Is Your Review and Approval Process Killing Your Results?

I got an email today from a respected consulting organization that provided details on a recent ransomware attack that occurred over the July 4th weekend.  The rather polished e-news alert was robust in its information, but there was a problem. It’s two weeks too late, and I’ve already gleaned all of the information in the article from other sources when the news first broke.

Keep in mind, I don’t fault the communications team behind the e-newsletter. I’ve been there many, many times. The problem is cultural, and it’s one of the most common reasons why organizations don’t get better results from their communications programs.

Their systems are clumsy

Let’s start with the piece, its purpose and what it does right. The e-news alert goes out to friends and clients and others, including media and analysts. It’s on brand and on message. It’s the kind of thing that if you’re the communications team member responsible, you can insert it into your portfolio and it will help you get your next good job. You can share it with your mom or dad or mother-in-law, and they will think you do important things.

Clients of the firm are reminded that the firm is thinking of them even if the information in the piece is a little stale. But that’s about it.

Why it doesn’t work

So, now let’s turn to why the piece doesn’t work and how that can seriously hinder larger communications efforts.

I’m sure the communications team worked as fast as they could to get this out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the moment the ransomware attack happened on July 4th weekend that the communications team were already working on it, instantly.

But then it’s likely that the corporate culture took over. First, they may have had to run the idea for the topic up the chain and find the right subject matter expert. Even if they knew who that SME was at the time, it was a holiday weekend. Perhaps they had trouble connecting, or they didn’t even try until everyone was back at work on the 5th or 6th.

At that point, someone had to research and write the e-news alert. If they only started after the holiday weekend, that took at least a couple of days. Then it had to be circulated for reviews and approvals. That probably took a day or two at best.

Throughout, there were likely conference calls and meetings to discuss. Among the discussions were likely, “Is this even an issue we want to touch?;” “What are the downsides?;” “Is he the right SME?”

Along with those discussions, there was the meeting with the graphic designer to discuss layout, artwork, timing and scheduling. You have to allow time for that.

Once the draft of the piece is inserted into the design, again, that has to be circulated for review and approval.

Then, of course, there is the meeting with the database person to make sure the e-news alert goes out to all the right people and none of the wrong people. Add a day.

Late in this process, someone in communications may have asked whether the firm should limit itself to an e-news alert, and whether a news release should be added to the mix, along with some media outreach. It’s now well more than a week after the fact, and the greenlight is given to pitch the media.

Everything goes as efficiently as possible, under these common circumstances, and an e-news alert about a three-week old event arrives in my inbox, and that of thousands of other recipients. At this point, publicists are reaching out to news reporters on a story that is now firmly into the “old news” category. But there was no effort to counsel leadership or manage expectations from the communications function in the planning process, so the publicists are charged with selling a story well past its expiration date.

In the end, the firm has an e-news alert and a news release to demonstrate output and, for the record, “timely” response to breaking developments. But in reality, the firm achieved nothing because its culture is slow and stilted, and it’s not alone.

How it can and should work

Throughout the pandemic and beyond, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a great client that has a stable of SMEs on a variety of topics, most notably, all things pandemic.

As the story broke and evolved in real time, our SMEs became used to the drill. They were same-day responsive to media requests and became quite adept at adjusting their messaging to the needs of particular journalists and media outlets.

The pandemic response media relations effort quickly became a well-oiled machine. And to top it all off, as that effort gained momentum, more potential SMEs saw the attraction of the effort and wanted to be a part of it, expanding our offerings to the media and increasing our effectiveness.

As we ease away from the pandemic and pandemic-dominant stories, the process is the same, and the program includes everything from same-day interviews to op-eds and opinion pieces on a wide range of matters.

Recently, one of our SMEs noticed a breaking news event in California and proactively drafted an op-ed for a daily in the region as the event was still unfolding. Our SME knew the drill by then. He knew how many words the op-ed had to be based on our prior experience with him, and he knew the tone it had to strike. He already had the data he needed to make his argument, which centered on the societal challenges around the event and how future events like that could be avoided.

Before the day was over, we had a solid draft to send to targeted opinion editors in the area, and we did. We submitted an op-ed on the breaking news event and what it means before the initial 24-hour news cycle had finished.

That was key.  The piece was accepted for publication quickly and it ran the following day.

While an op-ed is a quite different project than an e-news alert, both examples show illustrate the difference culture makes in getting results.

Subject matter experts need to be identified before something happens, not afterward. Subjects for possible content or publicity need to be identified in advance, if not by the entire team, by the SMEs themselves.

The team needs to be able to connect with each other and SMEs in real time to jump-start the process for pursuing real-time communications opportunities.

Scrap your traditional review and approval procedures

The typical approval process needs to be scrapped. Yes, scrapped. The world and the media aren’t waiting for you to get it right. They aren’t waiting at all.

You have to get it right before something happens and in real time so that your SMEs have the answers when the public and the media want them, which is now.

Am I advocating elimination of the approval process? Not at all.

I am saying that the drafting of content, the identification of targets and tactics, and the decision-making on approvals have to happen simultaneously.

Whomever needs to sign off on a draft need to be notified in advance that something is in the works and they will need to provide immediate attention to it and be prepared to turn it around in less than an hour, ideally.

The whole process needs to be compacted into a 24-hour window if that is possible and feasible if the effort centers on generating publicity. If the effort centers on producing a timely e-news alert or something similar, your grace period may be up to 48 hours, but beyond that, you’re pushing the limits of timeliness.

This is important because at the end of the day, the communications function is judged by the results it achieves, not its good intentions or outputs. To get those results, you need to get things done and out while the public still cares and is paying attention.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.


Don’t Surrender in the Battle of Word Choice

It’s one of the most effective and common ways activists win public debates these days. They change the language. Whatever words or terms you are using today, they will change the words tomorrow and the words you say today, will not only be obsolete, but they will likely be deemed to be offensive. That means when you are quoted from anything you’ve said historically, you are not only wrong (according to their fluid standards), but you will likely be framed as morally and ethically bad, or at least uncaring.

How does this work?

I’ll use an issue close to home to illustrate my point. I recently engaged in a very respectful and productive dialogue with a fellow public relations colleague on the issue of how to communicate policies around service dogs in the workplace.

The colleague was advised or read something that informed her to avoid any mention of “disabled” or “disability” in conjunction with another employee’s requirement for a service dog. She seemed to feel that such a mention would create a stigma around the employee.

But the fact is, the employee’s requirement for a service dog fell under the accommodations framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, for all intents and purposes, the primary reason for the service dog and the associated accommodations completely centered on the workplace policy on disabilities.

As far as I know, there is not organized movement to avoid use of words like “disability,” “disabled,” or “disabilities.” So, when we work to avoid using them for fear we could offend or stigmatize a disabled person, we are doing exactly the opposite of our intentions. We are assigning a stigma to the “D” words. For that reason alone, if there was a movement to assign negativity to these words, I’d object.

Once you change the descriptive language in this case you are stigmatizing the employee. And then you are creating a new problem with the language. What words are we now to use? And how long will they last before someone decides they, too, are stigmatized?

There are many other situations where the language becomes a moving target. From other diversity and inclusion contexts to social contexts.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between the natural evolution of language which tends to happen gradually over time, and an overnight redefinition of common words by a small group of activists or activist organizations.

What should you do?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s time to stop. Stop engaging on the activists’ intentional or unintentional terms where they assign victimhood to those who can help them advance their agendas.

The primary reason activists change the meanings of words or symbols is to create disorder and chaos, not clarity. Once they create more confusing terminology, and that terminology is commonly accepted, it becomes more difficult for you to make your own case or to effectively counter their case, simply because you’ve embraced the confusion.

Don’t adopt the latest language that comes at you. Don’t accept the premise that the words are wrong or bad or inaccurate or whatever.

If your organization is faced with addressing a complex issue, and your critics are changing the language to suit their arguments, all the more reason not to adopt their language. If you do, you are accepting their premise, surrendering any intellectual and possibly ethical merits of your own case, and fighting a losing battle on their turf. You can’t win.

The strategy of changing the language – and it is a strategy – is designed to ambush you, so the moment you start to engage on their terms, you’ve already lost.

Instead, communicate as clearly and candidly as possible. Be honest. Use the words that apply. Use precise words, even if your critics and opponents are trying to give new meaning to those words. If need be, explain the true meaning behind your word choice and why your opponents have it all wrong.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

Make Sure Your PR Counsel Knows Its Loyalties

For as long as I can remember, one of the challenges as a communications counselor to clients has been a general mistrust some managers and a few lawyers have had when it comes to discretion and the potential for news media leaks of proprietary information.

More to the point, I’ve seen instances where managers and attorneys tend to hold on to vital information until that last possible moments before public disclosure because they fear that if they provide that information to the communications function too soon it will find its way into the news media before its time.

I used to dismiss this attitude out of hand as overly cautious and counter-productive. The fact is, the sooner the communications function can get up to speed and involved in the planning of any number of disclosures the better. Both client and legal staffers can benefit from senior-level communications counsel, and communicators can benefit from the input and insights only legal counsel can provide.

I’ve been involved in a wide range of crisis and issues management situations from the very earliest stages and have seen how well this can work when it’s done right.

Not So Fast

But I’ve now had enough experience and seen a few situations where the concerns I cited up top cannot be so easily dismissed.

In my communications work over decades, I’ve noticed that a few public relations professionals, including a few seasoned veterans, may have had misplaced loyalties. Some may have felt a stronger affinity to the journalists who covered their organizations or clients than to the organizations or clients themselves. This is a problem.

It’s sometimes how improper leaks can happen before a deal is done, a claim is filed, a settlement is reached. It’s how word can get out about a bankruptcy filing too soon, or management’s planned offer in a labor dispute.

I used to think that the blame on some PR people was misplaced. It would be like going to a murder-mystery party and assuming “the butler did it.” It’s too obvious.

Why would a communicator, who has the most convenient access to the media, take such a chance, since they would be the first suspect in the chain of information to the media? But it has happened, and it will happen if you don’t have the right people in place.

Confused Loyalties

I once had a vigorous debate with a seasoned PR pro when he told me, “If you work in public relations, reporters are your first priority, even before your own staff members.”

I’ll save you the 10-minute monologue I responded with. To sum it up, I told him he was nuts.

And some PR people wonder why they’re kept out of the loop until the last possible moment, or only brought in late in the planning process.

You see this dynamic these days when veteran communicators join the movement against what they describe as “misinformation” or “disinformation,” presumably unaware that they are pawns in a campaign to silence anyone who may have a differing opinion from an accepted narrative.

All too often, when we are involved in controversial issues or situations, our critics and opponents will likely paint anything we have to say as “misinformation” in an effort to justify censorship from social platforms or even the government. How could any public relations professional in his or her right mind, enlist in such a movement? Yet it’s happening with increasing frequency.

Communicators Need to Follow Existing Ethical Standards and Practice

Public relations pros are starting to forget their professional loyalties and priorities. Generally, they are forgetting the critical purpose they serve as advocates for opinions on all sides of an issue in public debate. Situationally, some are forgetting their explicit loyalties and obligations to the organizations they serve.

They are taking their lead from the news media and others, and they are doing a disservice to their organizations and clients.

Long-standing, ethical practice of public relations must still apply.  Never acknowledge, confirm or deny anything without the support of top decision-makers, including legal counsel.  Communicate nothing of a sensitive nature independently.  Understand that everything is on the record when you’re talking to a journalist, and that as a communicator, you do not have the right to violate the confidence of another.

If the choice is between alienating a reporter, or an employer or a client, the choice has to be to look after the best interest of the employer or the client every time.

Yes, we sometimes negotiate embargoes or exclusives with some journalists, but we should never enter into any of these arrangements without consulting our decision-making teams in advance, and in compliance with any rules and regulations that govern disclosure.

In the end, communications professionals have to recognize that they have a vested interest to be ethical and professional when serving as advocates for the organizations they represent. And leaders and clients need to be able to trust that the communicators they work with are dedicated to the highest levels of professionalism.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

Should Your Company Take a Position on a Highly Charged Social or Political Issue?

We have to get real on this. If you’re wondering why you’re seeing major corporations or brands take stances on highly charged social and political issues, it’s unlikely that they’ve all simultaneously discovered their socially aware or politically activist convictions that no one knew existed before.

The crisis and issues manager in me that’s been around for a few decades tells me something else. I think it’s more likely that someone with significantly more power and influence than a grassroots activist group has decided to send a message to certain CEOs to tell them which positions they are to publicly take. It would have to be someone with enough power to get the C-suite’s attention so that the downside of not taking a public stance would be worse than the downside is if they do.

So, now a few Fortune 500 companies and other brands are assuming positions on some highly charged issues that they never would have even commented on before.

At the same time, it is also true that this trend can lead to certain curiosity at other companies and brands that may be wondering if they, too, should take public stances on some issues. CEOs at those firms may turn to their senior level communications counsel for their input.

If you are that communications person, and you want to be prepared, here are some factors to consider before you tell your leadership to go all in:

  • Determine if it’s a corporate fit In other words, if your company makes sneakers, and the social issue is labor conditions for sneaker manufacturing plants overseas, then it probably is an issue you should consider. But if you’re from the same company, and the issue is not directly tied to your business, don’t be so quick to jump into the fray. Outside of following all legal and ethical standards, and treating your stakeholders with respect, you are not obliged to join any social campaign. In other words, you should always do the right thing, but not every social or political issue is as altruistic as initially advertised, and even when some start with the best of intentions, many have the potential to devolve into something you never wanted for your company or brand.
  • Know your purpose Is it to shore up relations with customers, consumers, vendors or some of your employee groups? Can you shore up those relationships without taking a public stance, or without following the crowd? It’s almost always best not to follow the pack just to follow the pack. “Everyone else is doing it,” is one of the worst motivations for doing anything in PR and often ends badly.
  • Consider the downsides if you do it If you can’t think of any, you haven’t thought this through, and you haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening to other firms and brands. Every public issue, particularly in 2021, carries with it some significant risk to your corporate and consumer brands, your reputation, your stakeholder relationships, and your business. Take the time to identify those downsides and properly examine them.
  • Consider the downsides if you don’t do it I have to include this point, but I can assure you that in most cases, the downside of not taking a position is much less when compared to the downsides of taking a position. Even if you feel pressured to take the position because you fear that you will be attacked if you don’t. More often, not taking a position – even if it brings with it a certain degree of negativity on social media or from some other place – likely won’t be significant enough to harm your business. On the flip side, there is the very real possibility that taking a public position could hurt your business.
  • Make sure you’re not doing this just to get attention If your company makes frozen meat products and you decide you’re going to try to embarrass a leading scientist on Twitter by overtly inferring that the scientist is not as scientifically savvy as you, you’re in over your head, and you’re being disingenuous. You should not be tangoing in this way. By the way, this true story is a good example of what not to do. Not all publicity is good publicity. And doing silly things to get clicks and shares is usually not “marketing genius,” because often as not, it doesn’t do a thing for sales.

In 2021, it can be self-deceiving to presume that when companies take stances on highly charged social or political issues, their motivations are organically driven. All the more reason to think twice and be very deliberate before you wade into waters that are new to your company. Perhaps they are waters you never should be in to begin with.

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Tim O’Brien, founder of O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh, is a veteran corporate communications consultant with particular experience in crisis and issues management, along with other C-suite priorities. You can reach him at






Workplace Communications: The Downsides of Vaccine Mandates

One of the most basic tenets of crisis communications is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. With that in mind, through my work, I’ve been looking at the potential downsides of employer mandates of vaccination for the COVID virus.

If you read the news coverage, reports on vaccine effectiveness are generally positive, yet we are starting to see anecdotal stories of people who have had negative reactions which were more than temporary and that still remain. Are they one-offs? We don’t know.

Compounding this are stories we may hear in our own lives from friends or family members who have had similar experiences.

On social media and the Internet, our 21st century town square, it can be difficult to assess just how widespread these incidents may be, because the big digital platforms have adopted policies to suppress or dismiss on face value any posts that report negative experiences, labeling them “misinformation” or “disinformation.”

All of this combines to put the crisis communicator in a position of “flying blind” without reliable and current information. Since the COVID vaccine is still in its experimental phase, and no medical treatment is without some side effect, no one really knows for certain what to expect in the short-term or long-term.

That’s why you hear advocates of vaccination hedge when they describe vaccination as “90 percent effective” instead of “90 percent safe.”

Talking to Lawyers

So, in the course of my work, I talked to a trial lawyer I’ve known for many years. Trial lawyers make their reputations successfully suing people, usually large organizations, oftentimes over controversial issues. I asked him what the chances are that an employer could get sued if it mandates that employees be vaccinated for COVID.

In short, he said it’s unlikely that the employer could face much liability in litigation, but he does expect (and is preparing for) an uptick in worker’s compensation claims due to negative and possibly lasting effects of vaccination among some people.

Look for an Uptick in Worker’s Compensation Claims

That told me what I needed to know for my purposes. The most likely scenario for crisis communications is not likely to be a lawsuit, but rather, lost time and productivity, and increased expense tied to a rise in worker’s compensation claims.

This can have a ripple effect if enough people are off the job in critical departments or functions within an organization.

Another lawyer I talked to said that this is why most employers she advises decide to make vaccination a voluntary measure. While the employers tend to encourage their people to get vaccinated, they do not require it as a condition of employment.

From a crisis management perspective, that is probably the best approach as well. If we’ve learned anything from the past year it is that there is a myriad of ways to keep organizations operational and functioning through effective mitigation efforts, such as masking, social distancing and remote work, which do not involve forcing or coercing employees to assume a perceived or real risk tied to vaccination.

It’s at this point, I can hear someone saying about those who are hesitant to be vaccinated, “Just get the jab. Save lives. Your resistance to vaccination is selfish.”

From a workplace communication perspective, that is overly simplistic and tone-deaf messaging. No medical treatment is cookie-cutter, one-size fits all. The truth is, a small percentage of people very well may have negative and lasting effects of an invasive vaccine, so the possible negative consequences of forcing that upon them is something to take seriously. We know these same individuals can reduce risk to themselves and to others simply by following non-invasive and proven mitigation measures.

If you say you respect employees, you have to respect their perspectives and their rights, particularly when it comes to assuming any level of health risk. While no one has a right to put others at risk of COVID infection, there are many policies and non-invasive mitigation processes that have been put into place over the past year. Keeping this in mind could prevent a communications crisis, one that could stem from negative social media buzz about your organization, among other things.

No one likes to be forced to do anything, and if they have personal, health or even religious concerns over an invasive medical treatment, forcing them to take it or face a penalty can cause a level of resentment and distrust that will last long after the current pandemic has passed.

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Feel free to get in touch with Tim to provide your thoughts or talk about anything you’d like to discuss. Email him at, or call 412.854.8845.


Civility: One Person’s Honest Opinion is Another Person’s “Disinformation”…and the Story of How Galileo Got Cancelled

One of the hot new terms you may see bandied about in 2021 is “disinformation.”

Its users see it as a label for calling out deceptive speech, oftentimes to discredit and sometimes to censor that speech. Critics see the increasing use of the term as a propagandist strategy used to marginalize anyone who might dissent from a general narrative.

As with any controversial term a good starting point for analysis is the dictionary.

Merriam-Webster defines “disinformation” as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”

In other words, the dictionary says knowingly lying is disinformation. Fair enough. But what if someone is simply stating an opinion based on facts that others don’t accept? Does that constitute disinformation? Where are the boundaries? This is important.

If someone states an opinion that climate change isn’t a man-made crisis, that men really didn’t walk on the Moon, or that there was a second gunman in the JFK assassination, is that disinformation? Are conspiracy theories and disinformation one and the same? Or, even more to the point, are all conspiracy theories baseless?

And what about theories that may not be popular at first, but after no small amount of public debate, eventually prove to have certain merits?

The Galileo Galilei Case

Galileo Galilei, born in 1564, is widely regarded as the father of modern science and made major contributions to the fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Keep this in mind anytime you hear someone today say, “Trust the science.”

In the 1600s, there was no Internet mob or federal court system to determine what is and is not acceptable in society. Instead, there was the Catholic Church.

A man by the name of Nicholas Copernicus wrote a book called “De Revolutionibus,” which represented the first modern scientific case for a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe. In other words, the argument was that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

This was enough to earn a place on the Church’s index of banned books. A parallel today would be for Big Tech to ban the book from Amazon.

At the time, Pope Paul V called Galileo to Rome and made it clear to him he could no longer endorse Copernicus publicly. Again, using today’s climate for communications, that means no tweets, no blog posts, no YouTube videos, no selfies with his buddy Copernicus. Nothing. Galileo could provide no public endorsements of this banned way of seeing the universe.

So, what does Galileo do? Well, in 1632 he decides to publish his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” which doesn’t specifically endorse Copernicus’s view, but it gives it a fair hearing. That didn’t go over well in Rome with the ‘fact checkers’ who saw Galileo as deliberately spreading disinformation.

Galileo was called to stand before the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Today, this would be like being summoned to Seattle to stand before and be judged by a group of billionaire tech bros.

In the beginning, Galileo denied that he had advocated heliocentrism – that the earth revolved around the sun – but he later tried to explain that his actions were unintentional.

Not good enough for his inquisitors. He was convicted on grounds of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” He was threatened with torture and forced to bow down, express remorse and seek forgiveness. Again, in today’s terms, this means he was forced to apologize to the mob and still he was cancelled.

By the time Galileo was put on trial, he was almost 70 years old, and yet he would live another nine years under house arrest. That’s a lot like a pandemic quarantine and lockdown, only with no Door Dash.

Fortunately for him and for the world, Galileo was able to use that time to write about his early motion experiments, which represented his last major scientific contribution to civilization.

If you can see some of parallels between that time and our own, what you are really seeing is that human nature hasn’t changed much. People with unpopular views are often persecuted even if they’re right. Sometimes especially if they’re right, because they’re seen as a threat to someone in power.

So, in that context, I ask you, should everyone who states an opinion that dissents from generally accepted assumptions be shut down and shut up through private and public censorship?

More questions. Should today’s Big Tech be, like the Church of the 1600s, the inquisitor and the judge for what is disinformation or not?

More Questions than Answers

My apologies if I’ve hit you with more questions than answers to this point, but the barrage of questions illustrates both the complexity of the issue and the problem with terms like “disinformation.” And they further illustrate the need for open and public debate, rather than the need to shut down debate.

“Disinformation” is not a precise word. It is completely subjective. It is vague and defined by the parties actively engaged in the debate, people who have something to gain by discrediting the other side.

Are People Permitted to have Opinions?

If there are 50 people in the room all witness to the same debate between two sides of an issue, chances are very good that you will get 50 distinct versions of what was disinformation and what was opinion.  So, where does that leave us?

It brings us back to where we were as a society before words like “disinformation” entered the current vernacular.

The price for living in a free society is that speech is messy. Something we would have accepted as a difference of opinion a year or two ago, in the current environment is deemed a battle over “disinformation,” and for that reason alone, it should be banned from social media, banned from books, banned from the news and opinion media, banned from any public discourse.

Is coffee good for your health or bad for your health? After we talk to a few doctors and look at the science it’s anyone’s guess…and by anyone’s guess, I mean anyone’s opinion.

Imagine if some doctors who said coffee is bad for you could post whatever they want on YouTube, but doctors who say coffee is good for you immediately have their YouTube videos taken down and their Twitter accounts suspended all in the name of “the common good” or the public’s health and well-being. Someone in power doesn’t want you to have access to coffee, and they don’t have to tell you why.

Accusations of “Disinformation” are Smear Tactics

At the end of the day, one person’s honest opinion – sometimes a highly informed opinion – is that person’s critic’s “disinformation.”

If you consider yourself fair-minded, permit me to make one recommendation.

Think twice before you label something “disinformation” or “misinformation.” Because when you do, you are smearing the messenger. Chances are, you are labeling an opinion a lie, and accusing the speaker of being a liar. Not very civil, is it?

If you value your own right to freedom of expression, you must honor the next person’s right to the same, no matter how vile or uninformed you think that person may be. Because if you don’t, and enough people join with you on the notion that freedom of speech is a selective privilege only to be given to a few by a few – and not an equal right for all – a dark day is ahead for you, too. Dark days are ahead for all of us, and we’d owe those dire consequences to anyone who would favor public or private censorship today.

If you see yourself as standing for civility, it’s time for you to do your part to ratchet down the vitriol.

“Disinformation” is in itself an intentionally imprecise word. It’s propagandist by nature. It’s an uncivil accusation that compounds problems already associated with lack of civility. Perhaps most deviously, it’s a blunt, merciless tool used to deny others freedom of expression as a justification for censorship in all of its forms.

When you consider use of such a word, you are making a choice to whether you will be divisive, or unifying. Whether you will be oppressive or fair. By simply stepping back and using a more reasonable and equitable word, you can take the higher road.

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Tim O’Brien, founder of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, is a veteran crisis and issues communicator, strategist and senior leadership counselor. Get in touch by email:


Free Speech: How “Misinformation” is Used to Deny Your Right to Hear

When you ate your meals in a high chair, chances are your mother or someone else spoon-fed you for a time. That was because you were incapable of discerning what was good for you and what could harm you. Eventually you learned to feed yourself and distinguish between food and the spoon itself.

Imagine if today if your mother would decide that all of the information you receive would be spoon-fed to you. Sadly, that may now be a thing.

The fact is, lots of things can harm us, but part of growing into maturity and adulthood is developing an ability to distinguish between that which can cause harm and that which cannot. This does not mean everyone makes good choices. None of us do so completely, but for the most part, once into adulthood we are trusted to make decisions for ourselves.

One area where the founders trusted us to make decisions for ourselves has been in the area of speech. And that trust has carried forward throughout the generations to today.

Free speech, of course, is a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That right extends to both the messenger and the receiver. What quickly gets overlooked is that not only do we have the right to speak, but we also have a right to hear.

This rationale for freedom of speech can be best summed up in the word “discernment.” Adults are trusted to make decisions for themselves. In a free society, freedom of choice, or freedom to discern is assumed. It’s a fundamental and core value.

The movement against the free flow of information

That’s what makes an emerging movement against the free flow of information perplexing.

Based on the premise that information can harm you, a burgeoning school of thought has emerged to encourage you to rely on third parties to tell you what information to trust and what information not to trust. At the end of the day, they want to spoon-feed you. They are saying, “Trust me, don’t trust yourself to discern.”

From the time of America’s founding, the First Amendment has protected citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. Those rights have been put to the test for almost 250 years in numerous court cases rising to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Without getting into the details of each case, an obvious pattern has defined the court’s rulings. Speech is to be unregulated, uncensored and protected regardless of how offensive or often inaccurate it may be. From the burning of the nation’s flag and the naming of a music band, to the protection of hate speech, the court has sided with freedom of expression.

Those court rulings are based on the premise that the cure for offensive or misinformed speech is more speech. In the marketplace of ideas, bad ideas and information must be countered, not suppressed.

Based on this, the First Amendment does not allow for government regulation of speech.  To be sure, the First Amendment centers primarily on government powers, but it has shaped American society to foster the free flow of information in all sectors, from individuals and private businesses, to nonprofits, community and other organizations.

In my public relations work over decades, I’ve learned to appreciate that First Amendment. Without it, so many interests, people and organizations I have seen would not have had a voice, and society would have suffered terribly.

What is concerning today is the gathering momentum of the notion that speech is harmful to a degree that it must be regulated, either by government or outsourced to private industry. That Americans must be protected from some speech. That adults should be treated as children and are not to be permitted to right and opportunity to discern.

Freedom to speak v. freedom to suppress

There is a common assumption among some that freedom of speech is only tolerable if it’s speech that they agree with or they can easily suppress or discredit. Speech that challenges their assumptions is “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Speech that defies their own worldview should not be permitted a platform.

Proponents of this mindset think nothing of framing speech they fear as dangerous or harmful, whether that speech be political in nature or centered on such hot issues as the environment or health policy.

There are two quotes I’ve found good to revisit at times like this. The first is from historian and social critic Noam Chomsky: “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

That gets at the messengers and our requirement in a free society to allow them a platform, but what about the idea that content itself can be harmful? What about those seeking relief from the mere exposure to unwelcome thought, all in the name of our well-being?

Look no further than founding father Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”

What visionaries could not anticipate

I’m not one to argue with great thinkers, but even they probably did not anticipate a world where government wouldn’t be the dominant force in the removal of the free flow of information, the denial of the opportunity to discern.

What we now see is that such freedoms are lost incrementally, day by day, through complicity, silence, or when growing numbers delegate discernment to others.

Enter the arbiters

And that’s where the arbiters come in. “Fact checkers” and “trust ratings” for websites and news sites. Anonymous reviewers in the bowels of some big tech company, and non-human algorithms designed to filter some information out and ensure that some information is filtered in. The arbiters promise to do the heavy lifting by providing their own context. In other words, the one person they does not trust to make discernments for you is you.

This movement uses a tacit strategy of communication. You are told it’s not about you, it’s about other people. That’s right. It’s not about protecting you because you’re too savvy to need such protection. It’s about protecting other people who are not as sophisticated as you. Unsophisticated people who may be exposed to “misinformation” or “disinformation” and actually believe some of it. The solution, you are told, is that others must be protected through a new form of information prohibition.

The truth is that no matter what organization or service decides to get in the business of fact-checking or filtering the information you receive, it will create a criteria and algorithms based on a very specific ideology. If that service is left leaning, it will prescribe only trusted left leaning media. If it is right leaning, it will prescribe only trusted right leaning media.

Still, the service you choose will lean one way or the other. It will play favorites.  You will be told these oppositional media sites are guilty of spreading misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. That in itself may be a lie.

Opinion is just that – opinion. When opinion is now branded “misinformation,” that’s a good sign to start questioning the motivations of the accuser.

A new age of Prohibition

With these mechanisms in place, third parties, which include big tech, now serve as society’s arbiters for what is deemed “harmful” speech and what is not. You are not permitted to discern for yourself.

Keep in mind, it wasn’t long ago that something had to be dubbed hate speech to receive similar treatment. The bar has dropped dramatically and quickly from that standard to now cover anything that those in power deem to be nebulously “harmful.” This, you are told, is for your own good.

Yes, it may not be the government doing it, but it is the wholesale restriction of the free flow of information in a democratic society.

Is this ethical?

During my career, I’ve adhered to my industries’ codes of ethics, from journalism to public relations. I’ve seen and read many other ethics codes as well, and while the content may vary, the core principles are often the same.

In the PR field, one of our codes is based on the premise that the public interest is best served when several values are protected and adhered to, including serving as responsible advocates for those we represent, and honesty and accuracy in the content that we generate.

The codes also frame certain core values as integral to communication in a healthy society, including the free flow of information and the disclosure of information.

I have had some troubling observations as I’ve noticed others in my field who don’t see a problem with the denial the right to discern, along with the undermining of the values that comprise our codes of ethics.

My concerns are that we can’t be effective advocates if the case we want to make, meaningful as it may be, is deemed harmful by a third party and therefore denied a platform. We can’t be honest if in doing so we run afoul of a third party that believes our honesty is harmful to their own version of reality or their agenda.

We can’t count on a free flow of information if an entire industry takes a hard stand to filter information out. We can’t assume that all of the most critical information we need to maintain a healthy society is even being disclosed if the gatekeepers are in such tight control, are not transparent and cannot be held to account.

This is a new age of information prohibition. It’s defined by subjective and sometimes agenda-driven claims that certain speech must not be heard. That adults can’t be trusted to discern for themselves what speech is acceptable and what speech is not. What does it say about a free society when opinion is deemed dangerous? Information is power. In 2021, it’s never been more powerful or priceless. This is not the time to let others to do the thinking for us.


Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms. 

Apologies: Cancel Culture Does Not Forgive

There is a common assumption, particularly in public relations circles, that there is such a thing as a good apology. And by “good apology” they mean one that works on several levels. It is genuine. It satisfies the anger of your critics. It mends fences and brings a return of unity. Or, at the very least, it causes your critics to back off.

As humans, we are conditioned to believe that a good apology’s goal is to seek forgiveness.

This may be true in our personal lives. It may be true in our marriages. It may be true in our friendships. It may even be true in a one-on-one, offline customer service situation. But it is a myth when it comes to cancel culture and the current climate of mob aggression.

The fact is, whether you are at fault or not, once the cancel mob decides to humble you or your organization, there is no such thing as forgiveness. If the mob decides you must pay, you will pay insofar as the cancel mob can help it.

This theory that apologies do much to provide cover when under attack by cancel culture is often a fool’s errand.

So, You Should Never Apologize?

That’s not at all what I’m saying.

You should always do the right thing, regardless of how it looks or even if no one ever finds out. In sports there is a mantra I like: “Champions are made when no one is looking.”

The same holds true in life. Good people and good organizations do the right thing when no one is looking or when it really doesn’t make a difference. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing and that’s enough.

When you apologize, that’s why you apologize. Because there is a legitimate reason for it.

Quite frankly, a lot of demands for apologies we see online and in the media are not themselves genuine. The amount of faux anger driving so much of the discourse we see is incalculable. These dynamics, by design, lead to real, mass anger that only serve the purposes of those driving it. Some who demand an apology aren’t even self-aware enough to realize that they themselves won’t accept any apology. They expect contrition without a willingness on their part to forgive, and that presumes their ire is justified, which quite often it is not.

The notion that in a public relations sense a genuine apology will make a difference is misguided. If you only apologize after demands for an apology are made, no apology will be seen as genuine. It’s apology-on-demand, and that’s inherently disingenuous. Better to focus on corrective actions, transparency and communication.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is an art to an apology, particularly when cancel culture dynamics are at play. There isn’t. Cancel culture does not forgive, no matter how you apologize, or how often. Your communications strategies must keep this top of mind.

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Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms. 


Media Interviewing 101: You Only Get So Many “Circle Backs”

In our media training programs over the years, one of the key takeaways we try to leave with participants is that if you don’t know something, don’t fake it. Tell the journalist that you don’t have that information or that answer right now, but you will get back to them. And then make sure to close the loop.

This is what White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki does quite often in her daily briefings with the White House Press corps. In fact, she’s so proficient at telling reporters that she will have to “circle back” with an answer to a question that it’s already become a meme. That’s not a good thing.

While it may be totally cool to “circle back” on occasion, this should not be standard procedure. Standard procedure is to be prepared for almost all of the questions you will receive (and a few more you won’t receive), and to address them on the spot. That’s how you drive messaging in real time, since so much of news content is reported in real time.  In the time it takes to “circle back” you are losing a valuable opportunity to influence the narrative.

Everyone – from those in your own organization, to the news media and the public – expects you to be prepared. So, when you make a habit of not being able to answer those predictable questions, you begin to erode your credibility.

So, it’s with this in mind that Jen Psaki would be better served to prepare more thoroughly and vigilantly for those daily press briefings. She should work to reduce the number of times she may need to “circle back.” One exercise we do quite a bit in our own media training programs is to role-play and drill intensively on the full range of questions that could come up. This probably should happen daily until it becomes second nature.

With that in mind, what kind of questions do you have for me? Feel free to send them to


Want to Encourage People to Get Vaccinated? Here are some tips.

If you’re like a lot of communicators right now, one of the challenges you may face is trying to encourage employees and others to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them.

As the distribution of the vaccine continues and ramps up, your stakeholders will have the opportunity to get vaccinated, which can have a beneficial impact on them, their families and your organization.

Still, many are wary of vaccines, and this one in particular may give them pause due to the fears many may have over the COVID virus itself, the newness of the vaccine or other factors.

With this in mind, here are some tips to prepare the way for access to the vaccine.

Tap the power of modeling

Lead by example. If you want others to get the vaccine, if you meet the health requirements for getting one yourself, get it. Leaders need to be role models. It’s one of the most persuasive strategies for communication. When people see other people exhibiting model behavior, they are more prone to follow it.

Showcase peers and colleagues who are getting vaccinated

This is an extension of modeling, but it delves deeper into the organization. While you don’t need to make a show of someone actually receiving the vaccination, testimonials from across the organization from individuals who plan to get vaccinated, or who have been vaccinated can be very effective. This is not to say you should pressure employees to be vaccinated. Quite the opposite. Create a positive and encouraging environment, respectful of individual choices and factors, while at the same time showcasing those who are vaccinated.

Emphasize the benefits of vaccination

When you emphasize the benefits of vaccination, you provide real incentive for people to want to be vaccinated. When people get vaccinated, they can go to the workplace with more confidence, meet with others, spend time with friends and family they haven’t seen in a while, feel better about their own health, know they are protecting others, and know that they are doing their part to help your organization and society get back to a sense of normalcy.

Acknowledge specific concerns

Some may have health or religious concerns over being vaccinated. It’s important not to minimize these concerns. Recognize them and respect them. To be sure, many people have a history of a certain sensitivity to drugs or medical treatments and may not want to risk adverse health effects by taking the vaccine. Even if the organization has a vaccination mandate in place, the law in most states makes certain exceptions. It’s important to be sensitive to these exceptions.

Provide vaccine perks

You may be able to offer time off to be vaccinated or as a reward for being vaccinated. You may be able to conduct a raffle for anyone who has been vaccinated. Within the boundaries of good taste and ethics, you can incentivize people to get vaccinated in the same way you would promote any workplace safety program.

Of course, there are other ideas, but these are a few to get started. If you’re wondering how you can promote vaccination in your organization, I’d be happy to talk with you. Feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or sent an email to