Richard Sherman and the Danger of Misinterpretation in Communications

You know how athletes celebrate by jumping in the air and banging into each other? Or develop ritual dances and other showboat-y gestures? This is especially true in football. I noticed in the Seahawks-49ers game a week ago how when the Seahawks scored, they eschewed the dances. They just shook hands. I thought that was a refreshing contrast that to my eye indicated professionalism and focus on an unfinished task.

So when Richard Sherman had his outburst on national TV in a post-game interview, it seemed out of character from the team’s overall approach.

In the days since that interview, Sherman has been the topic of a nonstop national conversation about sportsmanship, classiness, class and more.

And at the core of that national conversation is a cluster of valuable lessons for communicators around things like cognitive dissonance, preconceived notions, stereotypes and most important, understanding that the message you want to communicate might not be the same as what you’re really communicating.

I don’t know what Sherman’s objective might have been when he screamed that he was the best cornerback in the league to Erin Andrews. Maybe he was just caught up in the moment. I read that Andrews said that he hugged her and smiled at her before his rant. The 3.9 GPA graduate of Stanford University and high school salutatorian probably didn’t expect to be labeled a thug. And worse. He probably didn’t expect to become the major sports story in the country for a week and counting.

And conversely, if Sherman had been, say, Wes Welker, he might not have been. Sometimes people see what they want to see, based on their own set of experiences rather than what really happened. Sometimes things are not what they first appear to be. And sometimes those preconceived ideas are very resilient.

Come to think of it, my notion of gentlemanly handshakes, not elaborate dances, is itself a preconceived notion that maybe many others don’t share. Who knows?

What I do know, though, is that image, and message, have to be clear enough, and broad enough, and widely accepted enough to not be susceptible to misinterpretation, whether you’re communicating for a manufacturing brand, a buttoned-down CEO, a Web startup, a non-profit—or your football team.

Why Smart Communicators Use the Phone

You can feel yourself age when you use such antiquated words like “telephone” in front of your 12-year-old son. “Mom, who says ‘telephone’ anymore?” He has a point.

Every now and then “telephone” creeps into my language, as do other throwbacks like Rolodex and VCR.  Just as we don’t say “telephone” very often, we also don’t use the device as much as we should in the communications business.  We’re so used to emailing, texting, posting, pinning, sharing and liking that we often put phone communications on the back burner. That phone taking up space on your desk is a bit lonely.

In the past week how many times have you engaged in a business conversation via the phone versus email or LinkedIn or even texting? How many times have you thought, “I should have just called her”? Or, “I wonder what he meant in that email when he said ‘let’s discuss’”? Perhaps it means we should actually talk.

Phone communication for business is not yet an antiquated activity but it’s getting there. Let’s not contribute to its demise.  Communicators who pick up the phone – either to make a call or receive a call – will (and do) have the edge with stakeholders. Social media cannot replace phone calls. Emailing cannot replace a one-on-one conversation.  An interview with a reporter that’s done by email is inferior to one that’s either in-person or by phone. A customer-service related issue is usually more efficient via email but if you really want to ‘wow’ a customer, check in by phone.  A press release does not replace verbal communication with key stakeholders.

As we embark on a new year for communications excellence, let’s make the call to take the call or make a call.

- Diane Schwartz  @dianeschwartz

Call me with topics you’d like to see covered in this blog: 212-621-4964.

 

Words and Phrases to be Banned, 2014 Edition

English has 1.1 million words, more words than any other language, according to the Global Language Monitor and other sources. That’s double the next most prolific language. And English adds about 15 words per day, or one every 98 minutes.

So 400 years after the greatest English wordsmith of them all, William Shakespeare, the language remains a living, changing, vital form of communication, something PR folks use every day. And they work hard at it. It’s said PR is, at its core, storytelling. But if that’s true, then storytelling, at its core, is about words.

It stands to reason, then, that as words get added, other words become obsolete. Who uses “groovy” anymore? And as technology transforms our lives, the lifecycle of some words speeds up. In that spirit, we offer a list of words we came across as 2014 dawned that should be banned, starting now.

Words to be Banned, Generic Edition
(Courtesy of Lake Superior State University, and selected by them for the sins of misuse, overuse and general uselessness)

• Selfie
• Twerking
• Hashtag
• Twittersphere
• Mr. Mom
• T-bone
• _____ on Steroids
• _____ageddon
• _____pocalypse

A related list, from USA Today, gets at a few more words and phrases that have become persona non grata.

• Photobomb
• Combined celebrity couple names
• “Abbrevs,” like “ridic,” “totes,” “obv,” “cray,” and lots more.
• Overhashtagging

Phrases and Words to be Banned, Work Edition
(Courtesy of USA Today)

• Noncommittal language
• Describing things as “surreal”
• Saying “quote-unquote”
• Starting all sentences with “So,” and ending them with “right?”

Phrases and Words to be Banned, PR Edition
(Courtesy of Yahoo Tech’s David Pogue)

You’ll never catch me using terms like “price point” when I mean “price,” or “form factor” when I mean “size.” I’ll never say “content” when I mean video, “solution” when I mean product, “DRM” when I mean copy protection, or “functionality” when I mean “feature.” Also, I will never refer to you as “the user.” (If you think about it, only two industries refer to their customers as users.)

So there you have it. What do you think? So when I was compiling this list, it seemed like a valuable study in the use of language, right?

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Journalist Whisperer?

women said, woman listening to gossipAt PR News’ recent Media Relations Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Amy Eisman of American University’s School of Communication and a founding editor of USA Today brought up the concept of the “journalist whisperer.” This is a PR professional who can speak a journalist’s language on the platform they want to be reached on. Someone who doesn’t have to use press releases or mass emails but has developed relationships to the point where they are only a call, informal email or G-chat away from the right journalist to cover their client’s or organization’s story.

Isn’t this what the whole media relations function is all about, what it’s always been about? Perhaps in the bygone days of long lunches, ad-stuffed newspapers and magazines and fat expense accounts (both on the PR and media sides of the equation) no one had to be told to be a journalist whisperer. There was time to build relationships.

Now it’s just plain hard to keep relationships of all types together. The pace of life and technology itself seems to have driven wedges between individuals—between family members, between friends, between business colleagues.

It’s up to you to break that pattern. Amy Eisman didn’t cook up the term “journalist whisperer”—she heard it from a journalist friend who made it plain that she needs the help of great PR pros. She needs their help to do her job, more than ever. She wants to forge bonds with PR pros who know her, know her work habits, know the unique pressures she’s under, know what she needs to hit her own deadlines and drive the bottom line for her own media organization.

So commit to building those relationships with the media professionals who matter to you. And the best way to do that is to do what you would do in any relationship. Don’t wait until you need something to reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need when you don’t need anything in particular. Just a little whisper, once in awhile.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

New Year’s Resolutions for the PR-Minded

The good thing about New Year’s resolutions is that no one is really listening closely to what you are resolving to do.  But resolutions do crystallize our goals and make the month of January, at least, a little more interesting. For communicators the world over, you should expect 2014 to bring the following:

> Crises, smoldering or quick

> Reputations under fire or on fire

> Media coverage, for better or worse

> Employee morale issues

> Financial ups and downs

> Product and company launches

> Product and company failures

> A new social media craze

These are just a few of the sure things in PR as we herald in the new year and perhaps a new approach to PR.  In my nearly two decades covering Public Relations, I have never seen a bigger opportunity than now for PR practitioners to be the dominant force in brand leadership, message management and tying intangibles and tangibles to the bottom line.

There are many ways to not screw up this trajectory and to possibly make 2014 the most exciting year for you in PR. To do that, however, will take some commitment to the core tenets and practices of the best PR practitioners. Here at PR News we benchmark outstanding communication leadership across all areas of the market. From our Platinum PR  to our PR People Awards, from Corporate Social Responsibility to the Digital PR Awards, we see a pattern in excellence that underscores why resolutions are worth keeping.  Like many New Year’s Resolutions, the following list may sound familiar but I submit that the best ideas are worth repeating:

* Find the interesting story behind your message – and tell it

* Measure your PR and be bold enough to make adjustments

* Listen to your stakeholders: your customers, investors, employees are your keys to success

* Learn to work across silos – marketing, HR, IT, Finance, Legal

* Become a better goal-keeper:  of your goals, your department’s and your organization’s

* Collaborate internally and externally – 1+1=3

* Hone your writing skills: you reach more people when you can spell, turn a phrase and use your words correctly

* Foster diversity: in thought and experience

* Don’t fear missing out: resist the urge to be on every social media platform

* Be transparent: people are smart enough to see through the BS anyway

* Advocate for PR: become a voice for Public Relations inside your organization and in the marketplace of ideas.

What are some of your PR resolutions for 2014? Please share with your fellow PR News blog readers.

Best of luck to you and your team for a meaningful and memorable 2014.

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

 

PS – Check out more of my blog posts from the past few months:

Beyonce’s December Surprise is a PR Masterpiece

Ten Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Now

Nine Tips for Public Speakers Who Hate Public Speaking

The Most Annoying Sayings: The Epic List

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Verbal Communications: The Underutilized Skill

There are certain people who even when they’re smiling warmly have a certain gravitas. They have a certain air that suggests intelligence, calculation, control, even as they engage the people around them. Bill Clinton has that. So does Denzel Washington. Oprah Winfrey. Colin Powell does, and Ronald Reagan did too. One thing that struck me about the photos and the movies of the late actor Paul Walker was that he had that quality as well.

Last week, at our annual PR People Awards presentation, our featured speaker was John Neffinger, co-author of the book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.” Neffinger’s talk was filled with specific, compelling points, all based around a simple premise: People judge other people based on two things, strength and warmth. Strength is the root of respect, and warmth is the root of affection. If you plotted both qualities out on an X axis and a Y axis, the ideal location would be the upper right quadrant, where strength and warmth are maximized. Any of the other three quadrants means a bad mix—either too much of one and not enough of the other, or too little of both.

Neffinger’s whole point was that this is the essential way all humans size each other up. And that only relatively few people ever master the ability to project both qualities at the same time.

And it seems to me that for communicators, especially those who spend a lot of time in public, representing the company—or interacting with employees, for that matter—that Neffinger’s counsel is important. Here are some highlights from his talk that are relevant to communicators looking to sync verbal messaging with non-verbal cues to convey both strength and warmth.

• Try to develop the knowing smile that the people mentioned above have. Neffinger describes is as “feeling the bottom eyelid.”
• Stand up straight. Posture is extremely important, but not used enough.
• Use poised but open gestures. Holding the hands up, Neffinger says, conveys warmth and openness. Holding them down conveys the opposite. Similarly, the chopping gesture with the hands conveys strength, as does holding an imaginary ball in hour hands while speaking.
• Replace all the “ums,” and “uhhhs” in your communications with silence. It’s more powerful.

What are the tools you use to project strength and warmth?

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

The Give and Take of Media Relations

It’s not everyday that PR is taken to task for sending unsolicited emails to reporters. Oh, wait – it is every day that this happens. And sometimes the magnifying glass is placed directly over the Public Relations trade, as is the case this week with an unflattering article by The New York Times’ Haggler (Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Segal) that took to task emails the columnist received and persistently tracked back to an industry vendor’s media database. It doesn’t help that the headline is”Swatting at a Storm of Public Relations Spam.”

Whether fair or not, this sort of coverage sets us up for the defensive.  Even with fantastic media databases, dedicated PR reps tracking down the right beat reporters, and guerilla PR efforts targeted by time, day, demo and topic, no media relations effort is perfect.  And to blame a database for an incorrect email campaign is akin to blaming the tools, not the carpenter, for shoddy construction. But we can all agree that a bad PR pitch is a bad PR pitch in whatever form, format or formality it’s received.

Email remains the “killer app” for communicating with our stakeholders.  By “killer” it can also mean relationship killer. The result of targeting the wrong reporter too many times, or the right reporter with the wrong pitch, usually is one of nonchalance — of just ignoring, deleting, opting out. The Haggler is an extreme version of one recipient revolting, perhaps for the sake of writing a column about it.

At the PR News Writing Bootcamp last week in Chicago, a panel of reporters reviewed mock email pitches from an audience of PR pros and implored the audience to keep their email pitches simple, short and crafted with an obvious reason for the reporter to care.  The journalists on this panel — from Chicago newspapers and a mommy blog — were characteristically cynical. They are inundated with email pitches daily, and as with press releases, you have 7 seconds, at most, to get their attention.  The panelists advised to think of an email pitch like it’s a movie trailer: grab the viewer’s attention but don’t give away the plot.

Assuming you have a story to tell, you still need to give the reporter something. Here are a few somethings to consider:

Before you send out your next email pitch, make sure “the give” is in there. Media Relations is the art and science of give and take.

- Diane Schwartz

Twitter: @dianeschwartz

PS: I’ll be at the PR NewsMedia Relations Conference on Dec 12 at the National Press Club. If you’re attending, DM on Twitter so we can set up a time to chat in person.

Perception Versus Reality in PR

Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.

Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.

I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.

I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.

How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.

How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.

Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.

—Tony Silber
@Tonysilber

When to Apologize

As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.

The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.

“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.

This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.

And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.

Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.

But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.

In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.

And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.

So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

What’s First, Technology or Content?

I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.

Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.

Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?

Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.

And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.

In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.

There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

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