Do you have a writing sidekick yet?

Cover of the Canadian Press Stylebook

Batman and Robin. Han Solo and Chewbacca. Kirk and Spock. Wayne and Garth.

Every leading role has a sidekick.

In your journey as a communications professional, a good sidekick is essential.

When the bread and butter of communications professionals are words, good writing is essential.

While some of us may have had a manager or supervisor who made us write and rewrite our work endlessly in the pursuit of perfection, some of us may not have.

It’s important to know that you’re never alone.

You do have a sidekick on your path to better writing.

That sidekick is the Canadian Press Stylebook.

For 75 years, it has been the go-to reference for Canadian journalists.

Want to know if you should capitalize vice-president? The Canadian Press Stylebook has the answer.

What’s right, per cent or %? The Canadian Press Stylebook knows.

When do you stop using numerals like 1, 2, 3 and start writing numbers out using words, like ten and eleven? The Canadian Press Stylebook will guide you.

If you’re ever challenged on why you’re using certain words, you should be able to pull out the Canadian Press Stylebook and show your challenger.

If you don’t have a Canadian Press Stylebook in your office, get your manager to buy one.

Sometimes, even a sidekick has a sidekick. The Canadian Press Stylebook’s sidekick is Caps and Spelling.

Your office should have one of those, too.

It will give you the confidence to make decisions that some of Canada’s most hard working writers have been making for three quarters of a century.

Four leadership takeaways from Call Sign Chaos

Cover of Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis

Marine general and former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, writes about leadership in his book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

The call sign “CHAOS” itself stood for, “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.” It was given when Mattis was leading the Marines in invading Afghanistan in 2001. While tongue-in-cheek, it was a testament to Mattis’ solution-oriented ways.

Here are four quick takeaways:

  1. Read

The book is filled with quotes from Mattis’ own reading. During the invasion of Afghanistan, the only others who had faced similar situations were generals from ancient history. Luckily they, or someone else, had written about it. He says, “[reading] doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” He’s shared his top list of reads.

2. Respect junior team members

Earning the respect and trust of junior team members means they will carry out the mission, even in peril. Mattis went to bat for junior team members, writing a strongly worded letter to his higher ups to ensure his men received the awards he believed they had earned.

3. Give clear orders

The commander’s intent is a memo written to inform subordinate officers of orders. It provides the overarching themes, spirit and motivation behind an operation. The book includes a number of these memos, with original wording. Mattis mentions that once the plan deviates from the commander’s intent, it’s time to reevaluate and get back on track.

4. Place the greater good over your own benefit

Mattis was put in charge of United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), the mandate for which was to decide where money, training and development for all military capabilities should be focused. Mattis was tasked with finding cost savings within all branches of the military. His ultimate recommendation was to disband JFCOM itself, essentially putting himself out of a job.

Mattis would say that there is no single leadership trait. It’s part of a package. He would also probably say the best thing a leader can do is to always be prepared to face action.

Three times you’ll get bad coverage and what to do about it

A spilled ice cream cone

Working with the media, you’re not always going to get the story you want.

That’s fair, since it isn’t a reporter’s job to uncritically cover the specific piece of news you want covered.

However, sometimes, you’re going to get bad coverage. It’s a fact of media relations.

Once a story is published in print, there is little you can do to change it. Corrections are rare.

Besides, how many consumers check the next day’s corrections after reading a blaring headline?

It’s important to know not all bad coverage is created equal. Here are three different types of bad coverage and what you can do about it.

1. Missing information

This first one is the easiest. Sometimes, a reporter will leave a key piece of information out of the story. 

Since so many stories are written for online publication, once I see the web story is up, I will email the reporter with a nice note and then mention that there was extra information we had previously discussed that readers might want to  know.

It’s important that your request is relevant to readers. A reporter will be more willing to add extra information if it’s directly relevant to the readership.

Sometimes, if the story is technical in nature, I’ll offer to take a look at the story — not to vet it for favourability — but to ensure the technical portions are well represented. 

This is an opportunity to emphasize any points you think are missing.

Another consideration is timeliness.

You want to make sure the web story is updated, and you also want to make sure the story is updated for tomorrow’s print run.

It doesn’t hurt to ask if it will be updated. That way, if you think it won’t make it, you can update your executive in advance and propose a solution.

Lastly, if you see web coverage on a radio station’s site, make sure to tune into the news broadcast. Sometimes, team reading the news every hour won’t have the updated web story and may need a reminder as well. Sometimes, the reverse is true: the news team has the latest but no one has updated the web.

While rare, it’s important to make sure all your bases are covered.

2. The sensational headline

One Monday morning, a few years ago, I distributed a media release hoping it would get widespread, balanced coverage. 

It definitely got widespread coverage but for all the wrong reasons.

It began when a radio station tweeted out a headline for the web story of a radio interview I had just given. 

The headline did not match the facts of the story. Nonetheless, it went viral. 

All other outlets in the province saw this traffic-driving headline and wanted in on the action.

I spent the morning giving media interviews and the afternoon correcting headlines.

It’s important to note that reporters rarely write their own headlines. That’s the job of the editor. In many cases, the print editor and web editors will even create different headlines for the same story.

You are more likely to see a sensationalist headline in the web version of a story rather than the print version. 

It is what it is: clickbait.

In this case, I tracked all our coverage. For each story with a sensational headline, a member of my team or I would call up a news room or email the editor and let them know that the headline was inaccurate. I would lay out the facts, based on key messages. 

Each one of them changed their headlines, no questions asked.

They had gotten the morning news coverage and clicks they needed and understood the need to portray the story accurately. 

It was important to do this quickly. I wanted to make sure the headline was changed before the sensationalism was embedded in Google News forever by the search engine’s web crawlers.

3. The one-sided story angle

Sometimes, a reporter is so focused on a story angle that they won’t let the facts get in the way of what they want to cover.

They believe that other sources for a story are so strong that it will override a piece of information you have provided. 

Typically, without that one-sided angle, there’s really not much of a story.

If you experience this, usually the reporter has invested so much time in the story that it’s too late to back out, even though they should.

That’s why I like to send emailed statements. If I have to do a phone interview, I will be sure to follow up with a recap email, if it’s a sensitive story and I fear the reporter has an agenda.

Like the inaccurate headline, If the story angle is one-sided, I will usually follow up with an email reminding the reporter of the organization’s position and the facts from our point of view.

In this case, if the facts are truly misrepresented, and the reporter will not change the story, I will get in touch with an editor. 

This should be a last resort.

Think of the last time someone went straight to your boss with a problem you felt that you could have handled yourself. 

If you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to a reporter.

So, only do this in cases of major misrepresentation. 

An alternative is to engage an ally — a supportive stakeholder or advocate for your organization — to help correct the record. 

This is PR 101 and it’s also a reminder why PR and media relations skills are both part of a well-rounded practice.

On the other hand, if you’re with a large organization, don’t fret over small details.

I’ve had executives push for corrections to stories that weren’t a big deal. I warned against this since it can come off as insecure, petty or bullying, especially from a large organization.

Sometimes you just have to let the small stuff slide. Save your powder for when it matters.

As a communicator, you should be equipped to handle bad coverage the right way. Remember, regardless of the type of inaccuracy, the principle of respectful media relations still applies. 

Why the way you treat reporters affects your long game

Someone writing in a calendar

I once worked with a client who asked me what to do when a reporter inquired about layoffs in the area due to office closures.

“Let’s prepare a statement and get back to him,” I suggested.

They huddled with the lawyers. “We’re going to hold on this,” they said.

One inquiry then turned into two.

Still, the client wanted to say nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. The story was complicated and wasn’t easy to explain, but what if this business wanted to return to that area one day?

For some organizations, this approach works. Until it doesn’t.

For those organizations that rely on public trust to ensure business goes smoothly, communicators cannot take the risk of not treating reporters with professional respect.

It means asking about their deadlines.

It means responding in a timely fashion.

It means having something to say, even if it’s just a holding statement.

Last blog post, I mentioned reporters pitching your story to internal producers or editors for you

There’s a caveat to this.

You have to make sure your organization has the respect of these reporters. 

As a communicator, it’s your role to make the first move.

How to get reporters to pitch your story for you

A single, yellow telephone

For communicators in large organizations, it’s not only a challenge handling incoming media inquiries, it’s also a challenge knowing who to pitch out your good news stories to.

What if you already had a customized list of reporters who already knew about your organization who you could pitch to?

Of course, you can pull lists of reporters from a subscription service, like Cision, or call on those “reporter friend” contacts you’ve had in your back pocket for just this moment. Or you could just Google.

They might not know or care about your organization, though.

Or, you could use your incoming media inquiry call list.

Yes, the one you update whenever a reporter calls. You do keep one, don’t you?

It’s important that all team members save the details of all incoming media calls (date, reporter contact details, outlet and subject matter) in a central Excel spreadsheet. Don’t forget to note who on your team took the call.

Over time, this list will grow. Maybe into the hundreds.

Eventually, you’ll be the one reaching out to select reporters to get coverage you actually want. 

“But they don’t cover the beat I’m pitching,” you might be thinking. “They were only calling about an issue we didn’t want covered in the first place.”

That’s not a problem. 

If you pitch a reporter on your list, and they’re not the right person to cover the story, you can always ask them to pass it on to their editor or producer. 

After all, you were friendly to them when they called you the first time, right?

If they do decide to pass the story onto their boss, in essence, they’re pitching your story for you!

Once you get the producer or editor’s contact info, you’ll have it for future reference (use a different tab in your Excel spreadsheet).

It’s this professional give-and-take between communicators and reporters that is the essence of good media relations.

So, when was the last time you updated your reporter call list?

Why this fighter pilot’s warfighting doctrine should be added to your toolbelt

Diagram of Boyd's OODA loop

In 1961 Korean War fighter pilot veteran, John Boyd, wrote a study of dogfighting tactics that included a tool that is still not only used by organizations like the US Marine Corps but by businesses the world over. 

It’s called the OODA (oo-dah) loop. Tactical in nature, it stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It was used to decide the actions that should be taken during aerial combat. By acting quickly, a pilot can outmanoeuvre the enemy by making quick decisions, thereby “getting inside” the opponent’s loop.

On the face of it, people and organizations already use this decision-making intuitively. However, Boyd’s method forces people using the OODA loop to reevaluate when circumstances change. 

For today’s blog post, the biggest takeaway from the idea of the OODA loop is to change our orientation based on changing circumstances. 

The tool encourages asking questions like: How has our opponent’s (or audience’s) orientation changed? Are we still pointed in the right direction? Are we looking at the right field of play? Does anything need to change? If so, new decisions and new actions would come from that reassessment.

This allows us to become more comfortable with ambiguity and changing scenarios. It keeps us from locking into a single course of action.

It’s hard to imagine a fighter pilot being inflexible in reassessing a situation based on the feedback he’s given from the enemy.

This change can be done on a large scale.

One example is global leaders deciding to deemphasize fossil fuels in favour of cleaner energy. This would be based on the observation that the world is warming and based on the orientation that doing nothing will result in climate risk that will increasingly become unmanageable.

Or it can be done on a small scale. For example, learning that CBC’s Marketplace is currently investigating a customer complaint that management didn’t think was a big deal. This changing situation will require a reassessment of the decisions being made.

So, the next time you’re planning a campaign, look to the skies for some inspiration.

Q&As, what are they good for?

A question mark sign

In my last blog post, I mentioned that questions and answers (Q&As) are where you put the answers to hard questions. 

This contrasts with your key messages, which you want to get to the forefront of any news story.

It’s important to remember, when the media are for hunting a story, it’s not all fun and games. It’s not their job to promote your business uncritically. 

They need to tell a story.

Sometimes, that story isn’t perfect.

Sometimes, there is something to the story that you’d rather not discuss.

Regardless of whether or not you want to talk about it, you have to be ready with an answer.

That’s where Q&As come in. 

To start, you want to think of the most difficult questions you would never want to be asked.

Then you answer them.

You answer in the best way you can at this point in time.

If something is under investigation at your organization and there is no immediate answer, then say so. You’re not hiding anything. You’re being honest about where you are in the process. You’re also not going to step on the investigator’s toes by getting into hypothetical outcomes, despite the wishes of the reporter.

Sometimes, you don’t have to answer questions. For example, private companies are under no obligation to declare their revenues publicly. That doesn’t mean you can’t say it in a nice way.

Q&As give you the opportunity to massage a message to make sure you’re coming off as helpful, even if you’re unable to address a specific question.

A good set of key messages should give you the confidence to move forward with a media opportunity, despite what else is happening with the organization.

Once you’ve answered the hard question, you should bridge back to your core key message.

By writing Q&As, in addition to key messages, you’ll be ready to answer reporters’ questions with confidence, even if you wish they were never asked in the first place.

The only key message format you’ll ever need

someone holding an old fashioned radio

Whenever I draft key messages, I imagine that radio personalities with commanding voices, like Rick Cluff, Bill Good or Matt Galloway, are announcing news that just came across their desks. 

What kind of words would they use?

Well, you can capture this on paper by standardizing your key messages.

This format isn’t exclusive to radio, but it helps to imagine it’s being read live, on air.

The first part of a key message is your motherhood statement. 

It’s like a headline.

For example: “ABC Corporation is proud to announce its support of Initiative X.”

This statement is a start, but it’s incomplete.

It requires support. In the form of bullets.

I recommend three.

These bullets should include details like numbers and facts. It lets your audience know there’s substance behind the headline.

The format looks like this:

ABC Corporation is proud to announce its support of Initiative X.

  • 40 per cent of Initiative X patrons need support with D, E, F, which aligns closely with ABC Corporation’s goals.
  • ABC Corporation will be committing $100,000 over the next three years to Initiative X.
  • ABC Corporation and Initiative X expect they will be able to achieve its goals of D, E, F through this collaboration.

The key message above explains what the support looks like (lots of money), what the support will do (achieve Initiative X’s goals) and when (the next three years).

But we’re not finished. 

Your audience will have more questions. 

For each of the supporting bullets, your audience will have questions about the details. Will the money come from shareholders? Why did you choose Initiative X and not Initiative Y? Who at ABC Corporation will be responsible for delivering on this? What does it mean for me as an ABC Corporation customer? What do I need to do? Where can I learn more? 

Anticipating these questions, you should have two or three more sets of motherhood statements combined with bullets to unpack everything to give you a comprehensive who, what, where, why, when and how.

By needing three bullet points for each motherhood statement, you are forced to dig into the details to justify each statement.

But what about the hard questions? The ones that are kind of uncomfortable to answer. Do those go in your key messages?

You put those in your questions and answers (Q&As)

That’s a blog post for another time.

Until then, standardize your key messages. That way, you’ll have everything you need the next time the phone rings and you hear a radio producer on the other end.

One tip every strategic communicator needs for success

man pointing at stickies on a wall

Last year, a colleague held an informal poll of team members. “What is strategy?” she asked. For every person asked, she got a different answer. They weren’t wrong. The exercise showed how the idea of strategy can take many forms.

This is because strategy can apply to almost anything. It can help you fight a land war in Asia. It can help you go camping. Here are four writers who explain strategy.

Ensuring your ends match your means is the key to successful strategy according to John Lewis Gaddis in On Grand Strategy. To do this, strategists must have a figurative or literal compass. By knowing their direction, strategists can still maintain their heading in the face of obstacles (rivers and mountains or a long weekend road closure).

To do this, strategists must hold opposites in their head at the same time. On one hand, they have grand ambitions (invading a continent or setting up the tent before nightfall). On the other hand, they must know the limits to achieving that ambition (it’s winter in Russia or the kid is going to get car sick). Balancing this creates good strategy.

Gaddis writes, strategists must have enough humility to understand these limits. Those who lack this humility have had their continental armies defeated or end up not having enough time to roast marshmallows.

Similarly, strategy is a deliberate, outcome-oriented approach which requires a self-awareness of why an organization does what it does, according to Bernard Gauthier in Strategic Communication in Canada. He writes that strategy is dynamic, meaning that it evolves as the environment evolves. It is informed, meaning it’s based on research. It is also consistent, meaning that the strategic approach should guide all communications channels and tactics.

Dwayne Spradlin’s 2012 HBR article states that, despite trying, many initiatives don’t fit with an organization’s strategy. Organizations are failing to define the problem they’re solving for. To do this better, strategists must ask more questions. Once that happens, they’re in a position to develop a strategy. Again, self-awareness features prominently here.

This quotation now makes a lot more sense:

“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.”

Sun Tzu

This is why so many professional service firms are focused on defining problems. Maister et al. in The Trusted Advisor, write that successful advisors spend their time focused on defining problems with clients before they jump to solutions — even if they’re itching to provide the answer to what appears to be an obvious problem. 

As a result, communications firms often offer things like content and landscape audits prior to tackling a client’s original ask: they need to build an understanding of what the battlefield looks like first. Through this, they build trust with those who are seeking their guidance and gain the awareness needed to develop strategy.

So, one of the first steps in strategy development is knowing yourself and your enemy (or audience, or kid you take camping, or whatever).

One simple trick to get a reporter off the phone so you can enjoy the weekend

In a 24-hour enterprise level organization, an operational issue or emergency can strike at any time. Those of you who handle the media hotline know this more than anyone. When it’s your turn on call, your weekend plans can go out the window.

Many years ago, when I worked for a natural gas company, we got inundated with media calls on a Friday afternoon all because a whole city smelled funny. Everyone assumed the company was responsible for a rotten-egg smelling gas leak. Our dispatch team scrambled technicians across the city with special equipment to investigate. No leaks were detected.

Instead of cancelling my plans so I could respond to media calls all night, I posted all operational updates on Twitter. Whenever a reporter called, I assured them that we were sharing all updates with customers on Twitter as soon as we had news.

This did two things. First, it showed transparency. We had nothing to hide, even if it was us causing the stink. Reporters understood we were trustworthy, which gave us the benefit of the doubt in future scenarios. Second, it made the information accessible to all reporters, which meant there was no exclusive scoop. Reporters knew that no matter how often they called, they’d get the same level of information as their peers.

I was still available to take reporters’ calls, but they knew it would be a slower process than just checking Twitter. They saved time, since they already had to make dozens of calls to find out who was really making the stink. Plus, we got more reporters to follow the company’s Twitter account.

After tagging local news outlets in our tweets that afternoon, I could continue with my Friday evening plans. I still checked in with the 24/7 dispatch team from time to time for new updates. If there were any, I could post them to Twitter directly using my phone.

We never found out what caused the stink that weekend. Some say it was from a pulp mill. Others thought it was a broken sewage line. Despite this mystery, reporters got all the information they needed from my organization — at least to rule out a gas leak — and I got to enjoy my weekend.