President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Healing Holiday

The following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the parts where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity. In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.
Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PR will be at the Intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

The World Economic Forum (WEF),  one year ago, identified the nine most pressing ethical issues we face as artificial intelligence (AI) transitions from science fiction to our everyday reality.

This matters in public relations, because inevitably we will find ourselves at the intersection of AI and its effects on people. We can expect much of the conversation to center on the ethical issues at play.

Here are the nine ethical issues the WEF identified:

  1. Unemployment. What happens at the end of jobs?
  2. Inequality. How do we distribute wealth created by machines?
  3. Humanity. How do machines affect our behavior and interaction?
  4. Artificial Stupidity. How can we guard against mistakes?
  5. Racist Robots. How do we eliminate AI bias?
  6. Security. How do we keep AI safe from adversaries?
  7. Evil Genies. How do we protect against unintended consequences?
  8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?
  9. Robot Rights. How do we define humane treatment of AI?

Every one of these questions is serious, real and provocative. These are issues that will present themselves whether our leaders address them preemptively or not. Anyone who has “public relations” or “communications” in his or her title will be required to explain what it all means.

You may be that person.

For this reason, it may be worth examining how the climate for communications could take shape. Obviously, no effective communication can happen without a solid grasp of the technologies at play. Further, it will require a mastery of ethics at several depths, from basic human ethics and morality, to the ethics of behaviors in business, in government and in communications.

But before we even try to wrap our heads around all of that, we will need a fundamental centeredness that begins with our own individual moral compass. Personally, we need to have a clear idea about right and wrong, and an instinctive sense of pragmatism. Or to put it more simply, I’ll use the words of my late father: “You need to use the good common sense God gave you.”

Common Sense and those Nine Questions

The underlying theme or the premise of each WEF question relies on the belief that we can control all of the variables that will determine the outcome. Since we don’t, and therefore we can’t, the common sense answer to all nine questions above is, “You don’t.”

AI is man-made but once it starts to take on a life of its own, control over its evolution will become much more fragmented and difficult to achieve. Of course, society must do everything it can to influence positive outcomes, but for those of us in charge of communications, the first mistake we can make is to agree with what appears to be the WEF’s premise that a singular group or body is qualified to define what’s right and wrong for everyone else. But perhaps just as importantly, even if there was one, that it could deliver.

“End of Jobs?”

AI visionaries predict that employment as we know it will end. They are probably right in the same way as those who might have predicted an end to transportation jobs when blacksmiths were replaced by automobile mechanics, or when telephone operators were replaced by automatic switches, or when elevator operators were replaced by … buttons.

It is probably true that society will need to brace itself for yet another revolution in the way we work, perhaps on a par with the transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and then many decades later to an informational one. But “end of jobs” sounds a bit melodramatic.

Our role in public relations will be to assess at every step the impact of AI on the work force and help explain not only how that impact is taking shape, but also where the new opportunities may be as work itself continues to evolve. We’ve done this many times before. It’s one of our strengths and probably the one area where the communications profession is most prepared to step in and pave the way for AI.

Who gets to define “inequality?”

We learned in history class or political science class or economics class about the basic systems for governing and economics. Some are pretty straightforward. Under dictatorships or monarchies, the lines of inequality are pretty clear. You have the few who make all the decisions on “wealth distribution,” and then you have everyone else who are not deemed as “equal” or deserving.

Under communist and socialist regimes over the past 100 years you had what was written on paper, and then you had those theories put into practice, which usually ends up in some form or fashion like what I just described in the previous paragraph.

Because a free and democratic society is founded on the rights individuals possess, there is a key distinction between rights and outcomes. Economically, we have a right to work or start a business, but it’s on us to go out and earn. The system (in the U.S.) is structured to assure us the right to earn, but not the entitlement to receive. Of course, governments have certain entitlement programs, but the economic engines that drive growth, prosperity and feed tax coffers rely on income- and revenue-generation. With this in mind, it is largely assumed that the distribution of wealth is self-determined and based on all of the factors that go into making a living.

For PR pros, the major issues with the question about how to distribute wealth created by machines is to accept the premise that an individual or a small group of individuals should be given the power and authority to decide on how to allocate wealth and to whom. There will most likely be public relations professionals on all sides of these issues.

Machine Impacts on Human Behavior

Perhaps the most common and pressing issue that public relations professionals will face as AI is integrated more deeply into our daily lives will be the impact those machines will have on our own human behavior and interaction.

All you have to do is sit in the food court of any shopping mall and you’ll see the how machines are changing human interaction. Watch a bunch of teens stare at their phones instead of talking to each other, or stroll by the increasing numbers of empty storefronts in the mall thanks to the rising dominance of ecommerce.

At every turn in this evolution, it will be PR’s job to educate, persuade and inform on the full range of issues where new technologies continue to change the way humans interact with each other.

Artificial Stupidity: Guarding against mistakes?

This, we know. AI is only as good as its makers, and its makers are human and therefore imperfect. It’s not hard to imagine a world reliant on self-driving cars, where some of those cars kill people. It’s equally easy to envision an AI-controlled drone every now and then falling from the sky, putting people’s safety at risk. And did I mention invasion-of-privacy issues?

Over the decades, society has learned to accept certain trade-offs with increased automation. Goals are usually to minimize mistakes with the understanding that perfection is not attainable. What makes this issue even more challenging is the scale of power and influence AI has the potential to wield. Grids can be affected. Entire cities and regions. Millions of people can be more readily impacted by a singular event.

For communicators, one major dynamic will change – accountability.

Until now, human accountability has always been the cornerstone of ethical decision-making and behavior. When something goes wrong, we immediately and innately look for the humans in responsibility to address the issue. And to do the right thing, those humans rely on their own survival instincts, from something as basic as wanting to physically survive a crisis, to the more common motivations of fear of being criminally prosecuted, fear of being sued, or fear of being fired from a job.

AI removes all of these emotions and dynamics and puts a disconcerting buffer between responsible humans and decision-making. This presents big challenges for communications professionals, who will still be required to look for accountable parties, people who will be held responsible when machines make bad decisions. PR will have to play a role in sorting that out.

AI and Bias

The WEF points out that Google had some problems of its own with AI and how it was used to predict future criminals. Apparently, Google’s AI showed bias against African Americans.

Before getting into the bias of the technology, it’s worth asking a more fundamental ethics question: Who gave Google the right to predict criminal behavior based on appearances?

At the moment, it’s assumed AI is not our justice system and that we have a right to expect assumptions of innocence until guilt is proven. In other words, we have a highly regulated justice system of checks and balances, which is designed to be slow and deliberate.

So, a reliance on algorithms to predict criminal behavior based on appearances can lead to all sorts of issues that can create or perpetuate AI-driven stereotypes across all demographics in any number of situations.

As a result, it’s quite possible that in the future when AI is involved, one of our most important roles may be to give voice to the concern that an organization may be relying too heavily on value judgements made by machines.

Keeping AI from Adversaries

The WEF is concerned that evil people may see AI as a powerful new weapon in their arsenal. This concern is not only valid but probably as serious as conventional policies to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the bad guys. The problem is, AI may eventually be so ubiquitous that to try to “keep it” from adversaries may not be realistic.

In the PR profession, our role may be to sound the alarm on issues as they relate to policy. This will allow decision-makers to better create policies that favor the good AI can do for the world, while not underestimating the bad it can do in the wrong hands.

What if AI Turns Against Us?

Mary Shelley wrote the iconic Frankenstein story in 1818, 200 years ago, and it’s even more relevant today when we contemplate the power and the risks of AI.  In that story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that eventually turns against him, its creator. No longer science fiction, today scientists are creating machines that learn and decide and learn again. They control other machines and the many mechanisms that allow society to function.

The WEF cites one of the most classic concerns of science fiction authors: What if the machines turn against us?

Rather than assign nefarious motives, the WEF points to the real possibility that through some sort of glitch or misunderstanding in programming, a machine could misinterpret stimulus, data, an image or the very presence of a human, and make an errant decision causing harm.

As with other scenarios, it may the role of communications professionals to speak up when they see the potential for human risk and how that risk could play out.

What if the Machine Becomes Smarter than Us?

The difference between humans and all other beings on Earth, says the WEF, is our intelligence. So, the ethical question becomes, “What could happen if the machine becomes ‘smarter’ than its creator?”

This question appears to raise the issue of whether technology policy-making in the future will call for a figurative “kill switch” to be built into any AI technology to serve as a means to shut down a system before it can do much damage.

Public relations professionals will play an important role in the debate over how such policies should be crafted and enforced, and eventually implemented.

What if Machines Develop Feelings?

The final WEF question entertains the extreme notion that robots could (should?) have rights not unlike human or animal rights and that machines could deserve “humane treatment.” To give this question serious consideration, we would have to accept the premise that machines are “living” beings with feelings.

At the moment, and with so many other higher priorities when it comes to AI, assigning feelings to machines and then assigning them the same rights as humans may be a bridge too far. It’s probably best to let the next generation of PR pros deal with that.

So, what do you think? What are the most pressing communications issues we could face as AI continues to penetrate our daily lives?

Public Relations Society of America Recognizes Pittsburgh PR Consultant’s Contributions to National PR Field

Pittsburgh, PA, October 12, 2017 – O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh public relations consultancy, has announced that the national Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and its Independent Practitioners Alliance (IPA) have presented Tim O’Brien with its “Indie Award.” The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the nation’s independent practitioner community in the public relations field.

The Indie award was presented at PRSA’s International Conference in Boston on October 9, 2017. In presenting the award, the PRSA cited O’Brien’s role as author of PRSA’s “State of Independence” column that is published in the organization’s PR Tactics monthly that is distributed online and in print to all PRSA members in North America. In addition, he was recognized for his active participation in and contributions to the Solo PR Pro forum, a national community of PR consultants.

He is a veteran professional communicator and an accredited member of PRSA, having served on its Pittsburgh board of directors. He is an alumnus of Duquesne University, and in addition to writing for PRSA, he is a regular speaker before industry and college groups. He is also a monthly columnist for Muck Rack Daily, a national digital media property that serves the country’s journalist and public relations communities. He was featured in the Harvard Business Review Press’s “The Essentials of Corporate Communications and Public Relations,” and he contributed a chapter to PR News’s “Crisis Management Guidebook.”

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.

Issues Management: It Won’t Stop Unless You Beat It Back

Crisis communications and issues management are often conflated because there is a certain degree of crossover. Take the NFL’s problem with National Anthem protests. It’s become an acute crisis because the president’s outspokenness on the issue led to a near revolt by players in three days, which led to an actual revolt by fans instantly.

It was s simmering issue but then it became a crisis. Inevitably, the crisis phase will fade at some point, though it’s highly unlikely that the issues at play will go away easily. Some crisis pros like to call these issues “long-burning” or “smoldering” crises that seemingly never end and could flare up again with the slightest gust of wind.

The NFL has made a series of bad decisions since 2016 which created the tinderbox that erupted last week, so reputationally speaking its wounds are largely self-inflicted.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

If your organization is mired in an issues management situation, it can feel like you will never get rid of the issue unless you make your critics happy. But by virtue of their label – “critics” – there is a good chance they will never be happy, at least in a way that benefits you. On the other hand, the things that may make them happy could very well make you unhappy.

This is the crossroads where many managers find themselves in issues management.

  1. Do I try to please my critics?
  2. Do I appease them so they will go away?
  3. Do I try to strike just the right balance?
  4. How can I just get this behind me and avoid further turmoil?

This line of thinking usually ignores the real dynamics at play and all too often makes the PR mess worse, because the fundamental problems and issues that are at play were never really confronted and were never resolved.

Who are your critics?

First, let’s take a look at your critics. Are they your customers? If so, you’ve got a real problem and you’d better listen (In the NFL fans = customers). Are they investors? Ditto. Your employees? This is where it starts to get complicated. Chances are when your employees have a problem, you have a problem, like it or not. But there are times when certain employee groups may not have the organization’s best interest in mind. Communication could be a problem. That’s where you have to lead the way.

In the current environment, it’s more likely that your more vocal critics won’t be customers, investors or employees. They’re most likely to be outsiders, who as critics are doing what they do best, and that is attack organizations on issues, real or contrived.

The usual suspects are politicians, activists, social media instigators, all individuals and groups that may be dedicated to making noise to get attention and support for their own agendas.

Should you appease them?

No.

If I’m one of your critics, the primary driver behind my attacks on you and your organization is to pressure you to try to appease me. Once you do that, I will change my demands and make them impossible for you to meet. I will keep doing this until you quit. I don’t just want you to pay, I want you to pay dearly and quite visibly. I want you to be distracted from your day-to-day business. I may want you to stop doing one thing, or start doing another. I want you to fire people. I may want you yourself to resign or be fired. I want heads, because that’s how I keep score.

So, my first goal as a critic is to get you to think that appeasing me based on my initial demands will make me go away. Of course, what you don’t know is the fun is just getting started.

Your strategy of giving into my initial demands is the first big mistake you can make, and once you realize that, you will already be far enough down the path of poor decision-making that each additional decision going forward will be even more complex and challenging until you’ve put yourself into a corner and there is no easy way out. As your critic, that’s how I win and you lose.

How can I find the right balance?

At this point, you may sense a running theme, but I will reiterate. Your critics are dug in. They don’t want balance. They’ve already structured the issues management battlefield so that the outcome is winner-take-all, and since they typically lay the situational ground rules, the field is usually tilted in their favor.

Out in the world people are watching, people who aren’t critics. Perhaps when you think about trying to find the right balance you are thinking of them, not your critics. You are trying to find a way to appeal to the masses.

You may believe they want balance, but consider this. Have you ever gone to a sporting event hoping for a tie? A tie would be perfect balance, wouldn’t it?  Not really.

The point is everyone wants a decision. Your critics want it to be in their favor. You may want it to be in yours. Observers, however, they just want it to be the right decision, and they are looking to you to define that for them. But in the end, when that decision is made they want it to be a decisive victory in their favor.

How can I just put this to rest and avoid further turmoil?

This may be the most important question because it’s at the root of all the others. As much as no one wants to find themselves at the center of controversy, once you’re in the middle of one, attitudes that revolve around dread, frustration, and even defeatism can be the kinds of distractions that will create entirely new problems. With this attitude, you can be your own worst enemy.

Once you are confronted with a smear campaign, a campaign based on criticism, baseless allegations and unrealistic demands or expectations, you have a choice – the instinctual decision between fight or flight. If you are not prepared to beat the issue back, you are in for a long and miserable journey and an unsatisfying outcome.

If you really want to put the issue to rest, do your homework, know what stakeholders are most important, what they want to know, what they need to know, and what you can say. Know what’s true and what isn’t. As soon as possible, get a handle on the real end-game of your critics.

Once you’ve done all of this, be prepared to beat the issue back. Make your case confidently, positively and completely. Be honest, be transparent, but most importantly, be unapologetic and fearless in the face of confrontation. If you are being pressured on an issue and you truly believe you are in the right, then conduct your communications campaign in precisely that spirit. Your tone does not to have the same brute force as your critics, but it should send the message that you are confident and committed to your position.

If you want to talk issues management, let me know. I’d be happy to talk.

This is How Your Critics Try to Define You

There’s an old saying you may have heard as a child:

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Moms and dads would say this to remind their children not to get too rattled when other kids are mean to them. But as we see every day in the media and in social media, names and words and language can be used quite effectively to hurt individuals and organizations.

Your critics know this, and they know how to marshal strategic messaging and all of the media channels at their disposal to hurt you until you submit and do what they want, or you just plain lose.

Of course, that old saying was right to a certain extent. Names in and of themselves can’t hurt you. And a lot of pressure that critics try to apply to you oftentimes can’t hurt you unless you let it. The main thing to know is critics can only really hurt you in a PR sense if you let them define you. Here’s how they do that.

They Frame You

When the word is used as a verb, we often think of being “framed” as when someone is set up for a crime he or she did not commit – a false charge against a person. That’s not precisely what we mean when we talk about your critics try to frame you, but it is in the right neighborhood.

When your critics frame you, they are simply framing their message so that how they want to define you becomes the most common perception of you, whether it’s true or not. Effective framing means to give the public a simple and clear picture of who you are through simple words, images and symbols, all that work to define you. The frame is the intellectual structure within which you are defined.

How They Frame You

Values – Your critics may have many techniques, but one of the most effective ones centers on the use of common values that everyone shares, but spun so that you are defined as not caring about or having complete disregard for those values. In the process, your critics define themselves as caring, and you as the one who does not. Do you care about the environment, safety, the community, your employees? Maybe you do, but if you have critics, these are the kinds of values they may say you don’t care about.

Metaphors – Metaphors are powerful tools for taking complex ideas and simplifying them in such a way that people get it quickly. If your critics are waging a campaign against you, saying you don’t care about your employees, they may choose the metaphor of the giant, saying you don’t care about “the little guy.” That’s an image and in idea most everyone can readily understand and remember, which makes it an effective metaphor.

Statistics – Statistics are often used to substantiate any argument, and they are effective because they convey a sense of indisputable fact. Of course, stats can be manipulated to support every side of an issue. By rearranging some stats, excluding others, and interpreting them any way your critics see fit, they can use stats against you.

Solutions – This is the call to action, but it’s often offered as a reasonable solution. The minimum wage issue is a classic example of how the solution is used to garner public support. Who doesn’t want to make more money, right?

The current number of $15 per hour is the more common “solution” offered, but the proponents of that wage never discuss the bigger problems it potentially creates. The City of Seattle learned the hard way on this.

When employers have to raise the minimum wage, that money has to come from somewhere in a small business. That means while everyone may make at least $15 per hour, each employee may have to give up more hours. Full-time workers with benefits may be cut to part-time and lose their benefits. More people working fewer hours with less benefits, all so that the hourly wage can be raised.

The hidden problem in the debate is that raising the wage does not raise revenues to cover the increased wage. In fact, if the store owner has to raise prices to pay for the wage increase, that could hurt retail sales, reducing the amount of cash available to pay employees. In short, the wage increase forces employers to give away money it doesn’t have. That could hurt jobs and the workers lose.

The point for this discussion is be prepared to address those simple “solutions” offered by your critics.

Stories – People like stories. We have since we were kids and that’s never changed. It’s why we like books, TV shows and movies. The power of story is in its ability to aid our memory. Think of your own life, your own memories. You may not remember what grade you got on every assignment, but you probably have many stories of teachers and classmates over the years, stories you will never forget. The same is probably true of your college years, your family, your partner or kids. Stories.

How it All Adds Up

In the end, your critics will use all of these tools and many more to define you. They will come up with values they can turn against you. They will create or collect data that can be used to define you. They will offer solutions that put you in a no-win position, and they will come armed with all sorts of stories that while they may not even be true, will place you negatively into the narrative. For your critics, that’s mission accomplished.

They will tell the public or other third parties why this should matter by reminding them of shared values – values they say you don’t care about. They will detail their case against you through the use of metaphors, statistics, stories.

They will take care to show what you are doing wrong, or that you are wrong for not doing.

And they will offer a solution that is likely to persuade people to see you the way your critics want you to be seen.

What can you do about it?

The first thing is refuse to be defined. Have a clear idea of who you are and what you and your organization stands for, and have your own set of values that everyone understands when they think of your brand. Have your own set of metaphors, statistics and stories that further define your reputation should it ever come under attack. And have your own set of solutions that persuade people to understand that what you are doing is right, for the right reasons.

That’s just a start. If you want to talk about what to do when your critics try to define you, let me know.  I’ll be glad to chat.

The 4 Things That Will Happen When You Get Sued

There are three reasons people sue, typically. One is that they truly were damaged in some way, either financially, physically or some other way, and they decide to seek compensation for damages. Second, whether you did anything wrong or not, someone has decided they have enough of a case to squeeze money out of you in court, but more than likely through an out-of-court settlement. And third, someone may sue you for the attention.

That attention may serve a purpose, such as helping draw attention to a cause, an event, or a campaign of some kind. In this third scenario, even if the case is thrown out, by virtue of generating publicity for simply filing a claim, they’ve already achieved their objective.

If you or your organization is targeted with a lawsuit, be prepared for the plaintiff’s lawyers for the plaintiff to use some over-the-top PR strategies to put you on the defensive even before your lawyers have the chance to read the complaint.

“We have yet to see the complaint.”

Very often, the plaintiff’s lawyer will share the complaint with the media before or simultaneously with actual court filings. In this situation, there is a good chance the media will have more time to review the filing than you will. In fact, there is a chance that your first indication that a suit was filed is when that first reporter calls you asking for a comment. Where plaintiff’s lawyers gain the most momentum is during this period where they drive media coverage, while you and your legal counsel are still working to obtain an actual copy of the complaint to see what’s in it.

The Complaint Focuses on the Most Sensational and Bizarre Allegations

I once saw a situation where a disgruntled former employee sued his former employer over what he argued were unfair grounds for his firing. The fact that he had a substance abuse problem that affected his job performance was not mentioned in the complaint.

What was mentioned was the company’s “strict in-office bathroom policies.” The complaint characterized the work environment as “hostile” because the plaintiff was regularly questioned for his long absences from his work station. The other major fact excluded from the complaint was that management suspected he was engaging in most of his workday substance abuse activity in the restroom.

Of course, the media could only base its coverage on what it knew, so this case became known as the “bathroom policy lawsuit.” What made it even more difficult for the employer to engage in the media was that it was forced to adhere to its own policy of respecting employees’ and former employees’ privacy on personnel issues, and because the matter was now subject to litigation.

The Media will Believe the Initial Narrative First, You will be on Defensive

Anyone who works in the media, or even consumes it on a regular basis, understands that while in a court of law you may be “innocent until proven guilty,” but in the “court of public opinion” you are more than likely to be considered guilty until proven innocent.

This means you may have to prove a negative, which is often impossible. You may have to defend yourself in the media. So, while in the court, the plaintiff may have to actually prove you did something wrong, in the media, the plaintiff is not so hindered. Whatever they say you did, it is perceived you did it until you can prove otherwise.

The Legal Process Provides a Publicity Timeline

Once the initial filing is made, the legal system has its own built-in timetable, which may include everything from discovery and depositions, to publicly accessible court dates. These public hearings and trials are oftentimes treated as media events by plaintiff’s attorneys, meaning you have to approach the case as though it’s a communications campaign, in addition to a legal case, with a beginning, middle and end.

The most important steps you can take if you are ever faced with a lawsuit is to work closely with your own legal counsel to make sure all of your communications are in support of and in synch with the legal strategy. You must also be fully aware of the systems your organization has had in place and has in place to prevent the very thing your organization is being accused of in the legal complaint. The key is to make sure that even in the event the suit against your organization has some merit, it is the exception and not representative of something deeper, more systemic.

If you have any questions about litigation PR, get in touch. I’d be glad to talk.

With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

September 11, 2001: Never forget

The following blog post originally ran on September 5, 2011, ten years after 9/11:

It’s been ten years and a common question these days is, “Where were you on 9/11?”

My memory is probably less interesting than most, but for that matter, I remember being in a meeting with a colleague right next to the Pittsburgh airport. The air traffic outside became a distraction over the course of the hour we met. By the time we finished, as I was leaving, an administrative staff member asked me if I had a plane to catch. I said, “No.” She said that was good because all of the air traffic was backed up due to a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I hustled to my car and listened to the latest on the radio. By that time, it was being reported that two planes had hit the towers and one of them may have been from Delta. I have a niece who is a flight attendant stationed in Boston at the time. I spent the ride calling my sister to see if my niece was okay. She was fine. By the time I got back to home base, like everyone else, I was fixated on the live TV coverage the rest of the day.

A few months earlier, I had been on the 93rd floor of one of the towers in a meeting with people from Fred Alger Management. This was in my prior position just before starting my own business in May of that year. I wondered how the people I had met were doing on that day.

In the days to come, like so many others, I gained a new appreciation for so many things and continued to watch the news more carefully than I already had been doing.

Eventually, an article in a business publication reported that 35 of Fred Alger’s 39 employees at the World Trade Center had lost their lives on 9/11.

This past week, National Geographic has been running a series of compelling documentaries centered on 9/11, focusing on how leaders at that time felt and dealt with the minute-to-minute decisions they had to make.

If you have the chance to spend an hour or so watching, you won’t regret it. It’s a very good way to step back and reflect on how 9/11 changed this country’s worldview.

 

When Emotions are Weaponized Against You

If you step back and look at patterns in content and coverage that you see in digital and traditional media, you’ll find that the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the emotional as opposed to the factual.

Before the Houston flood waters receded last week, MarketWatch, (the financial media site), tweeted and featured a story by a New York Post writer that focused on the style of shoes the First Lady wore when boarding Air Force One on the way to Texas. Clearly, the intent of the story was to further inflame emotional feelings against and in support of the current administration.

You may wonder with good reason, “What do the First Lady’s shoes have to do my financial health or the nation’s business and economic well-being?”

The quick answer is “nothing,” but stories like that do two things. First, they enrage readers on both sides of the issue and that means traffic, the life-blood of any media organization, digital or otherwise. Second, they feed the echo chamber of social media, where “shares” and retweets further accelerate the constant movement of eyeballs from one page to the next. The highway for all of this traffic is emotion.

With this in mind, here are some tips for effectively engaging when simply laying out the facts does not seem to be as effective as emotion in making your case:

Pay Attention to Optics

Optics are symbols and visuals that you can use to send the right message, or that critics use to taint your reputation. The First Lady’s shoes, though trivial in a factual sense, gave the administration’s critics fodder to frame it as out of touch. While the story was clearly overshadowed by so many other Hurricane Harvey stories, this example serves as an illustration that in big and small ways, optics can become issues unto themselves.

As important as it is to consider optics when planning a communication or event, it is equally important to be prepared to respond to attacks from critics who seemingly can turn the most mundane visuals into a negative statement about you if that’s how they want to portray it.  If your critics are dead set towards finding something about you to make an issue, they will do so.  You just need to be prepared for it and know, at least in general, how you will respond. The one mistake to avoid is to automatically accept the premise of the criticism.

Exaggeration is King

From click-bait social media headlines to sensational TV news teasers, media thrive on exaggeration. Often, when you present most developments as accurately as possible in the proper context, it can be quite boring.  This is because when you communicate clearly, people get an understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Once they get the context, they are not as likely to be alarmed. If they are not alarmed, shocked surprised or angered, they won’t respond at an emotional level, which means they may not respond at all.  In media terms, this means they may not click, read or watch.

Generating an emotional response through exaggeration is highly effective. The tabloids have been doing this for decades. By exaggerating and selectively omitting certain aspects of a story tabloids sell newspapers.

Did you ever click on a headline about an explosion in a factory or a nasty car accident only to find out buried deep in the story the fact that no one was hurt? Those are common examples of how exaggeration is used to get you to click. If you knew no one was hurt from the headline, you may not have clicked on the story from the start.  Buried or missing facts are often by design.

It’s much easier for originators to create caricatures of people and simplistic “good” versus “bad” scenarios rather than to delve into the complexities and nuances of a situation. These are major ingredients to creating an emotional response.

Critics will Attack Anyone Associated with You

In the jungle, the lion will chase after the herd until the weakest member of the herd falls away and becomes easy prey.

This same law of the jungle comes to play when critics use social media and traditional media to smear their targets. They don’t try to bring down the entire organization all at once, but rather, they will seek to find out as much as possible about individual employees, consultants, customers, consulting firms, partner firms and associates, anyone who has a relationship with the critics’ larger target.  They will then try to paint that individual or firm as a villain to generate an emotional response.

I once saw an activist group pour through the innocuous social media posts of a consultant who worked with an organization that was targeted for vilification. The activists took a select few social media posts so completely out of context it reached a level of all-out duplicity.  The group then featured those comments in a malicious document they passed off as an “investigative research report.” Their goal was to marginalize the consultant (and others) as part of the larger effort to discredit their main target.

The strategy was – one by one – to pick off anyone who might be associated with the larger target of a smear campaign with no basis in truth. It also sent a chilling message to anyone else who might have been considering working for or with the targeted organization.

Peer Pressure and the Social Media Mob

Thanks to social media, the peer pressure dynamics you thought you left behind in high school are still with us. Peer pressure relies on emotional dynamics to work. You must want to be popular, liked or accepted in order for peer pressure to have effect. If you have thick skin and are more resistant to peer pressure, it is much less effective.  Where this becomes complicated is if others in your organization are easily swayed by such pressure.

In many situations where public relations is involved, the desire to be liked and accepted is a fundamental premise. For this reason, we see an increasing amount of peer pressure used in support of and against our clients and brands.

When peer pressure is used against an organization or brand, it is oftentimes combined with shame. Critics will campaign to shame a targeted organization through a “social media mob.” Typically these groups and online communities are well-organized and calculatingly assembled, yet to many they appear as spontaneous, grassroots eruptions.  These sophisticated organizers seek to overwhelm a targeted organization into submission – again, through emotionally driven messaging and tactics.

What takes this dynamic to a higher level is that the “mob” may not simply want you to be quiet. Rather, the organizers may even seek to force you to endorse their position on a given issue even if that position is at odds with your own value system or best interests. The implied message is, “You either publicly endorse us or you’re our next target.”

Maybe the social media mob took its cue from Godfather movie mob boss Don Corleone when he talked about making “you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Know Your Core Values

In this environment, it is more important than ever to know what your organization stands for. What are the core values that you consider uncompromising?

Steve Jobs once described Apple as more than a company that sold computer boxes. He said that Apple is a company that exists to help those who think they can make the world better do so.

Most often, when you hear executives talk about their organizations’ core values, they’re speaking in platitudes that drive marketing and other routine business functions. Perhaps it is most important to be aware of your core values when your organization is under fire for sticking to them.

As we see every day, it doesn’t take much for digital media and traditional media to latch onto some superficial concept that uses emotion to draw you or your organization into potentially controversial and viral situation.

There can be tremendous pressure to compromise on your organization’s focus and core values, and to cave into the expectations of others who seek to use your organization as an example of how they can inflict their will. The kneejerk response is to quickly appease and concede in the hopes your critics will move on to another target. More often than not, this action tends to embolden the critics, not soften them, leading to a situation where the critics demand more than they did originally. The stakes get higher.

Many organizations succumb to this because managers themselves can get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Keep in mind, average news cycles usually last 24-48 hours. At the very least, your organization needs to be able to get through that period as responsively and responsibly as possible without hastily over-reacting, causing the kind of fallout you have to live with when the spotlight is no longer on your organization.

Remember, your critics may represent a small minority and not the majority of people’s perceptions. Your job is not to change their point of view, but rather, to make sure your most important stakeholders are aware of your position.

When you have a strong set of core values, and you unapologetically stand by them and the responsible decisions you make that are in keeping with them, you will win at an emotional level that drives to the very core of what really matters to most people.

Why Emotional Language is More Powerful than Facts

In more and more situations of late, I have found myself counseling clients that the facts can’t speak for themselves, and that we need to frame facts in the proper context with a little help from emotion. It would seem that in today’s communications environment, one person’s fact is another person’s opinion.

What does seem to break through is anger, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and trust, though some emotions seem to dominate more than others.

ESPN’s Emotional Decision Leads to Overwhelmingly Emotional Reaction

Consider the recent decision ESPN made not to have Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee call an upcoming University of Virginia football game in September. At the center of the decision was the fact  that Robert Lee, the announcer, shares a name with the late Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That would seem to be all that they have in common.

An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com the rationale was based on what SI.com described as the possibility of “potential mockery that could come from doing the game.”

In a statement, ESPN said, “We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

Needless to say, the social media backlash was immediate, viral and quite emotional.

Don’t Make Decisions Based on Emotion

Notice that in explaining its decision, ESPN said “in that moment it felt right.” That’s hardly a justification for any decision. In fact, just about every mistake we make as imperfect human beings can be traced back to such a statement.

“In that moment it felt right.”

What this reinforces is that when making decisions, leaders and managers must do so devoid of emotion while maintaining a sense of the emotional impact of those decisions.

Use Emotions to Influence

The ESPN case illustrates how an emotional narrative drove the network to make an ill-advised decision that in the end brought on the network the very thing it was trying to avoid.

If you want to influence somebody, use emotion. Sellers do this every day. Cars are not sold on the basis that they run better than other cars. They are sold because of the emotional statement they make about you. You are successful. You care about the environment. You are fun. The car you choose makes a statement about you.

The same can be said for the kind of beer you buy, the clothes you wear, the vacation destinations you choose. Each decision you make is based at least in part on how that decision makes you feel. Your emotions.

With this in mind, the language you choose to convince others should consider the facts for the sake of credibility (something ESPN should have done), and then communicate in emotional terms. Here are some examples:

Ultimately, both emotions and facts have their place in the decision-making and communications process. The key is to know when and where to rely on facts, and when messages must be delivered at an emotional level to truly connect.

O’Brien Communications conducts research and programs to help clients find the right balance between emotions and facts in the messaging and language they feature in their communications and marketing programs.