Amplify: NY Times Op-Ed on Impact of Ebola on Education in Sierra Leone

CBahChernor Bah, a former refugee from the civil war in Sierra Leone, is a youth advocate for (our client) the Global Partnership for Education and a co-founder of A World at School, published this piece in The New York Times last fall with help from Weintraub Communications. He wrote:

“It made me realize that what may be in the shortest supply in Sierra Leone is hope for the future. Each day further into the epidemic, it becomes harder to imagine how to recapture time lost — not just in the caring of parents who have died, but in education when schools are closed, in income when people can’t work, in food cultivation and road-building when cash itself has run dry.

“Ebola is not just a health emergency. It is a tragedy that has swept away fragile new roots for a new society, put down after the decade of civil war. While a vast majority of Sierra Leone’s 6.1 million people have not been infected, Ebola has loosed many other threats that will linger long after the virus is quelled.”

Amplify: Good Clients Make Good P.R.


When someone once asked Yogi Berra what makes a good baseball manager, he replied, “A good ball club.” Similarly, if you asked me what makes a good public relations professional, I’d say, ‘A good client.’

Here’s an illustration. In September 1987, I had just started a job in Chicago with a Jewish advocacy organization, and it was exactly on the eve of a visit by Pope John Paul II to the U.S. One of our leaders from Chicago was going to Miami to be part of a small delegation to meet the Pope. Could I, my boss asked, call some local Chicago media outlets to see if they might be interested?

Until then, I had never done any sort of media relations work for anyone (I was a writer and editor working on the other side of that divide). But I made some calls (this was before e-mail), and, much to my surprise, all the local TV stations and daily papers interviewed my guy and ran nice pieces about the meeting. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, everyone around me assumed I did.

The lesson: sure, it helps to have someone who knows which calls to make and can shape how a client presents itself. But there’s no substitute for a client with a good and highly relevant story to tell, especially one that contributes to an issue that’s playing big in the news already.

Like most local news outlets trying to insert themselves into a big national story, the Chicago media were looking for any hooks that would be relevant to the Pope’s visit. And they got it when they heard that a Chicago Jewish leader would be part of the Pope’s audience. It was a small part of everything else the Pope was doing during that trip, but it just happened to give media what they wanted: a local angle. Who knew? Certainly not I, at least not then.

Now, I don’t want to be accuse of false modesty. I’m not saying that we in the public relations game don’t do anything and that we just wait to get lucky (which I was in September 1987). In fact, much of what we do is to try to find elements of a client’s story that we think will connect nicely to dominant narratives already bouncing around the media. When we do, we maximize the odds that some journalist (and maybe many) will want to include our client’s views and information in their pieces.

It’s not about our relationships with editors and reporters, as so many of our clients assume and some p.r. professionals misleadingly suggest. Yes, it helps to know some people on the inside of various news organizations. But that means nothing if we don’t have a story that they’re likely to want to hear and repeat. Some of my biggest hits were with journalists I’d never met.

We can’t usually know for sure what will sell. I’ve had client stories that I thought would interest no one but that got a lot of attention and others I thought would be hot that no one would report. But there are some rules of thumb that help us get the most out our pitches:

  • Relevance. You don’t have to be a careful consumer of news to know that there are, on any given day, a half dozen or so national stories that eat up the lion’s share of media attention and conversation. The same probably goes for any other news segment: local news, specialized trade outlets and so on. It helps to understand what those big stories are, especially before they hit, whether they have any staying power and where, if at all, a client’s story can fit into them. It may be that the client has nothing relevant to say about those stories. In that case, it’s important to find out what is being said about other, quieter stories and who is producing that coverage. What, you must ask, can a client offer that will help illuminate that story more and better educate audiences who care about that story?
  • Credibility. Is the client an expert on this issue? Does it have relevant information that few others can claim? Do people really want to hear what this client has to say? Without such credibility, it’s hard to induce any reporters to pay attention.
  • Illustrative examples. It’s not enough just to have an opinion or to speak in general or in the abstract. Media organizations want to be able to cite concrete examples of experiences or initiatives that help illustrate what the issues are truly about. Can you point to activities or scenarios (preferably recent and photogenic) that can help journalists illustrate the story they’re writing? That’s where you will score.
  • New information. It’s not called “news” for nothing. Reporters want to be the first to get information that no one else has, and if you’re the one who can supply them with it and it meets most and maybe all of the criteria above, you just might get coverage.
  • Something that answers “Why should I care?” As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, what you and your institution think is important may not be what most people think is important. You have to address the issues that most people care about — something in the broader public interest. How will what you say affect, for example, the economy, people’s personal needs, the direction of our geopolitical aims, the well being of the local community, or, as was the case in 1987, the state of Catholic-Jewish relations? Answer those questions and you will heighten your chances of getting coverage.

Again, this is all rule of thumb. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will sell and what won’t. But I can guarantee that unless two or more of these elements are at play, you’ll have a shot at some coverage.

Amplify: A Media Relations Object Lesson From Donald Trump

396px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore.croppedI DON’T USUALLY spend a lot of precious time thinking about Donald Trump, but his dust-up last month with a public relations consultant offers an unexpected object lesson about basic media relations.

The incident surrounds an article about Trump by McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed, the online news / entertainment / click-bait (or whatever you want to call it) site. According to the New York Post, after a request to allow Coppins to interview him during a trip to New Hampshire (“Trump was there to deliver a political speech widely seen as being aimed at running for president in 2016 and not for New York governor this year,” the Post said.), Trump turned to his media advisor, Sam Nunberg, to ask whether or not he should do it.

Trump said his first reaction was not to do the interview, saying, “I understand what Buzzfeed is.”

“But Sam said to me, ‘This guy is a friend of mine. It’s going to be a great story. I have confidence it will be fair.’

So I actually did the interview as a courtesy to Sam.

“But I said to Sam, ‘If this guy writes a fair story, that’s fine. But if he writes a wise-guy story, you’ll be fired.’ And I said to Sam, ‘OK?’

“And Sam said, ‘OK.’ ’’

Coppins wrote what is actually a pretty interesting, but not terribly flattering piece. I can see how Trump might consider it a “wise-guy” story, but then, as you’ll see, Trump provided some undeniably weird material, which Coppins recorded. Was it accurate? I don’t know, but it all seems plausible.

“After the article appeared, Trump acknowledged, ‘I called [Nunberg] in and said, ‘Sam, you’re fired!’ Trump said the article was filled with ‘inaccurate reporting’’ and presented flippant or out-of-context remarks.”

[Sigh] Where to begin? Based only on what I read in this Post article (there might be more to the story, but I sort of doubt it):

First of all, it might surprise you to hear me say that I have a little sympathy for Trump on this. But only a little. He was apparently conscious enough to know what BuzzFeed is, and, based on that, was hesitant to give an interview in the first place.

I don’t blame him. While I think there is a time and place for BuzzFeed’s offerings – hey, it can be fun to read sometimes – Trump is too colorful a character to expect any media outlet, much less this one, to leave out his unsightly blemishes.

Second, his advisor, Sam Nunberg, was a bit naïve, to say the least, to think that a relationship with Coppins would produce a puff piece. I can hear the editors saying, “Dude [I don’t know why, but I imagine Buzzfeed people say “Dude” a lot, but I’m stereotyping], bring me back a good one. Something juicy.” The truth is, there aren’t many news outlets that would think differently. Trump’s entertainment value, particularly when he deludes himself into thinking he’s a viable candidate for public office, is just too hard to resist.

To be sure, Nunberg had to go with his gut to a certain extent. I’ve been there, too. We have to evaluate what we think is likely to happen when we engage with a reporter – even if he or she is a friend. To a certain extent, we always have to take a leap of faith that the reporters will live up to their assurances to be fair and thorough.

Still, ultimately, the control is completely out of our hands. Contrary to what our clients and the uninformed think,wWe p.r. people do not “control” reporters (at least not in the U.S. – things are different around the world). We try to maximize the chances that things will come out well . Sometimes — but not often– we get burned.

If my client was as sensitive to unfavorable coverage as Trump seemed to be in this case (amazingly for a guy who’s so in love with getting into the media), I’d say, “You really shouldn’t be doing media at all,” or, at the very least, I can’t guarantee you anything, so don’t do it if you have a queasy feeling.

More strategically, what did either Nunberg or Trump think they were going to get out of BuzzFeed, even if the article had pleased Trump. While it promises wide circulation, I’m not sure BuzzFeed would give Trump the credibility he needs to mount a campaign for public office – or whatever the hell he thinks he’s trying to accomplish.

I feel a bit sorry for Nunberg, but he had to know that working for Trump was never going to be easy. But I also feel a bit sorry for Trump, who, after all, trusted his advisor to give him good guidance. He should have known better himself, especially considering that he gave extraordinary, behind-the-scenes access to the reporter.

I also feel sorry for all of the rest of us who seek out good and serious news reporting and who too often see news organizations eating up valuable media real estate and air time with Trump’s crazy rantings.


Trump photo by Gage Skidmore

Weintraub Communications in the News

I’m grateful to Politico, The Hill and In The Capital for making mention that Weintraub Communications is up and running. Here are the links to all three pieces:

Each mentioned, as The Hill wrote, that:

Jeff Weintraub has launched Weintraub Communications, which he says will help nongovernmental organizations, trade groups and companies “boost their public policy advocacy and burnish their public profiles.” He has more than 20 years of experience, most recently at FleishmanHillard, where he spent 13 years in the firm’s public affairs practice. Weintraub also spent more than a decade at the American Jewish Committee in both Washington and Chicago.”




Clarity at the Pentagon?

In today’s National Journal, defense policy correspondent Sara Sorcher put her finger on one of the Pentagon’s most obvious communications problems: the frequent inability to speak in plain English.

1280px-The_Pentagon_January_2008bI don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’ve met so many impressive, extraordinary people in the military who perform miracles every day. But if you’ve spent even a little time around military folks, you’ll probably experience exactly what I have in my limited exposure to them. I can usually follow them to a point. But all of the sudden, what they’re saying sounds like Chinese to me. Between the profusion of clever, though sometimes tortured acronyms and terms that the lay person could interpret many ways, it’s too often hard to tell what they’re saying. I would bet that many military people themselves get confused by this exotic language.

And I’m not picking only on the military. Talk to anyone from nearly any agency across the government, or to people from specialized sectors in various private industries, and I guarantee you’ll have the same experience.

We all do it. We fall back on the comfortable and familiar terminology, unconscious to how they’re being heard. But, if we care about being understood and getting what we want out of a communication, we have to step back and define terms, describe the ideas behind the jargon and acronyms and, most of all, pay attention to how our audiences are reacting. When you see the eyes glaze over, you know it’s time to try something else.

Sorcher’s article highlights how some Pentagon leaders are getting that message:

“We aren’t communicating. We were not able to communicate the impact of sequester last year,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox told an audience Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. “Because we talked about readiness, and nobody knows what readiness is…. We go into Pentagon-speak, I get it.”

Pentagon officials are already taking a new tack on their informational charm offensive: a little straight talk.

It’s not just that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed his budget proposal a full week before the giant tome lands on lawmakers’ desks on March 4. His deputies—Fox, his comptroller Robert Hale, and chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall—are all over Washington at industry conferences and think tanks explaining exactly what was cut in the budget, and what was spared, and why.

The Pentagon’s budget, too, is finally spelling out exactly what will suffer if Congress does not give them extra money, after years of failing to plan for the worst. For example, the Army, which will shrink by some 40,000 troops in next year’s request, could lose another 30,000 troops the following year if the military does not get more money. The Pentagon will have to retire an aircraft carrier; the entire KC-10 tanker fleet will be cut.

After years of vague warnings, the Pentagon’s newfound transparency means members of Congress will finally be able to feel the political impact on their districts from defense cuts of this magnitude.

Will it work? It’s hard to say. There are many factors — political and fiscal — that figure into Congress’ calculations about military spending. But clear and understandable language is a great place to start.

[Photo of the Pentagon above by David B. Gleason.]

Alan Alda on Clarity

Today’s New York Times features an interview with the actor Alan Alda, who, it turns out, has had a lifelong fascination with science. Not enough, apparently, to keep him from his successful acting career. But enough that he has brought his experiences as an actor — essentially a storytelling vocation — to help scientists communicate better. It’s all a great example of the power and importance of clarity — something people in all sectors, not just science, can benefit from.

alda“[S]cientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity,” Alda tells the Times. “They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.

“If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do? I heard from one member of Congress that at a meeting with scientists, the members were passing notes to one another: ‘Do you know what this guy is saying?’ ‘No, do you?’”

For many years, Alda addressed this problem by hosting a popular television series called “Scientific American Frontiers.” His approach was to interview — really, to have a conversation with — top scientists, allowing them to put something of their own personality into their explanations of their work. “Over the years, I must have done around 700 of these interviews, and I felt that in doing them I had stumbled onto something that could help solve a big problem the science community faces,” he said.

Along the way, Stonybrook University established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which “works to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline,” and where Alda offers services as what he calls a “drive-by lecturer.”

He says that what he teaches is “clarity, it’s not dumbing down. But it’s also talking in a way that’s relatable, where you can speak in terms that a person understands in an personal way.”

“[W]e don’t do comedy improvisation or making things up,” he adds. “The object is to put people through games and exercises that force them to make contact with the other player. You have to observe the other person, anticipate what they are going to do. You almost have to read their minds. We teach other skills too: how to distill their messages, how to do on-camera interviews, how to speak on panels. These are all things scientists have not been trained for and it’s useful for them to know.

He was a big science fan as a kid and “when I was in my early 20s,” Alda said, “I started reading every article of every issue of Scientific American. At the time, I’d been reading a lot about the paranormal and telepathy, and I thought Scientific American would help me know if any of that was true. There, I discovered a whole other way to think, based on evidence.”

For the last few years, the Stonybrook Center has run a project called “The Flame Challenge.” “It’s something from my childhood,” Alda explains. “When I was about 11, I got obsessed with what was happening in a flame. I tried to figure out why they were so different from anything else I had ever seen. It gave off heat and light and you could put your finger through it — it didn’t have substance, apparently. There was nothing like it. So I asked a teacher. ‘It’s oxidation!’ she said, flatly. No elaboration. It shut me down.

“So we started a contest for scientists: Tell us what a flame is in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The point was to challenge scientists to explain something difficult in words that were both easy to understand and accurate. The first year we had 6,000 entries — kids and scientists. Now we have 20,000. This year, the question is ‘What is color?'”

All this is brilliant and, as I said, not just for scientists. It’s for everyone who knows a lot about a subject and has to explain what they know to others who don’t — which, for most people, is most of the rest of the world. It’s about boiling complex ideas to their simplest and most understandable essence and being conscious not just of what you’re saying but how you’re being heard.


Image above from NYTimes video interview.

Crisis Communications: Lessons From 4 NASA Tragedies

The Space Shuttle Challenger, shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

IF EVER there were an organization that needs to be prepared to communicate about crises, it is NASA, our beloved, though often embattled space agency. It is so vast, complex and enterprise, involved in endeavors that skate on the edge of danger, something is sure to go wrong at NASA – as, tragically, it has over its 55-year history. For those of us in the communications game, it’s useful to look at how NASA responded publicly during some of its most well-known and heartbreaking crises.

Fortunately, Emily Ann Schult wrote just such an analysis of four NASA tragedies for her 2008 master’s thesis at Louisiana State University. I stumbled on it a few years ago when I was preparing a presentation on crisis communications.

I’m not in a position to verify every fact and claim Schult offers in this study, but her in-depth review of authoritative sources and interviews with several NASA communications officials, shine an instructive light on how the agency handled these four events. I’m offering a summary of her much more detailed description, which I commend to you if you want to learn more.

Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 command module.

On January 27, 1967, a flash fire erupted in the Apollo 1 command module during a launch pad test, killing all three astronauts aboard – Gus Grissom, ‎Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

In the wake of the tragedy, Schult reported, it became clear that NASA: had no crisis plan for such an event; waited two hours to report deaths of astronauts; gave media misleading information about what happened;  refused to release other information until the investigation was complete; formed an investigative board made up only of people with close ties to NASA; published two reports about the accident with conflicting, sometimes false information; and lied in testimony to Congress.

The result, Schult said, was what you might expect: media went to other sources for information when they could not get what they needed from NASA; the agency lost credibility because of its release of misleading information; scrutiny from Congress, the White House, media and public increased about the investigative board and false statements; criticism persisted longer than it might have otherwise.

Apollo 13

This is the April 1970 mission well known for Commander James Lovell’s famously understated pronouncement, “Houston, we have a problem.” That problem came from an explosion aboard the craft that forced NASA to scrap its moon landing and improvise a dramatic rescue of the crew, which came close to being lost.

According to Schult’s research, Apollo 13 showed that NASA learned well from the Apollo 1 debacle and noticeably improved its crisis communications response. Indeed, it became clear during and after Apollo 13 that NASA: had a well-developed crisis plan; reported the problem quickly to the public; did not speculate about what happened, just gave facts when they were available; involved many spokespersons, including highly credible former astronauts and NASA’s top administrators; brought the astronauts back alive, framing the mission as “successful failure” (Lovell’s words); and quickly announced the formation of an investigation board– within 30 minutes after the crew returned to Earth.

Apollo 13 astronauts return.

The result was mostly positive: NASA was praised by the public for a prompt and candid response; the public narrative was shaped by facts, not speculation; media, Congress and much of the rest of the public adopted the notion that Apollo 13 was a “successful failure” and lauded the astronauts and technicians on the ground as heroes (if that wasn’t obvious from the later-produced film directed by Ron Howard); and Congress gave NASA more money after the crisis than ever before. The only less-than-favorable outcome: because there were multiple spokespersons, some of whom contradicted others, the narrative got a little muddled or confused.


On January 28, 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded (see photo above) in the Florida Coast skies fewer than two minutes after its launch, killing all seven of the astronauts aboard.

In spite of its nearly flawless crisis communications around Apollo 13, Schult found, NASA surprisingly: did not use its crisis plan; failed to hold regular press conferences and regularly kept information away from media, limiting its statements about the tragedy to only a few terse sentences; did not make top NASA personnel available for comment; and offered many spokespersons, some named, others not, on the rare occasions it did talk publicly.

As you might imagine, the result was not pretty. Schult reports that the press and public were highly critical and confused about the mission; the lack of any unified voice meant there were contradictory statements from many inside sources; NASA and its contractor were criticized for bad decision making and engineering (remember all the talk at the time about O-rings and Morton Thiokol?); NASA couldn’t maintain control of its message; the shuttle program effectively shut down pending correction of problems; and the space program overall lost respect and funding.


After a largely productive 16-day mission, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated upon its February 1, 2003, reentry into the atmosphere because its protective heat tiles had been compromised. All seven astronauts perished.

Shuttle chief Ron Dittemore during a news conference after the Columbia accident. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV

Like Apollo 13, the Columbia mission crisis communications response contrasted sharply with that of the previous tragedy, according to Schult’s account. The Columbia mission: followed crisis plan; immediately began releasing as much information as they could; held regular press conferences – some lasting an hour or two at a time – daily or more for weeks; refused to speculate on causes until they knew facts; offered only one highly credible and effective spokesperson, Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager; and released detailed results of investigations.

Because of this near-perfect response, Schult noted: NASA was praised for openness and candor and not criticized for accident when all the facts came out; though the Shuttle program was suspended for several years, it resumed sooner than many believe it might have; the public viewed the tragedy as a bitter outcome, but felt that they and NASA had learned from it.

There are many lessons crisis communications practitioners can derive from these four case studies. Among them:

Prepare, prepare, prepare. As I said earlier, virtually every organization, much less one engaged in inherently (though carefully controlled) risky activities as NASA, should think through every possible crisis scenario and game out how the organization should respond in the event they materialize. That means having all the knowable facts at your fingertips even before the crisis occurs and making sure you map out who will be involved in the response and how you will assemble your leadership team quickly. Then you must practice your response through simulations with all of the principal leadership, including those at the highest levels.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. This doesn’t mean just talking endlessly even when there’s nothing new to say (leave that to the news outlets, which have no problem offering constant “breaking news” updates, even when there is no real news to break). But you have to communicate early and often. Ron Dittemore’s regular press conferences and other briefings in the wake of the Columbia were great examples of how an organization benefits from keeping the flow of information steady as the facts become available. It ensures that your narrative, not misleading speculation or theories others conjure, defines the public conversation. It also builds trust that you’re doing everything possible to get to the bottom of what happened and how you will proceed.

Make sure your leadership is engaged in the response. Rudolph Giuliani won praise following the September 11 attacks for being the primary point of information as the public tried to sort out what happened and what the authorities were doing to address the crisis. At moments like that, people want to hear from the most credible voice, and as Mayor of New York City, Giuliani played that role expertly. Contrast that with the impression BP CEO Tony Hayward gave in his detached statements about the company’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That set back the company’s response considerably and distracted the public from its core narrative.

Get out there quickly. Especially in the early stages of a crisis, silence is not an option, which is why the Apollo 1 delayed response was so damaging to the agency. News travels fast and you have to tell your side of the story first. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of energy trying to correct the story and will play defense. What’s more, it’s essential these days to respond through social media because that’s where much of the conversation about a crisis takes place. You want to be part of that conversation, or at least aware of what people in it are saying.

Communicate how you’re going to move forward. Talk clearly and in detail about what you’re doing to understand the problem, avoid a recurrence and address the concerns of anyone who was hurt by it. The announcement, a mere 30 minutes after the Apollo 13 astronauts returned safely to Earth, of a blue-ribbon investigation panel was exemplary, but the job should not have ended there. Organizations need to continue to report on how investigations like this and the remediation that follows is progressing.

Tell the truth. Do I have to explain this one?

Engage: A Lesson from a Heckler

DURING A SPEECH yesterday in San Francisco, President Obama encountered something that most politicians and their advance people (who are responsible for the careful stagecraft of such an event) dread: a heckler. In this case, it was not from the distant reaches of a cavernous auditorium but from only a few feet away. It came from one of those human props who stand behind politicians, usually smiling and nodding, a wallpaper of broad and chirpy support.

Awkward as the moment might have been for the President and his handlers, what he did with the situation was an instructive example of engagement.

He spoke about immigration reform, which had picked up momentum over the past year but has since disappeared from the national policy conversation. Immigration reform advocates are understandably exasperated that the nation seems as far from passing this long-overdue reform today as a year ago.

While he spoke, the President was suddenly interrupted by a young man behind him. Here’s the transcript from the White House website:


THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — my family has been separated for 19 months now —

THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up to our character as a nation.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I’ve not seen my family.  Our families are separated.  I need your help.  There are thousands of people —

THE PRESDIENT:  That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — are torn apart every single day. 

THE PRESIDENT:  That’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 undocumented immigrants in this country right now. 

THE PRESIDENT:  What we’re trying —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Do you agree

AUDIENCE:  Obama!  Obama!  Obama!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we — you have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country. 

THE PRESIDENT:  Actually I don’t.  And that’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  So, please, I need your help. 

When people off camera were apparently moving to remove the heckler, the President said,

THE PRESIDENT:  These guys don’t need to go.  Let me finish. No, no, no, he can stay there.  Hold on a second.  (Applause.)  Hold on a second. 

So I respect the passion of these young people because they feel deeply about the concerns for their families.  Now, what you need to know, when I’m speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community, is that if, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so.

And then he went on to make his point about immigration reform.

The lesson here is not terribly profound, but worth noting.

In a moment like this, many communications people and their clients freak out. They think that we must have total control. Nothing must adulterate the plans we spent countless hours drafting and getting approved, much less potentially humiliate our client.

Most of the time, I’d say they’re right. You don’t want to leave anything to surprise. But there are times when it’s okay to let things happen, so long as you have a skilled communicator who can ride the unpredictable wave and, as Obama did, use it to underscore his point.

What’s more, it’s even more humiliating and damaging to a client (in this case the President) to appear to be squelching dissent. If the President’s people had dragged the heckler away, it would have been a disaster for him. And it’s to the White House’s credit that they left the exchange in the transcript and posted it on the White House website. No hiding or backing away from it.

This is the age of engagement. Particularly via the tools of social media, no one can count on having full control over a conversation. Gone are the days of one-way communications when a leader or an organization can simply send out a release and assume that it will get attention without any realtime flack from detractors. Gone are the days of two-way communications, for that matter. Now communications is a multi-lateral exercise, a conversation in which you must participate without the expectation of controlling its direction and content.

True engagement means going into a communications interaction ready not just to speak, but to listen and respond, too. That would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago. Today, it’s unthinkable to assume you can lob your message out there and that all will then be well.

I’m not saying that every unexpected twist in communications can or will go as well as it did for the President in this case. But good for him for having the presence of mind to turned what could have been bad news into an opportunity for, shall we say, a teachable moment. Having been interrupted and yelled at often during his tenure, he’s had a lot of good practice.

Amplify: What Makes a Winning Op-Ed?

loudspeakersGETTING AN Op-Ed placed is no cinch anymore – if it ever was – particularly in the highest-profile daily papers and online outlets.

There are fewer such papers than a generation ago and intense competition to get in them. (I’ve heard editors of some of the bigger national papers say they can get 75 to 100 submissions a day for maybe a couple or three slots.) While online publications theoretically have an infinite amount of space to devote to Op-Eds, they can be pretty selective, too.

But someone has to get published, and if yours is the right piece at the right time, it might just be you. Though there are no guarantees with any formula, here are elements that I think will improve your chances and help you try to amplify your message.

Have something to say. This should be self-evident, right? I mean, isn’t that the primary purpose of an Op-Ed? Well, I’ve handled countless Op-Eds that really didn’t seem to offer a coherent idea or perspective so much as a catalogue of disconnected thoughts or personal accomplishments. Very simply: that’s not what works.

Make one good main point – maybe two, at the very most, but even that’s pushing it. The rest of the piece should be made up of proof points (statistics, anecdotes, quotes from other experts, and so on) that support the larger big idea.

Offer Credibility. The more expert and authoritative the writer is about the topic, the more likely she will get published. Op-Ed pages are bulletin boards of the best and most informed thinking, so it’s best you really know what you’re talking about or bring some special authority to the subject.

That doesn’t mean you have to be famous, just credible.  It may appear to the regular Op-Ed reader that most of the pieces are by well-known government leaders, entertainers and other brands; that’s certainly true in places like the Huffington Post, which trades heavily on such names.

But, as David Shipley, the then-editor of the New York Times Op-Ed Page, wrote a number of years ago, “Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans.”

As someone who has pitched pieces by top government leaders, major corporate execs, well-known academics, and even a king, I can tell you that, while such names will probably ensure a first read, their celebrity status alone isn’t enough. But if you’re, let’s say, a  small family farmer with on-the-ground knowledge of a particularly topical agriculture issue and you have something compelling to say about it, you just might get published.

Be Compelling. And just what is “compelling?” Well, it’s highly subjective. But, to quote Shipley again, “[S]ay something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.”

If you look at many of the pieces that appear on the best Op-Ed pages, you’ll notice that, first, they offer a fresh take or a counterpoint on an issue. There was a piece just a few days ago, for example, by Jason Kass called “Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet.

The occasion for the piece was World Toilet Day (more serious an observance than you’re probably thinking). While other organizations and experts probably tried to submit pieces around World Toilet Day that gave rather sober and unsurprising arguments for the need for more and better sanitation systems in the developing world, Kass’s obviously jumped out.

Kass, identified as “an environmental engineer and the founder of the organization Toilets for People,” succeeded by taking a somewhat contrarian view, challenging the conventional wisdom, and, most gutsy, even the most prominent of global development leaders, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With vivid examples (another ingredient of “compelling”) he said that many of the cutting-edge sanitation innovations are too complicated and expensive to solve the widespread challenge. Though it may have ruffled some feathers among the major international development organizations, it proved to be a winner, at least to Op-Ed editors.

Part of being compelling often includes timeliness – talking about something that’s on everyone’s mind today, not last week or even last month. Take part in the conversation while it’s happening.

Answer The Question: Why Should I Care? This is a question every journalist, on behalf of his or her audience, must answer before deciding to cover a story or run an Op-Ed piece. What relevance does this point have for the rest of society? Is it just a promotion of a product or an accomplishment (something I see often in unsuccessful Op-Eds, speeches, interviews, etc.), or is does it have some important bearing on broader trends and concerns?

One Op-Ed  that met this latter criteria over the last year came from none other than Angelina Jolie. That was the one in which she disclosed in the New York Times that she had a double mastectomy to preempt the onset of breast cancer.

If she had only offered a poignant story about how her mother battled (and lost to) breast cancer (speaking of compelling) and the surprising medical intervention she chose, it probably would have been interesting – certainly to the celebrity pages. But what would it matter to the rest of us? Would we care? Would it have been published? I doubt it.

“But,” she added, “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

Why should we care, indeed? And, even more so than most Op-Eds, her message was amplified through the enormous follow-on media coverage.

Follow a Few More Simple Rules.

  • Be brief. 750 to 800 words at the very most. (Unless you’re Henry Kissinger, who seems always to get more space than most anyone I can think of.)
  • Get to your main point right away – only in couple of paragraphs in. You don’t have a lot of space.
  • Fight the big fight. Don’t get bogged down in arcane side debates that only you and three other people care about. (See: “Why Should I Care?”) Win on what’s make-or-break for your side.
  • Avoid repeating opposition views. You’ve only got a little bit of space, so use it to make your argument, not to repeat others’. In other words, play offense not defense.
  • Be civil. “Jane, you ignorant slut!,” (if you’re too young or forgetful to know what I’m referring here, watch this at 1:09) is not a winning line other than on comedy shows. Nor is it effective to impugn your opponent’s motives when you don’t really know what those motives are. Stick to the merits of the debate. (See: “Fight the big fight.”)

You can apply most of the advice here to many other aspects of your communications. But when it comes to Op-Eds, these are the ingredients of a recipe that might just win you the blue ribbon. Good luck.

Photo credit

Clarify: The Power of Simple Language

IMG_1880A COLLEGE WRITING TEACHER taught me one of the best lessons I ever learned about clarity in communications: it is the primary responsibility of the writer to ensure that the reader understands – not the other way around.

Sounds pretty basic, right? But I can’t tell you how often I see people in many different modes of communication ignore this idea, if they’re even aware of it to begin with. They apparently assume everyone knows what they’re saying when they go down the rabbit hole of insider jargon. Anyone who doesn’t, they seem to figure, is just stupid or not really paying attention.

Of course, the context matters. At a science conference, a scientist is more likely – and probably well advised – to use highly technical language to describe the results of her latest research. That’s when the shorthand really helps speed up and, yes, clarify what the speaker is trying to get across.

And there’s no question that there’s a fine line between simplifying for clarity and sounding glib or shallow. Each situation is different and requires us to modulate our language to fit the occasion based on what we know about our audience.

But some of the best communicators recognize that, even within their own circle of experts, plain language is much more effective.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has this figured out. Watch just about any video of him speaking and you’ll see about as plain-speaking a guy as you’re going to find. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science and a long string of accomplishments in high-tech industries, he certainly has the capacity to get geeky.

But that’s not what happens here in this interview he gave the Financial Times in 2006 in the wake of Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube.

Asked why this purchase was worth the money, Schmidt could have used terms like “market valuation,” “strategic integration,” “Web 2.0,” and so forth. But, even to pretty technically savvy readers of the FT, he explained simply that, first of all, Google’s got a great advertising model that will more than make up for the big money it paid for YouTube. Second, he said, video is where it’s at. Indeed, it’s the future, drawing growing volumes of users. (How right he was). He makes it sound so simple.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, is another with an extraordinary ability to make the complex understandable. Whether you agree with his sometimes confrontational views or not, you can learn a lot about clarity from his writing. Check him here.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easy. People like Schmidt and Krugman apparently have a natural gift for communicating, among other talents. Or maybe they acquired it, as many can, with hard work, regular practice and awareness of how they come off.

My suggestions:

  • Consider your audience. As I said, every situation is unique, and it’s up to the communicator to be as tuned in to what audiences will and won’t understand. Sometimes, as in a speech to a large and diverse audience, it’s tough to know precisely who is listening and what they know. In that case and others like it, you just have to make an educated guess and keep an eye, as best you can, on how they react. When developing a campaign, it’s ideal to use message and opinion research to figure out what kind of language is likely to resonate. That’s a more expensive and less spontaneous option, but sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, it’s a wise choice.
  • Metaphor. Nothing too surprising here, but often it’s best to explain the unfamiliar with the familiar – some kind of image or anecdote that neatly draws the basics from a more complicated idea.
  • Don’t tell them everything you know, just what they need to know. Most experts I’ve worked with who know a lot about their subject are brimming over with eagerness to share every thought and fact they’ve stored in their brain. To the uninitiated, that’s just too much to keep up with. The communicator needs instead to pare down all she knows to the bare essential. Dr. Susan Love did a masterful job of this a few years ago in the interview on NBC News about breast cancer research (see below) . She could have talked on and on about the technical details, disclaimers and exceptions. But knowing she only had a short window of time and a pretty diverse audience, she articulated her main message right away, dropped in one (and only one) illustrative statistic and cut right back to her main message. The result: clarity.
  • Take the gloves off and then go back and cut – again and again. If you’re writing (or even editing in your head quickly), start by putting all your ideas down. Don’t worry about the order or the logic or even good grammar and punctuation. Just get it all out. Then start paring down the ideas, sentences and individual words to something more concise and accessible. If you see a long cluster of words describing one idea, go back and see if you can say the same thing in fewer, shorter words. About, oh, 100 percent of the time, I find something in my own writing to cut. When you do, your language will be more powerful and, most importantly, understandable to the people you’re trying to reach.

Is that clear?

%d bloggers like this: