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.

The Antidote to Hateful Speech is More Speech

February 3, 2017

by Dan Ward

When I first read about the violent protests at UC Berkeley over a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, I was prepared to respond from the viewpoint of the middle-aged curmudgeon I’ve become.

I started a post about free speech coming full circle, with the birthplace of “the Free Speech Movement” now serving as a location for protests against speech.  Why is it, I was about to write, that young people today (“those darn kids”) seem less interested in protecting free speech than being protected from it?

But then my hope was restored by a Berkeley freshman, Shivam Patel, who was quoted at the end of this CNN story about the protest.

“It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down.  It might have been hateful speech, but it’s still his right to speak.

Thank you, Shivam, for recognizing that the First Amendment protects even speech that makes us uncomfortable.

Folders Are Our Friend

November 22, 2016

by Dan Ward

When I saw the stories about Kris Kobach and his proposed plan as a potential leader of the Department of Homeland Security, my first thought was, “has this guy never heard of a manila folder?”

In case you missed it, Kobach met with President-Elect Trump and was photographed prior to the meeting holding what appears to be his strategic plan for the first year.  Just a guess here, but I assume he did not plan to share his thoughts with the Associated Press prior to his discussion with the PEOTUS.

We in the public relations field often deal with confidential information regarding client projects. Generally speaking, we try not to walk into a group of journalists while prominently displaying that information.

Kobach’s flub does provide a good reminder for all of us.  If you have information that you would prefer (or which must) remain confidential, secure it before you step outside of your office.

I offer one humble suggestion to Mr. Kobach, if he is chosen to serve. Make a beeline for the DHS office supply cabinet and grab a few manila folders. Your boss will thank you.

Research is Useless if You Ask the Wrong Questions

August 22, 2016

by Dan Ward

Thanks to James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal for highlighting this tweet from Bloomberg national political reporter, Sahil Kapur: “Monmouth poll finds that if @JohnKasich were the Republican nominee he’d be leading @HillaryClinton 57% to 33% in Ohio.”

Seems to be a clear indication that Kasich may have been a much stronger candidate than Donald Trump, right?  Maybe not.  As Taranto correctly points out, “Well, if [Kasich] were the Republican nominee AND all the Dems’ efforts were concentrated on disqualifying Trump.”

Monmouth mistakenly assumes the answer to a nonsense question holds value.  Kasich ISN’T the candidate, he has not faced media scrutiny as the candidate, and has not faced opposition advertising as the candidate. Asking whether he’d win the election now is like asking for the price of a car that isn’t for sale.

We do a lot of research in our business.  It’s the very first step in developing a successful communication plan.  If you don’t understand your target, you won’t know where to aim.

If you’re investing in research, make sure you ask questions that provide actionable information.  “What if” questions are fine if you’re asking about actions you might actually take.  Just don’t follow Monmouth’s lead and ask questions for which there are no real answers.

Playing the Trump Card

June 28, 2016

by Dan Ward

Donald Trump’s recent free-fall in the polls holds an important lesson for communicators (beyond the obvious “don’t base your entire messaging platform on insults”).

Trump appears to be falling into a common trap that ensnares many communicators:  believing tools are the same as strategies.  Earlier this month, Trump dismissed the need for extensive fundraising, stating “I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity … I get so many interviews, if I want them.”

He did generate a tremendous amount of publicity during the primaries, relying heavily on provocative tweets.  That may work in a primary where candidates speak to “the base,” but a general election campaign requires a comprehensive strategy … relationship-building with key influencers, market segmentation and targeted communication, targeted (and expensive) advertising buys, nuanced position statements, direct outreach, and delegation of authority to teams who can spread a candidate’s message through a solid “ground game.”

The same is true in managing a strategic communication campaign for a client or corporation.  Twitter is not a strategy.  It’s a tool.  Publicity alone is not enough to move the needle and drive consumers, influencers, elected leaders and regulators to action.  We need a ground game, too.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s decision to bring in new campaign leadership will lead to a more comprehensive, and more successful, campaign.  He has an opportunity given the political weaknesses of his opponent.  But if he continues to focus on those weaknesses in two-minute sound bites and 140-character tweets at the expense of a real strategy, his numbers will continue to fall.

Dedicated to Transparency and [Omitted]

June 21, 2016

by Dan Ward

The response to the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub has been nothing short of amazing, from the outpouring of support from local citizens to the efforts of local leaders to keep the community informed.

That makes the short-sighted decision to release “limited transcripts” from the shooter’s 911 calls such a disappointment.

It is no secret that the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS in his calls to 911.  It has been reported extensively, and confirmed by survivors of the tragedy.  So what possible public interest was served by issuing redacted transcripts with comments such as “I pledge allegiance to [omitted]”?

The Attorney General initially stated that the transcripts would be limited “to avoid re-victimizing those people that went through this horror.”  To that point, I can understand redactions that omit background comments from victims or detailed descriptions of the carnage.  But how does ignoring motive, especially one that has already been covered extensively, help anyone?

Communications professionals know that any attempt to ignore or conceal information that has already been reported and discussed will only bring more attention to the issue.  And that clearly happened in this case.

Following well-deserved protests from media on both the left and right, the Department of Justice and FBI quickly reversed course and re-issued call transcripts, with a statement that the redactions “caused an unnecessary distraction.”

In understanding the motivation of mass killers, transparency is essential. If there have been any unnecessary distractions, they were caused by FBI and DOJ decisions that hopefully will not be repeated.

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