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.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet is credited with saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The Poynter Institute may have been reminded of these words of wisdom last week when it published its list of 515 news sites that it considered “unreliable,” effectively blacklisting sites long considered legitimate (albeit conservative) media.

As a result, the Institute felt the backlash and was forced to apologize and remove the index from its own site last Thursday.

The Poynter Institute has built a strong reputation over the years as it says, championing “freedom of expression, civil dialogue and compelling journalism that helps citizens participate in healthy democracies.”

The Poynter report that has since been taken down off of the Web, included a number of distinctly conservative media outlets, such as Daily Signal, Daily Wire, Drudge Report, Free Beacon, Judicial Watch, PJ Media, the Blaze and the Washington Examiner.

This sparked outrage from the right.

Under the Poynter umbrella, the people behind the index were the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Southern California, Merrimack University, PolitiFact, Snopes and Chris Herbert, described as a “data designer.” Poynter said that the index drew from “fake news” databases managed by these organizations.

The reason for removing the index from its site, Poynter said, was “weaknesses in methodology.”

Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen said in a statement on Poynter’s site:

“Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others. We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report.”

She later said, “We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication. We pledge to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards.”

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

Why Boeing Should Hold Off on Apologizing

It’s been a few weeks now, and I’ve seen the usual pattern among some PR consultants in various media taking Boeing to task.

I’ll get to the predictable PR narrative in a second, but if you need an update on the situation, there have been two plane crashes in the past five months that have been blamed for missing certain safety technologies on the Boeing 737 Max, a successor to the highly common Boeing 737 aircraft.

At the center of the problem is what appears to be a software glitch that resulted in two safety features that are designed to alert pilots to possible incorrect readings not being installed on some aircraft. It seems that Boeing had charged more for those features, so it’s possible the airlines involved in the crashes elected not to buy those “extras” for the aircraft involved in the crashes. At the very least, there may have been some confusion. That’s the simple version.

There have been numerous reports that the pilots of those aircraft may not have been aware of this technical problem and may not have been as well trained as others to compensate for the problems in flight.  I’m sure we’ll learn more as we move forward.

Whatever the case, once this problem became clear, several countries decided to ground the aircraft, including the United States. This had a negative ripple effect on air travel for many airlines and passengers.

As Boeing proceeded to address and correct the problem, several PR pundits, often with little to no actual crisis experience, have weighed in with the same sort of crisis counsel that they would have provided if a major airline had miscalculated a weather delay.

They said that Boeing needs to apologize, it needs to own the problem. The issue they say is one of trust, and in that spirit they must make sure their apologies are genuine, they must take responsibility. If the company does this, the PR ‘influencers’ say it will get its brand back in time.

Let’s start with the fundamental flaw in this sort of PR thinking. These suggestions inadvertently presume the core driver of the crisis was a communications matter or a trust issue. That broken trust is the cause. In other words, since trust has been broken, if you communicate just this way, you’ll have your trust and your reputation restored.

Quite frankly, that’s Pollyanna.

When an aircraft crashes, that’s more than a communications problem. It’s a technical problem. It’s an operational problem. It could be a training problem. It is a customer relations issue. It could be a sales and marketing matter. And we don’t yet know if it could be a cultural or ethical issue.  Because of this you can’t just apologize and be transparent and expect to get your brand back.

When more than one aircraft crash, it’s not only a crisis, but it’s also quite possibly a cultural issue and could have bled into operational systems and processes. In short, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were underlying issues that must now be addressed well before communications strategies and tactics can be effective.

For this reason, expecting an apology to accomplish anything at this point is like trying to put a bandage on a water main break and hoping that it seals the gusher.

Some might say, “Yes, it may not accomplish anything, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Is it?  More often than not apologies are rejected as disingenuous because they are perceived as “just words” and no action.  As for the notion that only sincere-sounding apologies work, see above and know that once you’ve apologized, your critics will seize on it as proof of your firm’s guilt, and more importantly as a foundation of their case that your organization is unfit to do whatever it may want to do in the future. In other words, apologizing at the wrong time in the wrong way usually stands little chance of helping, but it increases the likelihood of hurting.

Then there are the issues of transparency and accountability. Yes, all organizations at the center of all crisis situations have to be accountable. But one thing you can be sure of in this case is Boeing doesn’t need to be told this. Why? Because accountability is built into the process.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators will make sure Boeing is held to account whether it wants to be or not.

So, what Can Boeing Do?

Boeing is already doing it. They are taking accountability. They are being transparent. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known so quickly the cause of the problem and what was being done about it.

They are focusing on corrective actions, which is proper and much more effective than apologetic words. As part of taking corrective action, they are updating the software, making sure it is in all existing and new 737s, and they will be conducting intensive trainings for pilots and airlines on the use of the software. I’m not sure if this was Boeing’s idea or not, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s getting done.

And unfortunately for Boeing and its shareholders, they will likely face some very costly litigation from the families of the passengers who tragically died in those crashes, and perhaps lawsuits from their customer airlines seeking to recover damages.  And given our society’s litigious nature, there will probably be a class action or two from passengers inconvenienced by the grounding of the 737s.

Where Does Communications Fit?

With all of these non-communications remedies in progress, what role does crisis communications play in this scenario?

The main thing is to make sure that communications is supporting all of these efforts and making sure the public knows about it all in the right context. The communications function has to make sure that the tone of all advertising and communications does not attempt too quickly to distance itself from this situation. Oftentimes, when something this serious happens, it’s tempting for communications chiefs and marketing decision-makers to want to move on too quickly. Frequently, they think that by changing the subject in their marketing, they can make people forget more quickly. That’s a mistake.

For Boeing, this was a seminal event and it should be treated that way. Make sure that you err on the side of communicating more rather than less on the corrective actions being taken. And stay with the program through its entirety.

Isn’t this transparency?

Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s making sure the focus is on corrective actions at the technical, operational, and internal levels. It’s also about making sure that the tone of your non-problem-specific external communications is more muted and respectful of the larger context in which the company is presently operating. Make sure those invitations to the company holiday party this year are more understated. Make sure that if there is any hyperbole in your trade show literature it is cut down or removed. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to maintain a more serious posture.

This would be a good time to revisit internal ethics policies and processes for reporting problems, including whistle blower policies and practices. Make sure that going forward the communications channels up and down the chain of command are wide open so that problems can be identified, the right people are notified, and that passenger safety is paramount in all decision-making. I’m not saying that Boeing didn’t do this, but I am saying times like this provide an opportunity to revisit all of it.

Are You Saying Boeing Should Never Apologize?

Not at all. I am saying that if you let the operations, legal and other non-communications functions focus on corrective actions and creating preventative mechanisms for the future, and if the communications function provides support with a focus on awareness, culture and credibility, the genuineness and the remorsefulness over what has recently happened will be extremely obvious and understood broadly and widely.

Actions and a fundamental cultural shift are much more powerful in expressing contrition than a well-crafted 200-word apology.

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.

Admissions Scandal: Should It Matter Where You Went to College?

When people see this question they want to say, “No.”

Why do they feel this way? Why shouldn’t it matter where we went to school?

Maybe it’s because we all knew someone who went to a very good school and doesn’t appear to be smarter than anyone else.

“Good schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen.

In light of the recent college admissions scandal involving some high-profile celebrities and some national educational institutions, I’ve seen this line of thinking quite a bit in the media and online.

If you’re not familiar with the story, 33 parents are facing federal charges in an investigation that was code-named, “Operation Varsity Blues.” Sounds like a made-for-TV movie, doesn’t it?

This real-life drama stars actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among other accomplished parents, who allegedly were willing to pay certain individuals to ensure that their kids were moved to the front of the line in the college admissions process.

Winning the award for best college in a supporting role is a tie between eight leading universities: Stanford, UCLA, the University of Southern California (USC), Georgetown University, Yale, Wake Forest, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of San Diego.

Can’t Kids Get a Good Education at Any College?

The answer is that under the right circumstances, yes, but let’s take a step back for a moment. The truth is, people send their kids to college for reasons other than simply to learn in a classroom.

Years ago, I remember working on a communications research project for some colleges, and we surveyed high school students on what they looked for in a university. The most prominent factors among high school seniors were nice dormitories, nice gym facilities, a vibrant social atmosphere (i.e. the party scene), an impressive school name for your resume when you graduate, and for some, just enough distance between the college campus and home to keep parents at a distance.

Of course, most parents would likely have a different set of priorities for their kids. As someone who has put two kids through college and who has many friends who have done the same, my anecdotal research, if you will, told me that parents want their kids to get a good education, to major in something that will help them get a good job when they graduate, to minimize the impact of loan debt on themselves and their kids, and to have a good college experience. For some, they may also want their kids to build a network that helps them in life as well.

None of this may be alarming, but when you look at the notorious examples set by the recent Hollywood moms and dads, and it’s apparent that while they, too, had the best interests of their kids in mind, maybe their hopes and dreams were on steroids.

Since these parents obviously had more than enough money to cover tuition at an expensive private school, that wasn’t the issue. Rather, it’s more likely a combination of things, starting with the obvious notion that the kids themselves did not have what it took academically or athletically to get themselves admitted to the chosen schools.

So, we can presume that the parents either really wanted the kids to go there, or the kids really wanted to go there, and the parents were willing to move mountains of cash to make it happen. According to news reports, some parents were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to gain a favorable admissions decision.

So if it’s not all about classroom learning, what’s the driving force?

One reason may be that attending certain schools bring with them a social strata you just can’t get from other schools. Related, their new college friends will probably be their lifelong networks, they hope. Parents know that career and business opportunities five, ten or even 20 years from now will be traced back to this time when they went to an elite school with elite classmates from elite families.

In short, the parents probably think they are buying their kids a future that the kids could not attain for themselves.

Does this justify their actions? No, 1,000 times, no. But it does explain why some were willing to risk the penalty of law to do what they did. It was not about the education.

From a crisis communications point of view, in the coming days and weeks, you can expect all sorts of public relations professionals to explain how colleges need to be more transparent and accountable, that they should apologize (What’s crisis communications counsel in 2019 without the obligatory apology?), and they should bring back merit-based admissions policies.

In a twisted way, you might hear a college or two use this situation to reinforce perceptions of the high value of education they provide. In this context, while technically it may be true, it would not be honest.

My take?

As a corrective action, the parents involved here should openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility in a court of law.

But if the schools, the celebrities and even the media covering them want to be truly transparent, the one thing they all may need to acknowledge is that college is about much more than a classroom education, and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is breaking the law to get it or provide it. Keep in mind, parents and students come and go, but if the colleges aren’t held accountable for the fix, the system doesn’t change.

Where did you go to school? Let us know on Twitter @OBrienPR

Dealing with Rising Worker Stress in Workplace Communications

When I have helped organizations that have gone through restructurings, one of the more common internal communications challenges has been “survivor issues.” In other words, those employees who survived downsizings now face increased workloads, responsibilities, and related pressures in an environment where many are uncertain that their jobs are secure. Stress.

According to a new CareeerCast survey, roughly 78 percent of workers (nearly 8 out of 10) are feeling stressed. Obviously, these employees are not just the survivors of downsizings, but workers in general.

The CareerCast survey revealed that most respondents feel “unduly stressed at work,” with most rating their job stress at a seven or higher on a ten-point scale.

That’s an increase from the CareerCast stress survey of 2017, where 69 percent of respondents said their job stress was rated at a seven or higher.

When it comes to communicating to a highly stressed work force, there are some things the organization should consider to help maintain a more positive and productive relationship with the people.

Three Actions You Can Take

The first action, to the extent possible, is to be as reassuring as you can be about job security. While management may not be able to guarantee job security, it can let people know that the plans in place are designed to prevent the need for future layoffs. But just as importantly, whatever you say, you must be prepared to back it up. If you infer there will not be any more layoffs this year, and you subsequently cut staff in two months, you will damage the trust you have with your employees.

The second action is to enhance lines of communication throughout the organization so that overburdened employees know where and how to relay the challenges they are facing, and when necessary, get help.

The third action is to maintain strong and credible recognition programs where employees who are going above and beyond are acknowledged and recognized for doing so. This isn’t to say you need more awards luncheons, or for that matter, more employee awards. It’s more about the little things, like empowering managers to take hard-working employees to lunch, or hand out gift cards as a token of appreciation. Even something as basic as a handwritten ‘thank you’ note from the CEO that cites the specifics of what the employee did that made a difference.

Of course, you can “brand” some of these activities, which helps send the message that the people at the top get it and are on board. But more than anything, it usually comes down to helping front line managers build stronger relationships with front line employees.

My Favorite Crisis: Helping a CEO in Time of Grief

No one likes a crisis, but for those who have had to deal with them the stories aren’t always as dire as it may appear at first glance. Some will point to the opportunity to make something right in a situation that could have been far worse. Others will tell stories about how going through a trying time with colleagues and stakeholders in the end helped them and their organizations forge stronger bonds.

My Favorite Crisis

A cross-section of crisis situations that I’ve handled have ranged from bankruptcy filings and missed earnings expectations to litigation and workplace situations. None of these problems were inherently positive, but there were a few that when I think about it I’m glad I was there to help.

The one that comes most prominently to mind was the time I received a call from the wife of the CEO of a tech firm who told me that during the night his father, the chairman of the company, had died. Since his father, who was liked, respected and admired by many, had suffered from a serious life-threatening health condition, I had a plan in place for this possibility.

Prior to that morning, I had informed the CEO that should the worst happen, I was prepared on the communications front. So, when it actually happened, he didn’t have to do anything more than to tell his wife to call me and say, “We know you have a plan for this. Implement it.”

Immediately, I felt thankful that I was in a position to alleviate some of the burden from the CEO in his time of grief.

The Problem

The company was publicly traded, so the biggest concern was the possible reaction from analysts on Wall Street and investors. Since the death happened over a weekend, we knew that we had until the stock market opened on Monday morning to prepare.

In the end, this event was a litmus test in the confidence the market had in the CEO and the company’s leadership team.

Other important concerns were the impact the news might have on customers and employees, though these concerns were somewhat less because most customers and employees had substantive experience with the organization and readily understood that day-to-day operations would not be affected.

The Risks and Complications

The major risk in this situation was that a negative impact on the company’s stock valuation could have an effect on current and potential investors, employees who were invested in the company, and on the company’s reputation.

The Approach

The most important thing we did was have a plan in place for the scenario that eventually happened. We knew in advance what the challenges would be. We knew who our most important stakeholders would be and what they would need to know and want to know.

The plan called for a quick all-hands-on-deck management meeting over the weekend. I was able to use the plan as a meeting agenda and fill in as much information as possible so that I had the substance needed for all communications. These included disclosures to the media, employees, customers and others. We were able to quickly establish internal and external communications protocols.

The key message was that while this event was extremely sad and troubling, since the CEO had been in place for some time, and had been the driver behind the company’s currently strong performance, the sad news would have no impact on the day-to-day operations.

We were well prepared to announce the news to all important stakeholders before the market opened that Monday.

The Outcome

When the market opened on Monday, we had already communicated the news broadly to the media and to the analyst community on Wall Street. Employees and customers were informed personally and directly by their managers and representatives.

At the opening bell, the company’s stock price was not impacted by the news. There were no sudden point drops. From the standpoint of the market, it was generally understood that even with the loss of its chairman, the company remained in good hands.

For me, the thing that makes this my favorite crisis was that I was able to achieve the results that come with good planning so that the CEO of the company was enabled to focus on the personal challenges of losing a father and a friend.

Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

What do you think?  Let us know on Twitter at @OBrienPR

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.