Location, Location, Location

November 21, 2017

by Dan Ward

When planning a special event, the walk-through is critical. You look at the space and account for placement of signage, locations for media and VIPs, sight lines for cameras, background music that could interfere with your plans, including anything outside of your control that could impact your event.

Unfortunately, the event planners at The Weather Channel missed a couple of steps, and it offers a lesson for all of us.

The Weather Channel set up a live stream to broadcast the implosion of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, with what appeared to be a great wide shot of the dome.  Everything was great for about 40 minutes, right up until the first explosion.  That is when a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) bus pulled up directly in front of the camera.

So instead of a livestream of a massive demolition, viewers saw a bus … with some dust in the background.

Lesson: for your next event, make sure your audience has an unobstructed view.


Your Next Crisis May Have Already Happened

November 7, 2017

by Dan Ward

Professional communicators realize the importance of a crisis communications plan, guiding companies and clients on how to maintain the timely and accurate flow of information in a crisis situation.

We plan for the things that might occur in the future that could affect our clients’ business … weather-related events, workplace accidents, etc.  But the allegations that have made for breaking news since the first Harvey Weinstein story was published point out the need for companies to plan for emerging crises that may have been smoldering for years.

Perhaps the best thing to have happened as a result of the Weinstein scandal (aside from putting a stop to his alleged predatory actions) is the creation of an environment in which many women (and some men) feel for the first time that they are safe to call attention to their own stories of harassment.  And though media stories have focused primarily on the entertainment realm because of the celebrity status of both the accused and the accusers, we should expect more allegations to be made public in the corporate world.

Those in charge of corporate communications for their companies and clients should be doing two things immediately:  1) connecting with HR to ensure that corporate policies for preventing and reporting harassment are up-to-date and that proper training is taking place; and, 2) updating crisis communications plans to account for potential harassment claims.

This can be a difficult discussion to have with the CEO, but it’s a critical discussion to lead.  As with any crisis, our job is to prepare for the worst even if we believe the chances are slim that the plan will ever be put into action.  Preparing a response to a potential harassment claim is not an admittance of guilt or a suggestion of impropriety.  It is simply proper planning.

I listed the conversation with HR first, because a company’s actions in a crisis are much more important than its message.  The lack of a harassment policy can itself lead to a crisis of reputation for your company, so it’s critical that you ensure a policy is indeed in place.  Is the policy clear in defining harassment and prescribing penalties?  Does your company provide training for both supervisors and employees?  Is the process for filing complaints clear, and are complaints taken seriously?

Don’t let your discomfort with an issue that has long been taboo keep you from making the right decisions for your company and clients.


Sticks and Stones

September 21, 2017

by Dan Ward

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

When and why did that rhyme I learned as a child warp into “sticks and stones should break the bones of those whose words might hurt me?”

A new study by The Brookings Institution shows that of 1,500 college students surveyed nationwide, an astounding 19 percent believe that violence – physical violence – is an appropriate response to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking.  Let that sink in.  One in five attending college in a country that is in many ways defined by its protection of speech believe that mere words should be met, and stopped, with violence.

A majority believe it is appropriate to stop hateful speech by shouting it down so the speaker cannot be heard, and a plurality believe that hate speech is NOT protected by the First Amendment.

How did we reach a point at which young people believe the response to speech with which they disagree is to force it to stop, with violence if necessary?

One of the things taught to me as a child, and reinforced in college, was that First Amendment protections are not extended only to those with “acceptable” viewpoints, but more importantly to those with whom we strongly disagree.

I realize times have changed and we live in a charged political environment, but I remember the conversations I had with friends and family as a young man, conversations in which we discussed the need to protect hateful speech, because doing so defines who we are and what makes us different.  Our willingness to tolerate hateful, horrible words is what sets us apart.  I can only hope we find our way back to having those kinds of conversations.

As communicators, it is our job to protect and preserve First Amendment rights, and to ensure that the next generation understands these rights. As a father, I want my children to be confronted with ideas and language they find disagreeable and even hurtful.  I want them to seek out this language.  And I want them to respond not with violence or shouts, but with better arguments.

The way to confront hateful speech is not sticks and stones.  We can only defeat hateful speech with reason, with conversation, with more speech.


Mistaken Identity

August 23, 2017

by Dan Ward

Have we lost our ever-loving minds?

When I first read that ESPN pulled a broadcaster from covering an upcoming University of Virginia football game in a decision tied to the events in Charlottesville, my reaction was “he must have said something horrible.”

Nope.  He didn’t say anything.

The broadcaster was pulled from the ESPN assignment “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”

Given his Chinese heritage, few would confuse ESPN’s Robert Lee with the Confederate General who died nearly 150 years ago.  But rather than trust in the intelligence of its viewers, ESPN pulled Lee from the game. To avoid what may have caused a few moments of discomfort, ESPN touched on a controversy that has it and its communications team on their heels.

In the wake of Charlottesville, we should certainly remind ourselves that what we say matters, that we should think before we speak, and that we should be mindful of the impact of our words.

But avoiding conversation is not the answer.  ESPN says it regrets that “who calls play by play for a football game has become an issue.”  They should regret making it an issue.


Citizen Journalists Are Always Ready – Are You?

May 5, 2017

by Dan Ward

In the aftermath of the United Airlines “re-accommodating” incident, we’ve seen more headlines about airlines acting badly, usually accompanied by grainy cellphone video shot by concerned passengers.

There’s blood in the water, and “citizen journalists” at airports around the country are at the ready to report on any misstep.

What happens when they leave the airport and point their cameras at your company?

Many organizations “media train” their corporate spokespersons and C-Suite executives (we prefer to call it message training, because the process works beyond the traditional media interview).  But how many are training their front-line staff, the people who interact with customers on a daily basis, and whose comments and actions will be recorded by citizen journalists as soon as anything goes wrong?

Front-line staff need to know that they work in an environment in which every action they take may be recorded and reported.  They need to understand how to communicate the company’s key message with every customer they meet, in the knowledge that their interactions may be published on a blog or podcast.  They need to understand that their actions and comments could mean the difference between a happy customer and a viral video that will cost revenue and jobs.

Are your employees ready?


Should Fact Checks Have Expiration Dates?

April 6, 2017

by Dan Ward

I’ve written often about my concerns about the “fact check” genre.  When journalists review statements and assign grades such as “Pants on Fire” and “Four Pinocchios,” it’s hard to view their rulings as anything other than opinion.

Determining a level of truthfulness requires judgment, which is colored by a journalist’s own beliefs and biases.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s opinion journalism, and should be labeled as such.

Now comes the news that, in light of the latest chemical attack in Syria, PolitiFact has decided to pull a 2014 Fact Check in which it rated as “Mostly True” a claim by former Secretary of State John Kerry that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

The rating was based largely on the reports of international “experts” with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the same experts who later reported that Syria used chemical munitions in 2014 and 2015, and which reported in 2016 that Syria had failed to live up to its promises on the removal of chemical weapons.

PolitiFact now states that “conclusive evidence was not available at the time of the original fact check. One of our principles is that we rate statements based on what is known at the time.”

I didn’t realize that fact checks came with an expiration date.  How can PolitiFact claim to offer an objective rating of a supposed statement of fact while also recognizing that information changes over time?  They should change their ratings to “Likely True” or “Likely False” and make it clear that their ratings represent the best subjective judgment of their reporters.

I don’t mean to be a media scold on this issue.  The reporters who work in the fact check realm are doing difficult work, and just like the writers for newspaper opinion pages, their judgments can provide very useful information.  My concern is that their readers, and the consumers of media who re-publish their rulings, view them as objective arbiters of truth, when instead they are offering their best opinion based on what they know at the time.


Everything Else

February 10, 2017

by Dan Ward

I read a tweet today in which George Orwell was quoted: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

We’ve written often on these pages about the changing industry of public relations and how we often tell client stories in ways that no longer involve journalists.

Orwell today could just as easily say that public relations is telling stories that deserve to be told, but which journalists do not see fit to print.


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