Writing tips can be spread across social media from consultants and journalism professionals. Public relations and corporate communications writing advice can come from industry professionals, online articles such as Huffington Post or PR Newswire, or it may come from your former or current educators. So, how do you sort through all of the daily influx of information? What is that one tip that was the most memorable and one you think of each time you write a news release?
To help out our corporate communications professionals, and our public relations community, this week’s crisis management discussion question is, “What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given for writing a news release?”
We would love to hear your thoughts this week. Comment here and on our social media pages to join the discussion. Your answers may be featured in our follow-up video!
This question is one of a series of debates in the media relations, crisis communications, public relations, and social media industries where you and your colleagues can share observations with each other. Yes, YOU are invited to share your bite-size bits of best practices. Here is how:
Step 2: You will see a short video that poses a new question every Monday. You then post your best practices and observations on The BraudCast YouTube channel.
Step 3: Once your opinion is shared, you can follow the discussion online so you can compare your best practices to those of your professional colleagues.
Step 4: Watch the follow-up Friday Video where you will see a short YouTube video outlining some of the most interesting observations. Yes…your comments may actually show up on our BraudCast video, bringing you world-wide fame, fortune, a big raise, glory, street parades, and more.
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Wiley Hilburn, Jr. has died. He is the man who shaped my writing and my career as a journalist. Each day, I think of myself first as a writer, knowing that writing is the root of my media training and crisis communications programs. Likewise, my skills as a journalist and television reporter, cultivated by Wiley, allowed me to have two great careers that have sent me circling the globe.
The death of Wiley Hilburn, Jr. is not breaking news. January 16, 2015 marks one year since his passing. Although a year has passed, I think of him often because he is alive in me. Not only is he alive in me, but he is alive in the pens and keyboards of journalists and public relations people across America.
Wiley was the head of the Louisiana Tech Journalism Department. He launched young journalists, like a parent should launch their children. Wiley nudged us, the way a mocking bird nudges a chick from the nest. He made sure we could fly. He nudged more than a few chicks out of the nest knowing they were better off eaten by a cat than to be in a newsroom. If you had the right stuff, Wiley praised you and nurtured your writing. If you didn’t have the gift for writing, he didn’t mince words in advising you to seek another career path. Every quarter he would bring each writer for the Tech Talk student newspaper in for a personal evaluation of their clipping file. We used to take bets in the newsroom as to who would leave Wiley’s office crying after his evaluation.
He was also famous for his back-of-the-classroom private evaluations about what you wrote for each class assignment. He never knew everyone could hear him until the day he praised me for having no misspelled words, just a week after giving me a C on a paper, upon which he wrote, “I’d like to take this to the Shreveport Times, where I’m known as a horrible speller, just to prove there is someone who spells worse than me.” On the day he gave me his “private” praise, the class stood and applauded. Wiley turned beat red and asked, “Have ya’ll always been able to hear all of my evaluations?” Wiley and I laughed about that day every time we visited. After my first week as a television reporter – a job he helped me secure – he sent a handwritten note that said, “You are doing great Gerard. As far as I can tell from your reports there are no misspelled words. You were made for TV.”
My creative writing style has never come close to Wiley’s. I’m envious of great creative writers who have a true gift of describing details and sounds and scents and moods. News and television writing were the places where I found my comfort zone.
Wiley took Mark Twain’s advice to write what you know. His writing was brilliant enough that he could have lived and worked anywhere, but he chose to stay close to home, living in Ruston, Louisiana writing as a columnist for the Shreveport Times and the Monroe News-Star. His columns were about the people, places, and unique little tidbits that only people along this Bible Belt region of Louisiana could appreciate.
Indeed, we all looked up to Wiley. And he always looked at us over his heavy rimmed glasses, which were broken at one hinge and held together with Scotch tape for most of the years that he was my professor. His thinning hair was always tousled. Wrinkles in suit never bothered him.
My hope for each of you is that there is someone special in your life who was pivotal in shaping your career. I hope you remember them with great fondness the way I remember Wiley today.
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The question I ask most often these days is, “What does that mean?”
I’m relatively well educated. I’m well read. I travel the world constantly teaching media relations and crisis communications.
But what bugs the ever living daylights out of me is hearing people speak in mumble jumble that they think means something, but it means nothing at all.
The mumble jumble is corporate speak, buzzwords, jargon and government acronyms.
I’m fortunate enough that people pay me an honorarium to speak at numerous conferences, corporate meetings and association meetings every month. I always make a point of listening to what other speakers say so I can incorporate their lessons into my presentation.
But many of the speakers fill their presentations with so many buzz words, jargon and mumble jumble that I find myself sitting in the audience asking, “What does that mean?” The speaker thinks they have said something profound, but they’ve really said nothing at all.
I hear things such as, “If we work in a customer centric capacity to increase productivity and to create a win-win situation for our partners in a collaborative fashion, then we can achieve our goals for the betterment of our strategic partners in the hopes of benefiting those with whom we do business?
What does that mean?
Were you trying to say put customers first?
What is a win-win situation? (with all due respects to Steven Covey)
What are examples of collaboration?
What are the goals?
Who are the strategic partners?
Please, spell it out. Please give me meaningful examples. Please give me tangible examples. Please give me anecdotes. Please communicate with real words. Please put some emotion into your communications. Please make the communications more visual by describing who and what you are talking about.
Let’s go back to lesson one. Would those words work at career day with a 6th grade class. A friend of mine uses this test – if you said it to your grandparents at Thanksgiving dinner, would they know what you mean?
Let’s touch on one other important point that I find in the politically correct world, especially among non-profit organizations. There is a propensity to say things in a way that will not offend the people that you serve. However, in the process of crafting your statement with sensitivity, you become so ambiguous that no one really knows what you are talking about, including… and sometimes most importantly, even the people they are trying to help. That’s right, the people you are trying to help don’t know what you mean, because the organization is being so sensitive and so politically correct.
If you keep changing the labels and the terminology out of sensitivity, then the audience, the reporter and the people you serve will be left asking, “What does that mean?” As we learned in lesson 4, that could lead to you accusing the reporter of taking you out of context. And as we learned in lesson 2, it affects your bottom line when you use terms that your audience cannot understand because of the politically correct ambiguity.
Consultants and trainers are also guilty of trying to coin clever phrases. A few years ago my wife, who works at a small private school, mailed out the class schedule for the fall semester. Her phone started ringing off the hook because after years of promoting the school’s top notch computer lab, computer classes were no longer listed on the class schedule. She told concerned parents she would check it out and get back to them. As it turns out, someone on the school staff had taken the term computer class off of the schedule and replaced it with the term “information literacy.” Yes, it seems someone had gone to a summer workshop in which the trainer/consultant preached that “it’s so much more than just knowing the mechanics of a computer, the internet and the programs – It’s really about ‘information literacy.’” What does that mean? It’s a dumb term. Call it what it is. It’s computer class.
If you’d like more examples from my “What Does that Mean?” file I have a great PDF that I’d be happy to share with you so you can share with the offenders. It is available as a download at www.braudcasting.com
In our next lesson, we’ll examine how people criticize the media for what is often referred to as interviewing people who have no teeth.
This is Gerard Braud
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What if you learned that your writing and communications skills are really are sub-par? Would you want someone to tell you? Here is an example– An IABC e-mail just reached my inbox. The lead sentence says, “I’m excited about…”
That is sub-par writing and public relations. It is shocking that public relations people cannot write a lead sentence for a news release and that they continue to use tired, old clichés. It makes me wonder if their public relations teachers accepted this as good writing in college.
Effective communications focuses on your customers or your audience. However, every day while teaching media training or in message writing workshops, I see PR people and CEOs all making inward facing comments, rather than external facing comments. They focus on themselves by using words and phrases such as, “I’m excited to announce…” or, “We’re pleased to tell you…”
Your audience, however, is excited and pleased when your opening sentence says what’s in it for them.
Ironically, the e-mail was promoting an IABC event, which likely needs a session on writing without clichés.
Take a moment to search through your e-mails and news releases to determine if you are guilty of using these clichés, especially in your lead sentence. Akin to this is the sin of writing a fake quote from the CEO that says, “We’re pleased and excited about this event,” says CEO Pat Jones.
If you find you are guilty of these sins, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and confess your sins. I’m willing to conduct an intervention on your behalf… or should I say, “I’m pleased and excited to help you stop saying pleased and excited in a lead sentence.”
Do your key messages suck? Most people think not. I think they usually do.
Expert Media Training requires solid key messages. But public relations people have been taught that a key message is little more than giving your spokesperson or CEO a handful of bullet points, then turning them loose to do a media interview.
In a media interview the goal of the spokesperson should be to deliver a great quote because great quotes manipulate how the reporter writes his or her story. Great quotes seldom come from a spontaneous ad-lib. The greatest quotes are planned, written, and practiced to perfection.
Here is an example of what the average PR person at a hospital might give to his or her CEO in a media training class as they prepare the executive for a media interview.
They may tell the boss, Our three key messages are:
1) patient care
2) our new equipment
3) giving back to the community
The average CEO would then ad-lib: “We have the best doctors and medical staff in the state and we’ve won numerous awards. We have the best equipment in our region, including the new super knife computer system that we paid $20-million dollars for. Our surgeons are all well-trained. And I can assure you the care of our patients is our top priority. Plus, we give back to the community”
What if your CEO said this: “At Denver Hospital our goal is to be there when you need us the most. We do that by treating those simple illnesses that make you feel crummy; by treating you or your family members when they are challenged by major hospitalization; and by offering wellness care to keep you healthy.”
Which sounds polished? Which sounds professional, yet approachable? Which uses the language of the patient without being sucked into jargon? Which sounds internally focused and self-centered and which sounds as though you truly are putting the customer first?
If you’d like to learn how to effectively write and deliver key messages, join me in Chicago on September 17, 2015 when the Public Relations Association of America (PRSA) presents, Effective Messaging: Writing & Speaking With Words That Resonate
You will spend time evaluating your current messaging. You will learn to write new messaging using a conversational tone. Then, you’ll have a chance to verbally test-drive your messages to determine if they resonate with your audiences.
Great communications is no accident. Great communications requires great writing, practice and implementation.
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When I mentioned on a blog and BraudCast video recently that sometimes in a crisis, taking your brand Facebook page dark may be the best option, I expected a lot of pushback or differing points of view. Crisis colleague Melissa Agnes posted the observations below and I want to share them with you and tell you where we agree and where we disagree. In her blog she quoted some of my points and then posted her observations. So to make things easy, below I’ve quoted her entire blog and I’m inserting my observations.
Before writing this, I called Agnes and had a pleasant conversation by phone.
It troubles me, however, that Agnes would take my advice about one type of crisis communications response and lay it over another crisis with completely different facts and circumstances. I would never say or imply that every crisis is the same or that the way to respond to every crisis is the same.
My first blanket observation would be that in some crises, I would certainly tell a client that social media is an important channel and that they should keep the site alive and active. In other cases, taking it dark is a viable action to consider. Failing to consider this option or any options in a crisis is a fatal flaw. When you’ve been in as many boardrooms and war rooms around the world as I have, you realize that is is also a strong possibility that a CEO might demand that the public relations team take the social media site dark. What then, especially if you selected a consultant who never considered this as a possibility because they have made the fatal flaw of building their crisis strategy around social media, rather than the tried and true options.
One size does not fit all when it comes to social media. It really depends upon the type of company involved and the type of crisis involved. My original post involved Emory University Hospital when people attacked their Facebook page because those individuals did not like the hospital bringing Ebola patients to the U.S. for treatment.
However, upon reading Agnes’ post, it is clear that the types of crises I have in mind when presenting my options and blog are different than what Agnes has in mind.
Below is her blog with her text and headlines in blue and my reply to her points in black italics. Enjoy.
Fear of Confrontation in a Crisis is Not a Reason to “Go Dark” on Social Media
Agreed. But fear of confrontation is not why I propose taking a site dark. When Facebook comments degrade into rude, inappropriate remarks, the ability to effectively communicate with your core and intended audiences is lost. If effective communications in critical times is your crisis communications goal, it is important that your communications channels are not jammed. A vocal minority on your social media site can skew public opinion in ways you do not want. My goal in crisis communications is to spread the truth faster than opponents can spread lies. Vocal groups of activists can post lies all over your Facebook page. Do you want that? I don’t. If the page is mine, I want to control the message. I’m happy to let them post their lies on their own Facebook page, which I can monitor to know what my opponent is thinking and saying. But no, they don’t have permission to pollute my site and I will take it away from them if I have to.
It worries me when crisis communication professionals are still advising their clients to avoid social media in a crisis.I never advise clients to avoid social media nor did I assert that in my blog. However, I do advise them to make sure social media is the RIGHT FITfor their audience and their brand. One size does not fit all. This article by Gerard Braud was brought to my attention on Twitter and I was left speechless as I read it.
It surprised me because I’ve seen other articles of his that provided sound advice.I agree. This article, in my opinion, did the opposite and I wanted to respectfully address why here today. This blog post isn’t meant to pick on anyone, it’s meant to take one professional’s point of view and rebut it with my own. Gerard, I welcome your feedback and our difference of opinions may make for an interesting podcast episode… consider this an open-ended invitationI agree. It’s a date. ;-) back at ‘ya. Shel Holtz has agreed to have us both on his podcast For Immediate Release (FIR).
Fear will be your downfall, not social media
Social media presents so many powerful opportunities to communicate and build trusting relationships with your audiences.I agree that sometimes this is true for some brands and some audiences, but not all. Just because people may vent and lash out against your organization is not a reason to hide and refuse to communicate on the channels that demand communication these days.I agree, but it depends upon the brand, the crisis and other factors. Not every audience uses social media, nor do they expect this to be their channel of communications. Often my clients find their best channel of communications is a face-to-face town hall meeting or a telephone call. Doing so will only hurt your organization’s reputation.I agree.
We’ve seen so many cases where social media was an asset in crisis communication (see below for links) and so many other cases where the lack of real-time and two-way communication was the organization’s downfall (see below for links).I agree.
Within his article, Braud makes the following statements, and I’d like to address each one and provide a different perspective.
Braud says: “Stop trying to fight the crisis on social media.”
It’s not about fighting the crisis on social. It’s about communicating effectively and in real-time, on the channels and platforms that your stakeholders want to receive (and look to receive) your organization’s crisis communications.Do your stakeholders really want to receive your information via social media? In many cases, the answer is no. Demographics vary per brand or company. Research your audience and know how to reach them through channels they use. Fighting social media will only further your frustration and bring you off-topic and off-focus.It isn’t a question of fighting social media. It is a question of whether social media is a bad fit for a particular brand or company.
Braud says: “It is difficult to Tweet your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to Facebook post your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to get in an online shouting match with idiots.”I agree. (Oh wait, that was a quote was from me… so I still agree with me.)
Firstly, you aren’t supposed to tweet your way, or Facebook your way out of a crisis.I agree. I just said that. So we agree. Yet some in public relations try to do that. That’s not the goal. Social media provides a way to disseminate your key message points to your key stakeholders. Messages, which I agree, need to be hosted on a platform that is owned by the organization, i.e.: the corporate website.I agree. The way you communicate and manage the crisis will be how you get “your way out of a crisis”.I agree.
Secondly, I agree. There should never be a shouting match with your stakeholders or audiences because shouting at people is not communicating with them compassionately.I agree. Social media provides organizations with a means to build relationships, give a voice to and speak with the people who matter most to your business.I agree. Calling your stakeholders idiots is also not something I would advise (to anyone).I agree. Presuming that they’re idiots because they disagree or oppose your organization is not the mindset that will help you overcome a crisis with your reputation in tact.I agree. A person isn’t an idiot because they disagree with you. However, I think we all agree that we know an idiot or bully who spreads lies that may not benefit any of us. This is especially true when it bridges the gap from an opinion to being a confirmed lie. In such a case, it isn’t your stakeholder who is an idiot. An idiot is someone who never will nor ever has been a stakeholder who I refer to in my previous blog.
It’s true that social media can be a bully, but that’s not a reason to shut it down.I agree sometimes, but depending upon the crises, the bully prolongs the crisis when your goal is to manage it to a resolution. It’s a reason to be prepared and to have a triage system that helps you respond when appropriate and continue to stay on-message.Triage is not needed if I can stop the bleeding through other means of crisis management.
Braud says: “Post your primary message on your website and share that with the mainstream media. Next, e-mail the link to all of your employees. After that, e-mail the link to other stakeholders. These are the core people who need to know your message.”
First of all, where do you think mainstream media is? They’re on Twitter!I agree that they are on Twitter, but my tweet to them will include a link to my primary website in most cases. I have successfully used Twitter to reach the media as part of many crisis communications events that I have managed. But consider this: mainstream media are not more important to my crisis communications strategy than employees of a company. In a crisis, I think all audiences are equally important and I want to first use the communications channels that will guarantee the greatest reach at the fastest speed. A single e-mail blast can reach all of the media I need to reach in my contact folder. A single e-mail blast can reach all of the employees at the same time.
My goal is for a company’s employees to get the official word from the company first and not through side channels such as mainstream media or social media. Relationships and trust are based on truth from reliable sources. Trust is lost when an employee thinks, “Oh great, I had to turn on the TV to find out what is happening at work,” or “Oh great, I had to find out on Facebook or Twitter.”
If important and urgent communications is posted to Facebook or Twitter first, there is a strong chance that most of a company’s employees might not have seen the post because their use of social media varies greatly. However, I can say with confidence that employees are in a habit of checking their corporate e-mail on a frequent basis. Hence… tried and true beats shiny and new. A corporate e-mail blast is tried and true, reaching 100% of the employees. Social media, though maturing, is still shiny and new to many employees who do not even have social media accounts.
Secondly, imagine if KitchenAid refused to communicate on social media immediately after their employee’s rogue tweet left them vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit.This KitchenAid case study is not comparable to the case study I wrote about in my blog. In the case of KitchenAid, the crisis was caused by a dumb tweet by an employee. Of course the right action is to immediately use Twitter to send an apology tweet. I’m not advocating a refusal to use Twitter. My suggestion is to use the right channel at the right time to the right audience. If a direct tweet to one reporter is most effective, then use it. If a tweet to the entire KitchenAid audience is most effective, then do so. One size does not fit all. However, I would still suggest that official information be posted to the KitchenAid website with a message sent to all employees via email. I would never want the employees learning about the incident through the rumor mill or unofficial sources.Imagine if they had, instead, communicated as Braud advises above.You are misleading your readers to imply that my example fits your example.They would have been left with a far different – and far worse – outcome. The key audiences, who were communicating on and monitoring Twitter, would have not been included in those emails.I never said what you imply here. How and where you communicate depends upon the crisis. If the crisis happened on social media and because of social media, then responding on the same channel is exactly what I have advocated for many years. The Dominos Pizza cheese in the nose video in 2009 is a perfect example of where I suggested that Dominos immediately post their own video to YouTube. They should have posted their own video as soon as they found out about the offending video, rather than waiting several days to post a really poor response on YouTube.
I advocate social media as a useful channel if it is the right fit at the right time. I would advocate communications via Twitter because the crisis for KitchenAid happened on Twitter. It was a crisis of their own making. However, if the brand had to issue a recall of all of the mixers made in the past 10 years, would Twitter be their first and only choice? It would not be my first choice nor would it be my only choice for communications in a crisis of this nature.
Expert crisis communications is when you get accurate and truthful information to all audiences as fast as possible with the intent to get the same messages to all audiences simultaneously. To this point, I stand by the principle and practice that a corporate website and email are a high priority and part of a mix of communications channels, with links back to the official statement posted via social media. In some crises a news conference is necessary. In others it is not. ;the important messages communicated by KitchenAid in real-time would have been missed by nearly everyone had they published them to their website rather than Twitter;I never asserted this position in my blogand the outcome would have been negative publicity which would have lasted quite a long time. Negative publicity that would have put a huge mark on KitchenAid’s reputation for the long-term. Imagine. They would have been referred to as “the company that defamed the President of the United States”, rather than “the company who knows how to communicate in a crisis.”This tweet reached an important audience, but it did not reach all of the important stakeholder audiences. My statements above explain it all.
Though it’s important to identify who your stakeholders are and how you will communicate with them in a crisis, you need to meet them on their turf. If they prefer email, great! But there will be others (including the general public and the media) who will prefer to have your organization’s communications disseminated via social media and we can’t deny them this. Doing so will only end up hurting the organization.I have never suggested denying them this channel.
Braud says: “If you post the link to social media, avoid comments such as, “We appreciate your support and understanding.” Such remarks encourage negative comments from the cynics who don’t understand your actions and who don’t support you.”
It isn’t about the cynics. They aren’t who you’re communicating with and they aren’t who should dictate your communications.Yet if you irritate the cynics with how you word your statement, they begin to dictate your communications and your communications team spends more time replying to the detractors than they do getting accurate and timely information to the most important stakeholders.
Your customers, your clients, your members, the victims of the crisis, your employees, your supporters, the general public, the media – and the list goes on – are the people who deserve your sympathy, your compassion and the respect of your appropriate communications.Sympathy and empathy are appropriate and needed for certain crises… and stop me if I’ve said this before… but one size doesn’t fit all. Let us take a hypothetical food recall that has been botched by a company resulting in illness and in death of customer. It is impossible to defend a statement such as, “We appreciate your support and understanding.” In fact, I pulled that line off of a Facebook page from a food company with a food recall. It is a fool-hardy statement to make when customers have been wronged and feel angry, hurt and betrayed. Such a statement is an insult to the customers and it draws ugly posts to your social media. The appropriate statement would be, “What has happened here is tragic and we extend our deepest sympathy to those who have been affected. Our goal is to find out what happened, how it happened, and how we can keep it from happening again.”
Telling them that they aren’t worth of your appreciation because of the cynics who don’t understand or who are angry at your organization is not the right approach.I never said what you imply here. What I do advocate is public relations people being better writers and writing in a way that does not draw criticism. Great writers must have their own cynic filters and understand how the cynics will react to each word. Parsing words and selecting the most perfect word is an art. Slapping clichés up as a statement is the work of an amateur.Compassion is needed in a crisis. In fact, it’s one of the ten commandments of crisis communications!
Braud says: “In a crisis, people can talk about you on your social media site and they can talk about you via hashtags on other sites. Given a choice, I’d rather not have a history of negative comments on my own social media site.”
Way to hide and attempt to cover up… which has never resulted in good crisis management.No cover up is intended – and stop me if I’m repeating myself – never did I imply this in my blog. The company’s official statement can be on a secure corporate website that has search engine optimization, rather than letting liars and detractors hijack the brand social media site.
First, people don’t just use hashtags. They use blogs, news sites, Facebook campaigns, etc. all of which get indexed in the search engines and all of which have a heavy impact on your online reputation. Secondly, denying people their voice on your platform is not the solution.It really depends upon the brand and the audience. Sometimes, it is the right thing to do to go dark. On this we agree to disagree.They will come back louder and with a vengeance.This is not always true.But the fact is that Braud is missing the biggest importance of them all. In a crisis, it isn’t about YOU.I never said what you implied. It is about the TRUTH of facts in a crisis; it is about protecting the brand’s reputation and revenue. It’s about the victims and your stakeholders.Not every crisis has a victim. Talking to important stakeholders requires you to find the channel where the stakeholders can be found, which isn’t always on a brand page. Don’t assume the entire world goes to their smart phone or computer for the latest update on Facebook or Twitter. It’s about giving them a voice and actively listening to them, validating them and righting your wrong in order to continue to build a relationship with them and be forgiven. Shutting down your platform will compromise this important objective.
I disagree again. Sometimes you can be a platform to give them a voice. Sometimes they deserve no voice on your social media site if what they say is wrong or an outright lie that obscures the truth. Note that I’m not talking about a crisis in which people have differing opinions, but, for example, a crisis where your opponents are making outright incorrect statements. In many crises, there is no need to validate what they say if what they are saying is factually incorrect. When a crisis is moving rapidly, my first priority is not to be a therapist who listens to loud mouth detractors. My first priority is to communicate the truth as quickly as possible to all of my audiences.
If the sky is blue and the company in question makes blue skies, yet one batch turned out gray, it is a lie for one person to say all of his or her skies have been orange for the past year. It simply isn’t true and it doesn’t need to be validated and no apology, empathy or sympathy is required. If that person organizes the Society of People Against Orange Skies, I don’t want them organizing a campaign against the Blue Sky Company and taking over the Blue Sky Facebook page with trash talk and falsehoods, especially if the Blue Sky Company can scientifically prove they have never made an orange sky.
At this point, Agnes clearly has only a certain spectrum of crises in mind and I have a much broader spectrum of crises in mind. Furthermore, a company has many ways to listen. One includes picking up the phone and calling the person who has posted something negative, rather than fighting it out online and pushing a negative discussion higher in everyone’s news feed. An offline phone call provides empathy, validation, listening and two-way communications in ways a Tweet or Facebook post never can and never will. Case in point: I called Melissa Agnes personally before writing this response. In addition to a call that I made to her, I sent her a message via her blog and via twitter. Now I’m posting a blog on my official site. I’m adding a video to YouTube. I will be posting links to this blog to social media. I’m using multiple communications channels, but the phone call was by far the most personal and best channel to reach Agnes. The other channels are how I reach anyone else in our audience who cares to know my response to her post.
Braud continues to say: “It may be better to take your social media sites down completely until the crisis is over. If people need information, they are smart enough to find it on your primary website.”
It’s not about being “smart enough to find it on your primary website”. It’s about being smart enough to provide the necessary information where your most important audiences are looking for it. Don’t assume that when you take down your Facebook page, people will instinctively go to your website.Again, Agnes clearly has a certain type of crisis in mind. I have clients in crises today for whom no one would notice if they took their Facebook page dark. Yep, no one would notice. You must question whether a company’s detractors actively sought out the corporate brand page to say nasty things or if they just stumbled across it because they clicked “like” 5 years ago and it popped up in their news feed.
Instead, assume that when you take down your Facebook page, you look like a coward.It isn’t about being a coward. The issue should be about effective communicationsand as though you don’t care enough to communicate with your audiences or to own your mistake;Again, there are many ways and many places to say you are sorry. that your fear dictates your crisis managementThis has nothing to do with fear. This has everything to do with finding the right strategy for each crisis and each brand and not assuming there is a one-size-fits-all answer.and rest assured that people will not navigate to your website before they post, publish and share how your crisis management was to remove your social media channels in hopes that the crisis would go away on its own.Removing social media doesn’t make the crisis go away. Losing control of the message and truth on social media does make the crisis worse.
As crisis pro, Patrice Cloutier, says “Public confidence is built on trust and trust is a result of dialogue.” Social media enables that dialogue.In some crises, social media is a dialogue outlet. In other crises, a town hall meeting is the right tool for dialogue. In other crises, a phone call to an online detractor is the best way to have a dialogue and build trust. Social media isn’t the only place or the best place for every dialogue.
In the case of the Ebola crisis and Emory University Hospital,which I first blogged about and which caught your attention, there is no one for Emory to apologize to. To date, the hospital has not harmed anyone. Yet they have online detractors making crazy accusations and interrupting their ability to share medical facts about Ebola.
Braud says: “You may find that it is in your best interest to rely on conventional crisis communications tools.”
I’m sure that he’s referring to news releases, website postings, press statements – all of those one way communications that organizations used to be able to hide behind in a crisis.Note my use of the word “may” in my statement.The reality is that those days are gone, whether you’re happy about it or not.Those days are not gone and anyone who would tell a client there is only one way to manage and communicate in a crisis – only through social media — is giving that client bad advice.But the point remains that two-way communication presents so manypositive opportunities and advantages to organizations in a crisis. I agree that two-way communications is important and never said it wasn’t.Opportunities and advantages that you’re denying your organization (or your clients) by sticking with this old and dated mentality. No two crises are the same. Pick the communications methods that work for the crisis at hand. Failing to pick the right option and trying to force a specific option is giving your organization or your clients bad advice.
Braud uses a rhyme: “tried and true beats shiny and new”
But social media, though once shiny and new, is now tried and true.I strongly disagree. I have clients in very rural areas, with very elderly customers who do not live their lives on their computers or mobile devices. Many of their customers don’t even use computers. The company may have a Facebook page, but it may have only 300 followers who may have once clicked “like,” but who are not prolific Facebook users. Likewise, their customers are not Twitter savvy. Heck, to be honest, most of their employees and their leaders don’t even have social media accounts. Some of their executives do not use computers at all and only read emails that have been printed by an assistant. These people get their news from a weekly newspaper or from the friends they speak with at the barbershop or at church.
To many people in the world, social media is still very shiny and new and I strongly stand by my rhyme. A company such as the one I reference here will more effectively communicate by having an interview with the weekly newspaper, by emailing employees, and by hosting a town hall meeting that is advertised in the weekly newspaper. It is a fatal flaw for anyone in public relations to believe that just because you use social media all day and night that everyone else in the world does the same. Especially for effective crisis management. Don’t believe me? Check out the below posts… which are just the tip of the iceberg.
Again, many of the case studies listed by Agnes are not a crisis equal or like the crisis I referenced in my blog.
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While teaching interview skills in a media training class, a participating executive provided expert insight to the lesson I was teaching.
“So you don’t want us to word vomit everything we know in a media interview, right?” he asked.
That isn’t how I would have phrased it, but now that I think about it, many spokespeople, and the public relations people who write the key messages for the spokespeople, are guilty of “word vomit.”
Before every media training class I teach, I ask the PR team to provide me with their existing key messages. Most are word vomit.
Many public relations people “vomit” every word they can, every cliché they can, and every statistic they can onto the page they submit to me. As you might guess, I have to do major key message re-writes before every media training class.
When a spokesperson is being interviewed, more is less. You must help them fight the urge to say everything they know about the company or organization.
The more you say to a reporter, the more you subject yourself to editing that you may not like.
As gross as it may sound, today’s media training expert advice is:
a) Avoid word vomit when you write your key messages.
b) Avoid word vomit when you are speaking to a reporter in a media interview.
If someone read your key messages right now, would they think, “Ew Gross. Word vomit.”?
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Few people read to the end of an article. I have little confidence that you will read to the end of this article, even though the final thought may change your life and career. Every reader makes several judgments throughout each article as to whether they should move on or read on.
What if you began with that thought every time you write?
Would you change the way you write to make it more compelling?
Here are three things that you can do to produce words that resonate with your audiences and increase the chances that your audiences want to either read more or hear more about your topic.
Approach everything you write as though it is a script for the greatest speech in the world. Listen to great speeches and study the language and motivational techniques. Notice that the language is conversational. The words in great speeches are usually words that we hear in everyday language, yet they are organized in a way that invokes a call to action or a deep emotion.
Whether you are writing for print or the spoken word, re-think your style to be conversational. No, this isn’t the way you were taught to do it in college. Face it — most colleges taught you to write for a newspaper and that style was created long before we lived in a world with as many information outlets as we have today. This is your permission to rethink your style to match the needs of your audiences.
As you write, hear the voice. Channel the voice of Kennedy, Reagan, King or another great speaker. Consider that sometimes you may write something that looks great in print, but it doesn’t sound good when read aloud and it isn’t comfortable to the ear. Something that sounds good to the ear, and can be spoken with ease, will also look great in print and is easier for your reader to read.
After nearly two decades of political correctness and diversity training, we should all realize that these movements are centered on inclusiveness. Corporations and government agencies have spent millions on training programs centered on inclusiveness. Yet these same organizations, and the people who write for them, exclude vast audiences when the writing is filled with institutional jargon and acronyms. A person shouldn’t have to “belong to the club” in order to be able to understand what is written or said.
Junk the jargon and realize there are no prizes for being multi-syllabic. In media training classes I always try to get spokespeople to speak at a sixth, seventh or eighth grade level, because that is the level at which most people comprehend the written and spoken word. To achieve this, you must shun the idea that you are “dumbing things down” and adopt the approach that you are simplifying the information to be inclusive of everyone in your audience.
Vigorously Fight Edits from Non-writers
Many corporations, government agencies and non-profit agencies are lead by left-brain, analytical individuals and seldom by right-brain, creative individuals. Analytical people, such as accountants, engineers, scientists or doctors are each great at their skills, but their proper writing skills are as poor as the creative person’s math skills.
When I’m invited into organizations to help them achieve more effective communications, I always promise the accountants that I won’t try to balance their books if they don’t try to re-write what the public relations team has written. You should instruct the left-brain analytical types that they have permission to correct errors, but that they should respect the professional training of the writer and respect the content and style of what is written. If you really want to get their attention, tell them that every time they change a letter you’ve written, you get to change a number that they have on a spreadsheet. This should cure the problem.
We each have natural skills and gifts. I know my gifts are definitely not in math but are rooted in written and spoken word. Try the above lines where you work. Stand up for yourself. Push back. If someone wants you to re-write something that you’ve written — and you know it is good and they want to clutter it with jargon, acronyms, and excessive facts and figures — you have an obligation to your craft and your career to push back.
Will there be a big payoff if you implement these three ideas and re-think your writing? Try it and see for yourself. You’ll never know until you give yourself permission to try.
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Our last article focused on the need for public relations experts to be more strategic as they accomplish tactical tasks. You were reminded that the articles you write must result in behavior change. Your Tweets, Facebook posts and videos must also result in change such as better employee productivity, more sales, or a changed behavior in your customers.
Once you have set up your strategic goals for the year, you must fight what we will call, “Emergency News Release Syndrome.”
Symptoms of Emergency News Release Syndrome include:
1) Emails from an executive telling you in the middle of the day that they need an unplanned and unscheduled news release by the end of the day.
2) An executive walking into your office asking you for a news release immediately for something that he or she has known about for weeks, but did not trust you enough to share with you previously.
3) Someone from a random department, that achieved an internal goal, wants you to write a news release to brag about their accomplishment. No one in the outside world, or even outside of their department, cares about it.
Several years ago I worked as a Vice President at Best Buy, which had one of the best processes I have ever seen for dealing with Emergency News Release Syndrome. It was in place before my arrival, so the credit goes to my predecessors.
Best Buy’s communications department had a policy that no news release would be written if the information did not correspond with the strategic objectives of the overall corporation. For example, if a corporate goal was to increase sales, the news release had to contribute to an initiative to increase sales. Also, if someone in IT came rushing to the communications department asking for a news release about a gadget that did nothing to improve sales or productivity, their request was rejected and no release was written. They were told to write a memo and place it on the bulletin board within their department.
Another policy was that there would never be a request for a news release for something that the communications department was kept in the dark about. When the executive leadership held confidential meetings about big, future initiatives, or potentially negative issues, a vice president from communications was brought into these confidential discussions from the beginning.
Both of these approaches worked because the communications team instituted a “Gatekeeper” policy. All requests for news releases had to go to the Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper and her team would evaluate whether the information contributed to the company’s strategic objectives.
There are two somewhat sarcastic lines I use when presented with an Emergency News Release request:
• Do you want fries and a large coke with that news release?
This references the concept that you are not in PR just to take orders like someone at a fast food restaurant.
• Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.
This references the concept that in PR, your day, week, month and year should be planned out. Yes, you must be flexible on days when things are truly beyond anyone’s control, but man-made emergencies that result from poor planning or corporate secrecy are unacceptable.
You should do these things:
1) Set PR objectives annually that are in line with corporate objectives.
2) Appoint a gatekeeper and communicate to all what the PR department’s policies are regarding the gatekeeper system.
3) Push back and stick to your guns when people violate the gatekeeper system.
In short, be a welcome mat for strategically communicating and not a doormat for everyone to wipe their feet on.
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For 2009 I encourage you to join the legion of followers who partake in a little something I invented called Wordsmith Wednesday.
The reason I invented Wordsmith Wednesday is twofold. First, I hate jargon and there is way too much jargon in organizational communications these days, whether you are with a corporation, government agency or non-profit. Writing with organizational jargon is sometimes easier and faster than writing in a way that the rest of the world can understand. So the first purpose of Wordsmith Wednesday is for you to set time aside to write well and to re-write much of the crap that currently passes for communications.
Secondly, because most organizations have a calendar system that allows co-workers to invite you to meetings, your calendar is constantly filled with unproductive meetings that keep you from getting your work done. Wordsmith Wednesday allows you to mark your calendar to reserve every Wednesday afternoon from noon until 5 p.m. as your time to write. You simply go into your calendar system and block it out beginning this Wednesday and then tell your calendar to repeat it every Wednesday for the next 20 years. That way, when colleagues check your calendar to invite you to a meeting, they’ll see that you are already booked on Wednesday afternoon. Clever, huh?
Now let’s talk about how to spend your time. Writing, especially good writing, is something we all need to do more of. Good writing equals good communications and bad writing equals bad communications.
Good communications should be measured by how well your audience understands what your are trying to say and whether they behave the way you want them to. When I say, your audience, I mean any and everyone who could come to your company to buy your products and services and not just your employees.
When I visit an organization’s website, for example, I often have no idea what the company does because the text contains so much jargon. Usually I find myself asking, “What Does That Mean?” Websites are meant to communicate in a glance.
Jargon filled writing on websites is so bad that it affects your search engine optimization. For example, in a recent writing workshop I was teaching, I went live to Google.com and typed in the word Car. None of the major car companies showed up among the top pages. That’s because they sell vehicles and the word vehicle is found all throughout their sites. Folks at home… customers… don’t talk like that. When was the last time you said, “Honey, let’s go get that new vehicle you’ve been wanting.” Believe it or not, vehicles counts as corporate jargon. Try the same test by searching for the word gas. The major oil companies don’t show up in your search because they are energy companies. If my car is low on gasoline, I don’t tell my wife, “Honey, I’m going to get energy for the vehicle.”
Writers get sucked into the corporate jargon machine way too quickly. And we haven’t even touched on all the stupid acronyms. For a full article called, “What Does That Mean?” visit www.braudcasting.com
To improve your writing, forget everything you know about your organization and try something I call Genesis Writing… as in, Genesis in the Bible, where it starts with the phrase, “In the beginning…”
Go back to the roots of your organization and what it does and start with a large, umbrella statement that covers not just the division you work for, but the entire organization.
To begin, fill in the blanks to this sentence: At (blank) our goal is to (blank).
In the first blank you put the name of your employer. Then, in the big picture of helping humanity, determine what your organization does for the greater good, and fill in the second blank. This is your task for your first Wordsmith Wednesday.
The second blank can’t be filled with jargon. It needs to be less tactical and more lofty. For example, a U.S. company that produces oil, gas and electricity might say, at ABC Company, out goal is to power a stronger America.
I’ve seen organizations debate for up to four hours over what goes in the second blank. Take your time. You have all Wednesday afternoon to decide.
Once this sentence is perfected, you’ll find it is the perfect first sentence for your website home page, the first sentence for newsletter articles, the opening line for every speech and media interview. It becomes your defining statement. It points to your vision, value, mission and belief. It becomes your promise statement. And, with some modification, it can become an important tool in search engine optimization for your website.
On your second Wordsmith Wednesday of 2009, I want you to write a second sentence. To write the second sentence, make a list of the 3 most important, biggest profit or service areas of your organization. In addition, think of poster child examples of these. As an example, if we reference back to the ABC Company, we might say, “At ABC Company, our goal is to power a stronger America. Whether you are fueling your car with the oil from our refineries, heating your home with our natural gas, or lighting your home or business with our electricity, each day we work to be here when you need us.”
So your task is to write that second sentence that gives 3 poster child examples of what you do. The sentence needs to be jargon free and focused on your external benefits to society and not your internal goals. Many of the phrases your CEO uses every day will not work in these sentences. If that is the case, your goal is to write new words for your CEO.
I ask you to limit the second sentence to the 3 most important areas because I want you to be able to use these two sentences as the opening statement in a media interview. In media interviews the spokesperson and the listener/reader remember everything better when clustered in 3s. Think of your 3 issues as 3 branches of a large tree.
The following Wednesday, you can delve into more detail by expanding your thoughts and statements about each of the branches. This is the writing technique I teach in my Kick-Butt Key Messages seminars and writing classes, as well as in my workshops on Writing for Search Engine Optimization. I can only teach a small portion here in this forum, so if you have questions just call me at 985-624-9976.
On other Wordsmith Wednesdays you may wish to tackle strategic tasks, such as writing templates for your crisis communications plan. I believe the best way to prepare for a crisis is to write your plan on a clear sunny day without being in the throes of panic and emotion associated with a crisis. In the plans I write, every possible crisis scenario has a pre-written template. That means there is a template for workplace violence, one for pandemic, one for terrorism, one for executive misbehavior, etc.
Much of what you say in the early hours of a crisis is generic, benign information. If you write it out on a calm day you will be able to communicate faster on the day of your crisis because about 75% of what you need to say is already in a word document. Create fill-in-the-blank spaces for information that can only be added on the day of a crisis. Most of the crisis communications plans I help organizations write have 50 to 100 such templates. Each template takes 2-3 hours to write. That should keep you busy for a year or two.
Writing is like love. Your spouse or children shouldn’t get what’s left over at the end of the day; they should get your attention first. Likewise, writing isn’t something that you cram in between all of your other meetings and projects. It is something that you should dedicate quality time to.
For 2009, I suggest you dedicate time to writing on Wordsmith Wednesday.
In our final 2 lessons, we’ll explore my tips for how you should deal with Social Media in 2009.
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