Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

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Should Curbing Violence Start with Words?

This summer, we’ve been horrified by tragic mass shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado.  Closer to home, several senseless gunfire incidents have jolted Toronto. We shake our heads, grieve for the victims and then move back to business.

The problem is business, particularly marketing, often means talking about the new killer app, killer collection or even killer strategies, which if executed well, will generate multiple hits and create die-hard fans. Sometimes we reduce the impact to just assault with a genteel alternative, such as “kick-ass,” as in kick-ass campaign but it’s still hostile. And as the scope widens, we talk about “ad wars” and “annihilating the competition.”  Similarly when a firm’s reputation is on the line, we set-up a “war room.”

I don’t think this practice is exclusive to English.  I once discovered “blood bath” and other violent terms peppered throughout business copy I was editing for an Asian client.  As blood bath didn’t suit North American business conventions, I substituted with more precise terms to describe the urgency and high stakes. (The client described my editing as “making it more polite.”)

Sure business is competitive and a successful approach stands out and is often extreme but must it be aligned with murder or violence?

More importantly: what’s the fallout of violent rhetoric?  In the wake of the 2011 Tuscan shootings, Rev. Barbara Kaufmann covered this practice in a Huffington Post article and how it is often subtly or subliminally used in marketing to prompt action or even aggression.  She also cited Deborah Schaffer, a Montana State University professor who has studied inflammatory and prejudicial speech since the nineties and states that “language can be used to stir up and manipulate emotions…sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.”

Am I reading more into the marketing language we frequently use with no ill intentions? Maybe. But in a world where we are starting to recognize how bullying scars a child for life (or worse) and unprovoked shootings appear to be rising, maybe it’s time we took violence out of the marketing vernacular.

An IABC colleague once pondered different ways say awesome. Maybe it’s time to take this further and seek alternatives to “the killer approach.” What about scratching the surface with….

  • the Ultimate, Ideal, Exemplary or Definitive or ….versus the killer app, collection or strategy?
  • Opportunities, References, Exposure points or …. versus earned media hits?
  • Extreme, Lifelong, Enduring, Resolute or …. versus die-hard fans?
  • Insight hub, Pulse Room, Information Centre or …. versus war room?

What alternatives can you suggest? Where else can we address violence in marketing lingo?

Why Reactive Letters to the Editor Often Get Derailed

Among life’s certainties, negative news follows closely on the heels of death and taxes.  This certainty keeps communicators on their toes, as they strive to continuously mitigate the risks for their organization or at least hope to net out with a balance toward the positive.

But what about stinging, factually erroneous coverage that comes out of the blue? This is particularly disheartening for obscure organizations or sectors that rarely hit the news media radar. I’d suggest it’s also an opportune time for these types of organizations to “step into” an existing news cycle, with potentially a receptive platform to tell their story.

The caveat is not all scenarios warrant a response or are likely to create a beneficial result; so carefully assess your options. (Our IABC chapter faced such a decision a few years ago and decided not to respond. We noted the negativity centered on subjective opinions and we believed most readers would dismiss it because the writer was known for consistent bitterness.)

When a response is the best action, a seasoned tactic is a Letter to the Editor.  I’ve seen and written such responses that made it to print with positive outcomes. Essentially, you need to straddle three hurdles to keep the letter on track:

1. Keep it positive & objective – What I’ve found works is to position it as providing helpful and factual information to augment the offending article (i.e., delicately sprinkle the commentary with sugar). Even if the writer is blatantly wrong or overtly malicious (sometimes due to a hidden agenda), it’s probably not safe to publicly tell them so.

2. Keep it short – A Google search reveals recommended word counts for a letter to the editor range from 150 to 300 words, with the average about 200 – 250 words.

3. Keep it prompt – Strike while the interest is there by sending the letter as soon as possible, ideally within two days of the article’s appearance or less.

To communicators, this is rote knowledge but best practices run amuck when the CEO/President/Executive Director weighs in. Although most leaders accept their association with each message their organization issues, it can hit hard when their name is clearly printed out. And here’s how their response often plays out against these best practices…

1. Positive? – “We must correct them.” – It’s hard for a leader not to be ignited when their organization is unfairly beaten up. They may react by peppering your copy with emotions and possibly direct accusations.

2. Short? – “We need to explain things to them so they get it right this time.” – And so the flood gates open with exhaustive detail as they attempt to edit your copy to cover every angle.  Given their passion for the topic, they might find it tough to imagine the letter being rejected due to length. You can gently suggest it may survive but the paper’s editor may cut it down by amputating key sections to leave diluted messages or fragments with skewed meanings, possibly pulled out of context. (Of course, the mere mention of this possibility may re-start issue one, with a few more heated phrases.)

3. Timely? – “I need to run it by the executive just to be sure…” – This means navigating tight schedules to cycle the letter (and edits) through several hands. By the time the letter is perfect, the story may be history (or these days, the paper may have closed).

Alternatively, the leader may get cold feet after looking at the edited letter (which is now long and maybe slightly explosive) — and simply cancel it. I’m not sure how many of these letters are abandoned midway but I’d suggest the number is high.

Surely writing one of these letters challenges the greatest rapport and trust between an executive and their chief communicator or agency. But without a response, the fallout may unfold with the initial inaccuracies fueling more rumors, more negative coverage and a damaged reputation, leading to sales declines, market price drops, disenchanted employees…. With so much at stake, what can we do to keep these letters on track and with them, an organization’s reputation?  I welcome comments and ideas ….

Making Lemonade with Life’s Lemons

A year ago, my position was eliminated after a corporate sale. Déjà vu to many.

Sometimes you can’t jump back to full-time immediately for fiscal or other reasons. Given the options of resting, hitting the pavement for an elusive senior role in a recession or a hybrid of working and growth, I chose the latter. Here’s what I aimed for and did. Hopefully one or two options suit you.

  1. Pursue a short-term contract (even if it’s slightly below your ideal title or compensation) – While the fallout from an involuntary exit varies, I don’t think anyone escapes a jab to their self-esteem. Bouncing back’s important but you may need to regain balance first. I contracted to a former manager who wanted my skills for a short-term crunch.
  2. Catch up on giving LinkedIn accolades & pursuing some yourself – It’s an ideal time to recognize people who’ve made a huge impression or been a major asset. As networking starts with giving, I didn’t position it as quid pro but separately pursued references from established contacts, with one from my last employer as a top priority.
  3. Boost your social media knowledge & online library – Set-up a feed reader, subscribe and devour social media blogs. Adopt a bookmarking tool to catalogue relevant articles. I set-up iGoogle but readers have grown since. I fell for Delicious to bookmark but latterly switched to trunk.ly.
  4. Strengthen  personal use of social media & grow your online brand – Update your online profiles, claim new ones (check your name’s availability) and take ownership of those morphed with your name (begin with zoominfo.com). Participate in conversations. Post thoughtful comments & answer forum questions. (Even one favoured answer to a LinkedIn query earns you a profile highlight.) For me, it’s a work in progress.
  5. Develop content creation or curating skills in low-risk settings – Learn WordPress.com and develop blogging acumen if possible. If not, focus on curating. (I fail at blogging but took rudimentary steps with a sustainable living wiki using Wikia and managing facebook pages, starting with one for my church.) Curating is on the rise with even more opportunities to explore, such as Paper.Li, the time’s ripe to embrace it.
  6. Volunteer during core hours (as well as night-time) to enhance skills & learn new disciplines – Daytime hours open new insights and sometimes you can negotiate a work-in-kind donation. One day a week, I re-vamped a national, not-for-profit’s website. And don’t forget IABC’s wealth of volunteer roles.
  7. Polish your presentation skills with diverse audiences – Present to professional and IABC forums but also stretch your audience agility by addressing PR college classes or career day at your child’s school.
  8. Teach a post-secondary class part-time – Teaching doesn’t have to be full-time but taking on one class forces you to identify the steps behind core PR skills, keeps you current and gives you firsthand knowledge of gen next thinking.
  9. Take in-class or online courses – They don’t have to be expensive. IABC offers select free webinars  and other organizations offer IABC member breaks.
  10. Reconnect with family & friends for intangible value but sometimes this too uncovers opportunities.

Other ideas?  Please share.

Take-aways from Helping Manage an IABC Chapter

After eight years on communication association boards (the last six for IABC/Toronto), I’ve done my last ‘ritual’ as immediate past president. This means time to shift to new priorities, including bringing this blog back to life.

During these years, I’ve been asked why I immersed myself in IABC and what I learned. As an extrovert, part of the attraction was the opportunity to work with smart and inquisitive people. The other reason was to give back and sometimes push the envelope towards change, which may be slightly easier from the inside.

Beyond broad personal development and growth, here are some specific things l learned through my tenure:

  1. Concerns cross continents…while we sleep. I once woke to an email from IABC Chair Barb Gibson asking about a controversial blog post on a Toronto event’s promotion. (Thanks to a pre-planned visit, I was able to alleviate the issue that day in person with the student blogger and online with the chair.)

  2. Sometimes a budget in the red is positive. When a not-for-profit, like IABC, earns a surplus in one year, a loss may be incurred in the following year to spend it. Although accurate and prudent, it’s an awkward message to deliver. (We’re still ‘wordsmithing’ the best way to say it.)

  3. Social media fosters a crowd mentality, which veers toward the positive. It can also bring defenders from the most unlikely places. I was once jarred by two volatile tweets from a member questioning IABC’s value. I invited offline discussion, while several tweets extolled the association’s benefits, including the detractor’s boss (not usually an overt supporter).

  4. Responsiveness counts more than ever, particularly online. Following the incident above, a member sent kudos for the quick response.

  5. For a great volunteer outcome: Start with a passionate volunteer. Provide a base, remove roadblocks and step back. To establish a mentoring program (which was a personal goal), we found a strong director with firsthand appreciation of a great mentor.  We held a ThinkTank to gather primary research, developed an outline and moved mentoring from a heavy portfolio with minimal cycles to a lighter one, with room for support. Our volunteer ran with it, doubling engagement and boosting feedback within two years.

  6. Leverage the expertise of varied generations, particularly when change is involved. We made the leap to social media through demos from Gen X and Y members on how it worked, combined with Boomer and Gen X insights on policies and guidelines to mitigate risks.

  7. Tap into IABC’s Worldwide network to access award-winning solutions for personal and chapter benefits. After grappling with website options, we found the answer in IABC Maritime’s revered site. By emulating it, we cut some corners but upheld quality.

  8. IABC members are welcoming and inclusive worldwide. (Once, when rooms were in short supply at Leadership Institute, I shared with a member and her beloved Labrador Retriever.)

  9. In terms of ‘Be heard,’ less is definitely more, when it comes to IABC.

  10. Setting SMART objectives for a chapter’s strategic plan is a best practice. It also means extensive follow-up to validate metrics and write CMA submissions….with sometimes a glistening award or two at the end.

For me, it was a great experience and one that I would highly recommend. I imagine leaders in other chapters have similar, as well as varied insights.  If you were on an IABC board for a couple of years or more, what did you learn?

(For more about IABC/Toronto, see IABC/Toronto 2008/2009 Annual Report.)