. But those tend to be proportionately fewer than the crisis-centric ones.

This is a reflection of the mindset that media training is a tool for damage control and not a potent marketing and branding weapon.

In that spirit, it would probably come as no surprise then that more often than not, the foremost goal of much media training is to make sure the spokesperson stays out of trouble. To make sure the spokesperson stays on message and does not deviate and does not blunder a media interviewing opportunity. In that sense, media training tends to be an insurance policy, not a marketing tool.

Some organizations I’ve known consider it a bonus if the spokesperson not only doesn’t screw it up, but actually sounds good and puts the organization’s best foot forward.

It’s Time for a Change

But this is 2020 and the media training we’ve come to know and love has not evolved with the times. It has to change and it hasn’t.

Here’s what it has to do. It has to teach you to be interesting. It can’t settle for helping you avoid trouble. It has to help you maximize whatever speaking gifts you have to bring out the interesting qualities in yourself, and in doing so, the interesting qualities of your organization and its message.

It’s not enough to simply stay on message and stay out of trouble. It’s imperative to craft and deliver interesting and compelling messages that make your viewers or listeners want to know more…about you…about your organization…about your message.

Good media training today has to emphasize how to create interesting messages and wrap those messages into interesting stories that can be told in a series of sound bites, or for longer form media like podcasts, in “story bites.”

But that’s the technical aspect of it. If you’re a media training participant, you need to hope that your media training session teaches you how to share more of yourself, your own personality, the things that make you … you. Since you are the messenger, you can’t separate yourself from the message. So, the best media training will help you tap your own personal strengths and bring those into the interview as assets, not potential liabilities.

Beyond Technique

Audiences can be surprisingly empathetic to someone who they like and relate to, so how do you get to that point? The first step is to be yourself and that means not trying to be perfect.

Acting directors and producers like to describe this as exposing your own vulnerabilities, but I have yet to meet a media trainee who wants to hear that. They naturally want to avoid anything even remotely tied to the “v” word.

But the truth is, the goal for a good media interview is to connect at an emotional level, and to that you must be relatable. To be relatable, you need to let your viewer or listener in to get to know the real you. The pathway to that, in a business sense, is your story and how your story intertwines with your organization’s story.

If this piques your interest, time-permitting, I’m willing to give you a free 10-minute preview of this type of media training on Zoom. Just get in touch.

Don’t be a “Holiday Inn Expert”

Surely, you’ve seen that series of Holiday Inn Express TV commercials. There is the one where a would-be surgeon is called out by a colleague in the operating room just after surgery.

“You’re not Dr. Stewart,” another doctor says to him after he removes his surgical mask. To which he responds matter-of-factly, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Cue the tagline: “It won’t make you smarter, but you’ll feel smarter.”

The series has been hugely popular for any number of reasons, one of which most likely because there is some element of truth in it.

We all know that person who has all of the answers even before the question is even asked. But, is it my imagination, or are we seeing a rise in people who may have a bit of an over-confidence problem?

I’ll tell you where I see it most often.

I’ve been a communications consultant for decades, and like so many who’ve worked to master certain aspects of the profession, I have been very careful not to overstate my areas of expertise.

The areas I claim as strengths fall under corporate communications and C-suite work that include strategic planning and senior level counsel; marketing communications; public relations and media relations; content development and writing; and crisis and issues management.

On the other hand, I always make a point of telling prospective clients I do not claim expertise in consumer public relations, nor do I present myself as a social media expert, even though I’m active on a daily basis across several social channels. I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know and I say so, which is in everyone’s best interest.

Back to this trend I’m seeing.

Increasingly, I’m seeing more bylined articles, speeches and quotes in other articles from communications professionals with no crisis experience offering up crisis management advice. I know this because it’s quickly apparent to me through their rote words and cookie-cutter comments that they’ve likely never managed an actual crisis.

The most common scenario is when a celebrity or major brand find themselves at the center of controversy in social media. Reporters then do a round-up of interviews with social media professionals to ask them how the brands should handle the crisis.

That’s a mistake on the reporters’ part. If they want crisis management insights, they should interview people who’ve actually handled crisis situations. Another mistake is one the interviewees make. They should know where their own expertise begins and ends.

I’m not trying to characterize this intentional deception. Actually, it could be worse than that. Some would-be experts who’ve read their share of articles on crisis communications believe they really do have that expertise. The end result is that when they comment on matters beyond their comfort zones, it makes them look bad, and the PR profession takes a reputational hit.

It’s not just in the media.

Other times, I see presentations, speeches, webinars and even a keynote or two, from industry influencers talking about crisis communications. Once again, while some of these individuals are highly accomplished in other areas, they probably aren’t the best people to be speak on crisis management.

Even some professional media trainers, whose primary experience is from working in TV news, can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they know how to manage a crisis because they’ve covered a few. I’ve seen some of these trainers give advice that’s more likely to serve the needs of the media and not the client organization.

Across the board, my concern is that all of these individuals downplay the importance of having had the experience of sitting across the desk from CEOs and boards to tell them things they definitely didn’t want to hear at usually the most inconvenient times to hear them. The dynamics are heavily influenced by managerial, legal, operational, regulatory and other factors.

Crises are by definition complex situations. The nuance and dynamics at play are easily missed by the casual observer. And some of these dynamics can only be understood by insiders or people who have been there.

This pattern is far from limited to crisis communications. The communications field has its share of people with little-to-no social media, influencer marketing and media relations expertise claiming all of it.

Why is this happening now?

The problem is, I think that as people become more sophisticated in personal branding, they’re more prone to exaggerating their expertise on any given subject. It’s almost like, “If I say it online, it is so.”

Case in point. I know a freelancer who couldn’t get a job two years ago after he graduated from college. To this date, he’s never worked for anyone but himself, and his only formal training were his classes and other college experiences. He was never mentored, he’s never actually provided the full range of public relations services to anyone.

What he did was build a small freelance business centered on video and audio production, along with related digital support. That’s it. That’s all of it.

But when you visit his web site, he’ll tell you how he’s able to address the full range of communications and business challenges his clients face. Topics include public relations, business leadership, entrepreneurship and others. He has a nice web site, and a blog and has given a few speeches. To an untrained ear, he may sound like he may know what he’s talking about. He now bills himself as a keynoter.

Keep in mind, this is someone who’s never even written a news release or conducted media outreach for a client.

In one conversation with him, I had to remind him that there is a difference between public relations and publicity, that publicity is only one aspect of public relations. His response? He essentially said, “We can agree to disagree.”

Regardless of changes in technology and the manner in which people consume media and use digital media, it probably isn’t too much to expect that when communications professionals talk as experts, they actually know what they are talking about based on some real-world experience.

Otherwise, it may be worth re-considering that Holiday Inn Express ad line, “But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” Instead, we can validate anything we’d like to say simply by adding, “But I did read a blog post about that.”

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter at @OBrienPR, or send me an email at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.


Major League Baseball and the Fine Art of Selling Hope


The grass on baseball fields in Florida and Arizona is getting lush right now, ready for the annual rite that is Major League Baseball spring training and those sunny exhibition games. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to see the appeal of getting a taste of the warmer months ahead, if only by clicking on an online video for a few seconds or catching a game on television.

And you don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the marketing machine behind a game that has to put millions of fans in ballpark the seats from April through September. To get a feel for what a marketing challenge this is, let’s look at the numbers.

An MLB season consists of 162 regular season games, not counting playoff and World Series games for the lucky few, and not counting rainouts for the unlucky few.

When you consider there are 30 MLB teams, that’s 2,430 MLB games scheduled for 2020. According to Statista.com, the average attendance at an MLB game in 2019 was 28,317.

This means that if MLB is to match last year’s numbers, it has to draw over 68.8 million fans this year. And that doesn’t count broadcast television contracts, and the audience targets and advertising revenue that must be generated.

That’s a lot of pressure, especially for a league where only 10 teams make the playoffs, which includes those one-and-done Wild Card teams.

So, what must Major League Baseball do to consistently meet such lofty marketing goals?

They must sell hope

Hope that your team has a chance to be one of those 10 teams to make the playoffs after a 162-game, six-month grind through thousands of miles of travel, injuries, bad weather and constantly changing rosters, not to mention the noise of 24/7 sports media, social media, and blogs like this one.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: A Case Study

The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of baseball’s more storied franchises. The club has won five World Series championships and nine National League pennants.

The problem is, it hasn’t won one in 41 seasons. For comparison, the gap between its 1979 championship and the previous one was eight years. And the gap between the 1971 championship and its previous one was 11 years.

But from a performance standpoint, it’s much worse than a championship drought. Since 1993, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost more than half of all of their games with the exception of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons, which in hindsight now appear to be an almost calculated anomaly. Those were the years the franchise kept some of its better players for a time to win games.

Long-time Pirates fans now feel that the Pirates can win if they want to, but for some reason they choose not to. That’s a very real sentiment.

To take that sentiment deeper, the fans feel that current ownership has fine-tuned the art of selling hope to them, playing on emotional bonds formed with a team in childhood, hoping that someday, they will get to relive moments of consistently winning baseball in their city.

This isn’t speculation on the fans’ part. It’s simple observation of a long pattern of business decision-making.

The key ingredient is hope

If the front office can convince fans in the Spring that the Pirates have a chance to field a winning team, has a chance to make the playoffs, and with a little luck it can go all the way, it’s done its job.

To do that, it must make a series of off-season moves that create the perception that they care about winning. But if they want to save money and continue to maintain the second-lowest payroll in all of Major League Baseball, they can’t do what teams committed to winning actually do, pay good players.

So, instead, they typically take excellent players they’ve groomed in the minor leagues and bring them up to the big leagues, and then hype them to the fans. There is a long list of players who broke into the league as Pirates but who went on to greatness with other teams. Does the name Gerrit Cole ring a bell?

At this same point in the year, they take a player who’s just on the cusp of fulfilling his potential and trade him for a couple of “utility players” and usually some minor league prospects.

This is where that hope starts to enter the picture

When you add young players and prospects to the mix, you are managing fan expectations that it’s really not about this season. It’s about the future. It’s sending a message to the fans that this team has a future. “Just stick with us,” the moves seem to say.

But now after decades of this pattern, the fans have caught on to the method to the Pirates’ madness. The future is the past. The front office is doing now what it did ten years ago, promising a bright future and then trading the future away just when it looks like it might require some significant investment on their part.

Regardless of salary caps, broadcast contracts or other business issues, winning professional sports franchises invest in doing the things it takes to win. This is a risk because there are no guarantees. You can pay players a lot of money and still not win. But one thing every success story demonstrates is that the ballclubs that eventually do win decided early on to take that risk. As a result, they have been rewarded with playoff victories, championships, and from a business perspective, fans in the seats and the revenue increases needed to sustain a winning culture, in the clubhouse and in the stands.

Pirates fans have learned by what they see, that ownership cannot really mean what they say. That the club isn’t selling competitive baseball. It is selling the hope of competitive baseball.

Selling hope during the season

As the season progresses, the marketing strategy has to change. It’s no longer about off-season moves. It’s about winning ballgames. So, the club tends to give the fans what they want. They field a healthy, competitive team, treating regular season games with the intensity of playoff games. That brand of baseball is easy to support, and enthusiasm can be contagious.

But when you’re playing with a group of players who are usually over-matched, the club is fortunate if it can stay just above .500 going into the mid-season All-Star Break. By then, the club likely has met half of its business goals.

Attendance numbers are respectable. The media is speculating on the club’s post-season chances, and fans start to watch the standings, though no one is foolish enough to declare the Pirates are in the hunt just yet.

Around this time, injuries start to take their toll. Batters fall into slumps. Pitchers’ arms get tired. The bench isn’t very deep, and the manager has to do the best with what he’s got.

The All-Star Break can’t come too soon

After the break, the team may win a few games, but usually they start to lose more than they win. That’s when the marketing of hope takes on a new dimension.

It’s time to take whatever good players you have and trade them to teams that now have a realistic chance of making the playoffs this year. The cycle starts all over. Good players are traded for prospects and young players.

The marketing shifts its focus to the future once again, this time to 2021. “Just stick with us,” the front office seems to say.

And the ballclub kicks the proverbial can down the road to another season.

In 2019, the Pirates’ average regular season game attendance was 18,413, about 10,000 lower than the league average. They hosted about 1.5 million fans at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park last season.

To meet and exceed those numbers in 2020, the ballclub needs to sell an awful lot of hope in 2020. The big question is, when will the fans quit buying that message?

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Tim O’Brien is a long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fan and a veteran corporate communications consultant who can help you address some of your own communications questions. Feel free to call him any time the Pirates aren’t playing a game. 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com