Want to Encourage People to Get Vaccinated? Here are some tips.

If you’re like a lot of communicators right now, one of the challenges you may face is trying to encourage employees and others to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them.

As the distribution of the vaccine continues and ramps up, your stakeholders will have the opportunity to get vaccinated, which can have a beneficial impact on them, their families and your organization.

Still, many are wary of vaccines, and this one in particular may give them pause due to the fears many may have over the COVID virus itself, the newness of the vaccine or other factors.

With this in mind, here are some tips to prepare the way for access to the vaccine.

Tap the power of modeling

Lead by example. If you want others to get the vaccine, if you meet the health requirements for getting one yourself, get it. Leaders need to be role models. It’s one of the most persuasive strategies for communication. When people see other people exhibiting model behavior, they are more prone to follow it.

Showcase peers and colleagues who are getting vaccinated

This is an extension of modeling, but it delves deeper into the organization. While you don’t need to make a show of someone actually receiving the vaccination, testimonials from across the organization from individuals who plan to get vaccinated, or who have been vaccinated can be very effective. This is not to say you should pressure employees to be vaccinated. Quite the opposite. Create a positive and encouraging environment, respectful of individual choices and factors, while at the same time showcasing those who are vaccinated.

Emphasize the benefits of vaccination

When you emphasize the benefits of vaccination, you provide real incentive for people to want to be vaccinated. When people get vaccinated, they can go to the workplace with more confidence, meet with others, spend time with friends and family they haven’t seen in a while, feel better about their own health, know they are protecting others, and know that they are doing their part to help your organization and society get back to a sense of normalcy.

Acknowledge specific concerns

Some may have health or religious concerns over being vaccinated. It’s important not to minimize these concerns. Recognize them and respect them. To be sure, many people have a history of a certain sensitivity to drugs or medical treatments and may not want to risk adverse health effects by taking the vaccine. Even if the organization has a vaccination mandate in place, the law in most states makes certain exceptions. It’s important to be sensitive to these exceptions.

Provide vaccine perks

You may be able to offer time off to be vaccinated or as a reward for being vaccinated. You may be able to conduct a raffle for anyone who has been vaccinated. Within the boundaries of good taste and ethics, you can incentivize people to get vaccinated in the same way you would promote any workplace safety program.

Of course, there are other ideas, but these are a few to get started. If you’re wondering how you can promote vaccination in your organization, I’d be happy to talk with you. Feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or sent an email to timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Domino’s Shows What to Do When Someone Tries to Cancel You

Domino’s, the pizza chain, recently put on a tutorial on how to handle an attempt to cancel you in the current communications environment.

Political influencer Rick Wilson targeted Domino’s on Twitter, where he has over one million followers, with a tweet that criticized a positive response from the company to current White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Apparently, Wilson took issue with the fact the company’s tweet was positive in nature, and decided to frame the social media exchange as the pizza maker deciding to wade into the current political fray.

Wilson tweeted to Domino’s, “You just killed your brand,” in an obvious attempt to cancel Domino’s by creating guilt by association. Below his comment was an earlier tweet from the company to McEnany thanking her for complimenting them on their pizza.

Here’s the problem. The tweet exchange Wilson took issue with was from 2012, eight years before her current public role.

For its part, the Domino’s response was genius.

“Welp. It’s unfortunate that thanking a customer for a compliment back in 2012 would be viewed as political. Guess that’s 2020 for ya.”

Immediately, the Twitter tide turned against Wilson for his obvious attempt eight years after the fact to cancel a brand for an innocent exchange.

Domino’s is a Model for Effective Crisis and Issues Management

That Domino’s responded so effectively should not come as a surprise. The company ushered in the age of the social media crisis in 2009 when two of its employees posted video of themselves to YouTube tampering with food in one of the franchise chain’s kitchens. Quickly, Domino’s identified the employees and the store, and the company took swift and decisive action, while communicating candidly about the whole situation.

In 2017, animal rights groups tried to pressure Domino’s into adopting stringent restrictions on the company’s suppliers of meat and eggs that would have placed significant hardships on farmers.

At the time, company spokesperson Tim McIntyre summed up the company’s unapologetic refusal to cave in to activist demands. “Farmers know best,” he said.

And now this. Against the backdrop of  “cancel culture,” as it’s become known, Domino’s is showing other companies and organizations how not to be cancelled.

The strategy is simple, but simple is not always easy to do. It’s three-pronged:

1) Decide not to be bullied.

2) Push back in self-defense.

3) Slow things down.

In a conflict-averse culture, it’s almost a default position on the part of many organizations and their communications teams to avoid conflict at any cost. The thinking is you should accept the premise of the criticism, acknowledge the merits of your critics and their criticism and apologize.  You should make whatever changes your critics insist upon, even if the allegations have no basis, and that will make the situation go away.

That’s why on the basis of a single digital video with a few thousand views, a major company or brand can reactionarily change course quickly with no strategic decision-making involved. Corporate leaders make hasty decisions on an emotional basis out of fear of being cancelled. Anyone in the first year of business school would learn that this way of making decisions dramatically increases the risk of failure on several levels.

#1 – Stand up to bullies.

Basic human dynamics can be all you really need to know when someone tries to cancel you. In effect, when someone is out to cancel you, they use bully tactics. And the only way to deal bullies is to stand up for yourself without fear and with resolve. Domino’s has demonstrated time and again that this is an effective strategy.

#2 – Push-back is self-defense.

The second strategy is to push back. It’s one thing to stand up and not give your critics what they want, but that may not be enough. If someone tries to cancel you, you may need to act in a sort of communications self-defense.

When Domino’s responded to Wilson’s tweet, the company clearly surprised him with Domino’s lack of contrition, and by politely framing the issue in such a way as to expose Wilson’s cancellation attempt for what it was.

Domino’s knew that it couldn’t put out a bland statement about company values or policies in response. Otherwise, they would have accepted Wilson’s premise and legitimized his criticism, making matters worse for the company. And yet so many companies and organizations do this very thing when faced with cancellation attempts.  Domino’s may have known they wouldn’t have silenced Wilson. They would have emboldened him and others like him.

So, instead, they reframed the issue accurately.

One characteristic of the Domino’s-Wilson Twitter exchange that worked in the company’s favor was that an inconsequential eight-year-old Twitter exchange was the basis.

#3 – Slow things down.

There is a third strategy that I alluded to earlier.  Had the attempt to cancel Domino’s been based on something more current, even if it was as trivial as Wilson’s allegations, you can’t assume the public would see it for what it is. So, there is a third strategy to consider.

The worst thing you can do in any crisis situation where you are targeted for cancellation is to act too hastily and too emotionally. Chances are you have processes in place for when and how to make major decisions and major changes.

When someone attempts to cancel you, fall back on those processes. Time is built into the process for proper deliberation so that as an organization, you do the right things for the right reasons in the right time. This is not to say you should never change, or that  you should never listen to your critics.

It is to say that in order to effectively handle a cancellation attempt, your third strategy is to be patient. Let matters settle to the point where you and your management team can see things more clearly and that you are following a proven process for analysis, and if need be, change.

Companies and brands are less likely to fail if they exercise disciplined patience in the face of cancellation attempts than they would if they too hastily give their critics what they demand in the heat of the moment.

What do you think? Do you ever worry that your organization could be targeted for cancellation through no fault of its own like Domino’s was? Get in touch. I’d love to chat.

It’s 2020: Time to Take Charge of Your Narrative

If you want a snapshot of the state of the media today, consider this. Kylie Jenner has 181 million Instagram followers. Her sister Kim Kardashian-West has 176 million Instagram followers. Their sister Kendall Jenner has 132 million Instagram followers. Three sisters who are famous for being famous – just three – have a combined 489 million Instagram followers.

Now, compare that to every single U.S. daily newspaper and add it all up. According to Pew Research, “the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2018 was 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday, down 8% and 9%, respectively, from the previous year.”

Okay, let’s go back. Just three of many “influencers” – 489 million followers. All major U.S. newspapers combined – 30 million subscribers.

Based on this, I could decry the state of our culture, but that’s not our purpose here. Our purpose is to explore what you can do in the current media environment to craft and deliver your own narrative, regardless of the current strength of traditional media.

It’s clear that the days of relying primarily on mass media to tell your story are fading. It’s not that newsrooms are losing their clout, because many are not. But the news business is changing fast.

Right now, newspapers are dying, but many news sites and blogs are going strong. They feed social media with fresh content all day long, and the social sites for their part serve up shared content and original content to millions who can’t seem to get enough, mostly on their smart phones.

That content is the written word, video and audio in the form of podcasts, mostly. There are now one million podcasts, by the way.

TV news is undergoing a metamorphosis of its own. Local TV has always catered more to a blue-collar audience for the most part, but in recent years demographics are skewing older.

Meanwhile, formerly agnostic big digital platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook have increasingly decided to filter content based on algorithms and sometimes manual intervention to apply their own increasingly controversial value judgements. This transforms “big digital” from platform to publisher, and it has caused no small amount of angst on the part of some industries and organizations who worry the larger system could be working against them and their message.

Taking Charge of Your Narrative

In this environment, how can your organization craft and deliver its content on a consistent basis to your own stakeholders?

The first thing to do is not to lean too heavily on traditional media relations or publicity as a primary means to get your message out. Gone are the days when that one newspaper article could change your fortunes.

How can you sustain your message?

Be your own media organization. Build a communications infrastructure that does not rely on others to tell your story. Create your own narrative. Tell your own story, and do it smartly and strategically so that you can sustain it. Keep it fresh and relevant and credible.

It can’t be another form of advertising or one-sided promotion. To be effective, it must place the information consumer as the highest priority, not the organization, but in the process you build the trust and confidence with the people your organization needs most.

Does your organization have a news production capability?

Here’s what it takes.  It takes a good organizational web site that serves as a digital storefront. This is the place people go to when they want to find out what you’re all about, whether they are potential employees, investors, customers, clients or business partners.

But when they get to the site, if it never changes, they won’t come back once they feel like they now know all about you.

So, what can you do to build and sustain a relationship with them?

Use that website as a hub that supports your news production infrastructure. Make sure you have and truly leverage an organizational blog site, that you are constantly adding news and relevant information for stakeholders. Share your content on social media. Engage with your stakeholders on those platforms, but not just for engagement’s sake. Forge stronger relationships based on trust through social media.

Create an online news page, if you will, with original content. Include stories not only about your organization, but about its industry or issues and topics that matter to both you and your constituents.

In short, make your news page a media site that includes words, photos, video and audio.  Aggregate news from other sources and link to them. Generate eNewsletters and push them out to individual stakeholder groups. Form alliances with business partners and industry trade groups to share content and amplify each other’s content.

Ultimately, create your own news and information destination, and fill the void left by the declining media landscape that currently exists. It has to be more than a simple “media center” or “newsroom” tab on your website. It can’t look like an afterthought or something just for the news media. It has to be a platform dedicated to the growing number of news consumers who no longer get their information from newspapers, television or other traditional news organizations.

In the process, not only will you take control of your own narrative, but chances are pretty good the systems and processes you are creating will also feed your own traditional media relations and publicity efforts.

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For your own free consultation on how to take control of your narrative call or email: 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

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

This is going to be a short blog post.

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

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

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

So, here’s how it works.

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

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

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

Is Now the Time for a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a Pandemic Impact Assessment?

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

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

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

Bankruptcy Communications: One Question, 31 Answers

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

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

How will this affect me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Need to Know This Up Front

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

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

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

Don’t be a “Holiday Inn Expert”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to this trend I’m seeing.

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

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

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

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

It’s not just in the media.

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this happening now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

When it was my turn

I remember when I discovered this dynamic for myself.

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t, until I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About those Missing Wheelchair Users in PR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Winner Is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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