Let’s Take this Blog Off Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

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

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

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

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

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

This sparked outrage from the right.

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Rising Worker Stress in Workplace Communications

When I have helped organizations that have gone through restructurings, one of the more common internal communications challenges has been “survivor issues.” In other words, those employees who survived downsizings now face increased workloads, responsibilities, and related pressures in an environment where many are uncertain that their jobs are secure. Stress.

According to a new CareeerCast survey, roughly 78 percent of workers (nearly 8 out of 10) are feeling stressed. Obviously, these employees are not just the survivors of downsizings, but workers in general.

The CareerCast survey revealed that most respondents feel “unduly stressed at work,” with most rating their job stress at a seven or higher on a ten-point scale.

That’s an increase from the CareerCast stress survey of 2017, where 69 percent of respondents said their job stress was rated at a seven or higher.

When it comes to communicating to a highly stressed work force, there are some things the organization should consider to help maintain a more positive and productive relationship with the people.

Three Actions You Can Take

The first action, to the extent possible, is to be as reassuring as you can be about job security. While management may not be able to guarantee job security, it can let people know that the plans in place are designed to prevent the need for future layoffs. But just as importantly, whatever you say, you must be prepared to back it up. If you infer there will not be any more layoffs this year, and you subsequently cut staff in two months, you will damage the trust you have with your employees.

The second action is to enhance lines of communication throughout the organization so that overburdened employees know where and how to relay the challenges they are facing, and when necessary, get help.

The third action is to maintain strong and credible recognition programs where employees who are going above and beyond are acknowledged and recognized for doing so. This isn’t to say you need more awards luncheons, or for that matter, more employee awards. It’s more about the little things, like empowering managers to take hard-working employees to lunch, or hand out gift cards as a token of appreciation. Even something as basic as a handwritten ‘thank you’ note from the CEO that cites the specifics of what the employee did that made a difference.

Of course, you can “brand” some of these activities, which helps send the message that the people at the top get it and are on board. But more than anything, it usually comes down to helping front line managers build stronger relationships with front line employees.

My Favorite Crisis: Helping a CEO in Time of Grief

No one likes a crisis, but for those who have had to deal with them the stories aren’t always as dire as it may appear at first glance. Some will point to the opportunity to make something right in a situation that could have been far worse. Others will tell stories about how going through a trying time with colleagues and stakeholders in the end helped them and their organizations forge stronger bonds.

My Favorite Crisis

A cross-section of crisis situations that I’ve handled have ranged from bankruptcy filings and missed earnings expectations to litigation and workplace situations. None of these problems were inherently positive, but there were a few that when I think about it I’m glad I was there to help.

The one that comes most prominently to mind was the time I received a call from the wife of the CEO of a tech firm who told me that during the night his father, the chairman of the company, had died. Since his father, who was liked, respected and admired by many, had suffered from a serious life-threatening health condition, I had a plan in place for this possibility.

Prior to that morning, I had informed the CEO that should the worst happen, I was prepared on the communications front. So, when it actually happened, he didn’t have to do anything more than to tell his wife to call me and say, “We know you have a plan for this. Implement it.”

Immediately, I felt thankful that I was in a position to alleviate some of the burden from the CEO in his time of grief.

The Problem

The company was publicly traded, so the biggest concern was the possible reaction from analysts on Wall Street and investors. Since the death happened over a weekend, we knew that we had until the stock market opened on Monday morning to prepare.

In the end, this event was a litmus test in the confidence the market had in the CEO and the company’s leadership team.

Other important concerns were the impact the news might have on customers and employees, though these concerns were somewhat less because most customers and employees had substantive experience with the organization and readily understood that day-to-day operations would not be affected.

The Risks and Complications

The major risk in this situation was that a negative impact on the company’s stock valuation could have an effect on current and potential investors, employees who were invested in the company, and on the company’s reputation.

The Approach

The most important thing we did was have a plan in place for the scenario that eventually happened. We knew in advance what the challenges would be. We knew who our most important stakeholders would be and what they would need to know and want to know.

The plan called for a quick all-hands-on-deck management meeting over the weekend. I was able to use the plan as a meeting agenda and fill in as much information as possible so that I had the substance needed for all communications. These included disclosures to the media, employees, customers and others. We were able to quickly establish internal and external communications protocols.

The key message was that while this event was extremely sad and troubling, since the CEO had been in place for some time, and had been the driver behind the company’s currently strong performance, the sad news would have no impact on the day-to-day operations.

We were well prepared to announce the news to all important stakeholders before the market opened that Monday.

The Outcome

When the market opened on Monday, we had already communicated the news broadly to the media and to the analyst community on Wall Street. Employees and customers were informed personally and directly by their managers and representatives.

At the opening bell, the company’s stock price was not impacted by the news. There were no sudden point drops. From the standpoint of the market, it was generally understood that even with the loss of its chairman, the company remained in good hands.

For me, the thing that makes this my favorite crisis was that I was able to achieve the results that come with good planning so that the CEO of the company was enabled to focus on the personal challenges of losing a father and a friend.

Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

What do you think?  Let us know on Twitter at @OBrienPR

When is it Time to Bring in a Solo PR Consultant?

This is a question I see every day. An organization has the staff it needs for its day-to-day business, but not everything goes as planned. Some projects take more time and resources than expected. New demands pop up.

The C-Suite just changed your priorities. And here you are, having to do everything you planned to do, and a little bit more.

It’s times like these that organizations entertain the notion of bringing in an agency to provide support. Sometimes it makes sense. Agencies can throw a lot of bodies at a challenge in a short period of time. But they can blow budgets out of the water in the process, and it can take time to get everyone up to speed and stay on the same page.

There are times you just don’t need or want all of that. What you need is someone who can get up to speed quickly and help out as needed. Hopefully, someone who’s been there.

Media relations, writing, social media are three common areas where organizations turn to solos, but in all reality, whatever the need may be, there’s a chance a seasoned solo practitioner is available to help.

Of course, short-staffing is only one reason solos like me get phone calls. Another factor is having the right experience or expertise in a given specialty, like speech writing, media training, or crisis and issues management.

Whatever the case, if you have a need, and for whatever reasons you can’t adequately address it with the staff on hand, may not have to go the route of RFPs and agency searches. All you may need is a one-person agency in the form of a solo consultancy.

If this sounds like you, just let me know. If I can’t help, there’s a very good chance I know someone who’s right for you.

When You’re Tapped to be the Company Spokesperson

Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.

What do you do?

Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.

But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?

Messaging

The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?

Questions and Answers

Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.

Coaching and Simulation

If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.

Resources

As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers.  And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.

These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.

What Keeps Americans Up at Night? Pew Survey Gives Some Insights

 

In a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in January, Americans said they are most concerned about “the economy, health care costs, education and preventing terrorism.”

Pew said this is not a major change from a year ago, but there are some slight shifts.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said that improving the economy is still a high priority but not as dominant as it was in previous years. A likely explanation for this is that since the economy has gained strength over the past two years, economic issues are less of a concern, and other concerns have risen higher.

When the recession was still fresh in peoples’ minds in 2011, 87 percent of survey participants then said the economy was the highest priority. Based on this trend, should the economy continue to improve, it would appear to us that concern over the economy will likely lessen.

Case in point, 50 percent of those surveyed by Pew said concern over the employment situation is a high priority. This as unemployment rates have fallen significantly. Back in 2011 when unemployment levels were much higher, so were employment concerns. Pew said it found that in 2011 87 percent considered employment a high priority.

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed told Pew that defending the U.S. from possible terrorist attacks remains a high priority.

Other priorities cited by Pew:

  • Reducing health care costs (69 percent said it’s a high priority);
  • Improving the educational system (68 percent said it should be a high priority);
  • And Pew said that “about two-thirds also say that taking steps to make the Social Security (67 percent) and Medicare (67 percent) systems financially sound are top priorities for the country.”

Pew said it conducted the survey from January 9 to 14, 2019, and received responses from 1,505 adults.

Public Relations Implications

While the Pew survey captures the national mood in a broad sense, its findings can also help companies and other organizations better understand what’s on the minds of their employees, customers and other important stakeholders.

When talking to employees this year, for example, while employers may have good news with regard to performance and employment opportunities, it will be equally important to communicate with employees on what is being done to better manage and control health insurance costs.

That’s just one example. What are your thoughts? Tweet to us at @OBrienPR.

Even If Your Organization is Not On Social Media, It Could Face a Social Media Crisis

Let’s say your organization doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter presence. You may assume you probably can’t get into trouble on social media.  Such an assumption would be a mistake.  Here is a quick rundown on five ways in which social media could erupt to bite you if you are not prepared:

An employee goes rogue on their own social media account. 

There is a good chance many if not most of your employees are active to some extent on social media. While your organization may have taken great care to take a conservative stance on social media, every staffer may have their own ideas on what is and what is not acceptable online.  A post that attacks the organization, or one that includes names of fellow employees, managers, customers or others that you do business with could escalate in minutes, depending on the situation.

What to do: Make sure you have a solid social media policy in place and communicate it broadly and frequently to staff. While this may prevent some potential crises, there is no guarantee it will prevent all. But in all cases, having a policy in place provides a platform and a starting point for what you can and need to say during those times when the organization has to jump into action to address social media flare-ups among staff members. The policy will likely contain language that can be tapped for internal and external communications, reinforcing the organization’s rationale for corrective actions taken.

A customer slams you on social media and it spreads.

While B2B organizations don’t face this scenario often, it can happen. On the other hand, consumer goods and services companies have found that it’s very common for customers to turn to Twitter with a customer complaint even before contacting the company. How many times have you seen or heard about someone tweeting a complaint to an airline, for example, while standing in line at an airport, prompting the company to have to respond in minutes, if possible?

What to do: If you have a customer service department, make sure systems are in place to coordinate real-time communications with your social media management function. Regardless, your social media managers need to have protocols in place for contacting and coordinating with all of the key people in the organization to respond to small events that may not constitute crises at the moment, but if left unaddressed could escalate into crises.

A negative Glassdoor.com or a Yelp review could gain traction. 

Years ago, to learn how you are perceived among employees, potential employees and customers, you may have had to conduct focus groups and surveys. To be sure, those tools remain as solid as ever in gaining the most accurate assessment of attitudes. But certain sites have emerged allowing your employees, customers and others to submit reviews about your organization. Glassdoor.com lets employees and former employees rate your work environment. Yelp is widely revered among restaurants, retailers and other companies for its influence in painting an either positive or negative picture of your organization in the marketplace.

What to do: One or two negative reviews are nothing to worry about. In fact, I recently read a scientific study that indicated that the majority of people who submit reviews are predisposed to emphasize the negative in their reviews. The same research indicated that people who are satisfied with a product or service are less likely to submit reviews in the first place. This means that the reviews your organization receives may not be an accurate representation of the marketplace at large. At the same time, should one review start to gain traction by spurring additional reviews or social media activity, it’s best not to take it lightly. Depending on the situation, you may need to respond publicly, online, on the forum where the review was posted, and then work one-on-one to address any issues. Should a concerning pattern emerge, it may be time to convene your crisis or issues management team for a more thorough response.

Ubiquitous cameras.

Everyone who has a smart phone has a camera on them, which means if you have 200 employees there’s a good chance you have roughly 200 cameras beyond your control throughout the organization. Add to this the number of customers and others from outside your organization that potentially could post photos having to do with your organization, and the potential for problems is omnipresent.

What to do: Have a policy in place for the use of cameras by employees and in those facilities and locations under your organization’s control.  Like the social media policy, having this policy in place is important to the kind of messaging you would create should a mobile camera be at the center of some future crisis or issues management situation. Chances are, each crisis situation where smart phone video or photographs are at the center of the matter will be unique, so it’s best to prepare to mobilize your crisis communications team when these things do occur.

Your Facebook ad could generate negative comments. 

I helped a client with this situation not too long ago. The company had no Facebook presence, but it did sponsor a Facebook advertising program for recruiting purposes. When each ad was posted according to the criteria that was pre-set, the comments function was enabled so that anyone who saw the ad could post a comment. This caused one person self-described as a “former customer” to complain, and a few others who saw the comments to ask the disgruntled poster to elaborate.  At first, the company could not verify that the person complaining was a customer, let alone whether the claims made by this individual were true or not.

What to do: In this case, the organization was not a consumer-facing company, so they were able to do some internal investigating to identify and reach out to the person who complained on Facebook. They addressed that person’s concerns proactively and achieved a positive outcome. Worth noting, it is possible to disable comments on certain social media ad programs, so if the success of your ad program does not require comments, and you want to avoid this type of problem for your organization, disabling comments for your ad may be an option.

Do you have a story about social media flare-ups? Let us know on Twitter (@OBrienPR) or better yet, send me an email.  I’d love to hear it. 

The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.