When I’m in the shower
I’m afraid to wash my hair
‘Cause I might open my eyes
And find someone standing there
People say I’m crazy
Just a little touched
But maybe showers remind me of
“Psycho” too much
I always feel like somebody’s watching me
- “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (1984)
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between paranoia and appropriate caution. I’ve written about the risks of speaking too loudly in public spaces before, and each time I do, I can’t help wondering whether readers will think I’m engaging in unrealistic fear mongering.
So when our firm’s vice president forwarded me a link to a story I missed a while back, I felt a combination of horror and vindication. It seems my paranoia, if anything, has been understated.
Amy Webb, a reporter for Slate, calls herself “The Acela Spy.” Not only does Ms. Webb pay attention to the conversations around her—but she actively looks at the names on passenger tickets and chooses her seat accordingly.
“It’s astonishingly easy to become an Acela spy—even if you don’t really want to be a part of other riders’ business—as I have learned from years of experience. Until very recently, all Amtrak tickets were paper-based, and the tickets looked a lot like airline boarding passes. In addition to the train and destination information, they included the passenger’s full name in the upper left-hand corner. Also until recently, those tickets were wedged between the top of the cushion and the hard back of each seat, with the name showing for anyone who desired to look. (E-tickets on mobile phones are starting to replace paper tickets for some riders.)
It has been my practice to board the train, and then walk up and down the aisle to glance at the names on those tickets…Shortly after we leave the station and I’ve done my rounds, the mobile phones invariably come out. When they do, I take note of who’s talking, what’s being said, and the name I saw on the ticket.”
Those conversations are often rather damning. In one case, had she chosen to, Webb could have publicly identified two male bankers whose conversation would, at the very least, have made their next day at the office awkward.
“Soon, their conversation turned to a female co-worker who’d returned from maternity leave. Sales guy complained aggressively that while she’d been out of the office for so long, the software they used had upgraded. There was no way she’d ever get caught up, he argued. She had the audacity to put in for a promotion, after being gone for three months!
HR guy concurred. Women were a major distraction, holding back productivity and advancement at their bank. It was a shame they couldn’t legally fire a woman for getting—or even wanting to get—pregnant.”
Webb’s conclusion is very similar to the one I’ve offered several times, both on this blog and in The Media Training Bible:
“The problem is that trains—even in first class, where I’ve observed the worst offenders—aren’t private. They’re very public venues, just like Twitter. And just like on Twitter, sometimes we forget that we’re actually on stage as we reveal our own worst private selves to the outside world.”
I agree with Webb’s conclusions that conversations, in public and at normal volume, are ethically reportable. But the ethics of eavesdropping on unwilling participants—someone making an obvious effort to shield their work or whisper, for example—are less clear.
Either way, Webb has helped justify my paranoia. You will probably be well served if you imagine that she’s always seated next to you—at every restaurant, at every party, and on every airplane.
This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has used the teaching of vice as a guide to help people live a virtuous life.
Today, those ancient lessons have spread throughout much of western society and popular culture. They form the subplots of movies, books, and theater. Smart reporters even use the seven deadly sins to provide a narrative depth to news stories. Media relations practitioners take notice.
Recently, Sun Life Financial found itself subtly cast less-than-favorably in a news story in which a policyholder with dementia took an action that had a near-disastrous financial consequence for his family. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Bruce Gabriel was a policyholder who suffers from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia:
“…as his mind was slipping, in 2010, he called up his insurance agent — when his wife was away at work — to cancel his two policies.
He had paid more than $17,000 in premiums since 1983 and cashed in for less than $2,000 on policies that would have paid his family $140,000 when he dies.”
Upon discovery, Bruce’s wife Debbie tried to have the situation reversed. After four years of pleas, the company remained steadfast. It then wanted Bruce to undergo extensive tests and still did not reverse course, budging only after media inquired about the standoff. This can be characterized as sloth.
Other characterizations in the story are more damning. The CBC writes that Sun Life “repeatedly refused to undo the damage” to the family’s finances and labeled letters denying coverage as “rejections.” Unable to get other coverage, Debbie said the experience left them feeling “very powerless in the face of big business,” and that she and her family felt “vulnerable … and we had no recourse.” She added the family felt “robbed” of a sense of security and Bruce Gabriel said they felt “stolen from.” Enter the second “sin,” malice.
Sun Life’s own words can be viewed as adding to this narrative. In letters to Debbie, it concludes the tests it ordered “do not provide any new evidence that your husband was incompetent and therefore, incapable of making the decision he made.” Later, when reversing course and reinstating the policy, a spokesperson said, “We are making an exception on compassionate grounds in this unique case,” as though the company was begrudgingly doing the family a favor. The lack of support to the family, combined with sometimes harsh language used by the company and others, underscores a narrative of pride.
I have sympathy for Sun Life. The perception of slothful behavior is difficult for many companies to avoid: they must do their utmost to investigate all situations thoroughly to protect policyholders and investors. To make hasty decisions is financially irresponsible, precedent-setting, and could cause harm to others depending on them.
“Sloth” could also be a deliberate strategy. The company could truly view this situation as exceedingly unique and may be making an exception after rigorous investigation. Of course, this strategy is fraught with risk and an accusation of sloth is often the first domino that starts the narrative chain reaction.
Media relations practitioners must decide: Which strategy will you choose—and are you prepared for that plan’s related baggage?
A Better Approach
In an alternative conclusion to this matter, the company could have written:
“As our population ages, we suspect there will be more families who will find themselves in a similar unthinkable situation. Many companies, including ours, need to train front-line personnel to be better prepared to identify and at least try to take preemptive action to avoid them. No company can avoid all of them—but we can work harder to reduce such situations, and we will.”
The CBC article referenced another constructive approach by quoting a representative of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario, who argued for contractual cooling off periods for people struggling with dementia. Working with such an organization could generate better protocols and provide a powerful balanced third party, thereby reducing the number of sins—real or perceived—being cast upon Sun Life.
Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
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Many university presidents have found themselves in hot water recently for dispensing what they thought of as “common sense” campus safety advice to students. Seemingly innocuous pieces of advice, such as “be careful how much you drink,” are increasingly being perceived as “victim blaming.”
I’m not an expert in this area, so in an effort to learn more, I spoke with Katherine Hull Fliflet, the vice president of communications for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
First, you’ll find several examples below of university heads who have become embroiled in controversy due to their comments on sexual assault.
George Washington University
“Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave.”
He later defended his comments by saying:
“You need to educate the men but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to arm your women with the ability to defend themselves…It doesn’t shift the blame, ultimately, but you have to be wise and street smart.”
The president of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, Robert Jennings, resigned in November after saying the following, as summarized by The Huffington Post:
“Men treat you, treat women, the way women allow us to treat them. We will use you up if you allow us to use you up,” he said, adding that men will “marry the girl with the long dress on.”
Donald Eastman, president of Florida’s Eckerd College, wrote the following in an open letter to students and faculty in November:
“You know that these incidents are almost always preceded by consumption, often heavy consumption, of alcohol, often by everyone involved in them…No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department
In an October crime prevention tip sheet, the UW-Madison police department wrote the following, according to the Wisconsin State Journal:
“If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves…If you make yourself a hard target, one who is aware of their surroundings, you take away two elements of a crime: desirability and opportunity.”
The department quickly revised the tip sheet after being accused of victim blaming.
What Should University Leaders Say?
First, one thing appears rather obvious in some of the examples above: Any time safety advice is couched in the language of “moral” sexual behavior, it crosses into being broadly perceived as unacceptable victim blaming.
But what about the question of educating students about the potential perils of alcohol abuse as it relates to sexual assault? Wouldn’t it be wise for university presidents to address that issue? “It’s too narrow,” says Ms. Hull Fliflet of RAINN, who argues that putting that much emphasis on a single risk factor diminishes the broader conversation.
“It’s more effective to speak to the student body as a whole about risk reduction for reducing crime on campus in terms of friends having roles to play as opposed to directing the advice to an individual student.”
University leaders can use a RAINN fact sheet called “protecting your friends” to educate students about the need to keep an eye out for their peers in social situations, step in and create a distraction when “a situation doesn’t feel right,” and enlist others as “reinforcements.” As examples, a group of female students can keep an eye on one another, but male students can also look out to make sure their male peers aren’t engaging in potentially risky behavior.
Another suggestion: Hull Fliflet says it’s critical to communicate this advice in a gender-neutral manner since victims aren’t always women. She also wonders why, as in so many of the examples above, authorities focus on “don’t drink” as their key piece of advice instead of “don’t rape.” More broadly, she argues that university presidents must communicate that they take these issues seriously—and bolster their policies to match their rhetoric.
With so many leaders being singed by touching this hot topic in the wrong way, I suspect that many university heads would rather stay away from this issue altogether. Hull Fliflet says that’s the wrong solution. “This is a real opportunity for a college president to make it clear that all reports of sexual assault will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly,” she says. “They just need to be honest that their school isn’t immune.”
A Few Final Thoughts
University leaders who fail to pay attention to these sensitivities (or go well beyond them, as in some of the examples above) must learn about and remain aware of the potential landmines. My suggestion? Before speaking out on these topics, consult with outside experts, make sure you understand where sensitivities exist, and work collaboratively to develop a set of public safety suggestions that achieve your goals without repelling the very people they’re intended to help.
Please leave your thoughts below. I look forward to learning from you.
h/t Huffington Post
On Thursday, Monica Lewinsky delivered a much-anticipated TED Talk about her experience as “Patient Zero” in the Internet age of public humiliation.
Her story—and President Clinton’s—dominated the headlines in 1998, threw an administration off-topic for a year, and contributed to the impeachment of a sitting U.S. president. I was eager to hear what she had to say, both from the perspective of American history and her personal narrative.
Ms. Lewinsky proceeded to deliver a gripping 20-minute talk full of poise, integrity, humor, vulnerability, and seriousness of purpose. Although she might have been thrust into the headlines for unfortunate reasons, her reemergence onto the public scene stands to make society better.
Lewinsky discussed her own case, during which she was so low at one point that her parents insisted she shower with the bathroom door open to make sure she didn’t commit suicide. She was compelled to reemerge as a public figure, she says, for a related reason—the 2010 suicide of an 18-year-old Rutgers student whose same-sex kiss was taped and shared online without his knowledge.
“Every day online, people—especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this—are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day. And some, tragically, don’t.”
Although offline bullying, shaming, and humiliation have been around almost as long as humankind itself, Lewinsky points out that the Internet has changed the scale dramatically.
“Online, technologically enhanced shame is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible.”
“Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain.”
“There is a very public price to humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.”
Lewinsky issued a clarion call to action: Don’t be bystanders to online bullying. Speak out against it, offer compassion to those who are being targeted, and refuse to click on links that lead to the for-profit humiliation of others. As she says in her closing remarks, “Public shaming as blood sport has to stop.”
One thing I hope Ms. Lewinsky addresses in future talks is the question of where the line is between tough but responsible analysis and unnecessary humiliation. At times, that line is easy to spot—those who called her a “tramp,” “slut,” or “whore” should be granted no corner in which to hide from their words. But other parts of the story are trickier.
For example, we can argue about whether The Starr Report, which contained sordid details about their relationship, should have been released publicly. But once it was, didn’t news organizations, which were covering the potential impeachment of a U.S. president, have a responsibility to report on its contents? If so, that would inevitably lead to humiliation for those involved. But I’m not sure such a decision, although uncomfortable, is wrong.
Is the difference between acceptable and unacceptable coverage of a newsworthy figure a matter of tone? If the reporter treats the subject in the limelight as a complete human being rather than a one-dimensional figure, does that mark the difference?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I suspect Ms. Lewinsky has considered them, and hope she will choose to address to some point.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
When we prepare executives for panel presentations, we typically focus on the message they want to convey and the manner in which they deliver it.
We focus less on how they interact with other panelists—but after reading an article about Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, we’ll probably bulk up that section of our trainings.
“Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt had a lot to say Monday about the lack of racial and gender diversity in the technology industry.
In fact, Schmidt had so much to say that he often interrupted and spoke over his co-panelist, Megan Smith, the U.S.’s chief technology officer and a former Google executive. The two appeared on a panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex.
At one point, Schmidt opined on which of two questions Smith should respond to. Later, he interjected mid-sentence with thoughts on Raspberry Pi, a small computer popular with digital tinkerers that Smith was promoting.
Toward the end of the session, one woman in the audience asked the two to address how personality biases in men and women affect workplace dynamics. She noted that Schmidt repeatedly talked over his former colleague — prompting applause from a full exhibit hall.”
It’s entirely possible that Mr. Schmidt didn’t interrupt Ms. Smith because he’s sexist. He may just be a serial interrupter. Or perhaps he was particularly excited about the subject matter. Or maybe he viewed himself as a stronger presenter than his colleague.
But as I recently wrote, men on stage with women have to be keyed into certain gender-related issues—or risk being perceived as boorish. And that’s particularly true during a presentation about the lack of gender equality in the workplace.
Mr. Schmidt’s interruptions not only stepped on his core message about the need for greater gender equality in the tech industry, but generated a bevy of negative headlines, such as these:
CBS San Francisco: “Google’s Eric Schmidt Called Out For Repeatedly Interrupting Woman Tech Leader During Diversity Talk At SXSW”
The Verge: “Google executive Eric Schmidt, man, makes total ass of himself at SXSW”
Slate: “Google Chairman Gets Called Out by His Own Employee for Interrupting a Female Panelist at SXSW”
That said, interrupting your fellow panelists can occasionally be appropriate during panel discussions. In fact, some crosstalk can help electrify an otherwise soporific conversation.
Just remember that the audience is judging not only your words and your delivery, but the manner in which you interact with your fellow panelists. Be judicious with your interruptions, save them for the moments that truly matter, and work to contain your enthusiasm every time your id feels the need to express itself.
Photo credit: Gisela Giardino via Wikimedia Commons
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My wife and I recently had plans to leave our house earlier than usual for a Sunday morning. As I went upstairs to shower, I turned back toward her and said, “Let’s try to aim to leave around 7:30.”
As soon as I said that, I knew there would be no chance of us leaving at 7:30. I had heard my own words, which packed three hedge words into a single short sentence:
“Let’s TRY to AIM to leave AROUND 7:30.”
That choice of words suggested to me that I wasn’t particularly committed to my own idea (we ended up leaving closer to 7:50). And it made me think about all of the times I hear speakers use hedge words—or their kissing cousin, words of apology—which are the focus of this post.
I often hear speakers using these types of phrases:
“I’m just going to take a minute to tell you about….”
“Real quickly, I’ll explain why…”
“”I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before, but…”
Like the phrase I used when speaking to my wife, each of those phrases signal something to an audience.
The first two phrases send a message of insecurity, that the speaker doesn’t feel confident enough in his or her content or position to simply say what they had planned to. As I say to our clients, it’s going to take you the same amount of time to share that content whether you pre-apologize for it or not—so why pre-apologize? Doing so only makes you look insecure and unnecessarily threatens your credibility.
The third sentence sends a message of either poor planning or poor framing. Instead of apologizing and barreling through the content anyway, the speaker could have either looked for a new way to share the same information or at least sold the repeated content as an asset (“For those of you who have heard this before, this will serve as a useful refresher.”).
In her post about the word “just” published last spring by PR Daily, leadership strategist Ellen Petry Leanse writes that she sees more women using these “permission” words than men. I’ve made the same observation in my own workshops. There are all sorts of cultural reasons for why that may be the case, but it can undermine an otherwise confident message nonetheless.
As Leanse says:
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that [just] was a “child” word…As such, it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control.”
Using these words or phrases of apology are not going to doom your next presentation. But it’s a good idea to remain aware of the potential message they send and work to remove them from your talks.
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Reporters frequently ask media spokespersons to gaze into their crystal balls and tell them what the future looks like.
Some of those “speculation” questions are innocuous: if you’re a software designer and you’re asked what changes you think will emerge in the industry over the next five years, it’s okay to provide your analysis of where you think things are headed.
But many speculation questions are dangerous. Your answers can make a situation appear worse than it really is—and if you guess badly, your wrong answers can damage your credibility.
For example, imagine that the director of a nonprofit group lobbying for better safety regulations of toxic household cleansers is asked whether the state legislature is going to pass the bill she supports this year. If she answers “yes,” she’d better be right. That’s because the media will inevitably ask her about her incorrect prediction if the bill doesn’t pass, and her wrong answer might diminish her credibility with the public and the press for future stories.
Instead, she can use a variation of the ATMs to answer this question:
“(A) I’m reluctant to speculate, (T) but I can tell you that (M) the majority of lawmakers I’ve spoken to have told me that they recognize how important this bill is to protect children from dangerous household cleansers and that they plan to vote for it. (s) We still need as much support as possible, though, so I’d ask everybody watching this to call their representative and tell them to vote ‘yes.’”
As illustrated by the example above, it’s usually best to deflect questions that call for speculation by saying something along the lines of, “I can’t speculate, but here’s what I can tell you…”
Apply the same technique for hypothetical questions. Your job is to share what you know, not to answer “what if” questions. It might be appropriate to answer a hypothetical question about a specific situation with a general answer about how you would approach your decision making in that case. But that approach often leads to even more questions intended to get you to be more specific (plus, your general answers might be applied to the specific situation), so be cautious and practice in advance.
Case Study: Treasury Secretary Speculates Incorrectly
In an April 2011 interview, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared on the Fox Business Network to discuss the possibility of the U.S. credit rating being downgraded:
Peter Barnes (Host): “Is there a risk that the United States could lose its triple-A credit rating, yes or no?”
Geithner: “No risk of that. No risk.”
Barnes: “So Standard and Poor’s is wrong, the United States will keep its triple-A credit rating?”
Four months later, rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in the nation’s history. Cable news channels played the video clip of Mr. Geithner’s overly confident (and incorrect) answer for days, and political opponents pointed to that moment as evidence that he should resign his post.
Mr. Geithner could have answered the question by saying something like this:
“Let me tell you what we’re doing to make sure we retain our triple-A rating…”
Imagine you’re the communications director for Hartown Manufacturing, a midsize company based in California. You’re responsible for all communications in the western United States.
One morning, you arrive at work and log in to your Twitter account. You’re scrolling through the rather dull tweets when you suddenly see one that takes your breath away: “Breaking News: Major Explosion at Salt Lake City Hartown Plant.”
Within minutes, dozens of people are tweeting about it, spreading rumors along the way. Some eyewitnesses claim they’ve seen ambulances pulling away with dozens of victims. One claims a plant supervisor has been killed. You call a colleague who works at the plant who tells you that no one knows whether anybody was badly hurt—and that no ambulances have arrived yet.
You immediately post that accurate information to Hartown’s social media pages. Journalists who follow your feeds see your posts and decide against reporting any of the rumors they’ve read about possible injuries or deaths until you confirm them.
That type of scenario is commonplace in the age of social media, and it underscores three important truths:
- 1. The public and the press may learn of a crisis affecting your company through their social media networks before you even know there’s a problem.
- 2. People will begin discussing (and speculating about) your crisis before you’ve had time to obtain the facts.
- 3. You need to use your social media channels to immediately correct misinformation and establish yourself as a primary source of accurate information.
Most reporters now use social media as an essential tool of crisis reporting. As Jane Jordan-Meier reported in The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, “Two journalists I spoke with saw Twitter as the new police scanner.” You can no longer afford to relegate social media to being of secondary importance.
Communicate through your social media networks as quickly as possible, ideally within half an hour of learning about an incident. You can include links to lengthier statements and additional resources in your posts.
There’s one additional way to help manage a crisis using social media: be engaged with your social networks before a crisis strikes. You’ll need fans to defend your integrity when something goes wrong, and few people are more credible than the unaffiliated third parties who voluntarily vouch for you.
Case Study: Domino’s Pizza and a Disgusting Video
In 2009, an employee of a North Carolina Domino’s franchise filmed a coworker sticking cheese up his nose before appearing to send the food out for delivery. The two workers uploaded the video to YouTube, where it quickly racked up a million views. Television anchors showed the disgusting clip on their newscasts and customers stopped ordering pizza.
Company president Patrick Doyle waited two days before finally responding. He issued a two-minute YouTube apology, in which he appeared genuinely pained by the incident. He was deservedly given credit by many crisis management professionals for releasing the heartfelt video— but most suggested that he waited too long and incurred unnecessary financial and reputational damage by waiting 48 hours.
Mr. Doyle’s response was noteworthy for one additional reason: it was the first time a major company president used YouTube as the primary method of responding to a crisis.