Public relations at its best acts as the conscience of a company.
Here’s what I mean. Companies often go through the painstaking exercise of crafting a mission or values statement. For example Starbucks adheres to the following values:
Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.
Companies also spend an inordinate amount of time and money figuring what their brands should represent. This work can go on for weeks — or even months — backed by an unlimited supply of Skittles, Red Bull and focus groups.
Whether it’s values or a mission statement or brand attributes, it’s all theoretical as in this is how we want potential customers to perceive us. If they perceive us this way, there’s a high probability that they’ll buy our products or services.
In my PR Utopia, PR has a seat at the table — yes that table, the one made of thick mahogany where each chair has the trade-in value of a used Volvo — and a voice with the other executives who lead the company. This allows PR to ensure that decisions align with the company’s aspired values/mission/brand. If they don’t, PR has a platform on which to voice concerns and participate in a dialogue that adjusts or reconciles the issues.
This is the opposite of spin, making sure the actions — and the communication of those actions — reflect the inner makings of the company.
Remember, I said “PR Utopia.”
A guy can dream.
I’ve been thinking about this issue since listening to the presentation from Corey duBrowa, who heads global communications for Starbucks, at the Innovation Summit last month. His talk highlighted how social media exposed Starbucks for opening a new store that fell woefully short of Starbucks’ standards.
This goes deeper than PR having a seat at the table. Corey’s coffee mug sits on the same table as Howard Schultz’s. But does Starbucks have the type of culture that allows the PR folks on the front line to speak up? In other words, Corey, Howard and the rest of the Starbucks executive management team aren’t diving into the minutia of every new store. Yet, somewhere along the line someone from the communications team must have noticed the store set the ugly finder howling. Did this person speak up and challenge the status quo (in the company’s value statement)? Is the culture such that PR can challenge the company on an issue — the quality of a new store’s physical structure — that sits outside the conventional realm of PR?
Obviously, I don’t know the answer.
What I can share is that roughly seven months later, Starbucks took the action of renovating the Highlands store.
I suspect Starbucks PR machinery is gearing up to promote the Highlands Opening 2.0.
Sidenote: If you’re interested in how the debacle was covered last July, check out BusinessInsider’s “This Prison-Like Starbucks Is Being Mocked As The Most Depressing In America.”
Showing one’s humanity is a sure-fire way to bring a storytelling dimension to communications.
Yet, most executives do the exact opposite. They make a conscious effort to hide their humanity.
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, we’re told early in our careers that business is business, personal and personal and never the twain shall meet.
It’s a missed opportunity.
The simple act of opening up can strengthen business communications, giving lift to what otherwise would be vanilla information.
Before going further, let’s define this concept of opening up in business communications. In short, it means being willing to reveal a little something about yourself. Transition lines such as “That reminds me …” or “Let me share a quick story …” can serve as springboards into opening up.
It’s worth noting that opening up should come in moderation lest you end up in the TMI category. No one wants to hear that your kid refused an SAT tutor and is going to end up at a state university.
Politicians certainly get the concept of how to open up.
Consider President Obama who every year appears on ESPN to share his college basketball picks for March Madness.
Does the President’s ability to predict Arizona State upsetting Michigan — didn’t happen by the way — give the American public greater confidence in his ability to shepherd health care reform and mediate the conflict in the Ukraine? Of course not. He does this so his target audience can identify with him and even feel a connection with him.
For business role models, look no further than Warren Buffet who has perfected the storytelling technique of opening up. He doesn’t want the world to perceive him as one of the richest men in the world who always gets his right pinkie in the air at the perfect angle when lifting a cup of tea. Similar to President Obama participating in March Madness, Mr. Buffett strives for ways that the average person can feel part of his circle. Using his Annual Report for more than reporting financial performance, we find passages such as the following on activities at his shareholders’ meeting:
“To add to the Sunday fun Ariel Hsing will play table tennis (ping pong to the uninitiated) from 1 pm to 4 pm against anyone brave enough to take her on. Ariel, though only 11, is ranked number one among first under 16 in the U.S. I played Ariel, then 9, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me …”
Of course, the profile of the individual has a say about the frame of opening up. For the President Obamas and Warren Buffets of the world, they can tap areas like a college basketball tournament or a ping pong prodigy that have zero relevance to their core platform. If you’re an executive at an enterprise computing company, what you share opening up needs to have relevance to the topic at hand.
This requires getting out of the weeds.
Trying to conjure up a personal story with a tie to “greater density in a solid state storage device” makes for a futile exercise. Instead, it’s about finding an experience/feeling that provides common ground between the personal and the technical. Maybe a sense of achievement underpins the personal story as a way to accentuate the sense of achievement with the new storage device. Or perhaps the development of the storage device hit unexpected obstacles that could be tied to a personal saga of pushing through barriers.
One final point —
As you open up, you’re going to experience a feeling of vulnerability.
Take a virtual deep breath and stay the course.
Like any push out of one’s comfort zone, it does get easier over time.
Naturally, journalists want more from the Obama administration.
Given that the journalist’s agenda will always differ from the government’s agenda, it’s inevitable that a contentious dynamic shadows the relationship. This seems healthy to me so I wasn’t surprised to stumble across a recent letter from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) addressed to the President asking for greater transparency.
Ironically, I think the letter was more of a PR ploy and not exactly well done. Then again, it appears the organization’s version of a PR function is to hire an aspiring journalist who just graduated in May to fill the role of “communications coordinator.”
Here’s the content of the letter with my commentary:
President Barack Obama
The White House
July 8, 2014
You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.
In a form of journalistic jujitsu, the SPJ nicely turns the President’s words against him. But that last line “… take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in” brings together more clichés than a 7th grade English class.
Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship – an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.
Call The New York Times or The Washington Post or any major publication to request a meeting with the editor-in-chief, and what happens? You are quickly shuttled to the PR department who then determines whether you are “worthy.” This is how all organizations bring method to the madness. Of course, the process can be abused, but censorship? Puhleeze!
The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.
I suppose it’s all in how you define “openness.” As I’ve written in previous posts, the Obama administration gets “owned media,” establishing a new benchmark for how a government entity essentially becomes a media property in its own right with multiple channels to reach the masses.
Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely.
The data seems to indicate that when a journalist interviews someone from the federal government, he or she is increasingly accompanied by a PR person. Can you imagine?
When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.
Now we’re getting somewhere. I completely agree with the SPJ’s position that journalists should not have to submit questions in advance. As I’ve publicly stated, this undermines the credibility of the journalist, and that hurts everybody. In fact, I’m the one who wrote an open letter to the PR community advocating for the “Just Say No to No” campaign as a way to restore the credibility of our journalistic brothers.
As for the “on-background press conference with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis,” maybe you shouldn’t attend if they’re a waste of time.
In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.
I couldn’t help but notice that there’s no attribution for the survey, a journalistic no no. Which causes me to wonder if this is really an issue.
Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a “press vs. government” issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.
“Under surveillance?” I must have missed the memo stating that somehow the NSA is involved.
It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others – lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money – without these controls and without public oversight.
Right. I’m sure the Nixon administration made journalists feel right at home, offering them an iced tea as they roamed the White House. And again, what’s this “surveillance” issue that keeps surfacing? If it refers to a PR person accompanying the federal source, I’m deeply offended. Heck, I have a tough enough time keeping an eye on my grandkids much less have the expertise to hack the mobile phone logs of a journalist.
Here are some recent examples:
• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.
• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency’s actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.
• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.
Always a nice touch to bring in proof points.
The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.
We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.
One thing for sure, the SPJ has made a conscious effort to leverage emotionally charged words. Hello “suppression.” Still, I like the idea of an ombudsman. It could work just like the role in publications. Oh, that’s right. Most publications axed their ombudsmen during cost reductions.
While we have never supported a federal agency, our work for the City of Fremont gives us a window into how a constructive tango between the media and government should work.
Sure, the contentious dynamic I referenced earlier periodically surfaces, but again that’s the nature of colliding agendas.
PR is not the enemy.
Perhaps, you should issue a clear directive to your membership that it’s not only OK to interact with PR, but they might actually find it useful and not in conflict with the journalistic integrity of their work.
The executive quote serves as a mainstay of PR-generated content from news releases to prepared statements.
With rare exception, they’re dreadful.
It’s as if each quote goes through the following process in which a conscious effort is made to squeeze out any semblance of humanity:
The upshot —
PR ends up crafting quotes like this one that then get flung to the world.
The quote does nothing to advance the narrative.
Worse, it’s more dull than an episode of CSPAN debating the merits of wildlife in national parks.
For a role model on doing quotes right, we surprisingly turn to the U.S. Soccer Federation. In fact, the organization goes one step further, essentially creating atomized storytelling that journalists can easily feather into their stories. Putting the heartbreak from yesterday’s loss to Belgium aside (I’m not bitter, but I’ll never eat another waffle), this is worth a drill down.
The Federation puts out what’s termed “The World Cup Quote Sheet” with select players and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann commenting on both recent outcomes and what’s ahead. Quotes such as the following — in-depth commentary allows journalists to pull slices into their stories — were distributed after the match with Germany:
U.S. MNT head coach JURGEN KLINSMANN
On advancing from the Group of Death:
JK: “It’s huge. We wanted a tie out of this game, but maybe in the beginning we had a bit too much respect [for Germany]. Then, more and more, we got into the game. We should have created a bit more chances. That’s really something we have to improve on, but overall, tremendous energy, tremendous effort from the whole side. It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance.’ We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point.”
U.S. MNT goalkeeper TIM HOWARD
On getting out of the Group of Death:
TH: “Proud of our group; we have a lot left in us. Today was a tough game in tough conditions. Hats off to Germany, I think they have an opportunity to win the World Cup, that’s how good I think they are. We had a chance right there at the end, but we go again, we get to the Round of 16. It shows how far we’ve come. That we’re not happy just getting there, that we want to progress , and we still got a little bit left in us.”
U.S. MNT forward CLINT DEMPSEY
On Jermaine Jones possibly breaking his nose:
CD: “I guess that’s the way it goes. We have a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of character. We keep going, we keep fighting. I’m sure, if he did break his nose, just like what happened to me, he’ll be ready for the next game.”
These comments do sound like they’re coming from actual human beings.
Equally important, the Federation’s PR team directs the commentary based on anticipating how journalists will round out their stories.
That’s why you have Clint Dempsey who broke his nose in the first match offering up a quote on Jermaine Jones who appeared to suffer a similar fate. Can anyone doubt that the line “I guess that’s the way it goes” really came from the mouth of Dempsey?
As a result, journalists do use these quotes because they add texture to their stories (search on “Klinsmann” and “It’s huge” shows that the phrase found its way into well over 100 stories).
I think there’s room for business communicators to borrow this concept.
At the very least, we should be writing executive quotes that pass the sound test; i.e., does it sound like something a person would actually say?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a senior exec at a Fortune 500 company or manage the A1 Car Wash in Albuquerque, the ability to communicate impacts job performance. For many, this extends to the dreaded presentation.
You can find advice on this topic rivaling how to lose weight and make money selling timeshare condos.
Here’s the problem. These so-called gurus always the say same thing.
- Use visuals, not bullets (oops)
- Stop jingling coins in your pocket.
- Don’t read your slides.
- If you use enough visuals, you won’t read your slides because there isn’t enough to read.
For those of us wired by words, this is a little like suggesting a tortoise would move faster using a skateboard.
That’s why I found Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar, #PresentBetter, so refreshing. Finally, here’s a roadmap and tips that didn’t require an MFA from Pratt to implement.
I encourage you to take in Gavin’s webinar which is available for playback on SlideShare. In the meantime, here are my CliffsNotes from the session.
Harmonize Words, Pictures and Structure
Words on slides aren’t the devil. You just need to use them the right way. Rather than skewer PowerPoint, use the platform to fill in the gaps on the area you don’t do particularly well. For example, if you’re an introverted soul, you might depend on the slide rather than oral communications to express a touch of levity in your storytelling.
I used the slide below in an internal presentation last year that absolutely bombed!
Take a chance or two understanding that not everything will work.
Start with the Question, Why Are You Presenting?
There are really only two reasons that people present, either to frame the way people see the world or to move people to action. In either case, recognize that the audience is asking, “What’s in it for me?” The alignment between the answers to the two questions becomes the foundation for your presentation.
Humans Aren’t Rational But They are Great Rationalizers
If you gravitate toward logic – I certainly count myself in this category – it can take a conscious effort to insert emotion into a presentation. Yet, it’s a must. As Gavin puts it, “Reason leads to judgment; emotion leads to action.” Again for introverts, emotive language on the actual slide might be a better approach than trying to channel a Meryl Streep performance.
I won’t numb you with studies from the wonderful world of neurology. In short, the science says If something looks good, we think it’s more truthful.
Create Visuals From Words
I’ve touched on this area before. Even though the vast majority of those in PR come to the profession through words, the right design touch can transform words into visuals (Just don’t expect “a word is worth a thousand pictures” to come to pass).
Look at how Gavin visually depicts what’s behind every presentation.
We’re talking 17 words and two interlocking circles.
Presentation Training 101 squeezes the discomfort out of people by putting them in uncomfortable situations again and again under the premise that they eventually will get comfortable.
Personally, I prefer the Gavin approach.
Then again, I’m an introvert.
Side note: For more on visual storytelling, you might check out “Visual Lessons from BusinessWeek.”2 comments