In the Crosshairs of a Critic? Take These 3 Key Steps

Not long ago, I provided counsel to an organization subjected to what they believed was a social-media smear campaign.

In a nutshell, a former organizational member—terminated about 18 months earlier due to various professional shortcomings—began making allegations that the organization felt consisted of half-truths, distorted depictions, and outright falsehoods.

There was a distinctly racial tinge to this person’s proclamations. The critic, who is Black, had some influence in the local media as well as in the organization’s industry. The potential for this problem to fester, and even worsen, was very real.

What to do in response?

Illustration, courtesy of Bulldog Reporter (where this piece was originally published, Oct. 14, 2020)

After gathering enough background to get a lay of the crisis-ridden land, I recommended my client take three crucial steps. These actions apply not only to organizations that are being wrongfully dragged through the muck, but those that have fallen short of the mark in one or more ways.

Much is at stake, particularly because the effects of prolonged crisis can be debilitating. At minimum, they result in distraction. In some extreme cases, they can set in motion a series of events that end in organizational destruction.

Note: this list is a baseline of how to respond and is hardly exhaustive. Surely, there are other actions that this client should take—and same goes for any other organization finding themselves in the crosshairs of a public campaign to discredit them.

  • Get proactive.

Develop internal and external statements, for potential use on the org’s website, to share with strategic partners and other stakeholders, to distribute internally, and to share with anyone who comes across the detractor’s claims.

Although you may need to create nuanced variations, deriving from your distinct relationship with each partner and stakeholder, these statements should be consistent and emphasize the same major points.

At least initially, these would all have “potential” for deployment—but not automatically so. This measured approach seeks to avoid fanning the flames of contention until and unless such a public outreach is deemed necessary.

In my client’s case, there was a (relatively slim) chance that the smear campaign had already reached its apex and would fade away. Thus, practicing restraint would avoid needlessly triggering the critic further.

On the other hand, the moment it became clear that the organization would need to issue the statement(s), then it should be prepared to do so.

Regardless of whether further criticisms would ensue, the criticism already leveled would live on indefinitely on social media platforms and wherever the critic had left a trail.

That represents a longer-term issue to address—hence, the creation of a responsive statement (or statements) available to individual inquiries, and, potentially, to broader audiences in different contexts.

  • Make a statement.

With any statement that comes under some shadow of controversy, there is great temptation to lash out. This is particularly the case when an organization and some of its individuals feel they have been unfairly maligned.

It is essential to know where to “pick your battles.” For example, my client had ample evidence—and was tempted to go public with it—that their detractor was spreading falsehoods. However, publicly calling out the detractor would have escalated the conflict and prolonged the crisis. So long as those distortions were not extremely damaging, I advised restraint. My client highly valued moving forward, which would have been hindered by back-and-forth engagement.

Words ought to be chosen skillfully and brim with compassion, conviction, and restraint. Stick to facts that dispel falsehoods. Be brief, resisting the tug of a point-by-point refutation. Shift the focus toward the future, rather than getting drawn into a re-hash of the past.

This is not merely the “high road”—it’s the smart road. It becomes a highly visible opportunity for the organization to “walk the walk” of its mission, vision and character—while also demonstrating that it is moving onward and in a better direction.

  • Emphasize discipline within the organization

The ability to weather these PR / reputational storms hinges in large part on across-the-board discipline. Anyone who chooses their words unwisely, in any context, could undermine the entire organizational effort.

A flippant text, an off-the-cuff unkind remark, a foolish social media post…these are only a few of the many avenues of communication (and potential missteps). Couple those platforms with an undisciplined, or non-existent, filter and you have the makings of a protracted PR nightmare.

Even a minor moment of poor judgment may represent the “weak link” in an otherwise solid chain, with the critic seizing on that one shred of “evidence” as proof of the entire organization’s “guilt” in some regard.

To avoid this scenario, it is imperative to tell all within the organization that there is no room for slip-ups. For example, if someone in your org is asked about the situation, they should know to direct inquiries to the organizational statement(s) that have already been carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Along those lines, all media inquiries should be directed to the Marketing and Public Relations team.

In conclusion, for any organization facing crises from A to Z, the key is to keep your eye on the prize: an end to the saga, with renewed focus on a stronger future that revolves around your core mission.

This post was originally published in the October 14, 2020 edition of Bulldog Reporter. My prior Bulldog Reporter contributions include “Crisis PR Isn’t Black and White” (May 2008) and “Sticking Up for the Client, Sticking Up for the Story.” (October 2013). Through workshops, webinars and columns, I have trained thousands of reporters and PR professionals how to tell stories more effectively.

Related Posts:
PR Tip: Even When You Don’t Have a Lot, Work With What You’ve Got
In media relations, throw ’em an occasional curveball

5 predictions on Trump’s post-coronavirus path

There are super-spreader events, and then, in Trumpworld, there is apparently at least one variation on that coronavirus scourge: a Supreme-spreader event.

How else to characterize the Rose Garden announcement of Amy Coney Barrett as President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court?

No doubt, it is but one of numerous instances where Trump and his inner circle were exposed to the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans. And there’s no telling how many others Trump and his entourage have exposed to the coronavirus.

The most shocking part: that the infections of Trump and a rising number of his inner-circle contingent took this long to happen. (And just watch, the numbers will continue to rise daily–witness Kayleigh McEnany’s positive test disclosure today).

What should happen next, on so many levels, almost certainly will not happen. Humility is not a Donald J. Trump hallmark, with his drive-by wave to visitors outside the Walter Reed Medical Center only the latest case in point.

Here are predictions for some of the truly Trumpian decisions that are likely to follow:

1. Trump will push to get back to the Oval Office sooner than later, and sooner than is medically prudent.

As I write this, it’s 1:15 p.m. CST on Monday, October 5th, and Trump will surely be released from the hospital by this evening. Once doctors said over the weekend that he could come home “as early as” today, then anything less than that, in Trump’s view, would be regarded as “being a wimp.”

So even if it’s against medical advice (maybe especially if it is), Trump will be back at the White House by nightfall. Such a strong, bold leader (will be his spin)!

2. Trump will make outrageous allegations about the source of his illness.

People are out to get him. Someone from the liberal media intentionally sickened him. Or a plant in one of the audiences he spoke to recently. Or someone from “the deep state.” It couldn’t have been Trump’s own arrogant sloppiness and disregard for basic safety precautions that led to his infection. Odds-on chance that Trump picks up more than a few conspiracy theories from his Twitter feed, then cranks them out, conveyer-style, like that hilarious “I Love Lucy”  scene featuring Lucy and Ethel.

3. Trump will make a return to the campaign trail much earlier than is wise.

With only 29 days until Election Day–and every day serving as Election Day with early voting underway–Trump will lose what’s left of his mind if he stays cooped up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for more than a few days.

By this Saturday, Oct. 10th, he will be out and about campaigning again. It fits the archetype of Rough, Tough Trump, who would equate staying home and isolated as a sign of weakness, not wisdom.

4. Most of his rally attendees will be mask-less…still

If you are counting on a surge of mask-wearing among attendees, don’t get your hopes up. Trump will continue to mock masks, and double-down on his contention that the virus is almost beaten. In fact, by his surviving the coronavirus, Trump will make it seem as if he “took one for the team” and somehow has hastened its demise. His rapid recovery (aided by world-class treatment available to virtually nobody else) will be “proof” that the virus really isn’t that bad, after all.

It’s a sure-fire bet that he will wear his illness as a badge of pride, and talk about the COVID-19 in increasingly personal, militaristic terms. Witness the whiplash-fast creation of “Trump Defeats COVID” commemorative coins on the White House Gift Shop website. For someone who ducked military service, this illness is a perverse sort of substitutionary atonement.

5. Trump will push to debate Democratic nominee Joe Biden on October 22nd.

Trump won’t be able to debate on October 15th, though he will make a big show of being ready, willing and prepared to be there. So the 22nd will represent his last, biggest chance to command center stage before Election Day, and he knows that he bombed in that first debate last week.

Barring a turn for the worse that all but incapacitates Trump, he will make that debate at Belmont University in Nashville, even if he has to be carried onto the stage. He will be as fiery (and filled with falsehoods), perhaps more so than ever before.

An image from the first debate on Sept. 29 between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump almost assuredly had been infected by the coronavirus by this point.

He will again mock Biden’s mask-wearing precautions, while making the first debate last week seem tame by comparison.

In short, it will all be business as usual. Trump will more fully immerse himself in the parallel universe of his own imagination. In that realm, he can do no wrong, the election is rigged, and the world revolves around him and his own self-delusion and selfishness.

Related Posts:
Hazy on number of masked Trump rally-goers in Tulsa? Media failed to zero in on the figure
7 Take-Aways From the Trump Rally in Chicago

`Silly Season’ strikes uber-woke Oak Park early: please, wake me when it’s actually begun

When I was a reporter, only under extraordinary circumstances would my editors permit a story about someone threatening, pondering, or otherwise indicating that they may file a lawsuit in some dispute.

After all, it’s not a story until it actually happens, right? Anyone can threaten to sue….but going to the effort & trouble of filing a suit—that’s a much smaller subset.

Only about 200 days to go before April 2021 elections arrive in uber-woke Oak Park, Illinois.

That proper journalistic restraint comes to mind as I reflect on the uber-silly nature of “silly season” (journalistic jargon for political campaigns) that has stricken my fair, uber-woke village of Oak Park, Illinois.

How silly? Glad you asked.

A sampling: we’ve had one candidate announce a run for office, then announce that she won’t run, after all, and…stay with me, now…then subsequently she announced (wait!! wait!!) she actually will be running. And all of that here-and-there-and-everywhere business has occurred before any signatures could be gathered on petitions in order to appear on the April 2021 ballot.

Gathering signatures, mind you, is no guarantee that anyone will file those petitions, either. Talk about much ado about…well, we don’t quite know yet, do we?

This hemming and hawing sure is one way to get your name in the news on a regular basis. It’s also a reflection of the “slow news day” that permeates this COVID era. At least, it’s been a relatively slow news cycle for one particularly short-staffed local newspaper that has breathlessly chronicled not only this candidate’s Hamlet-like agonizing, but a variety of others’ ruminations and ramblings.

As for this local Silly Season, which has over six months to go: wake me when it’s truly, actually begun.

Related Posts:
In political PR, visual and digestible trump the complex
Authentic advocates must fight ‘boy crying wolf’ damage caused by social justice warriors

Pat Koko: for 50 years, a volunteer extraordinaire in & around Oak Park

A decade ago, the longtime chairman of the Oak Park/River Forest Seniors Services Committee, Jim Flanagan, launched the Celebrating Seniors Coalition. Its mission: honoring, recognizing and serving seniors in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, Illinois.

From the outset, I have served as the group’s publicist.

Although Celebrating Seniors Week, held each May for a week, was nixed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has made strides with an updated, upgraded website.

In addition to providing more details and a better experience for visitors, the revamped website spotlights several key volunteers who have been especially active over the years. They include Flanagan, as well as Dr. Lydia Manning, Richard Harrison and Nick Preys.

Among these leading volunteers has been Pat Koko, who has received the organization’s Volunteer of the Year Award on multiple occasions.

In fact, I see Pat as the Oprah Winfrey of Celebrating Seniors. An explanation: while still a talk show host, Oprah took herself out of the running for Emmy Awards. Likewise, Pat could at least be a co-recipient of the award every year, and I would not be surprised if we eventually name the award in her honor. With energy, humor and steadfastness that are a powerful force, Pat is truly a volunteer extraordinaire.

A little more background about Pat:

Along with her husband, Paul, and their daughter, Marie, Pat moved to Oak Park in 1967. After she graduated from Dominican University (Rosary College at the time) with a degree in History, Pat volunteered to deliver meals to home-bound seniors for Oak Park Township. Thus began a dedicated 45-plus years of working with and for older adults in our communities.

For 20 years, Pat ran a home-care agency to provide assistance to seniors while she also served as a key volunteer with the Oak Park and River Forest Food Pantry (now known as Beyond Hunger) for 17 years. Her community involvement has also included being among the founders of a networking group, the Senior Citizens’ Services Coordinating Council. The SCSCC still meets monthly to gather those who serve seniors to strengthen their professional development.

Pat Koko (left) poses with Sandra Rowe at the 2016 closing luncheon for Celebrating
Seniors Week. Both were recipients of that year’s Volunteer of the Year award.

In addition, Pat served as Administrative Secretary of The Community of Congregations, and was Executive Director of the Senior Citizens Center before being reappointed to the Oak Park-River Forest Senior Citizens Advisory Council.

Since Celebrating Seniors’ inception, Pat has been Treasurer and Resource Coordinator for the organization–but I think “Volunteer Extraordinaire” captures it pretty well, too.

Related Posts:
The River Forest Citizen Corps Wants You
Packing for Retirement and Beyond: Jim Flanagan’s Passion to Help Older Adults

Hazy on number of masked Trump rally-goers in Tulsa? Media failed to zero in on the figure

Before President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa this past Saturday evening, I predicted that 2 percent of those in attendance would be wearing masks as a precaution against catching the COVID-19 coronavirus. (You can find my forecast here, on my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” page.)

Of the approximately 45 people in this frame, three are wearing masks–roughly the same proportion that I found in reviewing 20 photos that I took of the TV screen during Trump’s rally.

Having heard that the capacity was 20,000 at the BOK Center (it’s actually 19,200), I computed that 2 percent figure to amount to 400 folks. After all, the Trump team was trumpeting a crowd so packed that it was going to require Agent Orange to share remarks outdoors in addition to his indoor rally, so that he could acknowledge those who couldn’t get inside the arena.

Turns out, I was wrong on both counts—massively overestimating Trump’s drawing power and, to my happy surprise, underestimating his followers’ sense of caution.

Let’s examine the first data point: turnout.

According to the Associated Press, about one-third of the seats were empty, while The New York Times coverage offered that “at least” one-third of the arena seats went unfilled. The operative part of that phrase is “at least,” as Tulsa fire officials later provided an estimate that there were just under 6,200 attendees. That latter figure, if accurate, means that more than two-thirds of the arena was empty.

The Trump camp disputes those figures, saying that it was at least 12,000 people who came. At any rate, let’s move onto my masking estimate. It’s derived from a cross-section of 20 photographs that I took of my television when C-SPAN panned to the audience during the last hour of Trump’s nearly two-hour talk.

Of the roughly 375 people in the still images that I reviewed, 28 appear to have been wearing masks. It would have been 30, but one couple (below, to Trump’s left) had their masks dangling below their chins—there’s no telling whether they were masked for most of the event.

Those 28 (to 30) represent a roughly 7- to 8-percent masked rate. Even accounting for a margin of error from this unscientific sampling, it’s hard to imagine the figure dropping below 5 percent for the entire arena, let alone going as low as my pre-event 2 percent projection.

To mask or not to mask? Who cares, anyway?

Well, for one thing, it was one of the questions that served as a hot, controversial topic in the days leading up to Trump’s visit to Oklahoma, his first rally in 110 days. Public health officials urged the President not to hold the rally. Indeed, in the context of all sorts of daily life spaces, wearing a mask (or not) is a subject of intense interest and debate across the country.

Consequently, I would have expected that news media accounts would have gone beyond the cursory general observations about the proportion of people who wore masks.

Without a doubt, hats outnumbered masks–as did beards and other staples of Trump-mania.

Instead, we got this hazy accounting from The New York Times: “Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand six feet apart — health precautions that Mr. Trump himself has ignored.” 

And an equally unambitious excerpt from USA Today: “Most of the attendees at the rally were not wearing masks, nor were social distancing guidelines observed.”

“Many” and “most” fall far short of painting the picture: by my count, more than 9 out of 10, and perhaps as many as 19 out of every 20 individuals, was mask-less. But I was watching on TV—these publications had people on the scene.

To be clear, wearing a mask is no guarantee of safety. But there is broad medical consensus that doing so lowers the likelihood of transmission, particularly from the mask wearers to those around them. So, for as long as it is a public-health matter, enterprising journalists or other observers should take the effort to provide a more precise estimate of these gatherings as the Election 2020 campaign unfolds.

Vague phrasings such as “many” or “most” going without masks—or whatever the case may be at future Trump rallies—is just sloppy, lazy reporting. The same, simple arithmetical assignment goes for journalists covering presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign gatherings, whenever those may occur.

Related Posts:
7 Take-Aways From the Trump Rally in Chicago
Lessons abound in The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of Jeff Sessions, protesting students