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?

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.

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.

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.

What Could be the Most Important Thing to Do in PR Before Labor Day?

Check your lists. Your media lists, your customer lists, your employee database. Check them all. Make sure they’re up to date.

Your analyst list, your vendor list, your influencer lists. Check them all.

Why?

Chances are you’ve been busy. You’ve had a fast start to the year and before you knew it, it was June or July. Then you took vacation. Then your team took vacation, and your bosses and their bosses. You did what you needed to do with who was available and what you had time to do it. Now, here you are about to cross over into Fall, and you just know there is more work in the pipeline. Are you ready?

Everyone will be back from their summer breaks. The kids will be in school, and you will have three-to-four months to get some big things accomplished.

If you work in public relations, there is a god chance the quality and currency of your lists will really matter, and by then, the time it takes to see these lists are up to date can prove to be a problem.

So where to start?

If you have a media database like Cision or Meltwater, take the time to go through your influencer lists. Make sure you have compiled all of the lists you think you may need. Purge those you no longer need. That’s a good start.

What about that employee phone list in your office or on your computer? Is it current?

What about that pile of business cards next to your computer? It’s probably time to input it all into your phone directories on your computer and your mobile phone. And while you do it, take the time to connect with some of those “new” contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, do you maintain any lists there or elsewhere on social? If you do, take some time to revisit them and determine if they’re working for you.

Once you get past Labor Day Weekend, the one thing you should not have to worry about is if you have the tools and systems in place to communicate to all of your most important contacts and stakeholders.

It may seem like a mundane task now, but you won’t regret it in a few weeks.

How to Communicate Change Management Like a Boss

You may never have heard of Herclitus, but something he said a couple thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was when he lived around 500 BC. The Greek philosopher is credited with saying, “Change is constant.”

I would suspect that even he would be amazed at the pace at which the world seems to change today. An entire industry – Change Management – has grown up around that very concept just to normalize the process of introducing and executing change in organizations large and small.

Change management represents the planning, implementation and follow-through required to help both organizations and people inside and outside of those organizations deal with that change. Think mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, downsizings, changes in policy or procedure, consolidations, and much more.

The common thread is that as senior leadership is concerned with how people will react, respond and adjust to the change, it takes steps to make sure that potential reaction to change does not derail the larger plans.

Effective communication plays a critical role in a successful change management program. With this in mind here are five ways to make sure your communications efforts effectively support your change management initiative:

Listen

Before you even start, you need to get a handle on what people are thinking, what they are concerned about now, and what they might be concerned about when the time comes for change. The listening process starts simply by getting out of your office and talking to people at every level of the organization on a regular basis, taking the pulse of everyone from the work force to customers. Formal research could include surveys, focus groups, interviews and customized, individualized outreach. The key is to make sure you know how your most important stakeholders feel and think about the issues that will form the center of the change process. If you can do that, you can better anticipate their reactions and response to change.

Identify the Most Powerful Core Values at Play

Your organization may have a mission or vision statement that cites its core values. This is part of that, but it can be a mistake to assume that simply because the organization committed to those core values that the work force and external stakeholders are on the same page. As part of the listening and outreach process, you will likely get strong clues as what core values are most important to stakeholders. Some may be in your mission statement, some may surprise you. The core values you’re looking for are quite simply what matters most, culturally speaking, across diverse constituencies.

You should start to see patterns of what internal and external groups find to be the most important values that come to play in their relationship with the organization. Once you can identify these values, you will uncover what to many will be considered non-negotiable. These values will be the keys or the obstacles to success.

Create an Embraceable Vision

One of the more common mistakes organizations make when introducing change is to place the focus on the good the change will do for the organization, never adequately telling individuals how the change will help them on their terms. It is too often assumed that people will connect the dots themselves. If you’re charged with communicating change, you must create a vision that people can readily embrace. This usually involves speaking in simple terms, helping people best envision how their lives will be better (or not as bad as it otherwise could be) by embracing that vision. Whatever you do, don’t overstate the promise of that vision. Herclitus didn’t say it, but whomever said, “Don’t kid a kidder,” probably worked in change management. People can see through hyperbole and may not respond as you hope.

Demonstrate Your Commitment to People

Once you’ve revealed your plans for change, and what those plans are, you must do more than talk a good game. You must walk the walk, or demonstrate that the organization is committed to keeping its promises. Start with all of the little things you may be doing, but make sure to broadly publicize those steps, so that no one can ignore what is being done to deliver on your promises. This is important for the organization’s credibility, which it will need later when it asks people to make uncomfortable adjustments at some other point in the change process.

Be Responsive

Little things matter. Return phone calls, emails and suggestions left in “suggestion boxes.” When internal committees and work teams pass along feedback, insights or other information that goes up the chain, make sure they know the organization received it and is using it in the spirit it was provided – for the good of the organization and its people. If external stakeholders call your customer service line, tweet something positive or negative, a posture of aggressive responsiveness will go a long way towards building the goodwill needed to implement the sometimes volatile process of change.

These are just a few important things you can do to ease people through the change process at your organization. If you want to talk about change management, feel free to email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com, or call 412.854.8845.

This May Make You Think Twice Next Time Someone Tells You that You’re Over-qualified

You may have been wondering about this for a while. But if you’ve been told you’re over-qualified for a particular position, here is what certain hiring managers may really be telling you.

They think you’re too old.

Yes, the EEOC has regulations against age discrimination, but it still happens on occasion. One way this happens is when an untrustworthy hiring manager tells you that you’re over-qualified, increasing the likelihood that the job goes to someone younger.

They don’t trust that you’ll adapt to new ways, new technologies.

All too often, this concern is valid, but it’s a faulty generalization on the employer’s part. If you’re in the business of communications and you haven’t kept up with the latest communications tech, you reinforce their concerns. If you want to stay relevant, then stay abreast of changing operating processes, systems and communications technologies.

The manager feels threatened by you.

Not many managers like to be upstaged or second-guessed by a subordinate, even those who pride themselves on surrounding themselves with the best people. Some managers don’t like to hire potential rivals who could serve as natural leaders within the work group, and possibly serve as an easy replacement should the manager not perform.

You’re perceived as too expensive.

Even if you’re willing to take a pay cut in order to get the job, as a veteran professional there is a good chance your health benefits and other non-monetary forms of compensation will be important to you. And there is an increased likelihood that you will use those benefits which younger staffers often ignore. In the end, when you take into consideration these sorts of hidden costs, seasoned employees can tend to be more expensive than younger ones.

You may not buy what they are selling.

So, you’ve been through a couple of reorganizations already. You’ve experienced change, and maybe you’ve even led a change-management program or two. Your experience has taught you what works and what doesn’t. Now you’re talking to a potential employer that prides itself on a “new approach” to doing things. It’s not that you won’t take it where it needs to go. You may even be able and willing to perfect it in your own role. But if you’re in the least bit skeptical and it shows, don’t expect to get the job.

Chemistry with younger coworkers could be an issue.

Even if you are willing to come to work every day with an open mind and a complete commitment to finding common ground with your younger coworkers, there is a chance they may not feel the same way. Some may want their coworkers to be friends away from work, too, since work is as much a social experience as a professional one. They may want to work with people who are like them, in the same life stages, have the same questions they have, and have the same worldview. Unfortunate as it is, even some of the most inclusive workplaces still have a way to go in creating cohesive work environments that cross generations.

Usually when someone tells you that you are over-qualified for a particular position, they will explain that their fear is that once something more to your level of qualifications comes a long you’ll bolt for greener pastures. While there are cases where this is true, given the relatively large talent pool of “over-qualified” candidates on the market at the moment, there’s a good chance their concern is not warranted or genuine.

If you happen to be someone who has been told you are over-qualified, perhaps one of the best strategies to consider is niching yourself as someone seeking to scale back in your career and focus on your core strengths and duties you’ve grown to love over the years. And then make sure that in this context, you have a preemptive message on each of the six possible concerns cited in this post.

As a consultant, I rarely encounter the issue of “over-qualification” directly, but I see how it affects others almost every day in my work.

You may also find some good resources on CareerBuilder.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com,  and GlassDoor.com.

So, what are your “over-qualification” stories? I’d love to hear

You Don’t Have to be On Stage to Make Your Technical Content Sing

It doesn’t matter whether you have a presentation to deliver, an article to write, or a blog post to prepare, you have some pretty complex or technical information to convey and you’re just not sure how you’re going to connect.

It could be anything. A new medical device.  A legal or financial strategy. A component that enables your smart phone to work better.  A chemical coating that protects your car’s paint from sun damage.

To be sure, each one of these topics can be a cure for insomnia…if you let it.

So, you must ask yourself, “How do I clearly, thoroughly and accurately present information of a highly technical or complex nature and not lose my audience?”

The simple answer is to tell a story.  Tell an interesting story.  Make it about people not data, or components or acronyms.  Put the information in the context of how it helps the reader, the viewer, the site visitor – real people – at all times.

Numbers Can Talk

One of my most memorable examples of this was when I was working for a tech company and we conducted a series of investor road shows.

The first couple of times we did it, I watched the analysts nearly fall to sleep as senior management led off with a detailed tutorial on how the company’s technology worked and where it fit within the network.

But when the CFO stood up to speak, delivering a set of dry but highly respectable numbers, the analysts perked up, some even sitting on the edge of their seats.  The order of things seemed to be the problem.

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So, counterintuitively, I suggested we change things up.  Let’s lead with the numbers and then explain what they mean, rather than the more common approach which was to give background before showing the numbers.

It worked.  The management team would talk about impressive sales figures, earnings per share, and the kind of cash reserves that allowed for potential growth through mergers and acquisitions.

In doing this, both the CFO and CEO grabbed the attention of the audience and planted the right questions in the minds of the attendees.  Can the company keep this performance up? What will they do with their cash reserves?  Will they try to grow organically or through M&A?

The rest of the presentation was the story – the context – of how the company could deliver results, what its strategy for the future would be, and above all, what it all meant to shareholders.

In the end, the company’s story was not really about the company at all, but about what the company’s performance meant to people.

Starting Points

If you have some technical information to relate and you don’t know where to start, begin with the people behind the new development or advancements. Who are they? Why did they see a problem?  What inspired them? What made their journey to a solution so innovative or interesting?

Find out more about the people to be impacted by the innovation or new technology. Who are they?  Why will they benefit?  How will they benefit? Will this change their lives in any way?

The answers to these questions can help turn technical information into understanding.  It can help your targeted audiences relate.

Your challenge is to put it all into an order that provide a cohesive narrative, one that takes the story from its beginning to its end, starting with the problem or challenge as it manifests itself in human terms. Then describe the process towards the solution.  This is the story that will open your audience’s eyes to the possibilities.

You Want to Know How to Create a Powerful Key Message? Try this.

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In my media training work, I once worked with a colleague who liked to handle the portion of the workshop on key messaging. That segment included classroom lecture followed by an independent exercise.

She would “click” to the Powerpoint slide that featured this question:

“What is the meaning of life?”

Then she would ask the group to spend a few minutes writing their own individual and personal answers to the question. She’d remind them, “There are no wrong answers. Please take a few minutes to think about this and after a break we’ll discuss your answers.”

Most of the time the break would start quietly as people would contemplate their answers. Sometimes a few stand up and get a cup of coffee or just stretch their legs, and they would talk to each other informally about the question, seemingly as a way to prep themselves for open discussion of such a personal topic.

After I saw my colleague do this in a few sessions, I learned to expect the same group behaviors every time.

When the break was over, group discussion would follow a round-robin format with volunteers reading from their notes. One might start with, “To me, the meaning of life is golf and sleeping in on Saturdays,” which  would predictably get a few laughs from the group.

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But pretty quickly, the tone would get serious, and some very simple and short concepts that had almost universal appeal and understanding would emerge:

“My family.”

“Faith.”

“Country.”

“Health.”

Consistently, it didn’t take many words or much time for people to answer the question, and very rarely was there any confusion or self-doubt. Almost to a participant, there was tremendous conviction behind the words or sentences.

At the end of the exercise, my colleague would tell the group that what they just did was come up with their own key messages. Then she would tell them what makes for a powerful key message.

If I may paraphrase my colleague, she would tell the group that good key messages are simple, clear and direct. They represent universal qualities that targeted audiences readily understand and appreciate.

She is no longer with us, but if my colleague were here, I know she’d add that a good key message is credible and believable because it isn’t just a set of words, at its core it’s honesty.

Let me know if you’d like to talk about key messaging.