01 December 2014

Ferguson: communication and credibility

2011 Stanley Cup Finals
Sometimes it's important to listen before jumping to conclusions about important issues - to let things play out a little bit, get some facts, and share some insights that maybe haven't been shared.  That's what I've tried to do with what has happened in Ferguson.

I've built a career in politics and communications, and I understand crisis management.  I know how political systems are set up and how some people can leverage that system to evade or deflect accountability, especially in a crisis.  I understand what builds and what destroys credibility with an audience.
As far as the system is concerned, we can all see the obvious.  Darren Wilson was Michael Brown's judge, jury and executioner. As far as the system is concerned, the only thing that truly matters is if Darren Wilson was "reasonably" scared, and it's his word against a corpse.  This is true because Darren Wilson's allies removed the remaining safeguards in the system that could have challenged the notion he was scared.

Darren Wilson's co-workers on the police force allowed him to handle evidence before it was processed.  They let him wash his hands twice before testing them for anything such as another person's blood or gunshot residue.   They didn't take the required pictures at the crime scene, despite letting Michael Brown's dead body lay uncovered in the street for four and a half hours.

Prosecutors let Wilson's statements to a grand jury go unchallenged, while eyewitness accounts received repeated scrutiny.  They even misinformed the grand jury on applicable law.  The people who specialize in collecting evidence and grilling suspects instead chose to destroy evidence and grill witnesses. They gave Darren Wilson the benefit of every doubt, even if it meant breaking their own rules to do so.

I can understand the desire to protect one of your own.  But these seem to me like the actions of people who feel no accountability to the people they're sworn to serve.
2014 World Series

The prosecutor's statement - given at night for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason - was beyond tone deaf.  It was the culmination of a cynical, even spiteful exercise in political cover. Any PR flack or political hack can see this.

The mayor's press conference the next day - ostensibly to announce an update in Darren Wilson's employment status - was instead an opportunity for the mayor to complain the Governor hadn't acted quickly enough to bring in more resources from the National Guard.  When it came to addressing the concerns of residents, the mayor quickly faded to the background and brought in a parade of African-American clergy.  The mayor offered no updates on Wilson.

This follows the sustained cowardice and dishonesty from Ferguson's police chief, who cited non-existent FOIA requests to conduct a character assassination, let his officers arrest and detain journalists in violation of the law, and seemed to confuse a St. Louis suburb with a war zone.

2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Festival
As rubber bullets and tear gas canisters were fired into crowds of unarmed demonstrators and as reporters were taken away from the scene by force, Ferguson's leaders were nowhere to be found.

The mayor, police chief, and prosecutor act as though they are fully aware they have no credibility with residents, and they really don't care.

After all, the people of Ferguson do nothing to hold them accountable.  They don't vote. Sadly, many of the people who have spoken out loudest in support of Darren Wilson are also largely behind the efforts to pass "voter ID" laws that would make it harder for the people of Ferguson to vote.  These proposed laws are supposedly designed to fix a non-existent problem in the United States: voter fraud. (Other things that don't exist: Darren Wilson's broken eyesocket.)

Crisis communications professionals are trained to see the opportunity in every crisis and lay out a plan of action to improve an organization or person's standing with an audience.   If you consider the residents of Ferguson to be the key audience here, consider this an opportunity wasted.

As for whether the situation in Ferguson is about a larger issue of race in America, just listen to Jay Smooth.

24 November 2014

I'm thankful for these blog posts

Let's face it, blogging is dead.  The world is on social. Even I was excited about Ello for about 90 minutes. We're all too busy to consume text - now we need pictures and video  Even the text we DO consume has to be in the form of a list - like "6 things we're thankful for this year."  So that's what this post really is. 

  I've been too busy lately to do much of anything in social media.  And yet, there have been a number of posts that I've had a chance to read that have made me think about how important it is for communicators to know their audience and understand communities.  Here are a few of them.

Hope Jahren, What I learned from #ManicureMonday Dr. Jahren posted this just before Thanksgiving last year, and I've referred to it a number of times in work and in presentations.  To me this is a case study of what happens when communities clash over content.  I wasn't simply struck by Dr. Jahren's reaction - I was surprised that Seventeen Magazine chose not to engage at all.  I see it as an opportunity lost. 

Matt Shipman, Can Public Relations be Science Communication? Spoiler alert: yes.  Matt's just one of those guys who gets it.  He articulates a beef I've had with science communication from the day I got interested in it.  Science communicators want to expand their audience but do very little to know this "new" audience.  For the most part, they think tactically and not strategically.  This isn't hard: identify your audience, ask them what they want, and give it to them. 

Liz Gumbinner, 22 PR pitches that were too fun to send to spam. Talk about not knowing your audience.  Liz takes this with good humor, but I think it speaks to how the PR industry still doesn't treat bloggers - or blogger outreach - with the respect and professionalism it demands.  We've been talking about this for years. 

Karen Russell, Teaching PR. This isn't a specific post, but I think Dr. Russell is the best curator of PR content in the field.   This is the first place I go to find something topical and get up to speed on my profession.  I've pulled together Twitter lists of practitioners and specialists and refined them over three years, and I still can't put together the feed she has. 

Cristen Clark, #FarmtoPork Blogger Tour.  The #FarmToPork project was my most memorable work from 2014. Everything about it was fascinating.  A historically conservative industry committed an act of "radical transparency" directly with a priority audience.  I'm thankful for all the posts the bloggers wrote about this tour, but I chose Cristen's because she had a unique perspective.  As an online mom AND a farm blogger, she bridged the gap between the two communities.  The conversations she had with other bloggers behind the scenes were the most valuable and enlightening.  To me, this is what represents the essence of public relations and communications today: the nexus of transparency, credibility, accessibility, and emotion. 

Andy Herald, New More Relatable Superheroes. Sometimes my job also gives me the opportunity to meet new people and experience different ideas.  Fatherhood is filled with challenges and fathers react to challenges with a range of emotions.  And yet while I've seen some fathers react online with anger or spite, Andy reacts with humor.  I've never seen Andy use humor to "punch down."   I'm Andy's audience and he knows his audience.  This may seem goofy but he's where I go to find my fatherhood zen. 

17 November 2014

Scientists: know your audience!

Scientific organizations, for the most part, talk about important developments in science with other scientists.  These organizations can expect certain things from their audience: an exceptionally high level of science literacy, an inherent enthusiasm for the subject matter, and even a desire to contribute personally and professionally to the work. The burden is on this educated and emotionally invested audience to comprehend the dense, complex material.

Of course, every now and then scientists will predict exactly where a comet will be ten years into the future, design and launch a spaceship to meet it there, snare it with a grappling hook, conduct a bunch of experiments on it, and send the results back via a solar-powered radio.  In short, they will do the things that inspire millions of people to get more involved with science and understand why it's so important.

These opportunities are exceptionally rare.  Science is a methodical, incremental, conservative process.  But science - and scientific organizations - increasingly depend on the patronage and support from the rest of us. So when scientists pull off a "once-in-a-lifetime" achievement, they can't let anything get in the way of telling the story of science.

And this got in the way of telling the story.


This is Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the brilliant scientists who led the project, at the mission press conference.  And yes, he's wearing a shirt that looks like a perverted unicorn barfed on it. And yes, he called this project "the sexiest mission there's ever been" and joked about the comet, "she's sexy, but I never said she was easy."

So people who don't follow science closely expect to hear this amazing story, and instead they see a guy who looks and sounds like he went into astrophysics because he thought it would help him score with the ladies.  And that's what they remember, at least for now.

To get more professional perspective, I reached out to an old friend who is an expert in communications - and interestingly enough, men's fashion - Chris Hogan of Off the Cuff.  Chris lives and works in Washington DC and still remembers when President Obama wore a white tie to his inaugural ball when he shouldn't have.  He also remembers when the President wore a tan suit to a press conference to talk about a number of global crises and how the media ignored his comments on Syria because they were struck by how casual his clothes were.

"Anytime your message is really important, you don't want anything to distract from that," Chris said. "What you wear should be forgettable, in a good way."  If you want to inject some of your personality as a scientist in your dress, Chris likes Neil deGrasse Tyson's style with his cosmos-inspired ties or vests.   I asked him what he'd wear if giving this press conference, and he said "some kind of neutral blazer, an open-collar dress shirt - unless you're known for those ties like Neil deGrasse Tyson has.  Neutral, authoritative, not stuffy - look like a responsible person."

When the audience isn't the same 300 people you always talk with, the rules are different.  And here's the other thing - when Dr. Taylor made his faux pas, he wasn't just distracting the audience from the story scientists wanted to tell.  He was telling an all-too familiar story many scientists would rather not share.

Science, like many other fields, has a problem with sexism.  Sometimes it's people who make clueless wardrobe choices and make stupid remarks in unusual, uncomfortable situations - like Dr. Taylor, who publicly and tearfully apologized.   Sometimes it's much worse. Often, those problems are institutional.  And too often, women feel like have no place to turn.

And of course, the public discourse has brought out the worst in some people. Mostly anonymous and all pathetic "men's rights activists" have engaged in their usual hypocrisy - women need to "lighten up" about a man's comments or insults or jokes, but a few tweets' worth of criticism from women constitutes a "lynch mob" of "feminist bullies" that deserve death threats and constant streams of abuse.  

I don't think anyone at ESA - Dr. Taylor included - ever wanted this.  But speaking to an audience beyond your peers requires a higher level of awareness and scrutiny.  It means the burden is on you to understand more about how your messages - verbal and otherwise - will be received.  

And when the stakes are high, it means you should hire a professional. It means you should know as much about your audience as possible - like if there are cultural cues or buzzwords that mean one thing to you and something different to them.  It means you should develop an actual strategy about how you will reach your audience.  It means you should build messages and test them to see if they resonate with a sample of your audience.  It means you should build relationships with the most influential members of your audience to make sure those messages are seen as credible and valid. It means you should test to see if your messages have changed people's opinions about you or your work.  

And yes, it probably means you should dress and speak like a grownup, even if the amazing work you do will make you feel like a kid again.

Because yeah, snagging a comet with a grappling hook is absolutely amazing.