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-- Jon Harmon
Force for Good has a newly redesigned home. Please visit and bookmark www.forceforgoodcom.com
This Typepad blog site is going away soon.
-- Jon Harmon
Posted on November 28, 2012 at 03:27 PM in Books, Brand-Building, Chief Reputation Officer, Citizen Journalists, Communication Strategy, Crisis Communications, Current Affairs, Employee Communications, Environment, Feeding Frenzy crisis book, Friends of Force for Good, Litigation, Media archetypes, Media Training, New Media, Original Fiction, People of the Year, Pornography: protecting children, PR Disaster of the Year, Propaganda, Religion, Reputation Management, Social Responsibility, Sports, Television, Web Design, World View | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
When is an apology helpful? When might an apology prove damaging?
A PR pro who is aiming to repair damage to trust and reputation will likely give you different answers to these questions than a lawyer aiming to limit liability. In many, if not most cases, reputation trumps liability. It’s better to sincerely apologize and attempt to move forward in restoring trust in your organization than to stubbornly remain silent. Losing in the court of public opinion can prove more damaging than losing in a court of law. And refusing to apologize may even prove harmful in the courtroom, perhaps leading an unsympathetic judge or jury to pile on punitive damages to what they see as an unrepentant offender.
Keeping this in mind, I offer the following two-question test to help you decide when an apology is in order, courtesy of Eric Zorn in today’s Chicago Tribune. (Zorn brings up the subject because of criticism Republican presidential candidates have directed at President Obama following his apology to the people of Afghanistan for the inadvertent burning of some copies of the Koran. Regardless of your own political views, Zorn’s simple test is helpful to the corporate communicator deciding whether to push back against the lawyers and recommend a public apology be extended.)
A “yes” to both of these questions indicates an apology is almost surely in order. Note that the harmful act need not have been deliberate; and if it was indeed unintentional, you clearly should mention that fact in your apology.
Note also that your social responsibility, if not your legal accountability, often extends beyond your own company and its employees—your dealers and even your suppliers may be considered part of your extended organization in the eyes of the public. A socially responsible company holds its dealers and suppliers to the same ethical standards it follows itself.
Finally, Zorn reminds his readers not to offer one of those mealy-mouthed non-apologies that includes caveats like “… if anyone was offended” or is written in a non-accountable passive voice: “mistakes were made.”
And finally I offer these Force for Good posts from the past on the still-pertinent issue of the apology:
When is an emotional apology just too much?
Photograph: Jason DeCrow/AP
The White House was surprised and embarrassed when a reporter tweeted to thousands of his "followers" that President Obama had said that Kanye West was a "jack-ass" for his the monumental rudeness toward country singer Taylor West at the Video Music Awards.
Not that the President wasn't spot on with his assessment of West. But he has bigger fish to fry. And didn't he learn anything from that press conference in July when he declared that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly?" When the President expresses an opinion, it becomes news -- and can become a distraction from the policy agenda he is promoting.
Turns out that Obama's slam had been an off-hand comment made during a supposed "off-the record" time while CNBC was setting up a pool camera for a formal interview. ABC's Terry Moran over-heard the comment and reported it via Twitter. When the White House objected, Moran took down the Tweet, but by that time it was flying around the Internet at light speed, probably providing a temporary boost to the President's approval ratings.
But what cover exactly does the mysterious "off-the-record" provide?
Kelly McBride argues on Poynter online that off-the-record means just one thing -- that a journalist can't attribute information or a quote to the source, and in fact will go to jail rather than give up the identity of the source. Furthermore, she asserts that she has
"qualms about ever letting the president of the United States go off the record. He's the most powerful man in the world... I suspect that the status of the conversation between CNBC and Obama was unclear to everyone involved. Reporters often conduct a casual conversation before or after an official interview. That's how reporters and sources get to know each other. But that's not the same as off-the-record, and the president of all people knows that."
That's the problem -- "off-the-record" can mean so many things in different circumstance. (Which is why in media training we always tell executives never to assume anything is off the record.) As a media relations professional, there may be times when you need to speak off the record -- but only with a journalist you know and trust, and only after specifying the ground rules.
For example, "off-the-record" can be thought to mean:
Sources sometimes cloak their identity in order to slam a political or career rival or someone they're mad at. This is unscrupulous cowardice and journalists demonstrate questionable ethics when they enable such behavior.
But speaking "off-the-record" can provide necessary cover for a source who fears retribution. For example, "whistle blowers" raising legitimate concerns that have fallen on deaf ears within an organization. Or a PR person providing information "off-the-record" to dissuade a journalist from writing an erroneous story at a time two organizations are wrestling in private and have committed to not "negotiate in the media."
Bottom line: Begin from the assumption that you are on the record. When special circumstances necessitate going "off-the-record," do so only with a journalist you know and trust (note: you can't go "off-the-record" when speaking to a group of reporters), and only after making sure you both agree as to what you mean by it.
The rise of new media is both a blessing and a curse to the corporate communicator.
A blessing in providing a direct channel, unfiltered by cynical (or even antagonistic) journalists; a curse in the proliferation of so many diffuse channels to the market.
Media relations is a relationship business. Successful PR people know the handful of journalists most important to their companies and industries. They know what the key journalists' interests are, what their pet peeves are and they have forged at least some level of rapport with them. It's relatively easy to identify your VIP media, those with the biggest circulation numbers among your target audiences plus those who have an out-sized influence on the thinking of other media.
Bloggers, those using Twitter or Facebook, etc. will likely have much, much smaller numbers. But scoring a hit among an influential inside a social media conversation that's spot on to your product or service can be more important than a positive mention in a large-circulation newspaper. It's not just how many people you reach, it's who you reach and in what context.
It also depends if you are trying to create awareness for a new brand (go for the highest number of potential customers) or are trying to advance favorable consideration or address a concern about your company or product (look to help shape the most in-depth conversations relevant to your objective).
So how do you find your most important social media influentials? And how do you cultivate a relationship with them?
More on my next post.
- Jon Harmon
When is the emotional apology the right move to put scandal behind and to stop a spreading crisis?
I'm thinking of this, of course, because of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford with his tearful apologies this week to his wife and family, his staff and supporters, and to all the people of his state.
Sanford, of course, had much explaining to do after his mysterious disappearance left aides and family in the dark, only to turn out that he'd taken a trip to Argentina to meet up with a woman with whom he had been having an illicit affair. In the less-than-proud tradition of disgraced politicians undone by their hormones, Sanford stood before the cameras and apologized. To his credit, he did not try to justify his actions and he seemed remarkably candid in his remarks.
But did he have to go on for so long? Did we really need so many details? Wouldn't he have been better off following this simple "Force for Good" advice for coming clean about a mistake: "Be honest. Keep it brief. Get off stage. Move on."
Others were quick to question whether his apology was the correct move in terms of crisis management.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, loudly argued against the wisdom of the Sanford apology (and in terms that would have gotten a male op-ed writer in serious trouble):
"Perhaps someday one of these VIPs in trouble will figure out that on these occasions it's not a great thing to go public looking like a pathetic dolt -- the kind of man who would induce instant headache and skin crawling in any woman imagining him as a lover."
Rabinowitz would have had Sanford make a straight-forward admission of the affair, without apology, capped with this closer:
"So let's understand this. I plan to straighten my tie, button my jacket .. and go forward to do what I have to do. Life's complicated, ladies and gentlemen, but there's work to be done. I'll have nothing further on this, count on it."
The long, drawn-out, tearful apology didn't score well with Cokie Roberts or Sam Donaldson on ABC's Good Morning America.
"It will sink him," Roberts said about the apology, not the affair.
Donaldson disparaged Sanford for taking questions from media and answering in agonizing detail. "He's a cooked goose," Donaldson said, adding that he gives higher marks to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who made a brief statement and a quick exit in admitting an extramarital affair earlier this month.
Of course, every situation is unique and it's always easy for the "experts" to criticize.
One thing is clear. If Sanford wants to keep his job, he needs to keep his head down and work through the issues and privately work with his wife on saving their marriage. No more apologizing; no more details; no further comment even as journalists work to advance the story. ("Who is the mysterious woman in Argentina? How did they meet? etc.)
It's still might not be enough to overcome his erratic behavior -- the sudden disapearance, the phony story about hiking -- that had to make voters wonder about his suitabiity to govern.
Fortunately, the public has a short attention span. The sudden death of Michel Jackson has blown all other news off the radar screen. Sanford should make use of the respite and keep quiet.
- Jon Harmon
(Last night I took part in an executive roundtable discussion at the Publicity Club of Chicago. The brief case study I shared provides a good lesson learned that I believe is quite apt for these difficult economic times, and so I'll hit the main points here.)
Following two and a half years of being delinquent in its financials, which didn't win too many points with the SEC and led to a delisting by the NYSE, Navistar scheduled a meeting with more than 200 analysts and media in New York in October 2007. We would disclose a massive restatement of prior financials and take the first steps toward becoming a current filer,
In the wake of Sarbanes Oxley and numerous changes to accounting standards, Navistar was by no means alone in having to restate prior financials. But we had gone an unusually long period without reporting after discovering mistakes that had caused the company to scrap its year-end 2005 analyst meeting. And we were more than a little concerned about the reaction we would get to a restatement that, including tax changes, amounted to a negative $2.1 billion against prior earnings. But we were confident in the company's overall health and in our business strategy for the future.
So we followed a three-part communication strategy:
By thoroughly and clearly communicating the first two steps, we were able to largely remove them from further discussion. The majority of analysts' questions were on our current and future business, not on our past accounting sins.
The meeting started about an hour before the market opened. When the OTC opened (Navistar was still banished to the "pink sheets" but has since returned to the NYSE), our stock was down just a fraction and we knew we were going to weather the storm. The media was fair to us as well, with much of its focus on the product announcement we made sure to include in our news release.
This formula works well for companies needing to share bad news that doesn't truly change an underlying strong story. An it applies as well for communicating to employees and other stakeholders in this brutal economy: get the bad news out, commit to discipline throughout the business but then spend the majority of time talking about the reasons you know you have the right strategy and your bullish on your long-term prospects.
As I've said in recent posts, confident hopefulness is motivating. Especially when everyone else seems to be incapable of doing anything except wringing their hands.
- Jon Harmon
In this followup to my last post, I'll explore further the idea of archetypes in business media coverage and how to tell your company's story when faced with unfavorable type-casting in the media.
From the UK, Heather Yaxley's comment to my last post undoubtedly speaks for many in the media and in university journalism schools the world over -- wary of corporate spin-meisters packaging news in the form of a saccharin narrative but much less conscious of the preponderance of archetypes masquerading as balanced coverage in the media.
Journalists and editors indeed are often influenced by their preconceptions. Story assignments are made necessarily based on incomplete reporting -- a television station cannot commit a crew's time to develop a piece until there is a sniff of important news, or better yet, scandal. Reporters often select or even bend facts to fit the assumed script that has earned a piece of the news budget. If a reporter comes back with something less or different than what an editor expects, the reporter is often sent back to do more reporting.
Victims need sympathetic qualities; heroes speak virtuously; villains act maliciously. Facts and details that don't quite square with the preconceived story-line are sometimes rejected out-of-hand (by bush-league editors or those on deadline). More astute editors see these incongruencies as important ingredients to the story, adding nuance and depth to otherwise one-dimensional characters.
But sometimes these at-odds-with-the-storyline-as-we-see-it facts are indications that the story does not so neatly fit with the archetype and therefore a new thesis must be considered. In science, this is seen as progress. The scientific method entails the testing of hypothesis after hypothesis until truth emerges. Thomas Edison remained committed to his project of developing a workable light bulb even after repeated failures to find the right material for a filament to burn inside the bulb, saying: "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. Every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
Edison also said: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
Those aren't the words of a editor on deadline.
In my last post, I discussed the "David and Goliath" archetype in which members of the Fourth Estate depict a heroic "little guy" trying to stand-up against an evil empire. If the company you represent is being forced into this archetype, you must work to show the many human faces truly at work at your corporation. Do not let your company be portrayed as a impersonal monolith callously putting profit before safety. Show real-life engineers at work problem-solving. Invite the journalist in to see the real people behind the scenes. This may mean persuading cautious senior leaders (and legal counsel) against taking the easy way out and replying in writing to media questions -- but a terse written statement (or worse, an inscrutable block of legalese) reinforces the stereotype of monolithic, inhuman corporation. Find a well-spoken, likable and real representative who can tell your story well. Slickness is not the quality we're going for here; but rather an ordinary "someone like me" who the reporter (as well as the viewer or reader) can empathize with.
Remember, though, that you may be inserting characters that play against type and you might have to persuade the journalist (or editor) that the people and the actions you show them are real. Prejudice is an insidious blindness; countering it can be very difficult. If your company is being unfairly force-fit into an archetype, you have to push back hard to make the blind see what's truly there.
What other archetypes do we find in business media coverage? How can the public relations manager combat the negative stereotypes included in these forced story lines?
- Jon Harmon
(First in a two-part series on media archetypes).
It's amazing, really, how news media can research and report a steady stream of stories, quickly and, for the most part, accurately in a continuously flowing tableau recording our society's memorable moments. ("Accurately" meaning that each individual fact in a story is arguably correct but not necessarily meaning that the piece in total is fair, balanced and representative of a complex reality.)
Journalists and their editors synthesize enormous amounts of information, continuously making choices about what it is relevant and what is not, what can be presented as fact and what is merely opinion requiring a quote from another source to represent an alternative point of view for balance. A piece of breaking news is supplemented by additional information for context and historical perspective. Visuals are sought out to help tell the story and add emotional impact. All these pieces are packaged in neat, tidy parcels for easy consumption by the news media's readers, listeners or viewers.
Understanding the way news is packaged is critical to successful corporate news management. Simply put, the arbiters of what is reported in each package make important decisions long before all the reporting is done, decisions that can determine whether your company or product is good or bad, whether you are on the "right side" of the issue or in the wrong.
In morning news budget meetings at newspapers and television stations and networks each day, editors sit around a table and quickly choose winners among various potential stories that their teams of reporters are working on. Resources are scarce; so is air time. Stories that have drama, action and some element of sexiness or intrigue win out over the straight but dry news that makes up most our lives and our companies' and our countries' daily doings.
The way these news-budget decisions are made often comes down to two factors that public relations practitioners must understand:
Roy Peter Clark has a fascinating piece on Poynter Online today on how stories are played to archetypes. He begins by recounting how a student reporter writing for a high school newspaper had covered a wheelchair bowling tournament and written an up-lifting piece about the experience. Later, Clark spoke to the young woman who said that the handicapped bowlers had been "cranky, dismissive, angry, horny (and) obnoxious." Why hadn't she written this, he asked her. "I wanted to write a good story," she told him, "about people over-coming obstacles."
She wrote to an archetype, ignoring the less-than-inspiring reality because it didn't fit.
Too often business reporters write to archetypes, often at the direction of an editor or managing editor. The "David and Goliath" archetype, for example, is pervasive in stories where a "little guy" (an average-Joe consumer, an ex-employee whistle-blower, or perhaps a crusading lawyer) is pitted against an unfeeling, inhumane, rich monolith (the big corporation you happen to represent). The archetype says that the little guy is the sympathetic character. There is no need to check for a profit motive behind his accusations or an unspoken axe he may be grinding. He's the "little guy" and the investigative journalist is looking out for him.
Meanwhile, the only obligation toward the evil-empire that is playing Goliath in this archetype is to provide minimal airtime or space in the column for a perfunctory denial. News media is the self-proclaimed "fourth estate," the watchdog over various centers of power, whether Big Government or Big Corporation.
CBS' long-running and popular gotcha-mentary "60 Minutes" is built on this formula and has spawned countless copycats from Geraldo to your local investigative TV "on-your-side" guy. But the original is still the best example of the archetype. Almost like clockwork, at least one segment on "60 Minutes" each week will be structured to the "David and Goliath" script. In a 10- or 12-minute package, a neat and tidy melodrama will play out with the bad actor being exposed as guilty with no room for doubt, no shades of nuance. It's all very reassuring theater but it often leaves out messy facts and perspectives that don't fit the script.
In my next post, I'll explore other media archetypes and ways to tell your organization's story against an unfavorable archetype.
- Jon Harmon
Reputation is built on trust. Brands are built on relationships.
Transparency and candor foster both trust and positive relationships.
These simple statements probably have always been true, and they most certainly are true today in an era defined by the signature line from the cluetrain manifesto: “Markets are conversations.”
And yet most media training sessions still focus the spokesperson laser-like on predetermined key messages. That’s a throwback to a rapidly fading time when companies shouted out their brand messages to their customers in the belief that “Markets are monologues; we’re doing the talking and you’ll do the listening.”
That’s so Twentieth Century.
In my last post I touched upon the necessary evolution in media training from a rigid adherence on key messages to a more engaging telling of your story. Today I want to explain that thought a bit further.
“Story telling” is not about fabricating a fairy tale that glosses over inconvenient truths (to borrow a certain former vice president’s phrase). Just the opposite actually. Telling your story well encompasses candor and transparency – with devastating effectiveness because it steals the thunder of your critics. Take the high ground and stay there. Let the critics mire in the gutter.
How does an effective spokesperson tell a story well?
(Note: these techniques will not be effective in an ambush interview by a “gotcha” broadcast journalist. That situation is best diffused with a simple expression of your key message followed by “Please excuse me … I have nothing more to say …Now you’re just being rude,” as you exit as gracefully as possible.)
- Jon Harmon
It’s a bit of a paradox.
If you don’t get the sense that we’re standing at an amazing moment in the development of the profession of public relations -- truly in the midst of a communications revolution – than you probably aren’t reading these words right now.
But if you have read this far you are at least an interested passer-by in the blogosphere and the evolution of “participatory media.” (Even if the word “blog” soon will seem “so 2006” it won’t spell the end to the sea change in the communications dynamic.)
Or perhaps you’ve bought the whole “new media revolution” hook, line and sinker. You’ve thrown out your paper Rollodex wheel with all your journo contacts. Who needs to talk through the annoying filter of the news media mostly populated by cynics who aren’t very impressed with your product? Who needs ‘em! We can talk directly to our customers like we’ve always dreamed.
Well, not exactly … Mass media relations are still critically important but the advent of the “new media” is clearly having an impact.
Last week, I moderated a conference call for Best Practices in Corporate Communications (a resource for more than 50 Fortune 500 companies in sharing non-competitive best practices in communications), titled “Next Practices: The Future of Corporate Communications.” It was ambitious to say the least to try to tackle a topic of such scope in a session lasting just over an hour.
The panel consisted of three impressive PR pros: Mike Cherenson, EVP of Success Communications Group – Cherenson; Matt Shaw, VP of the Council of Public Relations Firms; and Jennifer McClure, founder and exec director of the Society for New Communications Research.
In a whirlwind tour of the future of our profession, a number of common perspectives emerged:
The art of successful “new media” relations will also help us succeed with traditional mass media. Jennifer described the transformation as “an end to spin and a beginning of story-telling.”
If you can quickly take a dry set of facts and weave it into a compelling story, you probably have always done well in generating positive coverage for your company’s products. The rise of participatory media makes story-telling even more important. Whether on a blog or in the New York Times, isn’t every story a “human interest story” – if a story doesn’t interest humans, what is the point?
How do we apply the notion of story-telling when we are “media-training” a client?
Look for potential spokespeople who are more than merely willing to be interviewed, Mike said, but, rather, eager to tell their story. They will be confident, engaging and ultimately more persuasive in any interview situation.
“We’ve been over-trained in sticking with a script,” Jennifer added. “It’s important to know your key points and to make sure they come across. But it’s bad advice to ignore a question and just stick to your three key messages.”
There’s an art to telling a story and those who do it well have no difficulty being heard in any medium.
- Jon Harmon