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.

The Best PR Podcast You May Not Have Heard Yet

Sometimes in the PR business, we just have to admit guilt in a little bit of shameless self-promotion. This is one of those times.

As we wrap up 2018, we’ve made tremendous progress on a number of fronts, the most notable being the launch of the Shaping Opinion podcast back in the first quarter.

We intentionally did not narrow its focus on the business of public relations or as a how-to podcast. For that reason, you can Google the term “PR podcast” or search for PR podcasts on iTunes and you may not find it.

The reality is we thought carefully about the mission of the Shaping Opinion podcast. The focus is on the story, usually a story with appeal to people well beyond the PR industry. Here are some excerpts from actual iTunes reviews of the podcast:

  • “Every episode is a wonderful window into things I’d never even realized I was curious about.”
  • “When it comes to podcasts I’m a bit picky. With (literally) hundreds of thousands to choose from if I subscribe to a show rest assured it’s a cut above the rest. Tim has managed to take seemingly random topics from history, politics, popular culture, science and health and weave them together through engaging guest interviews who are experts in their field. Tim’s questions betray extensive preparation for each interview and the listener walks away with an in-depth understanding of the topic.”
  • “Listened to the one about the opioid epidemic.  Great job interviewing others, and basically very well researched and I actually learned quite a bit. My fav part though is how all of the podcasts are WILDLY different.”

While the Shaping Opinion podcast will always have a communications dimension, it will also likely have historical and cultural dimensions as well. The topics are big topics. The issues are usually big issues. Yet the stories likely will be ones you may not have heard before.  And you will hear those stories from people who’ve dedicated no small portion of their lives to the subject at hand.

Listeners aren’t bombarded with checklists or listicles. No homework. The podcast does not get bogged down in PR tactics and PR industry jargon. In the end, the goal is for you to come away with a deeper understanding of something interesting that you may not have thought of before.

The Shaping Opinion podcast has a lot in store for 2019, and its audience is growing inside and outside of the public relations field. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can find it on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, TuneIn or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

The One Question Most Lawyers Should Ask Themselves Before Marketing

I’ll save you the suspense. The question is, “Who are we?”

Of course, it’s much easier to slap a web site together with photos of walnut-paneled courtrooms and a judge’s gavel thrown in for good measure, but by striving for sameness in law firm marketing, you won’t stand out, and while standing out is not the only thing, it is important to most professional services marketing.

A couple of years ago, we did a law firm branding project that was centered on the question at the top of the article. We talked to firm attorneys, and we talked to some selected clients.

We’ve done the same for other law firms and professional services firms. I remember a medical billing firm that specifically wanted us to talk to some of their former clients as part of the research process.

The point of the research is to identify law firm traits, patterns and behaviors that have come to stand for the organization at the center of the law firm marketing research. Characteristics that were unique to the our client’s firm. What is it, culturally, that makes their clients’ experiences different than they might otherwise have with another firm?

One of the best ways to do this is to talk to people who’ve gone through the law firm selection process and who have decided to maintain (or not) that relationship over time.

In general, here’s what we tend to learn.

The firm you think you “are” tends not to be the firm your clients see. While you may pride yourself on your impressive court victories and the many good schools that your attorneys attended, clients oftentimes tend to make decisions based on chemistry, ease of communication, access to the right firm resources, cost, and of course, legal and business savvy and competency.

That’s a general observation. In the projects we’ve done for clients, there is always something different and unique to learn. And it’s that thing, whatever it may be, that provides the seeds for a true, credible and effective branding or marketing strategy.

So, before you start to move out on that new law firm branding project, you may want to spend no small amount of time exploring “who” your firm is to clients and what it represents to them.

If you have any questions or want to discuss anything, we’re happy to talk. Just call us at the number at the top of this page, or contact us here.

∼ ∼ ∼

As part of his corporate communications consulting work, for decades, Tim O’Brien has handled law firm marketing projects for firms of all sizes. You can reach him by email here.

 

Media of the Mind: The Podcast

My first love when it came to media was radio. It was the music, the personalities, the sounds, the voices, the unexpected, even the commercials. All of it. This was before formulaic formats and research-driven audio.

Soon, I found myself working in any number of studios at all hours of the day, and in the field, talking to listeners, talking to sources, working control boards, writing, planning, editing, producing, using microphones to capture voice and sound.

While it wasn’t long before my career path took me away from those studios, my love for radio never died. But those formats became more and more restrictive, more programmed over the years. It became so that even in my work in public relations, there were fewer and fewer opportunities to tap the power of the media with which I felt closest.

Why?

Long ago, early radio dramas were described as “theater of the mind,” but that faded away as the theater aspect gave way to mostly music formats with just enough human interaction to break up sets of playlists.

All of this changed in October 2001 when Apple introduced its iPod music player. It wouldn’t be long before people realized the iPod could do more than store and play music. In 2004, a new term emerged that combined “iPod” with “broadcast” to become “podcast.”

Since then a steady number of podcasts have come and gone, but so many have stayed and grown. And more launch every day. The topics and approach have varied with producers and hosts, and I found myself listening to the best and the worst with the same fascination.

Media of the Mind

iTunes put podcasts on the map, making non-music content available to millions of iTunes subscribers, and as new podcasts caught on, so did this re-birth of the theater or the mind, but it actually became much more than that. It became media of the mind.

Perhaps the most disruptive development in this evolution was the emergence of the iPhone and then other smart phones. People no longer had to be at a computer to listen to a podcast. They could listen wherever they were to whatever they wanted. The listener now has absolute control over the process.

The podcast infrastructure has aimed to please.

With the price of entry being relatively inexpensive, podcasters could develop, create and introduce their audio visions to the masses, and if they were good, the masses would respond.

Today’s podcast genres are as varied as anything you can think up, from information and education, to entertainment, or just how-to. If you can think of it, there is probably a podcast about it. And it’s right there in your pocket, on your smart phone, waiting for you to listen.

What’s the appeal?

Outside of the accessibility of podcasts and the variety of choices, there is something about audio media that may give it more compelling appeal than all other media, and this is what attracted me to radio in the first place.

Audio media is as intimate as any media.  It comes as close to connecting with us cerebrally like nothing else. Thanks to ear plugs and headphones, it is as physically close to the mind as it gets. There is nothing but sound  and your thoughts and almost nothing in between. You don’t need to work to be informed or entertained. All you need to do is close your eyes and listen. No reading, no watching, no stopping what your doing to give the medium your undivided attention.

It’s the best media that you can use while involved in something else like working out, doing work around the house or driving. Because podcast genres are so much more varied than radio formats, you can close your eyes and escape in an instant to take a mental tour of the Florida Keys, or hear someone talk about what it was like to win the Nobel Prize and never actually leave where you are.  Your imagination is the scenery.

Not coincidentally, theater of the mind has made a comeback. Those old radio dramas that audiences loved so much in back in the day have made a comeback in current form as people have discovered for the first time just how colorful and entertaining a fresh audio drama can be.

And it’s not just drama. True crime, history, business, science, medicine, politics, Americana, communication, music, society and culture, and so much more.

Earlier this year, I launched a podcast of my own that resides at the intersection of history, communication and society. It is an interview format where we talk to one guest who is close to the subject. It’s called Shaping Opinion, which is about people, events and things that have shaped the way we think. It’s gained a steadily increasing following from people who like interesting stories – stories that oftentimes reveal something new or a perspective haven’t heard before. That is the beauty of podcasts.

If you’re not a podcast fan yet, I’d be glad to give you some recommendations on some good ones. Just get in touch. And if you want to check out the Shaping Opinion podcast, just go to iTunes, or see some of these other great ways to listen.

Beware of Some Social Media Crisis Experts

If you Google the term “social media crisis,” or even the term, “brand crisis,” you’ll probably find no shortage of advice columns or online videos on how to see your organization through a crisis. Typically, the authors or presenters are social media experts or marketing gurus.

What they usually are not are crisis communications veterans. In all too many cases, they may not have even handled a single crisis for a client. But that doesn’t stop them from offering free, speculative advice on how to handle your crisis situation.

Why?

A few reasons. First, the number of companies and organizations running into social media  and brand crises is increasing. The would-be experts see crisis management work as lucrative even if they don’t have experience. Second, they don’t know what they don’t know. And third, while some may have a good deal of experience in social media or marketing, in terms of defining characteristics, they tend to see a social media crisis as a social media situation, not a crisis situation. This is a very important distinction and can be a mistake. And fourth, they think they’ve read enough articles and books to compensate for their lack of genuine crisis management experience.

And all too many simply imagine what they would do if one of their clients were to get into a crisis, and based on that, they think they know what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s the problem. If you run into a crisis, whether it be a social media crisis, a brand crisis, a plant explosion, or a bankruptcy filing, the last person you want counseling you is someone with only an academic knowledge of crisis management. You want someone who’s been there.

The pitfall of hiring someone with little to no crisis experience is you’ll likely get cliché crisis management advice that may not apply to you, and could backfire on you. One of the most common assumptions non-crisis veterans make is that good faith wins the day. Just take responsibility, own the crisis, accept the premise of your critics and apologize, and everything will be fine, they say.

Don’t buy it.

A crisis communications veteran will likely have numerous examples where simply taking responsibility, apologizing, showing good faith, accepting the premise of your critics, and seeking engagement, backfired in any number of ways. Not because each in itself isn’t the right thing, but the one thing they are all lacking is a specific strategy that takes into account the particulars of each situation.

What if your critics are basing their attacks on a duplicitous agenda of their own fabrication? What if certain groups have decided to fake a narrative about your brand or organization that is so untrue, that to “take responsibility,” “acknowledge” and apologize only help them achieve their goals, which could be to smear and undermine your organization and anyone associated with it?

In other words, what far too many non-crisis communicators don’t fully appreciate is that entirely separate strategies may be required to counter unfair attacks, and that strategies of appeasement are ineffective.  And this is just one scenario.

The bottom line is this. If you are facing a crisis or a possible crisis, do your best to find a crisis communications veteran who’s done more than written an article, given a speech, or even written a book on the topic. Find someone who’s actually been in the trenches on crisis management.

An experienced crisis communicator will likely give you counsel that’s not cookie-cutter, not cliché, but in your best interest. More than likely, it will be effective, and that’s what counts.