The Art of Dealing with Critics

In The Art of War Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher, makes this astute observation:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Critics can, at times, seem like enemies of an organization and the marketplace a battlefield.

Knowing your organization—namely the mission, vision and values it holds near and dear—and being committed to defending them is what makes companies authentic. There is a cost to standing firm in the face of aggressive opposition, but there’s an even greater long-term cost for failing to do so.

Understanding what makes your critics tick is vital, which is why it’s important to learn all you can about them by discerning their perceptions of the company, understanding what motives them and gaining insight into their beliefs.

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With this information in hand, it’s time to consider how an organization can effectively deal with its critics.

One of the best pieces of public relations advice I’ve ever received came early in my career from a vice president of corporate communications. His employer, a large international business, was routinely the target of criticism, so he had a lot of experience in this area.

  • His advice was simple yet spot-on: Divide your critics into two groups, the reasonable and the unreasonable.

GROUP ONE, the reasonable critics, are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. Work with them.

These are people with whom the organization should try to find common ground and accommodate whenever possible, provided the organization doesn’t compromise its values. If it has made a mistake, apologize and take corrective action. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies and ultimately fans. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find win-win solutions.

GROUP TWO, the unreasonable critics, are never going to be happy no matter what you do.  Ignore them.

These critics will be suspicious of your motives if you try to work with them, and any action you take will be found to be deficient in some way. Regardless of what they might say, they have no interest in having a dialogue about the issues and working with you. Their operative word is “more” – and ironically, no matter how much “more” your organization offers, it will never be enough. These critics thrive on attention and intimidating those with whom they disagree.

You can waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unreasonable critics, and at the end of the day nothing will have changed.

Plus, by trying to dialogue with them, you risk elevating their profile and giving them more credibility than they deserve. This is especially true in the age of social media, where critics can be relentless and exceedingly nasty online. They tie up company resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still criticize you.

An initial response to a complaint or inquiry is appropriate, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what has been said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, and silence can give the perception of guilt. At the same time, there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.

Once you have attempted to engage a critic and found that person to be unreasonable, the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that individual or group. Not only will you save a lot of time and grief, but posting a rational response that is rebuffed by an irrational person may actually help your organization.

Handling the situation with a courteous reply that doesn’t gloss over the complaint is likely to give reasonable readers a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Chick-fil-A’s Concession to Political Correctness Is a PR Train Wreck

Chick-fil-A has long been one of my favorite restaurant chains. It’s a cheerful, wholesome and clean environment, where the employees seem happy to be there and eager to serve customers. The food is pretty good, too. Chick-fil-A also has been a terrific corporate citizen and good neighbor, helping local charities and giving out free food when natural disasters strike.

There is much to admire about the company, which has risen to become one of the top fast-food chains in America despite being closed on Sundays. It has been a model of how a corporation that adheres to Christian values—and that creates a family environment while being inclusive and welcoming of everyone—can garner incredible loyalty that translates into financial success.

A couple weeks ago I stopped by one of our local Chick-fil-A restaurants, and the place was packed with people who were greeting each other and happily sharing experiences. A portion of that evening’s proceeds was going to help a person in need. It was an uplifting experience just being there, which is part of the reason for company’s strong attraction to so many of us who share founder Truett Cathy’s faith and values.

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Truett Cathy, who passed away several years ago, was the real deal. After reading an article about how his Christian values guided him through life, I wrote a brief letter expressing my appreciation for his testimony and faithfulness. A short time later I received a copy of his book, How Did You Do It, Truett?, with a personal inscription thanking me for my note and listing Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

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In 2012, a boycott of Chick-fil-A bombed badly. As I noted in a blog post, which was subsequently picked up by Baptist Press, the boycott was a classic PR backfire that scorched the boycotters when Gov. Mike Huckabee launched a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Millions responded to show their support of the company, resulting in a huge day of sales for Chick-fil-A.

Billy Graham and Rick Warren were among scores of leaders who joined Gov. Huckabee in defending the embattled chain. Ted Cruz, who had just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy’s franchise owner put, “We stand with Chick-fil-A” on his restaurants’ signs.

Chick-fil-A didn’t have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.

Seven years later, it’s a much different story. Chick-fil-A is once again in the midst of a firestorm of controversy, but this time it’s from some of its most loyal customers—the ones who have consistently supported Chick-fil-A and made the fast-food chain the success it is today.

Many feel betrayed by the company’s recent announcement that it will discontinue corporate donations to faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army, apparently because they believe in the biblical definition of marriage between one biological man and one biological woman. This, of course, is offensive to the LGBTQ community, which portrays such beliefs as bigoted and discriminatory, even though the Salvation Army serves all people in need.

Chick-fil-A’s announcement has been met with widespread disappointment and anger.

In a statement the Salvation Army said it is saddened by Chick-fil-A’s decision, noting, “When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk. We urge the public to seek the truth before rushing to ill-informed judgment.”

Gov. Huckabee called the decision “such a disappointment,” saying that after being so successful it was bewildering that the company would “surrender to the bullies.” He warned that the implications are “far broader” than Chick-fil-A. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the Christian community.

Christian Post contributor Mat Staver, an attorney and chairman of Liberty Counsel Action, reported that one of the places Chick-fil-A is now funding is Covenant House, which he alleges is an LGBTQ activist and “takes girls to abortion clinics.”

[Update: Townhall.com reports that as far back as 2017, the Chick-fil-A Foundation donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates conservative organizations like the Family Research Council as “hate groups.”

As noted in a Washington Times article, the gunman who attacked FRC in 2012 told the FBI that he found the organization on SPLC’s list of “anti-gay groups.” FRC President Tony Perkins said in a statement, “Not only has Chick-fil-A abandoned donations to Christians groups including the Salvation Army, it has donated to one of the most extreme anti-Christian in America.”]

While CEO Dan Cathy insists that the company was not giving into the demands of LGBTQ activists, the perception of Chick-fil-A’s actions certainly seem to be a step in that direction.

The loss of confidence in Chick-fil-A was further eroded by Tim Tassopoulos, president and COO, who was quoted as saying, “as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are.”

So who, exactly, is Chick-fil-A these days? A whole lot of people would like clarity.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, appeasing anti-Christian groups leads to nothing but further demands. Just ask the Boy Scouts, who are now reportedly considering bankruptcy.

Or, try making friends with ADWEEK’s Rigel Cable, who writes, “Dear Chick-fil-A: The LGBTQ+ Community Is Not Behind Your Latest Publicity Stunt.” It turns out that stopping corporate donations to what Mr. Cable terms as “anti-LGBTQ+ organizations” and instead giving funds to an alleged LGBTQ activist organization just isn’t enough to make him a customer.

There may be exceptions, but for the most part people like Mr. Cable are as likely to eat at a Chick-fil-A restaurant as the people who buy Nike’s new Colin Kaepernick shoes are to purchase patriotic American apparel.

Chick-fil-A could never do enough to placate the LGBTQ community at large because they will not accept anything less than total capitulation of its values and full embrace of the LGBTQ agenda. Tolerance of other views is a foreign concept to them, and it’s hard to imagine them being a significant part of the company’s customer base.
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In going down the path of being all things to all people, Chick-fil-A’s leadership has made the mistake that has caused so many brands to stumble, and in the process lose their identity and distinctiveness. The result: Sarcastic skepticism from the LGBTQ community at large, and a sense of acute disappointment and betrayal by scores of its traditional-values customers.

Forbes contributor Dawn Ennis, who reports on the fight for transgender equality and other LGBTQ issues, writes that the company is now getting “grilled by both sides.”

It appears Chick-fil-A took this action to make it easier to expand into new markets, but the opposite is likely to happen. Now that LGBTQ activists, abortion-rights advocates, far-left college professors and liberal news media outlets have seen a crack in the company’s values’ foundation, new demands will surface, which Chick-fil-A will have to meet—or else.

It’s a slippery slope. Detractors will demand more and more, until the company’s culture is no longer recognizable. If Chick-fil-A resists any of these demands, the backlash and outcry will be enormous. They know that if they can get the company to blink once, they can get it to blink again.

At the same time, it will be far more difficult to rally support from people who feel they’ve been burned. Chick-fil-A still has a significant amount of brand equity and goodwill, but the reality is that a lot of us just don’t feel the way we used to about the brand.

How did Truett do it? It wasn’t by caving to political correctness and taking for granted the patronage of people who have made Chick-fil-A such a great American success story.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

 

 

Sometimes the Best PR Successes Never See the Light of Day

Organizations that make mistakes and are quick to apologize will find that most people are quick to forgive. (Of course the apology must be sincere to be effective, and an apology without corrective action will ring hollow and likely be counterproductive.)

On the other hand, digging in and refusing to acknowledge a mistake—hoping that people won’t notice or care—generally makes matters worse. One of my career mentors gave me a piece of PR advice I’ve always remembered: “Never deny the obvious.”

It’s amazing, though, how many companies and individuals do that very thing. Sometimes people see a problem coming long before it actually hits and could be easily corrected. The situation can become a “smoldering” crisis, which is a potentially damaging condition that’s known to one or more individuals.

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Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or averted altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages before the problem gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

Such “saves” don’t show up in the PR “stats sheet,” but they can save a client or an employer millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

If something is smoldering at your organization, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. More often than not, the smoldering crisis will turn into a consuming fire, devouring valuable time and resources and impeding your organization’s ability to function.

One of the best ways to identify potential smoldering situations in advance—and help you maintain control and minimize damage if a crisis strikes—is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.

The plan should:

  • Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
  • Set forth policies and procedures to deal with them
  • Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
  • Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively

The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it. That’s about as effective as having a fire extinguisher that’s hidden away and no one knows how to use if they manage to find it.

If a crisis strikes, you’ll be glad you took the time to plan ahead and prepare for the worst—and that others know what to do as well.

photo credit: Thomas James Caldwell Home of Pele via photopin (license)

Is Subsidizing the Newspaper Industry a Good Idea?

Charlotte business coach Steve Gatter is on a laudable mission to save journalism.

A mutual friend put Mr. Gatter in touch with me recently to discuss his idea of creating a foundation to raise money to subsidize newspapers. The concept, as I understand it, is to supplement their lack of subscription and advertising revenue with what essentially would be a bailout so that newspapers in need of financial help won’t go under.

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He was inspired by a July 15 editorial from Leonard Pitts Jr., a national opinion columnist with the Miami Herald, titled, “What will we do without newspapers?”

In an email explaining his efforts, Mr. Gatter invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas as to whether newspapers should be financially supported.

No doubt about it, newspapers have taken a huge hit with massive layoffs throughout the nation and many of them going out of business. They have traditionally played an important role in American society, though for quite a few media outlets that role has shifted from reporting to advocating.

Citing a 2018 report that found the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, Mr. Pitts lamented what he called a “devastating” impact on the coverage of local events.

“Decide quickly,” he warned, “because that future is being born right before our eyes, thanks to shifting economic realities and the rise of social media.”

Note where Mr. Pitts places blame for the industry’s decline: “shifting economic realities” and “the rise of social media.”

This is an excellent example of the type of thinking that has put so many papers in a bind: Playing the victim card and blaming external elements rather than trying to understand why this is happening and finding ways to reverse the trend.

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Instead of asking “What will we do without newspapers?” here are three other questions I think would be much more productive for Mr. Pitts to ponder:

Why are so many people abandoning their local papers?

Is journalism, in its current state, worth saving?

If so, how will providing additional funds improve the situation?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made the point that newspapers are first and foremost in business to make a profit.

Markets tend to be efficient, and if a business isn’t meeting a need—or doing so sufficiently to satisfy its customers—chances are that business will simply not survive in the long run.

Blaming others for lack of sales and interest is a sure-fire way to expedite an entity’s extinction.

Perhaps if journalism adapted to the new realities and became more market-driven, the industry wouldn’t be in decline. But that would mean quite a few journalists would have to get to know and understand their readers better.

As a starting point, how about some focus groups to see what readers want from their local paper, and make adjustments to the content and areas of coverage accordingly?

Many journalists and editors also would have to set aside their bias and re-orientate their reporting to inform the public about what actually happened (i.e. the facts), not what they want the public to think about what happened.

The media bias problem extends beyond newspapers, as evidenced by a new study that found a whopping 95% of Americans are “troubled” by the current state of the media, with more than half citing “reports on fake news” as a concern.

  • Wow. Now that’s what I call devastating.

Pollster Frank Luntz points out that the media has the lowest level of credibility in more than half a century–which is when polls first started asking about that issue.

Noting that “judgmental journalists” now include their own political bias in their accounts—especially in their coverage of President Trump—a Washington Times article quotes Mr. Luntz as saying such hostility toward Mr. Trump is “turning people off against the media.”

“That’s not their job. Their job in not to label. Their job in not to condemn or criticize,” Mr. Luntz said. “Their responsibility is to present the language as it is used.”

Mr. Luntz is not the only one noticing this bias. The Times article cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found “68% of Americans say the press is both politically biased and covers up its mistakes, while 58% said news organizations ‘do not understand people like them.’”

“Gallup, meanwhile, found that 69% of Americans say their trust in the media has fallen in the past decade.”

No wonder so many media outlets are losing readers, listeners and viewers. When reporters no longer have credibility, the game is pretty much over because no amount of money can buy trust.
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Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. My concern about giving money to newspapers to ensure they survive, without making some fundamental changes to how they approach their work, would only reward the biased reporting and agenda-driven behavior that causes increasing levels of distrust and disgust among the public.

Today there are numerous online news sources that give readers more choices than ever. Some even specialize in local news, so the idea that local coverage is headed for doom if the community newspaper vanishes is simply not borne out by reality.

I sincerely wish Mr. Gatter well in his efforts to help save America’s newspapers. As a former reporter, I believe they have an important function in informing the public, providing accountability in a democratic society and offering a forum for diverse opinions on the editorial pages.

Unfortunately, so many of them have lost their way and seem unable or unwilling to make the kinds of changes that are needed to respond to market demand and restore trust.

Until those issues are addressed and corrected, I suspect we’ll continue to see newspaper layoffs and closures in the years to come.

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Keeping Your Agency in the News: The Drip, Drip, Drip Approach

My first job in public relations was with an international nonprofit organization. I was blessed to have a terrific mentor, a former newspaper editor who took me under his wing and really helped me understand the news business. He taught me how to think and write like a reporter, and how work with them successfully on stories about our organization.

We had a small staff and typically were overwhelmed with requests and things to do. All too often, we were putting out fires. We did very little proactive media work to generate publicity, except for some of the large events we held.

At the time, my idea of media relations was when the phone rang we answered it, and if it was a reporter calling we did our best to be helpful.

When I went to work for a large PR firm years later, I was immediately introduced to the concept of generating publicity for our clients by coming up with ideas and angles for what would hopefully be positive coverage.

And, by the way, the clients expected ongoing coverage, so we had to be persistent and sometimes creative in coming up with story ideas and new angles.

Consistency is an important part of an effective PR program, and finding ways to keep your agency front and center is vital to a program’s overall success.

  • Think of it as the drip, drip, drip approach to keeping you in the news.

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One of the most galling things for agency principals is to watch from the sidelines as competitors are quoted and featured in the news media. Even worse, agencies that were not part of the story may actually have more experience and expertise than the agency that received the coverage. Of course, the impression people get is that the folks quoted are the cream of the crop in their profession, which may or may not be true.

It’s no accident that some agencies get more ink and air time than others. It’s because they have an intentional, ongoing, strategic effort to get their names in the marketplace, and they have made PR a priority.

With that in mind, here are some publicity topics to help keep your agency in the news:

  • Commentary about marketing trends/current issues
  • Sponsorships
  • Community involvement
  • Events
  • New clients, employees, awards, publications
  • New services, office expansion, etc.
  • Mentoring programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Guest columns in the local paper or business journal
  • Articles in relevant industry publications
  • Human interest stories about employees (unusual hobbies, their community involvement, humanitarian work, etc.)

The effort is worth it. A consistent PR program can help agencies not only get more exposure to important audiences and build their brands, but also compliment their new business efforts.

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Content Marketing: A Strategic Way to Build Your Brand and Convert Prospects into Customers

Aerial view a woman using a retro typewriter

Content marketing—the creation and sharing of information so that it attracts and retains customers—is a powerful branding tool. The emphasis is on using high quality, engaging content to market a brand, acquire customers and develop their trust rather than using aggressive sales and advertising tactics that can annoy or disrupt them.

Content marketing takes many forms—including blogs, websites, case studies, white papers, videos, infographics, etc., —but regardless of the form, the material must be compelling, relevant and useful to be effective.

As more and more companies engage in content marketing, the challenges to being heard above the noise are increasing as well.

One of the best ways I’ve found to produce high-quality, engaging content that resonates with targeted segments is through storytelling. You may forget facts and statistics, but a good story stays with you.

The reason storytelling is so powerful is because it enables us to communicate with specific audiences in a way that piques their interest and connects emotionally with them.

According to Statista, a statistics portal, nearly three-quarters of social media users have followed brands on social media because they are interested in their products/service. More than half (51.3%) do so because they’re entertaining. No wonder so many marketers turn to storytelling to inform and entertain users, while also differentiating their companies from the rest of the pack.

By telling (as opposed to selling), writers can craft stories that resonate with customers and prospects without coming across as disguised advertisements or pushy sales tactics.

Whether or not storytelling is part of your content toolbox, an effective content strategy really comes down to focusing on a well-defined target market; having interesting, useful things to say to them; and providing regularly updated content that is meaningful and substantive.

Of course, you also want to make it easy for them to communicate with you and have a system in place to monitor results.

If done properly and consistently, your content strategy will gain your agency a loyal following, enhance its brand and provide new business opportunities that might otherwise be missed.

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How to Maximize Your Agency’s Opportunities for Publicity

photo credit Richard Masoner Cyclelicious via photopinccHaving worked with reporters and editors throughout the world during the course of my career—as well as being on the other side of journalism as a correspondent and editor—I’ve made and received my share of media pitches.

I’ve seen what works, what doesn’t work and what downright annoys reporters no matter where on the globe they reside. I’ve also experienced first-hand how publicity can help small- and mid-sized agencies and other businesses—even one-person operations—level the playing field with larger competitors.

The beauty of publicity is that it not only generates awareness and extends your agency’s reach at no cost, but it also gives you something no other marketing tool can replicate: credibility.

That’s because publicity allows a secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to hear it.

However, before contacting a reporter with a story idea, it’s important to understand how the news media operate and what they want.

Here are eight publicity tips to consider before making a call or hitting the “send” button with your story idea:

#1: Define your media focus.

Limit your pitches to only those outlets that directly serve your target audience. The more you can demonstrate you understand the reporter’s audience and the better you can explain why your story idea would appeal to them, the greater your chances are of being considered. When I was on the editorial side of a healthcare magazine, I never ceased to be amazed at some of the obviously inappropriate pitches PR people sent my way. It was pretty easy to tell who had taken time to read our magazine and understand our audience and the types of stories we covered, and who had taken a shotgun approach in hopes of hitting something somewhere.

#2: Get to the right person at each media outlet.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper or The Wall Street Journal, it’s important to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in targeting. For example, don’t pitch a manufacturing story to a business reporter who covers healthcare or retail. It’s surprising how often this happens because people don’t take the time to do their homework.

#3: Research a reporter’s previous stories before making contact.

Now that you’ve found the right person to contact, learn all you can about what that reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style. Media directories are very helpful resources for getting such information, as is the Internet. In addition to having reporters’ names and contact information, the more detailed directories have helpful contact notes such as:

  • Works from home, but prefers all materials be sent to the paper.
  • Prefers to be contacted by e-mail and hates follow up calls.
  • She is interested in the ideas behind technology, not the products.

#4: Know what makes a good news story.

Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines. When pitching a story, get right to the point. The most important things you can tell a reporter about your story are who will care about it and why. Your pitch has to pass the “so-what” factor, as well as be timely and relevant to their audience. Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask: “Would this story be interesting to my audience?” If you can’t honestly answer yes, you need to rethink your pitch.

 #5: Respect their deadlines.

When contacting a reporter by phone, I suggest first asking if this is a good time to talk briefly. If not, ask when would be a convenient time to share a story idea. (Be prepared to be asked to send your idea in an email, though some reporters will give you a minute or two to hear your pitch if they’re not on deadline.) If you’re contacted by a reporter on deadline, do everything you can to respond within that timeframe; otherwise, you may miss out on a golden opportunity. Even worse, if you don’t respond promptly, the reporter may contact and quote a competitor.

#6: Think, write and speak like a reporter.

When the time comes to make your pitch, be sure you not only think like a reporter, but that you write and speak like one as well. For example, don’t advertise or editorialize your story idea (reporters are very sensitive to disguised advertising). Whether you write your pitch or give it verbally, be as objective as possible by emphasizing the news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights.

#7: Make their jobs easier.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is meaningful and targeted to their audience, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide coverage. Plus, if they know that you know their audience, area of coverage and deadlines, when they see a pitch from you in the future, they’ll realize you’re credible and will be more likely to give you serious consideration.

#8: Customize your pitch to fit their audience.

When I first started my agency, I had a female client who was launching a residential steel framing business, which was a new concept for our area. While the basic story was the same—the benefits of steel framing for residential homes—I segmented my pitches:

  • To our local business journal, I emphasized the entrepreneurial side of her business.
  • To our local daily paper, I got a front-page feature story that was part of a broader article about alternative materials in housing.
  • To women’s publications, I focused on a female entering the construction business, which traditionally has been dominated by men.
  • To her hometown paper (which ran a front-page story), I pitched a “local lady” angle and tied it to an award she had recently won.

One final thought: Consider giving the place you’d most like to receive coverage the first shot at a story whenever possible. Reporters like to be the first break a story, and not just report the same news that others have. This is a very competitive business and like any other profession, reporters enjoy getting recognition and praise for their stories, especially when they are the first to report them.

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