How to Spot PR Flackery: Tips From a Professional Communicator

The public relations professional is ethically bound to tell the truth and to serve the public interest. Most PR folks and professional communicators I know struggle with ethics constantly because, frankly, honesty doesn’t always make the customer look good.

But not everybody really cares what the Public Relations Society of America has to say about ethics. That’s why we call them “flacks.”

(I don’t mind “PR dummies” so much. Those people are sort of funny, in a sad way.)

But the worst thing about watching liars cover for other liars is that they’re following the “best practices” I helped to write – but in a demented way. Like “transparency” that is really just pseudo.

In the hope that information is the best weapon, here are some ways to weed out truth from lies in professional discourse:

I. Get Smart About Slick PR Tricks

· Going on the attack to avoid being put on the defensive
· Making broad generalizations that divide people by class, gender, race, religion rather than speaking in unifying terms
· Saying the same things over and over again rather than being in the moment
· Dressing or grooming that is either overly slick or overly “casual”
· Using “pseudofacts” or “pseudostatistics” rather than real numbers, and being unable to provide a checkable source

II. Watch for Signs of Lying In An Interview

· Body language is a dead giveaway, especially eyes darting around, stiffness, and touching one’s own face
· Answering in a way that is technically true, but misleading (after all, it wouldn’t be perjury, right?)
· Not answering the question asked, and/or using canned “message” language
· Acting angry, raising one’s voice, or saying that a question is “offensive,” attacking the questioner, trying to make them seem “crazy”
· Not allowing questions in the first place

III. Don’t Settle for Superficial

· PR professionals are engaged with news professionals all the time. So watch news on different channels, including Internet websites, deliberately. Watch hearings directly and fully. Read headlines covering the U.S. from other countries. Always reflect on the larger context and issues and think about why these media channels make particular editorial choices. And of course, question whether “leaks” are really “leaks” or whether they were “dropped” on purpose.
· Locate bloggers and non-mainstream news sources who doggedly pursue a subject over time. Also consider their biases, their sources of funding, and whether they are trying to sell a product.
· Go to small-scale blogs, discussion boards, Twitter, and YouTube for unfiltered discussion of the issues. Don’t exaggerate the importance of, or discount, these sources just because they are non-professional.

At the end of the day, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice is pretty good: “Those who talk, don’t know.” But by learning the tricks of professional liars, at least you can avoid being taken for a fool.

"Battleship" and the War For Great Communication

Too many people have this magical belief about communication.

They believe that a "great campaign" (advertising, marketing, PR, digital, branding, internal) can overcome the limitations of the environment. Which include:
  • Organizational politics, culture and history
  • Technological comfort, or the lack thereof
  • External politics
  • Media reports
  • Blogger activity
  • Employee social media activity
  • ...and so on.
The reality is that communication is shaped by policy. The policy of the organization which it serves.

A "great communicator" does not act in swashbuckling isolation but rather is backed and supported by leadership and a team that "gets it."

Yesterday I saw the movie "Battleship," a great example of what can happen when people of different abilities unify around a common goal.

Suddenly, then, communication becomes crystal clear and the need for it imperative.

To do great communication, your organization must go to war - fighting for an important cause, and fighting off an enemy that could mean its very destruction.

Happy Friday everyone, and good luck!

Why Brand Consultants Have To Charge A Lot

Photo by me.
Books are free if you go to the library. A framed picture of books costs more. Which one is more valuable?
Apples are healthy. They're twice as expensive at the convenience store as at the grocery store. More if you get the organic kind. Which one is most valuable?

I can buy a glass bowl for the apples at the thrift store for $3. Or pay $20 at Target. More if I go to Macy's, Bloomingdale's, or an out-of-the-way boutique in an expensive area destined for shoppers.

Which one, which one? How much would this photo, a photo I took myself, cost if you had to pay Getty Images for the privilege?

Someone paid $120 million for Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" just this May. You could make that same pose, photograph it and Photoshop it with a cheap mobile app. Would it not be comparable?

We value things the more they visibly cost us. Anyone can have a child, and parent's can't get fired, right? So it is common, sadly, for even "good" parents to ignore the kids for the Blackberry - because jobs outside the home pay money.

Like that famous song "The Cat's In The Cradle," we pay the price for that ignoring way down the road.

How much to charge, and how much should be charged, is a paradox for consultants, including brand brand consultants.
  • On the one hand there is pressure to charge very little - due to competition, the availability of free advice, and frankly (yes, it's true) the desire to help. 
  • On the other, obviously, nobody works for free and the consultant is there to make as much money as possible in the least amount of time. So they build up a brand name and then charge "what the market will bear," e.g. as much as possible.
Yet aside from the livelihood factor (the rational economic reason) there is a more fundamental issue with respect to price from the customer side: People only value things that cost them dearly.

Many people only drink water that's bottled. Follow diets they pay for. Exercise where they've bought a membership. And in just the same way they change behavior when the cost of the advice is $250 an hour or more.

Makes one wonder what kind of an economy we could have if we committed to sharing.

Think about it - have a good day - and good luck!

The 7 Intractable Dilemmas of Branding

Warhol Thinker by Macbook
Photo by Tamara Leaver via Flickr

1. Branding is free, yet unless the practitioner charges dearly, the organization will not commit.

2. Branding requires a Ph.D., but there is no curriculum that teaches it properly.

3. Branding is "moral" in the sense that it promotes keeping your promises consistently, but the promise itself can promote good or evil.

4. "Branding" is a poisoned word among those who must execute on it - the average employee will never allow themselves to be "branded" - and so a constant and imperfect substitute is usually required.

5. The very people most pivotal to branding - managers of front-line technical and support specialists - are normally least likely to commit to the organizational development needed to make it happen.

6. Academics - who don't deal with clients day to day - tend to understand branding better than brand practitioners, who do but who are biased by interaction with and need for customers who pay for it.

7. The brand itself is a predetermined outcome, but flourishes only when evolves organically.

Why Brand Strategy (Any Strategy) Is Painful

Wandering Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arcuata) 
Photo by Lip Kee via Flickr

"Most people only have faith when G-d answers their prayers."

 You have to believe even when the door slams shut in your face.

Joel Osteen's sermon this week (June 10, "The G-d Who Closes Doors") was all about believing, even when you don't get what you (think you) wanted.

The topic of faith is a difficult one for me.

How could G-d let the Holocaust and other atrocities happen? Everyone can think of something that's occurred that seems to make no sense. That seems to be G-d's fault.

Osteen's point was that we need to recognize a power larger than ourselves. A power that knows more. There's a bigger plan that our limited minds can't fully grasp.

Actually it's sort of silly when you think about it.

Here we are, little ants compared with the Omnipotent and we imagine that we are cognitively on the same playing field. No way.

Unable to accept a closed door, we sometimes struggle vainly to force ourselves through. And in the process bring tragedy upon ourselves.

I was watching a documentary about Hasidic Jews, "A Life Apart." In the documentary people talked about being grateful to the Rebbe (their rabbi) for helping them after World War II.

The Rebbe, they said, gave them marriage partners, jobs, places to live. His guidance helped educate their children. One woman explained that her family makes every decision according to what the Rebbe says. 

(Probably not coincidentally, a woman from a completely different Hasidic sect said that she constantly felt guilty for not agreeing with everything her parents said, or following their dictates.)

The only problem is that the same Rebbes told Eastern European Jews not to come to the United States before the war. They were worried that American culture would lead to assimilation, as was actually already happening in Europe. As had happened over and over throughout the centuries.

So the Hasidim stayed in Eastern Europe and according to the documentary, 80% were slaughtered by the Nazis.

I look back at that and it tears me up. It's bad enough to look around and ask, "How could the world turn its back?" (Which actually occurred)

It's worse to have to ask, "Why didn't the Jews pay attention to the closed door that was Eastern Europe at that time? Why didn't they leave?"

My father in law said to me, "You have to believe that G-d is there wherever you are."

But the people didn't believe that. Because they were told.

So the vast majority were killed, and then turned around and slavishly followed the very people who could have led them away from the concentration camps.

It's so easy isn't it, to point fingers at the other guy. But in real life it is so difficult. Every day you're confronted with a choice. If I had to choose between my faith and my life, I would choose my faith. I would die for it.

But then again, I would have to question whether the "doors" being presented to me as options really are that extreme.

It is very possible that Eastern European Jewry could have left and settled somewhere else, and that their ranks would not have shrunken any more than is to be expected when you impose a high standard of observance on the masses.

This is the trouble that average people have with strategy. It's more complicated than Osteen posits, but it starts the same way:

* Our attitude is generally, "I want what I want." It is not relevant to us whether our want makes sense or not. Mostly we are led by an inner drive that we cannot understand. (I would even argue that most people choose a religious path based on their personal psychology - without even knowing it - and then justify to themselves later why their personal choices are somehow "right.") Strategy means thinking rationally first, then deciding on a course of action - the exact opposite. It means saying "no" to your infantile self so that your adult self can achieve something. And accepting that there are times when G-d has made the decision for you.

* No matter how much we achieve, we want more and more all the time. In America, more = better. Output = metrics. And quantity = quality. The more money you make, the more products you sell, the more diversified your portfolio, the more successful you are. The more honors on your resume, the more social networks you've joined, the more Twitter followers you have, the higher your Klout score, the more you've arrived. Strategy means narrowing your focus to achieve excellence at a core competency. Some of the best businesses I know have never come near a social network, nor will they ever do so, and they're doing just fine.

* Americans strive to keep all possibilities open at all times. We are a 24/7/365 culture where we expect to be able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. Our children avoid marriage because they don't want to commit and then be sorry later - after all they can keep shopping for the perfect candidate at, right? We fall for diet scams that tell us we can eat whatever we want and still drop 50 pounds. We change jobs hoping that things will magically be different elsewhere, or we move 500 miles away - and nothing much is different. And then we cry a river later. The truth is that you can't have everything you want, every minute you want it, and still forge a path forward. Strategy means you have to choose, and be contented with your choice even though there are some bumps in the road.

Osteen often uses his sermons to reassure people that there is something better down the path, if only they will have faith. He says, in effect, "When one door closes, another opens."

But we all know that is not always true. There are many people out there who will never get over their disease or disability, who will never emerge from the criminals who have a hold over their lives.

Just like trying to have everything is not a strategy, believing blindly in a brighter future is not a strategy either.

Again, looking backward at the Holocaust or any avoidable tragedy - the question is, what could we have done to avoid it? The real test of strategy involves five things:

1. Did you understand the options correctly in the first place?

2. Did you make a reasoned choice from between those options, understanding that success is inevitably partial and never includes "everything?"

3. Did you commit to a course of action fully, in your mind?

4. Did you see that commitment through in action?

5. Finally, and most importantly, did you feel pain? Because all real strategies involve a certain amount of loss, grieving and letting go.

In the end it is true that G-d has a plan. But it's also true that we were put here for a reason - not to know that plan, and to try and figure things out anyway.

It's better to move forward with a strategy than to blindly spin your wheels - or worse yet, curse G-d for your own faulty reasoning.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Supervisors Are The Key To Employee Re-Engagement

Chillin' at work
Photo by slworking2 via Flickr

According to a recent white paper by Management Concepts, in the typical workforce most employees are disengaged:
  • 25% are "engaged"
  • 55% "sit on the fence" - some days engaged, the other days checked-out
  • 20% are "working against the grain," either "actively sabotaging" or "waiting to retire"
Disengagement is invisible but the costs are real:
  • Recruitment and knowledge transfer costs due to turnover
  • Decreased customer service
  • Increased absenteeism and decreased productivity
  • Higher health insurance costs due to emotional stress
  • Reduced interest in problem-solving and less innovation
  • Less collaboration
  • Lower morale
According to the white paper, citing the Gallup Management Journal, the collective cost of disengagement worldwide is higher than $350 million.

The issue of disengagement is global and deeply rooted, yet the remedy is simple. According to the paper, supervisors  "have the greatest impact on individuals’ engagement."

There are four concrete actions they can take, according to the research:
  • Be present: Take the time to listen to employees and communicate "thoughtfully."
  • Build trust intentionally: Make employees comfortable with giving negative feedback or asking for help
  • Over-communicate: This means listening more, not talking more
  • Act on items discussed: Use the feedback employees provide to get them more engaged
 For a copy of the white paper, click here.

10 Ways Government Employees Can Rebrand Themselves (Without Costing The Taxpayer A Dime)

1. Start with yourself, the only person you control. Don't fall in with naysayers, excuse-makers, deniers, apologists for the status quo. Don't wait for someone to magically tell you what to do. Take charge and only focus on you.

2. Fully engage your mind in being successful at work. I recently read that 55% of employees alternately "check in and check out." Check in.
3. Dress corporate. You are being judged in private sector terms no matter what you think. Be clean, neat, professional, and stylish. Don't use weight, age, money, etc. as an excuse. Make the commitment to step it up.
4. Document your work to your superiors. This is a balancing act. If you're documenting all the time you're not working. If you're working very fast and don't document, it looks like you didn't do anything. Shoot for a weekly status report.
5. Build a professional network. Madeline Albright recently said something like, "Women make friends and men network." Women earn 77% of what men do, so I would listen to Albright.  Inside, outside, public sector, private sector. Hang out with people who can help you succeed. Online is fine. Volunteering your professional skills is a good way to give back and build a reputation. If you can't find a good organization, start one. It is important for the world to see that government employees can hold their own in any professional forum.
6. Show your value.  Don't be falsely modest. Can you code? Code. Can you manage a project? Manage it. Can you write? Write something. Move forward aggressively. Remember what you learned and then share best practice with the world, being careful to respect boundaries and confidentiality, etc.

7. Be a team player. It's a small world and Washington is a small town. Don't be a backstabber or an information-hoarder. Share information as much as you can with your team, with your agency, with your professional network, etc. Team players are valuable and have an excellent reputation that precedes them.

8. Improve your agency through a dedicated network of passionate believers. There are some agencies that have outstanding brand value. All you have to do is say their name and you're "in." Others get less credit but do equally amazing work. Be a change agent on the inside by partnering with others who "get it." A rising tide lifts all ships.

9. Get engaged with the actual work your agency does and be passionate about it. You don't have the luxury of saying that you're a back-office support specialist. Read the darn newspaper. You must know at least three things about your agency that you can share.

10. Stand up for integrity and good government. No place is perfect but you don't have to accept the status quo as inevitable. If you see something say something (thanks DHS!) Very seriously, change begins only with the person. I find that GovLoop in particular is a great place to share one's thoughts, be challenged, and build consensus about the way forward, because we all do share a commitment to good government and moving forward to the future.

This isn't an exhaustive list, just some quick thoughts. Hope it's helpful.

When Brand Consistency Destroys The Brand

021/365 Robot
Photo via Flickr

When I was growing up in the '80s, in the "Modern Orthodox" Jewish community you could call yourself "religious" yet span a wide range of practice. Some moms covered their hair, others not. Some wore pants, others not. Some watched TV on Sabbath (didn't advertise it of course), others would never.

In those days "everybody" listened to Miami Boys Choir (great concert here, in full) and their inclusive, relatable lyrics of spirituality and faith - "we all have a place in the World to Come," "I believe with complete faith"...

I remembered my grandparents' Sabbath table in the countryside of the Catskill Mountains. There everybody was welcome "no questions asked." If you showed up, you were accepted at face value - even my dad with his deliberately formal getup and affect, so out of place in the mountains.

This doesn't mean we didn't argue about things. Between Modern Orthodox, Hasidic and the emerging "Yeshiva" followers - different approaches to observance - there have always been a lot of discussions about hypocrisy. About who was "really religious" and who was just a "pretender." But inconsistency was not seen as irreligious - then.

My sister and I watched all this, and the inconsistent (she would say hypocritical) practice of religion in our home, and had completely different reactions. They mirrored larger social trends.

She decided that "religious" meant consistency and turned rightward. Her choices mirror the study "The World of the Yeshiva."

I decided that hypocrisy meant something was wrong with the "system" and over the next 20 years shifted toward a kind of universal belief system within which everyone is seen as a child of G-d. Thinking about how to be Jewish in identity, but inclusive mentally of all faiths.

The Christian pastor Joel Osteen embodies this approach to religion - e.g. "I am who I am but we serve the same G-d - I honor you and seek to lift you up with me."
But either way, the ability to be inconsistent is gone.

As a brand strategy, the ultra-Orthodox approach has its goods and bads. On the positive side it promotes incredible cohesion among those who practice it. It gives you a clear identity, internally and to outside parties.

If you go to my neighborhood for example, you will see young Orthodox women wearing bandannas over their hair (as "hip" hair covers) and A-line knee-length skirts cut just a certain way from just a certain cloth; they wear similar sporty Merrell-type shoes and generally can be seen bouncing around a baby or two (but not five).

On the negative side, Orthodoxy like all strict forms of religion is a closed-thinking system shrouded in denial, particularly the further rightward you go.

Yet opposing or rejecting Orthodoxy is no picnic: When you choose uncertainty, there it is.

At the end of the day, like my aunt pointed out to me the other day when we discussed it, what has changed isn't so much the people practicing the religion. It is the attitude toward consistency that has shifted.

Somehow, over the last two decades, it became a sin to be inconsistent. Leaving some, a few people inside the circle, but the vast majority out.

I think it was better when we let people be hypocrites, to a certain extent.

Because nobody can be perfectly consistent about everything all the time.

And the stranglehold of religion is the same as the stranglehold of brand.

Real people need to breathe. They can't be forced into a robotic, artificial, obsessive-compulsive kind of brand consistency.

We ought to get back to that, and stop holding them to an impossible standard or one that gives them no sort of brand at all.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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