It’s Still Just A Message

I love working in public health. I honestly believe that there are few fields where the vast majority of the people not only enjoy the work, but are truly called by it. They enjoy helping people at the micro and macro level. They are the ones who give folks the ability to be healthy. By and large, they do this by depending on cutting edge research to inform what they do and what effects those interventions have on people. Truthfully, the amount of money going into public health research is money well-spent (and, some would argue, not enough). There now exists very good information on actions that people can take to live a healthier life. (And for my emergency friends, swap out healthier for better prepared and the rest of this post works just as well for you.)

So why don’t people take those actions we’ve been telling them to do over and over and over? Because I think there is a fundamental break in the process. We have excellent information locked away inside our brains–the very best, I’d say. But it’s not making it to the people who can implement it. Because as much as they come to our seminars and take our handouts and see the effects of their unhealthy behaviors and the effects of disasters the world over, they’re still not integrating what we’ve learned.

Just so you know, I had to rewrite the last part of that previous sentence. The original version said, “they’re still not listening.” Like it’s their fault.

We have the information, we provide it. Dust off hands, move to the next problem. One would think that after thirty or forty years of being almost completely ignored, we’d understand that maybe that process isn’t working so well. That maybe it’s not their fault for not listening to us. Maybe it’s our fault.

That’s kind of the message in this New York Times Well blog post from late last year:

Maybe, some researchers say, the problem is the message. It obviously has not had much of an effect.

The recommendation in the very next sentence, though, doesn’t really get at that:

The idea now is to make use of tools that psychologists have developed to assess people’s moods during exercise, asking how good or bad it feels as the intensity varies.

More research, yet still not on message delivery. The goal, if you read the article, is to inform the exercisers that maybe they’re doing it wrong, and if they just try to do it another way, maybe then they’ll be successful.

Dust off hands, move to the next problem.

But don’t worry, we’ll have this conversation again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

So Sorry

As with many facets of crisis communications, things are changing on the apology front. We’ll start off with my standard apology-related advice:

It’s okay to say you’re sorry.

When you step back from all of the day-to-day and litigiousness of our world, it seems strange to have to say that out loud. We weren’t raised that way. Many of us have the very specific memory of being forced by a parent to walk to a neighbor’s house and apologize for something we broke or perpetrated (or maybe that was just me and my friends). And usually, that was enough for us to learn our lesson. Something changed when we got older though, and apologizing was seen as part of some sort of bad thing, where uttering two little words that we were all taught could invite down a host of problems.

As I usually do with things that no longer make any sense, I’ll blame this one on the lawyers. Some fine, enterprising young man decided that an apology was both an admission of guilt and invitation for further punishment, owing to the admission of harm being perpetrated.

And at that level, especially in cases where real harm was done, an apology and effort to make it right are called for. Much like when you (read: I) broke the neighbor’s window, someone had to pay to get it fixed. The apology wasn’t part of fixing the window, though, it was an effort to repair the human part of the equation. To fix feelings, to commiserate, to express a desire that things could’ve–should’ve–been different.

Unfortunately the two very specific, and different, actions have become conflated. Thus too many who have the power to make apologies feel like they cannot for fear of inviting further monetary admonishment. And that’s a shame, because there is real power in apology. It empowers the person who has been wronged and, in many cases, it can help speed psychological healing. There is even some research that patients who experience medical malpractice may be less likely to sue if they’re apologized to.

And yet, the myth that we can’t apologize maintains. I have a theory for why this is: it’s because apologies are still so rare. While no one wants to be the first person to jump in a pool, similarly no one wants to be the first to offer a heartfelt apology. Which is why I’m really excited about this new-to-me endeavor called SorryWatch. Seemingly modeled after the extremely useful RetractionWatch and EmbargoWatch, it’s an attempt to look at how apologies work, and has profiled both the world-busting ones, like Lance Armstrong, to the mundane ones, like car windshield apologies.

It’s my hope that as more crisis communicators see that you can apologize, and have lots of templates and lessons learned to learn from, we might see more of that thing that our (read: my) parents tried so hard to instill in us: empathy.

Lexical Warfare

What an amazing phrase: “lexical warfare.” But what the heck is it? According to Peter Ludlow, writing for the New York Times in this amazing piece, it is:

a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.

(As cool as the phrase is, the article is better, definitely worth a few minutes read.)

I found this article interesting not so much because it got into the story of the too-soon death of internet pioneer Aaron Swartz, but because it got into the language around his life and death. I’ve found that as one moves to the edges of life, what things are called are exceptionally important. For example, the terms that we use to define extraordinary circumstances can position that circumstance or idea for success or failure. Much like the NASA arsenic-based life announcement, what we choose to call something shapes how it is viewed. That particular announcement was doomed to failure because it took something nearly alien and called it alien. Failure to live up to the primary billing brought forth heaps of criticism, even if it was still an amazing discovery.

Sometimes, though, the etymology of a word isn’t about respect or reputation, but about something much greater. It can alter the very definition of how we’re perceived. Take, for example, Dr. Ludlow’s story about Mr. Swartz. He was dubbed with the mantle of “hacktivist.” I know many people who embrace that term and feel that it’s not just an accurate representation of themselves, but something that more should aspire to. Others, as noted in the article, feel the term is best described with the negative connotations of the first half of the Frankensteinian word: hacker. Mr. Swartz, as much as he embraced the hacktivist lifestyle, was dogged by its negative connotations.

When we push messaging about particularly edgy topics, like how safe something is, or what audiences our intervention needs to be taken up by, small choices in words can make a huge difference in perception. Think of this example: Lance Armstrong, when he spoke with Oprah about doping allegations, did he tearfully confess, or did he finally confess? In terms of the words, the difference is minor, but the difference in how each statement is perceived couldn’t be larger.

What does this mean for us? Plenty. In a time when the success or failure of what we do is dependent upon how the words spoken or written about our actions are perceived (indeed, that’s the tagline for this blog), it is incumbent upon us to take those words seriously. The role of communicator (whether it be crisis, risk or public relations) cannot be minimized. It can no longer be the last position filled, or the one de-prioritized every budget cycle. Sure, anyone can do these jobs; hell, there’s even checklists for communications anymore. But it takes a true artist to notice a reporter or social media critic putting a tiny word into a story to be able and understand that while that single word means little, once it’s spoken aloud, it could change the perception of your agency forever.

Dr. Ludlow puts it simply:

Our responsibility in this particular episode of lexical warfare is to be critical and aware of the public uses of language, and to be alert to what is at stake — whether the claims made by the infosecurity industry or the government, or the gestures by the hacktivists, are genuine, misleading or correct. We are not passive observers in this dispute. The meaning of words is determined by those of us who use language, and it has consequences. Whether or not Aaron Swartz suffered because of the manipulation of the public discourse surrounding hacking, his case is a reminder that it is important that we be attuned to attempts to change the meanings of words in consequential ways. It is important because we are the ones who will decide who will win.

Why Do We Have To Be So Sober

I like to talk about weighty, serious subjects around here. I like to talk about how to deal with what might be someone–or lots of someones–worst day ever. I think these are important subjects and each one offers the opportunity to do better next time we find someone facing their worst day ever.

The problem with this is that worst days ever (contrary to what you see on TV) don’t happen that often. And we’ve got to find something to pay the bills in the meantime, so we take our communication skills and use them on day-to-day things like risk communication. We dabble in PR and try to convince people of things (with some small measure of success).

The problem I have with all of this communication is that we never change our tone. We’re serious in the face of crisis and serious on… Tuesdays? “If we just give ‘em all of the facts in a clear concise (or not so much) fashion, they’ll come over to our side of the discussion.” Except that, as we discussed yesterday, we live and work in a marketplace of communicators. Everyone is selling some idea and our ideas–no matter how right they are–don’t seem to play very well in this marketplace.

I find little fault on our part, especially when you consider the juggernauts we’re going up against. Staid, inoffensive, “safe” advertising by whitecoats versus the combined power of sexy, young, rebellious Madison Avenue (and yes, it doesn’t matter that those things don’t necessarily go together). Talk about being set up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can change the rules of them game, and given our successes with one hand tied behind our backs, think of all the good we can do! What’s this magical change, you ask? Why did it take me five paragraphs to get to it? Because it’s not that big a deal. In fact, I already talked about it last year: have fun (barring that, at least pretend like you’re enjoying yourself).

The reason I bring it up today is because of this delightful piece: This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For. Penned by Paul Shaw cross, who is the Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, it was written in response to a We The People petition asking for the United States to commence building a Death Star by 2016.

The White House could have easily blown this petition off and issued a flat denial, because really? A Death Star? But they didn’t. They saw an opportunity to have some fun. And not just any fun, but fun that also strove to accomplish some of the Administration’ s goals.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country’s future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Hokey, yes. But as the father of a six-year-old with a serious science AND Star Wars jones, this is exactly the kind of thing that could steer his life.

And what did it cost the White House? Not one thin dime. All they had to do was put aside the snooty, professional veneer that so many of us default to when messaging.

Are we content to continue believing that government communications are just naturally designed to fail? Be careful how you answer that, because the White House may be trying to prove you wrong.

Breaking Up Gets Easier and Easier

I love these tweets. They’re like watching a train wreck. You know it’s coming, you know it’s gonna be bad, but in the end you have to watch. And usually, the damage is as catastrophic as you imagined it would be.

This particular example is one that I relish because it highlights an aspect of social media use that NONE of us have dealt with in the past. There is no precedent for it.

There’s an old saying among press and public information officers (though politicians are usually the ones that bump up against it the most), that goes:

Never argue with a man that buys ink by the barrel.

Basically, if you’ve got beef with someone who has a readership in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, don’t pick a fight. Why? Because all of those readers will only hear their side of the story, not yours.

But that’s not as true anymore. These days people who buy ink by the barrel tend to have lots of barrels of ink sitting around. People like Greg Sandoval have more than 8,000 followers. And a potential audience (through retweets and the like) of millions. And imagine the day that someone like Dr. Sanjay Gupta (1.5 million followers) decides he’s had enough and burns that bridge? I think at that point, the “don’t argue” bit actually applies to Dr. Gupta and not his employer.

Social media has twisted the calculus of crisis communications all around. I can think of any number of settings where we’d bump into this problem. A mayor deposed. A health care provider vs. the public health community. A sports star vs. his team. A victim vs. the media.

We no longer have that veil of authority anymore, especially in contentious situations. Because the person you’ll be fighting against is already building their following. What are you doing?