What You Don’t Know about “Polemic” Media Coverage Can Hurt Your Organization

Even if you aren’t one to use words like “polemic,” you are likely to be familiar with the meaning behind the word itself, since it’s pervasive in society today. A “polemic” is rhetoric that is not intended to advance an idea or an argument on its own merits, but rather to “win” by aggressively undermining an opposing position. You don’t have to be right, in fact you can be dead wrong. The opposition doesn’t have to be wrong, in fact the opposition can be dead right. All that has to happen for a polemic to work is to effectively paint the opposition as “bad,” in such a way as you define it.

A polemic can be the embodiment of using a double-standard with mal-intent. For ages, politicians on every side of the aisle have mastered the art of using polemics. What may heighten this art form, however, is social media and its relationship with traditional media.

For better or worse, every time you log on to Twitter, chances are you’ll find more than a few examples of polemics. It’s a short leap for someone aggressively undermining the opponent’s position on an issue to attempt to undermine the opponent at a personal level, attacking character and assigning fictional motives and intents.

The Challenge for PR People

What makes this pattern a challenge for today’s public relations practitioner is when journalists actively engage in polemics, taking a position on an issue and pursuing a story polemically, trying to undermine the subject of the story, for no other reason than to marginalize that subject of the story.

This is often accomplished by publishing selected facts, working to connect events or facts that are unrelated. And then to imply nefarious intent when the worst thing that might have happened was an honest mistake or an innocent oversight, if that.

I’ve run into this a few times but one situation that stands out was a time when a client was covered by a reporter whose tweets indicated his disdain for my client’s industry that reached an almost religious fervor. Since my client was a group of environmental activist groups and energy companies, this reporter sharpened his polemic axe.

The first thing he did was pour through a series of blog posts and social media posts, and then selectively pull those he felt he could recast out of context. He never contacted the subject of his story for comment. His reporting was published as news analysis, not opinion, yet it made simple bias look like child’s play.

What were my client’s “crimes?” They were working to find common ground to create public dialogue that would lead to holding energy producers to a higher standard of environmental stewardship. This reporter clearly preferred an us-versus-them dynamic where energy companies could be painted as the enemy, and no such thing as dialogue or common ground would be possible.

I’ve seen this dynamic to varying degrees in other situations. As a result, I myself have made a habit of studying the social media posts reporters who cover my clients. This is one of the simplest windows to a reporter’s feelings about certain subjects, and it sometimes provides a good indication of just how professional that reporter might be when working on a story involving you. You can do this, too.

Is this just a one-off?

I wish these situations are rare, but it appears an increasing number of communications pros at organizations now have to face polemic media coverage. As some news media organizations identify the ideological leanings of their bases, they tend to play to the base to build and preserve their followings. So, rather than attempt to educate and inform, they play to confirmation bias.

They identify the emotional biases of their largest numbers of followers and seek to reinforce those biases, and not to correct any that might be inaccurate or unfair. In some cases, the confirmation bias itself has become a part of newsroom decision-making, so editors and producers themselves see such a narrow reality that they aren’t open to alternative points of view enough to give those views a fair hearing. To do so would be to disrupt a somewhat un-challengeable assumption.

It is within this context that we in the corporate communications operate and navigate with our organizations and clients.

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 your copy. Click Here

Authenticity: Mister Rogers, Dennis Miller & Pittsburgh

Not many people are as purely and kindly honest as Fred Rogers, who was better known as Mister Rogers. When he said, “I like you just the way you are,” he was at once emphasizing the need for authenticity long before the word became trendy. He was telling his young viewers that they didn’t need to be anyone else, they just needed to be themselves and they could feel good about it.

To be sure, Fred Rogers was raised in Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, and he made his life-affirming mark on the world from studios in the shadows of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. I think in the context of this discussion about authenticity, location matters.

I would argue that you can’t completely separate the values of the truly good and decent man that Fred Rogers was from the common values that have pervaded the region from which he hailed. Western Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh in particular, tend to value genuineness above most else.

The ‘Brutally Honest’ Take

Another Pittsburgh native, Dennis Miller, has made a name for himself through a different sort of genuineness. Let’s call it brutal honesty. He has had his own take on Pittsburghers’ affinity for keeping it real.

“The good thing about Pittsburgh,” he said, “it’s a good place to be raised … it doesn’t tolerate assholes … You’re either a good guy or you’re a bad guy … When I’m in Los Angeles having these incredibly surreal moments where nobody’s saying anything and everybody’s talking incessantly, I always have that Pittsburgh voice in my head – shut up, smile, get the job, move on.”

I think it’s a safe bet that Mister Rogers wouldn’t have said it that way, and he may have cringed if he heard Dennis Miller’s way of saying it, but on this they both would seem to agree. Being true to yourself and putting it out there is a good thing, but not just a good thing, it’s a Pittsburgh thing.

Having been raised in Pittsburgh, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. Pittsburghers have a highly developed radar for people who are faking it. They don’t like it, and they’ll let you know pretty quickly.

The alternative is to be yourself and take ownership of it. And that’s where other qualities the region embraces come to play. That strong work ethic that the region is known for sits on a foundation that is based on carrying your load and being accountable for it. For being the best you can be, and being proud of it.

How to Connect with Pittsburghers

If you want to connect with Pittsburghers, these are the values you need to fully understand and embrace before they’ll let you into their hearts. But once they do, you’re a friend for life.

Ironically, Hollywood – a place best known for pretending to be someone you’re not – has discovered the heart of Pittsburgh in the form of a biopic on Fred Rogers.

The latest Tom Hanks motion picture where he plays Fred Rogers is set to launch for the Holiday Season and early reviews are that “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” will capture the imagination of millions who grew up with Fred Rogers on TV, and it just may kindle the imaginations of a new generation who may not know him all that well.

You may go to see the film, and if you do, I’d recommend you look for our regionally rooted values to emerge, not only through the star character, but also in the supporting cast and in the story lines.

In my first episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast, I decided to make that episode the only one with a monologue, and in that brief session, I recounted a time I had a one-on-one business meeting about a public relations issue with Fred Rogers. That meeting reinforced everything I had hoped about him. I found that the man we saw on television was exactly who he was. He was the real thing.

And if you ever make it to Pittsburgh, you may come away with liking the region but not quite being able to put a finger on just why. If that’s the case, I’ll give you a little help. It’s because the people you meet will be as real as it gets because that’s what’s important to them. And they’ll accept you for who you are so long as you are true to yourself.

Outside of public relations, my home town is one of my favorite things to talk about. Please feel free to get in touch.

PRSA #EthicsMonth Twitter Chat – Sept. 24, 2019

We had a great conversation on Twitter near the end of #EthicsMonth at PRSA. With this in mind, I wanted to share some of my posts and give them proper context. It would be very easy to take one or two tweets out of context that would create the wrong or inaccurate perception. That said, please feel free to read my contributions, and let me know if you want to talk about a PR question!

Here is a link to the full thread of my posts in PDF form:

Twitter Chat – 9-24-19 – #EthicsMonth PRSA

Why You Don’t See More People in PR Using Wheelchairs

If you and I were to meet in person, you’d have a good idea where I’m coming from on this topic, but if you were to read just about everything I’ve ever written, or if we only know each other remotely, this may come as a surprise to you. I have a disability.

Its onset happened gradually in my 40s and then it stopped. It didn’t reverse. It just stopped getting worse.

The doctors never did figure out the cause, or for that matter, the diagnosis. Though I don’t use a wheelchair, that left me with a new appreciation for the word “idiopathic,” canes, lower leg braces, and a blue and white parking placard.

To be sure, any disability brings certain limitations, but this one has not inhibited me from doing the thing I love most, which is my work as I have always done it. This is why I made the intentional decision early on not to integrate it into my public persona online or in my firm’s marketing.

Along the way, however, I have noticed those non-verbal cues you get when meeting someone in person for the first time, telling me I probably should have given them a heads up. That way, they would have known why I wanted to meet them here not there, or now not then.

So, I decided to get my firm certified by the United States Business Leadership Network, which has rebranded itself to become Disability:IN. That organization certified O’Brien Communications as a Disability Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE).

The purpose for doing it wasn’t to become more eligible for federal or state government work, though it does help. Rather, its purpose was simply to go slightly public with my status on my web site and in other more subtle ways to minimize the element of surprise when I meet people in person for the first time.

Still, I haven’t decided to specialize in disability communications, though I do have some strong thoughts in this area, honed through experience both as a senior level communicator and as someone with a disability. And I don’t identify as a “disabled communications pro.” In fact, that line at the end of the first paragraph of this blog – “I have a disability” – is one I’ve so rarely uttered in my life, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually said it, including the two times I’ve mentioned it here.

This is not to say I don’t empathize with others who may be in a similar situation and take a different approach. I’ve learned not to argue with whatever works for the individual.

About those Missing Wheelchair Users in PR

To this point, I’ve given you a sense of my experience and my mindset, which was important to cover before getting to the meat of the issue of why I believe there aren’t more people in PR who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices and technologies.

In my experience, over decades, the public relations field is a youth-oriented profession. Look around the ranks of most PR agencies and you’ll find the average age of the practitioner is under 40, and in many cases under 30. People at that age, generally haven’t suffered any physical setbacks in their lives.

PR work, particularly for young people, can be physically demanding. Setting up trade show exhibits, doing media tours, coordinating special events and press conferences, carrying, stacking, traveling and oftentimes running, to get a project done and meet deadlines.

While some of the most high-value characteristics of a good communicator do not involve physical labor – strategizing, creative conceptualizing, media relations, writing, social media execution – a good number of the job requirements for entry-level candidates do.

This narrows the number of opportunities in the profession for new college graduates with disabilities.

You have no idea how much I wish I could stop here, because everything I’ve said to this point is relatively easy to understand, if not accept, on why we don’t have more disabled people in the PR ranks.  But there is a deeper truth.

In my interactions with people throughout the PR profession, there is what I see as an unintentional bias against people with disabilities. Though, it’s not quite a bias against the people themselves, but it is an always unspoken attitude that their physical limitations will hold the group back.

Public relations is inherently a social business during the work day and afterward. People want to deal with others who can keep up in the office, on the golf course, at that team-building retreat in the mountains, or simply when hopping from restaurant to a club when the day’s work is done. People don’t want to ponder the question, is he able to do what I want to do? Can she keep up with us?

So, as a profession, firms opt to hire not only the best and the brightest, but usually those with no obvious physical limitations.

And the Winner Is…

There is an obvious irony that not infrequently comes at awards ceremony time, when our professional organizations honor PR teams who’ve done great work. Quite often, the themes of the winning programs center on some form of compassion a company or organization displayed through a program centered on the “disadvantaged” and many times people with some form of disability.

When you see the award-winning team on stage with their trophies, however, chances are the line-up will be a group of able-bodied young people who share nothing in common with the beneficiaries of their work. In fact, if you dig into the content of much award-winning PR work, you’re likely to find a series of clichés rather than meaningful, needle-moving messaging. It wins awards because like-minded able-bodied pros are the judges, all presuming they know what works for people they really don’t understand.

While this in itself is not the worst thing, it can be a form of profession self-deception. We tell ourselves we’re nice people and we’re compassionate. We care.  And we probably do. We tell ourselves that people with disabilities need us and they should be grateful for our efforts.

But the industry’s hiring patterns suggest otherwise. If the PR business truly wants to take the lead when it comes to empathy and compassion in business, it can start by staffing its teams with people who actually have a shared experience with the groups they serve or the audiences they target, particularly when it comes to various forms of disability.

In the process, the industry might just find it will do better work because the messaging will be more credible to the people who know better. Many people with disabilities have become accustomed rolling their eyes after being pandered to and patronized by campaigns built around cute ways to use the root term “able” with other phrases to create tag lines and hash tags, while never getting at, or sometimes skirting the bigger issues.

Thanks to technology and a general desire to do the right thing, I think the PR field can change the tide, but it can only happen one hire at a time. Nothing can improve until you make that next hire and make it an exceptional one.

∼ ∼ ∼

If this is blog post made you think, or if there is anything that’s on your mind, please feel free to share on social, or more to the point, send me your thoughts directly via email or phone – timobrien@timobrienpr.com, or 412.854.8845.



Let’s Take this Blog Off Road

This blog post is a departure from the norm for me. Usually, my posts are a bit on the wonky side, exploring certain communications issues to the degree I like. This post is an experiment of sorts, so if you like it, maybe I’ll do more, but more than anything, I won’t waste your time.

That said, it’s an update on what we’re up to here at O’Brien Communications. We continue to do what I think is great work for clients. It usually involves some combination of strategic thinking and planning, media relations and writing, marketing, and not uncommonly crisis and issues management.

For this reason, business isn’t cyclical. Crises and issues don’t take summer breaks. So, this summer is like any other. We have clients with needs and are happy to address them.

I saw the term “passion project” in something else I read today, and that term may describe our podcast called Shaping Opinion. I really love doing it. It’s a ton of fun, it’s a creative outlet that I enjoy, and I have gotten to know a lot of very interesting people who I otherwise would never have met without the podcast.

But it serves a business purpose. O’Brien Communications has gotten more visibility as a result, one by winning an award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil competition, and also with the kind of reach it has gotten. The number of people who listen to the podcast is proportionately and consistently higher than anything else we’ve done, which includes this blog. But maybe the best thing is the feedback I’ve gotten from people I already know and have worked with. Your ideas, feedback and thoughts have been an invaluable part of the experience.

On a different front, I’ve done some work for a non-profit that I care about on a personal level, and that has been rewarding.

And my activity level within PRSA has increased in a good way. If you’re in the business of public relations and aren’t a member, please get in touch with me. I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have.

In addition to that Bronze Anvil recognition, Expertise.com named O’Brien Communications one of the top PR firms in Pittsburgh for the third year in a row, and I’ve had the chance to speak to some college classes who represent the next generation of PR folk.

I think that’s where I’ll stop, and just throw this out to you. If you have a topic you want me to address in future blog post, or for that matter our podcast, just let me know. We’ll call the Summer of 2019 the time when we took things “off road” for a bit.

As always, thanks for reading.

A Podcast that Covers What They Don’t Teach You in PR Class

One of my favorite books is from Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” In the book’s first paragraphs he explains, “The best lesson anyone can learn from business school is an awareness of what it can’t teach you – all the ins and outs of everyday business life.”

I had this line in the back of my mind from the moment the idea came to me for what has become the Shaping Opinion podcast.

The podcast, I thought, should be the answer to that question your mother-in-law asks you every Thanksgiving, “So what do you do in public relations?” Still, it should hold you even if you don’t really care much about the public relations field. Most importantly, if you do care about communications, and you want a successful career in it, I wanted the podcast to have a secret sauce that wouldn’t be overtly advertised but it would be the unifying thread for every episode – context.

To be sure, not every episode even mentions PR, and quite a few may not make your mother-in-law more PR savvy. But if you listen for a common thread in every episode, you’ll find elements of history and communication, and you’ll feel their combined impact on attitudes throughout our culture. This is context.

Without context you have sensational news stories today that seem to have forgotten or ignored the contradicting information that came out yesterday, and the cycle will be repeated tomorrow as the media and some communicators seem to have forgotten the lessons of what happened today, not to mention last year, or 10, 20 or 50 years ago. You have media and communicators reacting to everything they see with seemingly no understanding of the past and how the current or future circumstances could have been or could be shaped.

The “people, events or things that have shaped the way we think” that we talk about are sometimes so well known or so unknown that we don’t even think about it. Yet, there was always that person, that event or that thing that has had a major influence on how we see some aspect of society or our own lives.

Take the Emoticon…

The emoticon. You may use it without thinking about it. You may see it every day and not care, yet its very existence has in some way influenced the way you communicate or receive communication. How can something like that even come about? And can it be repeated on purpose? That’s what we talked about when we interviewed the AI scientist who first created the emoticon as a joke decades ago.

We talked to Nike’s former marketing chief when they launched “Just Do It.,” and learned how an advertising line can become part of a company’s culture, and then drive that culture, and then have a major influence on how society sees athletics and how millions see themselves as athletes.

Speaking of ad lines, did you know an ad woman in Philadelphia who herself never married was the genius behind the line, “A Diamond is Forever?” She helped create the common expectation that an engagement isn’t official without that diamond ring. This was the topic for Episode 16.

We revisited the day President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin with Sheila Tate who was press secretary in the White House with the First Lady at that moment. And we talked to the former FBI agent who handled crisis communications in Somerset, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.

We’ve had conversations with doctors and even a Nobel scientist on such things as the opioid crisis, the now global concussion protocol, and a human’s ability to manipulate proteins to “direct evolution.” These complex topics explained in our relatable conversations all have had some impact on how you and I see the world and its possibilities.

When you listen to Shaping Opinion, you will hear a conversation with someone who knows something special about the topic at hand. In the course of every episode, you’ll hear what it’s like to get that critical context needed before true understanding can happen and how this can create broader understanding and connections in society.

See it Through Their Eyes

Each interview is similar to that initial conversation I’ve had with those with whom I’ve worked on a communications matter over the years. It’s that opportunity to see things through their eyes, and in turn, it tends to bring out some of the stories and issues that must be considered before we can really connect with others.

It’s been my favorite part of a long career in public relations, and this podcast is my effort to share what I love most about communication with you. The learning. The context.

The Shaping Opinion podcast doesn’t fit into any neat genre that podcatchers like. It’s not true crime, it’s not a cooking podcast, it’s not politics, it’s not history, and it’s not pop culture or music. But at times, it’s all of the above.

It’s not a how-to podcast for public relations, yet every conversation is designed for professional communicators and others who find the dynamics that shape public opinion fascinating.

It’s a conversation where you’ll probably learn little something, perhaps become inspired in some way by one of our guests, and in the end feel a little better, a little stronger, and hopefully, a little more curious about the world around you.

One thing you can be sure of is that after every episode you will have context that you didn’t have before, which will help create better understanding.

♦  ♦  ♦

The Shaping Opinion podcast was the recipient of the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation in 2019.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

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

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

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

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

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

This sparked outrage from the right.

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

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

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

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

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

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion Podcast Wins PRSA Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation

Pittsburgh, PA, May 1, 2019 — O’Brien Communications announced that it has been awarded the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA’s) Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation for its episodic podcast called Shaping Opinion. The podcast features conversations between host Tim O’Brien and guests, where together they tell the stories of people, events and things that have shaped the way we think.

For more than 45 years, the Bronze Anvil Awards have recognized the best of the best in public relations tactics — the use of social media, video, blogs, podcasts, annual reports, digital newsletters, websites – that contribute to the success of overall programs or campaigns.

Judging is performed across the United States by teams of PRSA members and others with expertise in the specific categories.

The podcast was launched in April of 2018 and has featured a wide range of guests, from Apple’s first marketing guru and Nike’s head of marketing when they launched, “Just Do It.,” to a Nobel prize winner, an NFL super-agent, and numerous authors, researchers, doctors and other pioneering, national and international experts.

Shaping Opinion resides at the intersection of history, communication and culture.

Get Shaping Opinion

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. You can follow Shaping Opinion on Twitter and Instagram at @ShapingOpinion, on Facebook and on LinkedIn.

About O’Brien Communications

In 2017, Expertise.com recognized O’Brien Communications as one of the top 14 PR firms in Pittsburgh. Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups. Learn more: @OBrienPR, www.OBrienCommunications.com

Why Boeing Should Hold Off on Apologizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite frankly, that’s Pollyanna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what Can Boeing Do?

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

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

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

Where Does Communications Fit?

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

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

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

Isn’t this transparency?

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

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

Are You Saying Boeing Should Never Apologize?

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

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

PR Careers: Public Relations is Not All About Standing Out or Self-promotion

I’ll be speaking at a student career day in a few weeks, and while I have some ideas I’d like to share with the students, I thought I’d do some online research to see what others in the PR business are telling students about the public relations field.

In the course of that, I ran across a particular blog post that out of respect to its author I won’t attribute his name here, but I will take a few minutes to counter a running theme in it.

The theme is, “In PR, we should stop trying to fit in with everyone else. We need to stand out.” Tied to this, the PR pro advocated heavily for self-promotion as a way to get your career moving.

First, in the public relations field, yes, the goal is not to strive for sameness. Differentiation is often a strategic facet of what we do, but it’s not the mission or mantra. Even then, there are certain ways to stand out when that’s important. Keep in mind, people often behave in many ways that get attention, but all too often it’s the wrong kind of attention.

This is not a new mindset. Back in the days of ink-stained editors in smoke-filled newsrooms, stereotypical publicists had a mantra: “It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they spell my name right.” It was a fallacy then and it is now.

To be sure, the writer of the post I cited spends his days in marketing communications within the confines of an ad agency that focuses on consumer marketing. In that narrow niche, it’s not uncommon to rely more heavily on standing out for attention’s sake.


Oftentimes, you’re selling a commodity against other commodities. The transaction is consistently simple. You’re always selling something. It’s always to the masses. And in the end, the thing you’re selling at its core is no different than the competition.

In those cases, the only things that will make your product stand out are the packaging, the marketing, the art, the social, the gimmicks, the taglines. Do anything to get noticed. It’s all about just getting noticed.

But the truth is, in the decades I’ve worked in PR, “getting noticed” has never been the overarching mission even when the purpose of the program has been to sell something. Effective marketing is smarter than that.

More often, the mission is to make credible and productive connections with the right people who can help our organizations achieve some business or organizational objective.

In a crisis, the mission may be to make sure everyone is safe after an accident, and to make sure all of the right people know what’s happening.

In the workplace, the mission may be to make sure every employee has a full understanding of the competitive pressures a company faces and what each person can do to help the company achieve the larger goals.

Even in our most common discipline, media relations, the goal isn’t always just to get noticed. Oftentimes, it’s to connect with the news media’s viewers or readers on matters much more comprehensive than selling a commodity product. Not too long ago, a media relations program I handled on was centered on educating the public on energy and environmental issues.

The point is, if I were a student reading the blog post that I cited at the start of this post, I would come away with a very narrow view of the PR field as nothing more than creative grandstanding. That’s a narrow and amateurish view of PR.

When the writer advocated for self-promotion as a means to get ahead, he didn’t couch it. Apparently, he believes no-holds-barred self-promotion is the way to go, most likely because it has helped him. I’d venture that he may not realize the number of times he may have hurt himself in this way.

The truth is, while we all have to establish ourselves in our careers and create a “personal brand,” if you will, shameless self-promotion is a sure way to alienate coworkers, managers, some existing clients and more than a few potential clients.

In the end, a career in public relations is not all about self-promotion and trying to be different just to stand out. It’s about connecting with people using proven means, or coming up with new and creative ways if that’s what’s required to get the job done.

If you’re considering a career in PR, the most critical thing to know is that public relations is not all about, “Look at me!”

More to the point, it’s better to adopt the belief that if you’re my audience, it’s all about you.