Archive for the ‘Training & TA’ Category
In Memoriam: Betty Ford, First Lady of Social Change Persuasive Storytelling
Living in the era of “Intervention” and “Celebrity Rehab” reality TV shows and pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, it’s hard to remember there was a time when society viewed seeking treatment for addiction as shameful and battles with breast cancer were kept secret.
Former First Lady Betty Ford, who passed away on Friday at the age of 93, changed that. During this time of mourning, we remember her as a masterful communicator who used persuasive storytelling to educate the public about critical social issues, such as addiction and breast cancer awareness.
By publicly sharing her own struggles with alcoholism, Ford began to lift the curtain of stigma for people and their families dealing with substance use and addiction disorders. Her courage to openly talk about her own challenges and hope for recovery empowered others to face, and treat, their own addiction issues as well.
While in the White House, she would answer reporters’ questions candidly about drugs, sex and other social topics perceived as taboo. Following the Ford presidency, she founded and served as the first chairwoman of the board of directors of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction, which started the movement for similar facilities to open around the country, offering patients and their families the hope of recovery. She reinforced the belief that if the First Lady of the United States could successfully receive treatment at a rehabilitation clinic, then the average person could seek recovery too.
After undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer shortly after becoming First Lady, Ford’s openness about her surgery and illness raised the visibility of breast cancer, a disease that few Americans were comfortable talking about at the time. She understood the power of using her own story to get news headlines and create a more inclusive, open dialogue about these pressing social issues.
Upon learning of her death, former President George H.W. Bush in a statement said of Ford:
No one confronted life’s struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced. The Betty Ford Center, which already has helped change the lives of thousands of people, will be her lasting legacy of care and concern.
President Bush is right; Betty Ford used her life as a classroom and demonstrated that sometimes the most persuasive argument for change is one drawn from personal experiences. When communicators share life lessons this personal, passionate and honest as Ford did, we give social issues a human face and voice.
If we’re lucky and follow her model, we too can hopefully change a few lives for the better. Hers is a powerful legacy laid by an extraordinary communicator.
As someone who spends a lot of time working on the issue of electricity grid modernization, I get a number of trade publications every day. They love to cover (and we love to weigh in on) the power industry’s struggles to engage customers. Since most utilities are virtual monopolies, most have never really talked with their customers, much less asked them what they want or need. One of these trades, an online publication, covered the most recent study asking electricity customers what they think about upgrading the power grid. The subject line read “Consumers still don’t grok smart grid, though buy-in key: studies.”
[Insert sound of stereo needle screeching to a halt] Grok? In over 20 years working in communications and marketing, I have never run across that term. But it’s quite possible I missed something along the way, so I conducted a quick poll of my colleagues. Of 29 employees, eight thought they had seen the word before but only two — less than 10 percent — knew what it meant.
So you don’t have to Google it, the word originated in the 1961 Robert Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In the book, it’s a Martian word! It has entered our vernacular and now is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish a rapport with.”
Whether the average customer will ever understand, much less “establish a rapport with,” the smart grid is material for another post. But the point here is that the publication used a word in its subject line that likely grabbed attention, but distracted from the larger message. I and others spent so much time looking it up and chuckling about the word choice that we never did read the article thoroughly — and the article was about communicating with customers! The ironies in this situation were stumbling over each other to present themselves.
The New York Times recently ran an article about words in our language that are better left unwritten. The list had originally been compiled by a certain New York magazine editor, and is thus quite subjective, but still a good rundown of words that are, as the writer called it, “phony baloney vocabulary.” Words such as authored, celeb and dubbed were listed. Both that list and the situation above spotlight the urge that writers sometimes feel to get fancy with language — and the folly in doing so. Writing should be greater than the sum of its parts. If you want your reader to “grok” you, avoid over-taxing his or her vocabulary. Otherwise the reader, whether dumbfounded or smug, will spend too much time thinking about you — and not enough time absorbing your message.
The State of the State of the Union
How many times have those of us with children been asked, “Tell me the story about the day I was born” (or if they were adopted, “Tell me the story about the day you brought me home.”)? Children never get tired of hearing stories about themselves, because those stories help them define who they are. As a nation, we listen every year to the story the President tells us about our country in the State of the Union because it defines who we are, and who we hope to be.
The great speeches of our time are those that tell a story that unites us and that captures an emotion we all are feeling. Think about Ronald Reagan (or actually, the great speechwriter, Peggy Noonan) who captured the nation’s grief after the Challenger tragedy:
We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Each year, I like to watch the State of the Union to see the story the President will tell. As communicators, we work to craft stories in a way that will compel and convince, and each year, it is fascinating to see how every President tells the story of the United States. We know that, whether we’re giving a speech or relaunching a brand, we need to know our audience, to control our own message, and to be prepared to defend our brand in a crisis. To accomplish all this, President Obama’s State of the Union speech needed to capture the somber mood of a nation still remembering the Tucson shooting, reframe the mid-term election which handed his party solid defeats, and convince the nation that “the state of the union is strong.” He also wanted to move the country away from “business as usual” in the ways it governed and invested. From a communicator’s perspective, how did President Obama do?
Know Your Audience
The Congressional cliques were broken up when Democrats and Republicans comingled in the audience, instead of sitting along party lines, for the State of the Union. But Congress still looked to their party leaders — embodied by Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner sitting behind the President — for how to react to the speech. President Obama began by praising and welcoming Boehner and by mentioning the empty chair where Representative Gabrielle Giffords should be sitting. We often counsel clients giving speeches to include “shout-outs” to people so that the audience is immediately engaged. While President Obama went on to do the traditional shout-outs to people who were brought in because their stories proved a point, these first two acknowledgments were clever because every member of Congress was likely to applaud either Boehner or Giffords, if not both.
Control Your Story
You might never have known that the Democrats suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Republicans in the last election if you listened to President Obama’s speech. In his speech, the American people had voted to ensure that government ruled with strong voices from both parties, and the divisiveness was really just the “contentious and frustrating and messy” process of democracy. Obama went a step further, making the party differences seem trivial compared to the big picture:
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
Defend Your Brand
Anyone who has fundamental policy differences with the President represents a dissenting story from the one the President wanted to tell during the State of the Union. Obama preempted much of the dissent by painting disagreement as a welcome part of the democratic process and by making the villain of the story — because every good story must have a villain — not the Republicans, but the other countries who are poised to take advantage of any competitive weakness we show:
Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.
Some criticized the President for a lackluster delivery, especially after the rousing speech he gave in Tucson.
But, from a communicator’s perspective, I think he did what he needed to do, which was to turn down the heated rhetoric. He acknowledged that he knew his audience, he reframed his “story” and he preempted some — although certainly not all — criticism from Conservatives. And how did he communicate about innovation? Interestingly, if you look only at the words that Obama used, you will see the hot-button issues he emphasized, despite the tone. “Americans,” “jobs” and “work” — all key issues. But also one other word, which has not played a large role since Johnson and Kennedy State of the Unions: “new.”
Hostage Situation at Discovery Shows Words Still Make a Difference
A scary afternoon in Washington, D.C. last week brought mental health back into the headlines. Earlier this year, I talked about the importance of using culturally and linguistically competent words, especially when talking about mental health. But in reviewing the coverage of the Discovery Channel hostage situation in Silver Spring, Maryland, it seems like reporters are still making disappointing word choices.
Following the incident, the American Psychological Association shared a great tip sheet for how to eliminate stigmatizing mental health language in news reporting. The tip sheet was developed by the University of Washington School of Social Work to help journalists improve reporting on mental health issues. One of its suggestions states:
As with any disparaging words related to race and ethnicity, some words should never be used in [mental health-related] reporting, commentary or headlines. Examples include: crazy/crazed, nuts, lunatic, deranged, psycho, and wacko.
Since some breaking news stories can be driven by comments and posts online, it’s not surprising that commonly used disparaging words are repeated in news stories about these incidents. But it is another reminder of how our word selection as communicators can have a powerful impact on the picture we paint of people and their challenges, especially when they are mental health-related.
Editors, producers, reporters and bloggers need to find ways to report the drama of the incident without using stereotypical words and phrases. “Crazy” is still making it into too many headlines and leads in reference to James Jay Lee. That hinders the mental health community’s efforts to increase social inclusion for those dealing with mental illness and their loved ones.
McChrystal Interview Fallout Shows Why Interviewees Should Stay in Control
General Stanley McChrystal is in big, big trouble. In a profile of McChrystal appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, he’s on the record saying things about his boss (a.k.a. the President of the United States), Vice President Joe Biden and the administration’s management of the Afghanistan war that should never appear in print. It was a mistake that has now cost him his job.
Politics aside, many inside the Beltway and the Department of Defense are wondering how Rolling Stone freelancer Michael Hastings gained so much access and why a media veteran like McChrystal would allow it. The New York Times blog recently shed some light on the former and I think McChrystal’s comments in the Rolling Stone article offers an explanation for the latter.
While we may never be in the national media cross-hairs like McChrystal, it’s good to have a refresher course of what to do during media interviews to maintain control and get the best outcome in resulting stories.
Here are some tips to help you stay in control in any interview situation (even if you’re a decorated four-star general):
- Let your key message, or single overriding communication objective (SOCO), form the basis of the agenda that you want to get across in your interview.
- If you don’t know the answer say so, but offer to get the information and then make an appropriate transition to your message point.
- You can’t be quoted if you don’t say it. This principle would have served McChrystal well if he had used it in his Rolling Stone interview.
- Correct any flawed information before answering the question. Silence is golden, but not in this situation. By failing to correct an inaccurate question, you are giving the reporter consent to include that misinformation in the story.
- Keep answers short and simple. It will help you stick to your agenda and can improve accuracy of the reporting.
- Don’t volunteer more information than the question requires. This is a tip that should also be extended to your staff who may have contact with the reporter as well before, during and/or after your interview.
- If you make a mistake, stay calm, admit it and correct it promptly. There’s no guarantee that it won’t make it into the news story, but a good reporter will run your correction instead of your mistake.
- Never answer for another organization. Getting one organization to comment on or criticize another is a frequently-used tactic by reporters to add drama and conflict to news stories. Avoid this slippery slope and remain focused on your own organization in interviews.
No communicator wants to be in the position that McChrystal is in right now. It’s easy to get carried away and say more than what you intended and the vast majority of the media are professionals who appreciate your willingness to participate and will be ethical and accurate during interviews. However, good reporters ask tough questions to get the whole story and in response, interviewees have a responsibility as their organization’s spokesperson to stay on message and in control during interviews. These tips can help prepare people to be spokespersons.
BP's Gulf Coast Oil Spill PR Blunders Offer Crisis Response Lessons
Wow. The BP PR team just can’t get it right. Even fifty days plus after one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the BP crisis communication strategy (if there is one) continues its downward spiral and never ceases to surprise me.
Recently, the Christian Science Monitor reported that BP has been buying up top Internet terms related to BP and the oil spill to push their messages and improve the public perception of the company. Really, BP? Is this the best way to communicate with key audiences and rebuild a tarnished brand? When Saturday Night Live’s next season premieres, count on a Weekend Update Really?!? commentary from Seth Meyers on this one.
Let’s face it: BP is collecting quite a laundry list of communication missteps. Their gaffes and mistakes will be analyzed and used as examples of poor responses in crisis communication 101 classes for decades to come.
Hopefully as PR professionals, we won’t personally have to deal with a crisis the size and scope of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Nevertheless, here are a few lessons learned from BP PR strategy to add to your own crisis communication preparedness kit.
- Prepare spokespersons to be spokespersons. The Boy Scouts’ motto – “Be Prepared” – should be the mantra of your organization’s spokespersons. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has not represented the company well in interviews thus far. Since crises happen unexpectedly, spokespersons should be prepared at all times for media interviews. Identify potential crisis scenarios in advance and then train spokespersons on how to conduct themselves during interviews and important messages to remember. Spokespersons are your most public presence during a crisis, so make sure they look AND sound good when talking with the media.
- Manage your audiences’ expectations. Since BP’s oil rig exploded in April, the company has done very little to manage anyone’s expectations about stopping the oil spill and cleaning up the mess — whether Gulf Coast residents, the White House, Congress or the American public. As a result, it seems no one really knows what is happening – and public outrage grows. When communicating during crises, we must tailor talking points and materials to relate reasonable, achievable next steps. These messages will help keep your audience informed and prepared while keeping their expectations realistic. If BP was more measured when discussing options for dealing with the leak and the recovery process, they would give the impression they were in more control of the situation and ease resulting frustration with their response.
- Listen first, and then communicate where it makes sense. BP’s attempts to manage the crisis by buying Internet search terms related to the oil spill or trying to shutdown a BP Twitter parody profile were not the best use of PR resources. Instead, they should have taken a page out of Toyota’s crisis communication playbook: listen before you speak. BP PR strategy fails to listen to important audiences not only for responding to this crisis, but also for repairing their brand. During crises, communicators should devise methods — whether formal or informal or online or in-person — to first listen to the needs and perspectives of your audience and then determine where, when and how you will communicate with them. While it’s good to start this practice at the beginning of crises, it is never too late for mid-course corrections and to start doing more listening than talking.
There is a long road ahead for communicators involved in the Gulf Coast oil spill. However, it’s never too late to admit errors in judgment and attempt to communicate differently during a crisis.
So listen up BP PR team. Please do the PR profession a favor and start implementing a communication plan that can be a credit to us rather than perpetuate the notion we’re just flacks and spin doctors. The truth is that right now, you’re not even making “spin” look very good and communicators, the environment and America is paying for it. Like SNL character Oscar Rodgers (a.k.a. Kenan Thompson) says, “Fix it!”
Correct Word Choice and Phrasing Important for Competent Health Storytelling
From coverage of Cornell University’s response to six students’ deaths by suicide to reports of entertainer Marie Osmond’s teenage son’s death by suicide, recently reporters are writing and talking a lot about suicide.
While it’s great that news coverage is driving public dialogue about this often taboo topic, the news coverage does not utilize linguistically competent language regarding suicide. As a result, it could hinder groups trying to support and help those impacted by these deaths.
In response to this suicide news story trend, Alicia Sparks – on her Celebrity Psychings blog – discussed how media can responsibly report on suicide. For example, instead of saying someone “committed suicide,” mental health consumers and leaders prefer to say someone “died by suicide” instead. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology and Annenberg Public Policy Center provide tips to reporters on how to report on suicide without inadvertently encouraging copycat actions. Their research shows that the way suicide deaths are reported can impact whether suicide contagions occur or not. Word and phrase selection can be very influential. Overly dramatic headlines like “Do Cornell’s Gorges Make Kids Commit Suicide?” or “Does 6 deaths in 6 months make Cornell ‘suicide school’?” could hinder Cornell’s suicide prevention efforts.
Suicide is not the only mental health challenge or health-related issue to fall victim to the media’s inflammatory or linguistically incompetent phrasing. It’s not uncommon for reporters to say that someone is “schizophrenic” instead of “has schizophrenia.” Similar to how we speak about cancer, the medical illness, disorder or condition should not be an adjective describing people, but should be phrased as “has cancer,” instead of “is cancerous.”
While the media has been reporting about AIDS/HIV for more than 25 years, they still refer to people living with AIDS/HIV as “is HIV-positive” or “has AIDS,” not acknowledging how medical advances allow people to “live” with the disease as opposed to it being a death sentence.
As health communicators, we must make sure that our media materials use linguistic and culturally competent words and phrases to help the media start stories on the right foot. Competency in our communication can’t be limited to just being “politically correct.” Instead, we must acknowledge the power (and influence) word selection has in impacting behavior change and engaging (and persuading) key audiences.
Last year, I drafted a media advisory referencing suicide and witnessed the power of words. Familiar with how suicide is discussed within the mental health community, I chose to use “died by suicide” in the media advisory. When the advisory was reviewed by one of the people highlighted in it, I received this email in response:
Bravo! Appreciate the use of “died by suicide” rather than committed suicide as a person who is surviving a sister’s death by suicide in 1995 and as a suicide attempt survivor. It’s language that brings dignity to families, friends and those of us who have struggled to survive and recover.
British politician Pearl Strachan Hurd once said, “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” We want our words as communicators — and those of the media — to not only inform and persuade, but also offer dignity and respect to sensitive, intimate stories and lives we report in our materials and news outlets.
Like Bill Gates Shows, Leaders' Personal Messages Online Can Be a Winning Strategy
But perhaps we should start thinking like Bill.
Using his newly formed Twitter community, Gates recently launched his newest endeavor, The Gates Notes, where he will personally document his thoughts, travels and work with his nonprofit organization, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s not uncommon for CEOs and executive directors of NGOs to share updates and information with supporters through blogging and/or e-newsletter columns. But Gates’s new Web site takes it a step further and other nonprofit leaders should take note.
This interactive Web site gives visitors an inside look at global issues from Gates’s personal perspective. Even his first post on Gates Notes feels like a diary entry:
It often feels like I’m back in school, as I spend a lot of my time learning about issues I’m passionate about. I’m fortunate because the people I’m working with and learning from are true experts in their fields. I take a lot of notes, , and often share them and my own thoughts on the subject with others through email, so I can learn from them and expand the conversation.
I thought it would be interesting to share these conversations more widely with a Website, in the hope of getting more people thinking and learning about the issues I think are interesting and important.
With the thousands of charitable and advocacy organizations competing for the public’s attention, Gates Notes shows how a personal touch can set an organization apart and build a larger community. Whether through blogs, e-newsletters, social networking profiles or more traditional communication channels, readers will appreciate and respond to candor, honesty and passion for a cause when shared through a real human voice. Think of it as persuasive storytelling 2.0, using technology to share personal testimonies and insights.
Are there limits? Absolutely. Often, organizational leaders do not have the time and/or expertise to communicate via social media and rely on their communication staff to do it on their behalf. This can pose quite an ethical dilemma. In such a personal medium, can people share messages through social media pretending to be (or on behalf of) someone else? Are we misleading readers? As a profession, we are still trying to figure it out. PR pro Todd Defren’s blog PR-Squared is exploring those very ethical issues.
The bottom line is that whenever possible, leaders should write their own posts for authenticity and transparency. If this is not an option for an organization, then leaders and communicators should consider creating social media presences under their organization’s name or profile, instead of tying it to a specific individual. Then, anyone affiliated with the organization can communicate on their behalf, eliminating ethical challenges.
Honesty and transparency when communicating online are the best policy. And if we take a tip from Bill, the personal touch can be a winning strategy.
LogMeIn Express: Screen Sharing Made Simple
This post over at Lifehacker illustrates a great new technology that could be very useful for training purposes:
Windows: LogMeIn Express is a screen sharing tool from the makers of the popular remote-desktop software, LogMeIn. With this new offering, sharing your desktop is as simple as sending your friend or associate a URL.
Only the person doing the screen sharing needs to download anything. The sharer only requires a small application from LogMeIn; the viewer only needs to visit the LogMeIn Express site and plug in the number that the sharer has given them.
Screen sharing, for those unfamiliar, is a technology that allows users on different computers to view what a presenter is doing on his or her computer screen. So, for example, I could walk an audience through the steps that I take in setting up a blog, allowing them to view my screen in real time so they can see what I click on, where the different menu items are, how to craft a post, and so forth. What’s more, LogMeIn Express has a chat room function, which allows for an ongoing discussion regarding the training. This could easily be integrated with a conference call to provide for further feedback. The technology works with up to 100 users, and is free.
This platform enables organizations to easily connect with satellite groups to give computer training and instruction. Want an affiliate to learn to upload and tag YouTube videos appropriately? Want to demonstrate how Twitter hashtags work? Want to do a seminar on search engine optimization? LogMeIn Express is a tool that could help facilitate all of this training and more.
Welcome to the New InSites Blog!
It’s the start of a new year and a time to try new things. With that in mind, I’ve been asked by Vanguard staff to kick off the year with a blog about social change communications. Hmmm…
For me it’s easy to think about how a social media tactic, such as blogging, can help our clients advance their causes, yet it’s much harder to embrace the tactic for myself and our firm. Partially, it’s because I’m used to being “behind the curtain” helping make Vanguard’s clients and their issues be the stars of the show. And, partially, it’s because it’s a little intimidating to have the pressure of a regular blog post. That’s why I’ve decided that the only way I’d do this is if I had partners to share the load, so I’ve recruited Vanguard staff members to put themselves “out there” along with me!
It’s really exciting for me to have this opportunity to introduce some of Vanguard’s staff to you because they are truly amazing individuals with extraordinary talents. They come from all over the U.S. and several foreign countries, plus a few of us are native Washington, D.C.-born (yes, we do exist). In our more than 20 years in this business, we’ve been fortunate to partner with many exceptional individuals and organizations to address some of society’s most pressing issues. Through our InSites blog, we will share our insights (a little play on words just for fun!) about these issues and how communications and marketing can support social change. Our hope is that you’ll check in with us when you can and be inspired to adopt a new or old communications and marketing strategy to address an issue that’s important to you.
I should mention that this blog is an evolution of Vanguard’s monthly InSites e-newsletter and podcast, which we’ve been producing since 2006. If you already subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, you’ll continue to receive monthly e-mails featuring our best blog posts of each month. And, you’ll still be able to listen to the InSites podcast, which will now expand upon blog content as the issues demand it. You can subscribe to both of them using the sign up field on the left.
Welcome to the new home of InSites and wish me luck with being on this side of the curtain!