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

This is going to be a short blog post.

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

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

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

So, here’s how it works.

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

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

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

Is Now the Time for a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

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

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

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

Bankruptcy Communications: One Question, 31 Answers

If the entire country opened up for business tomorrow without any restrictions, the residual effects of the shutdown on local economies throughout the nation would last for months to come as no small number of businesses come to terms with the fact that this hole is far too big for them to dig out of simply by opening their doors again. More than a few firms will have to turn to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to give their businesses a fighting chance to survive.

In my work in bankruptcy communication, I’ve found that this type of crisis scenario is unique when compared to other crisis situations because the number-one question on the part of just about every stakeholder group is the same:

How will this affect me?

But what further makes it unique is that there are roughly 31 or more answers to that same question. The reason is that once you start addressing the self-interest of your company’s various stakeholder groups, the answer changes, even slightly, by each group and sub-group.

All employees are not the same. That goes without saying, right? Well consider the fact that your firm could have hourly and salaried employees, union and non-union, full-time and part-time, headquarters and field offices, R&D and operations, vested employees and non-vested, customer services employees and sales representatives. And then of course, you may have retiree groups to consider. And all of that may fall under just the “employee” umbrella.

Companies that enter the bankruptcy process have their share of concerns, but one of them need not be the possibility that they mishandled communications by taking a one-size-fits all approach to the communication process.

Another common mistake they make is that they can spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to announce a Chapter 11 filing without planning for the ongoing communications process during the reorganization and eventual emergence from bankruptcy protection.

Because I’ve gotten calls on this already, I’m going to offer a free initial consultation on this process. If you or someone you know have questions about communicating prior to and during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, please feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

The Missing Ingredient in Most Media Training Today

Let’s Change the Recipe

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

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

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

a) they were faced with an imminent crisis;

b) they were faced with a probable crisis; or

c) they were faced with a possible crisis.

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

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

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

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

It’s Time for a Change

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Technique

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

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

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

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

Crisis Leadership: A Turnaround Mindset is Required to Avert Financial Disaster

If you’re in charge of a business of any size right now, outside of the health and well-being of everyone you know, the one thing that’s on your mind is how your company is going to come out of the current quarantine … or if it will come out of it.

In politics, there is a saying that all politics are local. What that means is that no matter how global the issue, for the voter it really comes down to, “How will this affect me?”

So, on the matter of the many issues that have come to play during the current pandemic, the crisis communications rule of thumb is very similar. You must answer the question of each of your stakeholders, “How will this affect me?”

If you run a company, you’re worried about how the economic shutdown will affect you, your company, your employees, your customers, your partners and your collective future together. Will it survive?

This reminds me of many times where I’ve worked with companies in financial crisis.

Missed earnings expectations, restructurings and turnaround situations, Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filings and subsequent reorganizations. They all had the same concern at their center. How will we move past this? Will we move past it?

Obviously, I can’t speak to your specific situation in a blog post like this, but here’s what I can say. The companies that emerged stronger had the following things in common.

#1 Focus on What it Will Take to Survive – Every successful management team was able to take a sober look at what they had been doing prior to the crisis, and then envision a post-crisis company. They were able to compare and contrast the two different scenarios, and in the process see what changes they needed to make as the crisis was unfolding. And they made those changes quickly and decisively.

#2 Focus on What You Will Need to Survive – One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen some management teams make is not having a full appreciation for what they would need to survive. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but the successful firms knew what investments they had to make even when financial resources were scarce. But they couldn’t do it without a clear objective of where they needed to take the company in the near-term and the long-term. Sometimes that meant re-allocating existing resources, and other times it simply meant reaffirming their commitments to certain existing plans, strategies and business units in order to re-emerge from crisis stronger than before.

#3 Focus on How You Will Emerge Stronger – This is all about vision. You know the challenges. You know how your peer companies and competitors are fairing right now. You have a sense of how they will try to emerge, how they are positioning themselves for the post-crisis period. So, how will you? What kind of company will come out of this situation stronger? Is your firm capable of being that company? How? It’s not only time to envision it, but to challenge your own vision. Try to knock it down, look for the flaws in your own thinking, and then fix it in those places. Ultimately, you will have a practical and achievable vision of a stronger company post-crisis.

#4 Focus on How You Will Sustainably Thrive – Too many companies focus primarily on cost-cutting to get through a financial crisis, but that’s a short-term fix at best. Once you’ve cut costs, chances are you’ve cut resources, and when you’ve done that, you’ve hindered your company’s ability to realistically sustain itself post-crisis. While cost-cutting is prudent and necessary in many financial crises, there has to be a plan to restore a smart self-investing strategy, fueled by growth, to assure that your company can sustain its post-crisis resurgence and then grow for the long-term.

You Need to Know This Up Front

It’s important to work through this planning process as quickly as possible, because chances are your stakeholders – investors, customers, employees and others – are already waiting to hear from you. What’s your plan? What are you going to do? What are you not going to change? How can we be sure all of it will work?

They want to know, and they need to know. And that’s where an effective communications plan enters the picture. To build and maintain confidence among the people most important to your company’s ability to survive and thrive, the glue is effective communication. And that can’t wait until the quarantine is lifted.

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Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator who has handled the full range of crisis and issues management matters for clients. If you have a question or concern, he’d be glad to hear from you: 412.854.8845; timobrien@timobrienpr.com; Twitter: @OBrienPR

COVID-19: What You Can Do to Reduce Fear and Panic Right Now

I’ve done crisis management for over 34 years and have been stymied the past two weeks at the large number of supposed leaders, experts and communications professionals who seem to see it as their job to gin up panic. There’s no other way to say it.

To be clear, the enemy of any effective crisis management approach is panic. When someone starts to tell you that, “Now may be the time to panic,” they couldn’t be more wrong. There is never an appropriate time to panic, especially when the threat is real.

Oddly enough, I’ve heard the argument that “panic is necessary” right now to create a sense of urgency, to get people to pay attention to the health authorities.

Let me debunk that notion before we go any further. Panic does not create a healthy sense of urgency. It doesn’t get people to pay attention to information they need to know. It turns a rational mind into an irrational one.

Panic is what caused people on the Titanic to jump over the life boats without a life vest into the cold sea and certain death. The energy of panic creates unfocused, unhealthy chaos and cannot be channeled constructively in a crisis.

In the long narrative of history, we can find stories where the resulting panic did more harm than the triggering event. If you need a glaring example, study the stock market crash of October 29, 1929.

The Number One Objective: Reduce Panic

For this reason, the number-one objective of all crisis management is to prevent an over-reaction or panic reaction to any negative development. If you are a leader. If you are the parent of a child. If you are someone to whom at least one other person looks to with respect, you owe it to all of them to be a calming force. That is your objective. You can’t be a calming force if you project worry and panic.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s not spin. When people over-react to a negative event or a potential negative event, public attitudes go through a whipsaw effect. This means that there are wild and vast swings in public sentiment that cause people to take irrational actions that disrupt society in many huge, unintentional and unnecessary ways.

One rather silly example of this right now are the empty shelves where there used to be toilet paper. Yes, it is a sad statement that one of the first things people hoard at times like this is toilet paper, but the lack of toilet paper isn’t the real problem. It’s a symptom of the deeper problem which is that public figures and newsroom decision-makers have clearly decided not to be a calming force at the moment.

A more significant problem is when people over-react with their investment portfolios, making highly emotional decisions out of fear when to date, nothing material has happened to change the fundamentals of the economy. There is nothing to indicate that when the health crisis passes, the economy won’t rebound in very robust fashion. Nothing stimulates a marketplace like pent up demand. Who in leadership is delivering that message right now? If you find that person, trust them.

Five Things You Can Do

Based on my experience in crisis communications, here are 5 things you can do right now to reduce panic for yourself, for your family and for those around you:

#1 – Don’t speculate or believe those who do.

I saw a report of a group of researchers from a well-known university complain that there wasn’t enough data to properly assess the current situation on the ground for COVID-19. In the very next sentence, their spokesman speculated that 150 million Americans could be infected. In other words, on the basis of no facts, they still speculated a worst-case scenario with a number they could not substantiate. Its only purpose could have been shock value.

Why would they do that? I’ll tell you. It was to get their university’s brand name in the conversation. It was not about the needs of the public. It was about the need of their brand, a selfish motive, to say the least.

The more outrageous and dire they can paint the situation, the more likely their comments will end up in the news.

In the PR world, this is called “newsjacking,” where you try to insert your brand into a story that has nothing to do with you. In most cases, it’s harmless. But during times of pandemic, such speculation is dangerous and irresponsible.

The problem is, if you think the media seems to be reporting all of this negative news with glee, you’re probably not mistaken. Pandemics like this are very good for ratings, clicks and shares. The media is never more relevant than during times of crisis.

So, to keep the attention on themselves, news outlets thrive on extreme speculation. And they look for anyone with an M.D. after their name to legitimize their speculation. This creates panic and they know it. And the medical experts who want their 15 minutes of fame on cable news know that in order to earn that air-time, they must play the game. So, a few of them will heartily play along and speculate worst case scenarios.

With all of this in mind, if you want to do your part, remember that the number-one rule in all crisis management is not to speculate. Stick to the facts. Do not venture a guess on how all of this will turn out. The fact is you don’t know. If all of the talking heads would have done this, the coverage would have been and would be much more boring, and you wouldn’t see the panic you do right now.

#2 – Don’t believe anyone who isn’t an infectious disease expert already working on this situation.

As noted, if a medical expert on your screen is not actively working on this situation, chances are they have partial information at best. If the person on camera is a politician, you have to assume that anything they say will have a political agenda behind it, and as such, the public health interest may not be their highest priority when speaking.

But it’s not just politicians. Just a few days ago, I saw an article in my local newspaper where the local food and drink beat-reporter wrote an entire story around an interview with a bar owner in Rome. The assumption for both the reporter and the bar owner was that whatever Rome has experienced, Pittsburgh will experience.

If you want to contribute to an atmosphere of panic, one way to do it is have a food and drink reporter interview a bar owner to generalize on the spread of an unprecedented health pandemic.

I’ll make it simple. Your best bet on reducing panic is primarily to take your lead from the experts at the CDC right now. No one else.

#3 – Don’t justify emotional decision-making. Focus on the facts to date.

Next to avoidance of speculation, the most important thing to do in a crisis is to focus on the facts. Remove the emotion from the situation. Not because you don’t care.

A crisis is not a competition to demonstrate who cares the most. It’s a time to deflate the emotion from a highly charged situation so that the vast majority of the people can see things most clearly. 

A local media personality I follow on social media has gotten sucked into the emotional aspects of this situation. He’s allowed his own emotions to guide his posts and he’s lost sight that, as a well-liked public figure, he can be and should be a calming force.

One of his more recent posts, as sentimental as it is, betrays an underlying sense of despair, not based on facts, but only on emotion. He posted, “We have reached a point of an unimaginable global event. No one could see this coming…everything we took for granted has been changed and challenged. Love your family and your neighbor like never before and remember what’s truly important, each other.”

Can I argue with his emotions? Absolutely not. 

If that’s how he feels, I get that. But I can say that this is not the kind of language people need to hear to reduce panic. I’d argue that language like this actually feeds the panic. The facts he gets wrong are glaring. This was not an unimaginable global event. Infectious disease specialists imagine far worse than this scenario all of the time, and if you do a quick web search, you’ll find vast bodies of research that lay out processes to counter such scenarios, and worse.

A second factor this person has wrong is that “no one could see this coming.” Once again, while the COVID-19 was not planned, it is something world leaders plan for, and to some extent, expect over time.

And while it’s a matter of opinion, I’d say a strong leader would not presume so melodramatically that “everything we took for granted has been changed and challenged.” But that’s just me. My take is, he’s let his emotions get the best of him and he’s letting it show. Keep in mind, I do not begrudge the feeling, but his decision to air this kind of thinking does not reduce panic. It does not help the community cope, it contributes to an atmosphere of panic.

Facts are the Enemy of Panic

Facts are the enemy of panic. If the facts are processed in proper perspective, more often than not, we see things aren’t as bad as they first appear.

So, let’s look at some facts for COVID-19 and use a comparison that may provide context.

As of this moment (Monday, March 16, 2020), the number of Americans who have been confirmed as having the virus is 3,244. The number of Americans who have died from it is 61.

Because most Americans who may have been exposed to the virus have not yet been tested, statistically speaking, it’s common sense that as more people are tested, more people will test positive for the virus. This will drive the number of confirmed cases up. Keep in mind, it won’t change anything, it will simply confirm what we already suspect.

It will be very easy to turn this fact into a panic-generating headline. If the media can announce that 50,000 or 100,000 or more people have the virus, that would be good for ratings.

But there is one thing that the same statistics will reveal that the media will not play up, simply because it will provide the kind of perspective that could calm the public, and that’s bad for ratings.

As more people are diagnosed as having the virus, and as the number of people who actually die from it does not keep pace, the percentage of fatalities will drop. How much so will determine future panic levels.

It’s quite possible that the fatality rate could drop to a rate comparable to the common flu, meaning the entire crisis may not be as dangerous as feared. If that happens, it will gut the panic value of the COVID-19 story.

COVID-19 and the 2009 Swine Flu: A comparison

In America, the experts are telling us it will get worse before it gets better. That’s hardly a stretch. Right now, we have seen less than 100 fatalities in all of the United States. Even if it gets significantly worse, it still has a long way to go to match what actually happened in the United States during the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009.

The swine flu pandemic then was said to have killed up to 203,000 people worldwide.

The CDC reported in 2013 that, “From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus (swine flu).”

If you were to talk to most Americans, prior to these past few weeks, they may not even remember the swine flu. Most people certainly won’t remember being panicked over it.

The point here is that we do have history as our guide to tell us that pandemics have lifecycles of their own, that we have faced serious pandemics in the past and we’ve overcome them. That’s important to remember if you want to reduce panic. It’s important to forget, ignore or discount, if you want to create panic.

This can help when looking at a new situation as it unfolds, knowing that by simply staying focused on the facts in front of us, we can continue to treat the situation with all of the seriousness it deserves but with no good reason to panic.

#4 – Don’t assume what happened elsewhere will happen were you live.

Thanks to the Internet and social media, we see how the COVID-19 virus is impacting people from Paris to Sydney. Chances are if you’re seeing it online, it’s got all the qualities of a “viral” digital story or video.

But keep in mind, if you live in the United States, you’ve already had the benefit of learning how the disease spreads in those other countries. American scientists and researchers have had the chance to study the disease before it came ashore.

Further, the United States has one of the most vast and sophisticated health systems in the world, along with public mobilization procedures that give the U.S. a decided advantage over places like Wuhan, China or Italy in mounting an effective response to any virus.

Even on the issue of testing, while it can be argued that America has had a slow start in making tests available to health providers, the country is quickly getting ahead of the curve on that with no material, detrimental public health effects. This is an important fact to pay attention to if you want to reduce panic. It’s also one to ignore, if you want to create panic.

The point is, the U.S. is not the same as China or Italy, and while the disease may not change as it crosses international borders, the way in which countries learn and respond does change. For that reason alone, there is no reason to assume that what happened in Rome or Wuhan will happen where you live.

#5 – Turn off the cable news, take a break from social media, quit looking at the stock market.

The last tip is probably the most important one, because it’s all about the sources of panic.

Because cable news exists to be watched, it will fill the time between actual news happening with filler. And by filler, I mean non-stop speculation, fear-mongering and even the politicization of the situation.

Their goal is to get you scared, to get you angry, to make you mad and afraid. If they do that, you will keep watching, and you will get more angry and more afraid, and you will keep watching.

The same is true on social media. People want you to click on their tweets and posts. They want you to share them. So, their goal, too, is to make you mad and afraid. Fear and anger drive amplification.

You can put a stop to this cycle simply by turning it off. Shut down the noise. Go about your life without watching fear-mongering cable news, without listening to angry radio hosts, without watching local TV news outlets pushing the “can it happen here” angle all day long, without looking at your smart phone for posts that seem designed to make you angry and provide no real information.

Be very selective in what information you consume, and how and when you consume it. Don’t let a preoccupation with the need for up-to-the-minute updates consume your life. Be skeptical of every source and learn how to separate real fact from sensationalist spin.  If you need to get important updates, you can get them directly from the CDC via email.

I promise you that if you do these 5 things we’ve covered here for the next few weeks, you will feel much better, and those around you will feel better, thanks to you. You will experience something that may seem unrealistic now. You will have better perspective and you will be a calming force, not a source of panic for others.

All of this will end. The world will return to normal, not too long from now. And you will find that you did what was right at the time and it helped, and that fear and panic served no purpose.

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Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator who has handled situations involving life and death on behalf of his clients. The central concept of allaying a sense of panic is at the core of all crisis management. To discuss your thoughts, please feel free to get in touch at 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.


Don’t be a “Holiday Inn Expert”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to this trend I’m seeing.

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

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

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

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

It’s not just in the media.

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this happening now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Major League Baseball and the Fine Art of Selling Hope


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They must sell hope

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

The Pittsburgh Pirates: A Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key ingredient is hope

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

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

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

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

This is where that hope starts to enter the picture

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

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

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

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

Selling hope during the season

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

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

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

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

The All-Star Break can’t come too soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ricky Gervais Dishes Cold PR Advice at the Golden Globes

On Sunday, January 5th, comedian Ricky Gervais got the New Year off to a hot start in Hollywood by using his platform as host of the Golden Globe Awards to roast the Hollywood celebrities sitting in front of him.

That he would make some people uncomfortable was to be expected. In all of the pre-event media coverage, the award show’s publicists actually hyped the event by showcasing Ricky Gervais’s unpredictable and irreverent nature. It seems safe to assume no one imagined just how irreverent he’d be.

The most shared video clip of the night on social media was when the host played the role of brutally honest PR counselor and told his celebrity-packed audience:

“If you win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech,” he advised the stars during his opening monologue.

“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

Needless to say, more than a few award winners would later reject Gervais’s unsolicited advice and did use the stage for political speech.  But the headlines the next day mostly centered on backlash Gervais received in Hollywood for his cold candor.

Vanity Fair reporter Mark Harris’s tweets the next day were representative of the backlash:

“Here’s my Ricky Gervais problem,” he said. “The idea that celebrities are not only pampered babies but hypocrites who cause the problems they make speeches deploring and should therefore shut up and act/sing/be grateful is a right-wing talking point, and an especially stupid one.”

“It’s not an act of speaking truth to power or of bravery to attack celebs on that front—it’s a tired way of scolding people into silence because you don’t like what they’re saying, and saying that he’s ‘calling out’ the hyper privileged is just the same thing in a new guise.”

Gervais took to Twitter to give his side of the story, and in his own unintentional way, offer some PR insights:

“Simply pointing out whether someone is left or right wing isn’t winning the argument. If a joke is good enough, it can be enjoyed by anyone. It’s not all about you. Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

Whether you agree with Gervais’s humor, laughed at it or tuned it out, Gervais made a few points that from a PR perspective are worth considering, whether you or your organization is ever the target of humor or some other perceived slight in the public arena. In the world of corporate communications, we like to call this crisis communications or issues management.

While I’m more diplomatic than Gervais might be, when I meet with crisis management clients who’ve been the target of public ridicule in some way, it is important to remind them that as painful as the criticism may be, even on a personal level, the motivation for the attacks may not be personal at all. That’s not a defense of the critic, but it’s an important starting point to start to obtain the clarity needed to make sound decisions on exactly how to respond in a crisis. Chances are, your first instinct at times like this is driven more by emotion than rational thought, and that’s not a good basis.

The most important thing is to gain a real understanding of what emotional and attitudinal place the attacks may be coming from, and more importantly, why some of them may be ringing true for the public.

Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right

As Gervais deadpanned, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

The value in that comment is that before you can correct public opinion, you have to know as much about where that opinion is rooted and how it has taken shape in this way. Only then in crisis communications can you start to address the factors that will turn things around.

Given the reaction of Hollywood to Gervais’s comments, it would appear that many of the celebrities would do well to step back and work to understand why Gervais’s unlikely PR advice resonated with so many in the public.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click Here, complete the form and then please check your email.

Senior Level Counsel: Arm Yourself with the Right Questions, Not Just Answers

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in the business of communications happened to me when I was a young account executive at a global PR firm. My client was the CEO of a logistics company. To describe him as tough-as-nails would be an understatement.

He’d taken on investor groups, regulators, unions and competitors with a bare-knuckle approach to business. If you screwed up, he was the first to tell you, and in a way you would never forget.

There was a method to his old school madness. He managed a lot of people. In his mind, if he had to repeat himself, he wouldn’t get anything done and his companies would fail. He had a reputation for choosing not to have to repeat himself, which meant if you were the target of his wrath, you felt it.

When it was my turn

I remember when I discovered this dynamic for myself.

The CEO was in the midst of the emergency shutdown of a major operation to meet the expectations of his investors and keep the rest of the company from sinking under the weight of the failing division. Times were changing. Competition was intensifying. This division had already lost.

It all came to a head on a Friday night in the meeting rooms of a small chain hotel in a crossroads town, where the failing division was headquartered.

The company’s senior managers and consultants were all in the main conference room, waiting their turn, each expected to stand and deliver their plans for their role in the transitionary process. The CEO sat in the back of the darkened room, behind a blinding light coming from the Powerpoint projector. He peppered every presenter with questions.

First went Finance, then Accounting, then HR, then Legal, and then it was my turn, Communications.

You would think that after having watched the CEO verbally destroy everyone who presented before me, I might have learned something.

I didn’t, until I did.

Every presenter was expected to cover what his or her respective function would do to facilitate the shut-down of the division with as little impact on the larger company and its people as possible. Every presenter took the stage with a plan that tried to anticipate every one of the CEO’s questions and preemptively answer them. In other words, we all thought we were expected to have all the answers before we presented our plans.

This is hardly unusual. Anyone knows that if you have to give a presentation to any CEO, you want to be as buttoned down as possible.

So, when it was my turn, I started to lay out our communications objectives, strategies, targeted audiences, key messages, timeline, and a plan for implementation of a communications strategy. Like the others, I didn’t get too far into my presentation before the CEO started laying into me from behind the bright projector light hitting me in the face.

Question after question for which I didn’t have the answers. Most questions were ones no one could answer because none of us could predict the future, I thought.

Maybe it was the time of day at the end of a long week and I was tired. Or maybe it was because I couldn’t actually see his face, or that to get to this meeting I had just driven through a blinding snowstorm, passing tractor-trailers stranded snow-deep in ditches. Whatever the case, my own patience was as tapped out as his.

So, as respectfully as possible, I mustered up the pluck to start asking him questions. I asked him what he viewed as the best possible outcome. I asked him how he thinks this project would be perceived once implemented, and what he felt was the best-case scenario or a worst-case scenario.

There were two company managers to my right waiting their turn to speak. The expressions on their faces told me I was taking a risk. You just don’t put this guy on the spot, was the conventional wisdom.

That’s when something totally unexpected happened. He calmed down. He answered my questions reasonably and thoughtfully, and in such a way that I wondered what had happened.

Then it hit me, he didn’t want us to have all the answers.

This was a working meeting. It should have been a collaborative environment. As important as it is to have ideas on what to do, it’s just as important to tap the power of the collective mindshare in the room, especially the CEO.

He didn’t want to have to tell us what to do. That was certain. But he didn’t want us telling him wat to do. He wanted us to come into the room armed with ideas and plans, but above all, the right questions. He wanted to know that we recognized that some things couldn’t be decided until we, as a group, discussed some of the most pressing challenges and asked the right questions.

Somewhere in the course of my time in the room, we were able to hash out an actionable communications plan, one that was realistic and had the best chance for success. We couldn’t prevent the closing of a division, but we were able to communicate that this was a last-resort measure designed to save the larger company and those who depended on it.

The lesson for me going forward was and is that there are times when we can’t be expected to have all of the answers, but the most important thing we can do is to go into these critical moments armed with the right questions.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click here, complete the form, and then please check your email.