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Media Minute: Good advice, badly delivered

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Media Minute: Good advice, badly delivered

By Jerry Brown, APR

Media Minute: Good advice, badly deliveredI think it’s safe to say things aren’t going well when you feel compelled to tell employees not to use words or phrases like “deathtrap,” “widowmaker” and “rolling sarcophagus” to describe your products.

I’m referring, of course, to the General Motors memo with a list of 68 words and phrases GM employees documenting potential safety issues were told to not to use.

The GM employees were told to avoid the word “defect” because it could be seen as an admission of guilt. Other words on the list included “bad,” “terrifying,” “dangerous,” “horrific” and “Hindenburg.” The phrase “Corvair-like” was on the banned list, along with “unbelievable engineering screw-up” and “this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Written in 2008, the list of banned words predates the dustup over the ignition-switch recalls that have killed at least 13 people and inflicted repeated hits to GM’s reputation over the past several months.

But it surfaced in the news media just a few weeks ago, unfortunate timing for the folks at GM because it served as an opportunity for another round of stories on the ignition-switch recalls and how poorly GM has handled them. I suspect I wasn’t alone in missing the fact when I first heard about it that the memo was six years old and not written in response to the current situation.

The admonition to stick to the facts and avoid offering opinions when describing potential safety issues was good advice, I believe.

But it was badly executed. The list of banned words and phrases was too specific, too long and ultimately caused the kind of harm it was designed to prevent.

I’ve often advised clients to avoid putting certain information in writing so their words won’t come back to haunt them in the media or a lawsuit. But I don’t put that advice in writing, either.

Anything you distribute to a large group of people — and sometimes a small group of people — is going to be shared with others, potentially including your enemies, your competitors and the media. That doesn’t mean you never share sensitive information in writing. But say it carefully. And use caution when deciding how widely to share it. Distributing a memo with a list of “banned” words to a large group of employees has a good chance of being leaked to the media.

Offer your employees guidance. But try to do it in a way that does no harm.

We all have stories to tell. Do you need help telling yours?

Merry Christmas (or whatever)

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Christmas_packagesMerry Christmas.  You celebrate a different holiday?  Merry/happy that, too

It’s Decembrrr — a time when the kids in my life and yours are looking forward to Santa (or whoever) and the loot.  I’m looking forward to … summer.  My question this time of year is always the same:  Where is summer now that we really need it?  A travel agent friend continues to suggest the Bahamas.

We’re near the end of another year.  My four grandkids all got bigger, smarter and cuter.  I got bigger, too.  The grandkids are growing upways.  I’m growing sideways.  That doesn’t’ seem fair.  And I didn’t get smarter and cuter.  I got … older.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I did get older.  I definitely didn’t get cuter.  But I do think I’m still getting smarter.  And there’s still plenty of room for growth on that score.

My kids (who are no longer kids) and their kids all did wonderful things this year.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you know them well enough to care, you probably know most of the details anyway.  And if you don’t know the kids in my life well enough to know what they’re up to, I encourage you take the time you would spend reading about what my kids and kids’ kids did this year to reflect on what the kids in your life did.  I hope that brings a smile to your day.

I hope you had a good 2010.  If not, you survived at least if you’re reading this.  Regardless of how 2010 turned out for you, I wish you a wonderful new year.

A closing thought:  Laugh at your problems.  Everyone else does.

— Jerry Brown, pr-IMPACT

Bad Jokes

Monday, October 11th, 2010

By Jerry Brown, APR

lacrosse_goalIf you don’t know who Karen Owen is, she’d probably like to keep it that way.

Owen is a recent graduate of Duke University who has gained notoriety for her mock academic thesis entitled “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.”

The 42-page PowerPoint document details her sexual exploits with 13 Duke athletes.  It includes names, pictures, detailed descriptions of her sexual encounters and a rating for each man’s physique and performance.

Owen shared her “honors thesis” with three “close friends.”  You know the rest:  It went viral.  And Owen has gone into hiding.

For years, I’ve told media training clients don’t say anything to or within earshot of a reporter that you don’t want to see in print or hear on the air.  I need to update that.  Don’t say anything on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on the Internet that you’re not willing to share with the media, prospective employers and the rest of the world.

You can blame Owen’s mistake on youthful indiscretion and naivete, I suppose.  Not so with Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise, who was suspended for a month after putting an inaccurate item on his Post Twitter account.

Wise posted a Tweet saying Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would get a five-game suspension instead of six games as widely reported in the media.  Wise claims he posted the misinformation as a joke to show that inaccurate information spreads quickly on the Internet without much fact-checking.

But his bosses at the Post apparently did check — and weren’t amused.

As long as there are people with mouths to speak and fingers to type, there will be gaffes that lead to unintended negative attention for saying stupid things that become public.

So, this is still good advice:  If you don’t want to see it in print, hear it on the air — or have it appear all over the Internet — don’t say it.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

Good writer, ruthless editor

Monday, August 9th, 2010

By Jerry Brown, APR

commaTo be a good storyteller, be a good writer.  And a ruthless editor of your own words.

To be a ruthless editor of your own words, put your ego on the shelf.  Fall in love with your writing and it won’t be as good as it can be.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some editing games to help me improve my first drafts.  Here are a few of them:

  • Eliminate widows and orphans: Go through your document and edit any paragraph with a word or two stranded alone on the last line.  Most of the time the words I delete to get rid of the orphans didn’t add anything.  So, my writing becomes tighter.  A more extreme version is to go after the widows — a single line from a paragraph on a page by itself.
  • Make your document one page shorter: Your document’s six pages long?  Eliminate words and phrases until you have a five-page document.  If it was easy, repeat the exercise to make it a four-page document.
  • Lower the word count: A variation of the “one page shorter” game.  Check the word count of your document and arbitrarily pick a lower number, then eliminate words and phrases until you reach your goal.  If it was easy, pick a lower number and do it again.  Keep trimming until you can’t take anything else out without deleting something important.
  • Replace commas with periods: If you use a lot of commas, consider replacing as many of them as you can with periods.  Your document won’t be shorter.  But your sentences will be.  And your writing will be punchier.  No, you won’t be able to eliminate every comma.  And you don’t want to.
  • Delete empty words: Replace “in order to” with “to,” for example.  My favorite target:  “that.”  Most of the time taking “that” out of a sentence will make your writing tighter without affecting your meaning.  No, you won’t be able to eliminate all of them.  But declare war on “that” and your writing will be crisper.
  • Listen to what you write: Something I learned as a speechwriter.  If it doesn’t sound right there’s a better way to say it.

That’s my’ two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

A conflict of (self) interest?

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

By Jerry Brown, APR

blameIs there an inherent conflict between stepping up publicly to accept responsibility during a crisis and the need to defend yourself in court?

Several readers posed that question over the past couple weeks after I criticized Goldman Sachs for its PR efforts in response to Wall Street reform legislation and oil industry executives for trying to point blame away from themselves and at one another while testifying before a Senate committee about what caused the big oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

My answer to the question?  Sometimes.  But a lot less often than many companies seem to think based on their ineffective communications when they find themselves in the middle of one.

Some crisis communications basics.

  • When the public’s in danger, or believes it’s in danger, you have to disclose the facts.  All of them.  Even the ones you want to hide.  Especially, the ones you want to hide most of the time.  When it comes to civil lawsuits, you can’t hide the facts anyway.  They’ll all come out during discovery.  Hiding the facts when the public feels threatened only buys you public distrust and outrage without providing any protection once you get to court.
  • Accepting responsibility because a problem happened on your property or as a result of your operations — and providing credible evidence you’re doing all you can to fix the problem and keep it from happening again — is not the same as admitting guilt in court.  You’re going to be sued anyway.  Showing the rest of us you’re willing to fix a problem we already assume is your fault will help you when you get to court, not hurt you.

The mutual it-was-their-fault-not-ours finger pointing by the oil executives came during a Senate committee hearing on the Gulf oil spill.  A BP executive blamed the leak on a blowout preventer installed by Transocean and suggested Transocean may have disregarded pressure readings indicating a problem hours before the explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that led to the leak.  The implication was that the explosion and spill could have been prevented if Transocean had paid attention to the pressure readings and taken corrective action.  Transocean suggested faulty cement work by Halliburton might be the cause.  And Halliburton pointed the finger of blame back at BP and Transocean.

The comments won’t give those executives or their companies any protection in court.  But the comments did make them look bad in front of members of Congress and the public.  They damaged their cause without gaining anything positive in return.

Ditto for the folks on Wall Street who have refused to help develop reforms that will help prevent another economic meltdown like the one that happened in 2008.  If they wanted to, they could help fix a system most of us believe is broken without doing anything that would amount to an admission of guilt in court.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

Faceoff on Facebook

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

By Jerry Brown, APR

Are you one of those who still question the power of the social media?  Then consider these examples of the power of Facebook.

Example 1:  Prayer for Obama Psalm 109:8

Last Thursday, I received an invitation to join a Facebook group called Boycott Cafepress. The issue?  Cafepress was selling merchandise that read:  Prayer for Obama Psalm 109:8.

So, what’s the problem?  The message behind this “prayer” is what some believe is a threat to President Obama’s life.  Psalm 109:8 says:  “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.  Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

Since I agree the “prayer” goes beyond the bounds of legitimate political debate, I accepted the Facebook group’s invitation to send an email to Cafepress urging them to quit selling the Psalm 109 merchandise and to log onto the Cafepress Web site to participate in their online poll on whether they should keep or drop the Psalm 109 merchandise.

Clearly, I wasn’t alone. Cafepress has since dropped the Psalm 109 merchandise.  And I received – along with many others, I’m sure – an email from Cafepress thanking me my input and letting me know they’ve removed all Psalm 109 merchandise from their Web site.

The whole thing played out in less than 24 hours.  Can you imagine a national PR campaign having that kind of impact that quickly before the days of the social media?  I can’t.  And kudos to Cafepress to the impressive way they responded to what coud have turned into a major crisis for them.

Example 2:  Facebook’s FarmVille

Have you started your farm yet?  Since June, people have been able to raise crops on their own virtual farms on a Facebook site called FarmVille.  According to a story on the front page of this morning’s Denver Post, 60 million people have planted virtual crops on the side over the past five months.  Are you reaching 60 million people with your message?

Example 3:  Targeting Redheads

Los Angeles police announced over the weekend that the beating of a 12-year-old boy by a group of classmates may be linked to a Facebook posting encouraging kids to target redheads.  The posting said Friday was “Kick a Ginger Day,” referring to redheads.  Not a positive example, for sure.  But an example of the power of the social media to influence behavior.

Should you be using Facebook and the other social media?  I don’t know.  The answer to that question depends on what you want to say and who you want to say it to.  But if you’re not figuring out how to use these new communications tools, you run the risk of limiting the reach of your message.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?

Invest in Your Freedom

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

No tips this week, just an appeal to invest in your freedom.

I worked for three daily newspapers during the 20 years I committed journalism.  With the death of the Rocky Mountain News last week, two and one-half of them are gone.

My first news job was as a part-timer on the State Desk of the Arkansas Gazette.  I was a college student at the time.

I grew up with the Gazette.  Little Rock was my home town.  It was a gutsy paper that did an outstanding job of covering local government and politics.  For example, it stood up to:

  • Orval Faubus, who won seven terms as governor — Bill Clinton’s the only other person to do that — by closing our schools and playing demagogue on the issue of segregation.
  • Political corruption that led to some counties reporting vote totals that exceeded the number of registered voters.  People really did vote early and often.  And some people took their civic duty so seriously that they continued to vote even after they were dead.
  • Casino gambling that flourished openly in the resort city of Hot Springs despite being illegal.

The Gazette made a difference in all three of those cases — and many, many more.  The citizens of Arkansas were better off because the newspaper kept them informed about important things they would never have known about otherwise.  The Rocky also made a positive difference to Denver.  Having one less watchdog is a loss to the community.

The only paper I’ve worked for that’s still standing is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  When I worked there, the Star-Telegram published both morning and afternoon editions.  The afternoon edition, which was the dominant one at the time, disappeared some years ago.  So, only half of it’s left.

Our newspaper industry is dying.  So here’s my appeal to you:  If you don’t already do so, spend the few bucks each month that it will cost you to become a subscriber to your local newspaper(s).  Even if you throw them away unopened, you’ll be helping to pay for an important check on political and other incompetence and malfeasance.  That’s an investment worth making.  I hope you won’t throw them away unopened, by the way.

If you’re young enough that you’ve never become a newspaper reader, pick one up occasionally and spend some time with it.  If you’re old enough to be familiar with what newspapers are about, keep reading — or resume reading.  And encourage your kids and others folks younger than you to subscribe.

Don’t do it for the newspapers.  Do it to protect your freedom by keeping the watchdog on the job.

That my two cents’ worth.  What’s yours?


The Monday Morning Media Minute is now available as an eBook.  My new eStore features five eBooks based on the Media Minute.  To check them out, visit my eStore and buy early and often.  The eBooks come as PDF files.  You don’t need special eBook software to read them.

MMMM Now a Blog

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

The Monday Morning Media Minute is now a blog. What does that mean? I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together.

MMMM debuted January 1, 2001, as a weekly e-mail tip you can read in a minute or so. I wrote MMMM for four years, took a couple years off while I returned to the world of corporate PR, then resumed writing it at the beginning of 2007. Now in its sixth year, MMMM will continue as a weekly e-mail for those who want to receive it that way — at least for now. But it’ll also appear here, with an open invitation for you to join the conversation.

I’ve also created a second blog, Jerry’s Two Cents’ Worth. How will it differ from MMMM? Don’t know the answer to that yet, either. We’ll find that out together, too. One difference to begin is that I’ll update Jerry’s Two Cents’ Worth more than once a week. I see it as an opportunity to serve up my thoughts — and, I hope, yours — on PR topics as they pop up in the news. And I won’t be distributing it by e-mail. But you can set up an RSS feed, if you like, to keep tabs of new postings. Or check back regularly to see what’s brewing.

Happy New Year. And welcome to the MMMM blog.