Archive for the ‘Message communication’ Category

Clean Slate

April 12, 2012

Our firm specializes in crisis management and training spokespersons to efficiently convey their message to the media, or Media Training. However, if the Miami Marlins baseball team called on us to manage the crisis brought about by their manager, Ozzie Guillén, our answer would have to be: “Up till now you have handled the situation poorly. Regardless, we’re sorry but this situation is unfixable. The only solution is to clean the slate and, also, do it as quickly as possible.”

For those who may not be aware of it, Ozzie Guillén, a 48 year old US citizen born in Venezuela, told Time Magazine that “I love Fidel Castro… I respect Fidel Castro, you know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that… is still here.” Guillén also used a profanity that was most inappropriate for someone who not only represents a professional sports franchise but also a city: Miami.

We’re in a country where freedom of speech is respected. Anyone has the right to say his or her opinion and defend it in public. However, it’s clear that praising Fidel Castro in a city like Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora, doesn’t precisely show great sensibility towards the city’s Cuban community.

On the other hand, just like Guillén can have an opinion, that’s also a right of Miami’s Cuban community. Especially if we take into account that it is the citizens of Miami who buy tickets to see the Marlins play. And that doesn’t take into account the $487 million in public funds spent to build their stadium which, likewise, were paid by taxpayers. Paradoxically, a stadium located in the very heart of Little Havana, one of the most emblematic places for Cuban exiles.

The Marlin organization distanced itself from his comments and suspended Guillén for five games, adding that his salary for those days would be donated to charitable organizations. Guillén held a press conference where he apologized and said that his comments were misunderstood.

Time Magazine isn’t a second-rate publication. It is one of the most important media organizations in the world. I just can’t believe that it’s reporters would publish something like this, knowing the controversy it would stir-up, if they didn’t have concrete proof of these having been Guillén’s exact comments. If they had distorted the manager’s comments, I assume that Time would be sued for millions of dollars for seriously damaging Guillén’s image and career.

In any crisis where an organization or a person have made a mistake, asking for forgiveness is the first step to beginning to resolve the crisis. However, in this case, I don’t think it will solve anything. First of all, Guillén apologized but never rectified his opinion of Castro. However, even if he said today that Castro is a dictator, his words would probably not be seen as credible by Miami’s Cuban community. They’d likely be perceived as an attempt to hold on to his job and his $10 million salary. Secondly, his body language during the press conference didn’t seem to match with what he was saying. It’s important to remember that 80% of someone’s credibility is conveyed by their body language and not the actual message.

On the other hand, the sanction imposed by the Marlins is probably hurting rather than helping them. It seems clear that Guillén has lost the Cuban community’s support, a fundamental fan base for the team. The longer they take to decide to get rid of this manager, the more damage it will do to their relationship with this Cuban community. Guillén has every right to give his opinion and the Marlins also have every right to fire him if they realize that they have lost the support of the community they represent.

 In circumstances such as this one, Media Training or crisis management have very limited value. Guillén also faces another problem because now he can’t make anybody happy. Not Miami’s Cuban community nor Fidel Castro’s supporters. The first because he offended them and the others because of his attempt to take back what he said.

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A first impression is essential for effective communications

September 20, 2011

The cliché is true: “You never have a second chance to make a good first impression.” That applies to both your professional and personal lives. All the psychological studies indicate that once someone has made a first impression of you, it’s very hard to change their mind later. That is why it’s so important to make a fantastic first impression.

At a job, that first impression is vital. If during the first few weeks at a new job you come across as a hard-working model employee that’s the image that will be associated with you. It won’t matter if your behavior changes later and you don’t continue to be that model employee from before. However, if the first impression people get is negative, it doesn’t matter how much you improve; most of your co-workers will always think of you negatively. And that’s exactly how it works in politics. Once a voter has formulated an initial opinion of a candidate it’s very difficult to change it. It doesn’t matter the reasons for
changing it, voters will tend to hear what they want to hear.

That is, you must pay special attention when you have to make an unbeatable first impression.

J.D. Schramm, in his paper “Effective Communication Begins with a First Impression,” goes into detail regarding the importance of this first impression in all facets of our interactions with others.

For example, he mentions that a presentation should never begin with “Good morning, my name is Gary Anderson and I’m managing director at Acme…”

Why? Have you said anything that grabs your listeners’ attention? Did you say anything truly important? No. In reality, you wasted a good opportunity to capture our attention from the onset.

Before starting your presentation, think about something different, original, innovative. Something that will make your audience turn to you and “truly” pay attention. Every year we watch dozens, hundreds of presentations. Do we remember anything special afterwards? Did we see or hear something that stayed with us? In the great majority of cases, the answer is no. And don’t forget that first impressions are not only important in face-to-face meetings, but also over the phone, on videoconferences and even on email. In a job market as difficult as this one, every detail is a clear competitive advantage. Don’t let them go to waste.

And don’t forget that 80% of what you communicate is done through non-verbal corporal language. The importance of your concrete message barely reaches 20%.

Your facial expression, how you carry yourself, your eye contact, your open or defensive physical gestures, your tone of voice. Those factors make up the most important part of your message. If what you say matches your non-verbal body language,
your message will be accepted as truthful. However, if your words say one thing and your body language another, your message will be rejected as incoherent and unauthentic.

There are many factors that have a bearing on whether a message is perceived as truthful or false. How we express ourselves, what we wear, how we communicate with our bodies are of utmost importance. For better or worse, many people do judge a book by its cover.

Pablo Gato

CEO, Gato Communications

For more information about Effective Communication, visit us at www.gatocommunications.com

Save a penny, lose a dollar

April 23, 2011

It has been a year since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people lost their lives and five million barrels of oil spilled in the ocean, the worst such accident in US history.

From a public relations point of view, it is surprising that corporations as important as BP reacted in such an inadequate way to the disaster. In fact, BP’s behavior is now the point of reference for what NOT to do during a crisis.

Prior to the accident, BP’s then CEO, Tony Hayward, had reduced the company’s PR budget, following the advice of consultants who obviously were not qualified to make such a recommendation. And much less in light of the coming crisis. The result was enormous damage to BP’s reputation and, therefore, also to its bottom line. By the way, Hayward lost his job as CEO as a consequence of his handling of the crisis.

A corporation which in 2009 earned 14 billion dollars started to save money in an area as vital to them as public affairs and in the end the paid for their mistake. As the saying goes, save a penny, lose a dollar.

A decision that was not only irresponsible but also lacked intelligence; because an oil company definitely knows that, sooner or later, an accident such as this can happen. And when it does, it must have a first-rate public relations team that is always ready to deal immediately and efficiently with such a crisis. Even though any corporation or government can face any type of crisis, this is true for companies that deal with especially risky fields such as airlines and chemical companies. It’s only a matter of time before an accident happens, never mind a terrorist attack. And if the crisis is not dealt with satisfactorily, it could lead to the end of the business.

That is why it’s so surprising that a corporation as prestigious as BP could be so shortsighted.

The other incident that, unfortunately, reminds us about the total lack of preparation when facing catastrophes is what happened in Japan.

I have visited Japan several times. I have dealt professionally with the Japanese and Japanese businessmen and women. The last thing that you’d imagine is that a country as organized and professional as Japan would not be ready for something that is totally predictable.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake prone countries. In that area, obviously, the earthquakes cause tsunamis, which is also to be expected. And is anyone surprised about the potential danger that a nuclear accident could bring about? The Japanese government and the company that owns the nuclear plant should have been ready for all these situations, but it’s obvious they were not. Something that is truly unforgivable because we’re talking about events during which the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at risk.

It is true that the catastrophe was beyond what anyone could have imagined and that when something like that happens it’s hard to react. There is a collective psychological shock. However, I must state again, we are talking about situations that are truly predictable.

In addition to the structural and human disasters, there was an information one. There was a total void of reliable and precise information. The Japanese government completely failed when the population most needed this information to be able to make potentially life or death decisions.

No one knew how to deal with the media, what information to share, which recommendations to make. The information the public was getting was incomplete, half-truths or totally wrong. The Japanese media would say something and the international media would report something totally different. The nuclear plant owners would state something and independent experts would immediately deny it. The Japanese government would put out a press release and the US government would contradict it. And to this we must add the traditional skepticism that
many Japanese have regarding what many national companies say, because they’re well known for their lack of transparency. The result was a total information chaos which was aggravated by an environment of extreme physical and emotional tension. A perfect storm.

I know people who have family in the affected area in Japan. They tell me that no one knew the real security perimeter surrounding the nuclear plant, what they needed to do, where to find shelter or where to find uncontaminated water or food. This is not precisely the image that most have of a country such as Japan.

What happened? Didn’t the Japanese government have a crisis management plan in place for situations such as this, which are, once again, completely predictable? And if they had it, why wasn’t it put in place? Didn’t the Japanese government train its key personnel so they would know how to handle the media, known as media training, especially during a crisis? And if they did get the training, why did they act in a way that put the population in such danger?

How is it possible that multimillion dollar corporations such as BP or first-world governments such as Japan’s could be so poorly prepared for these types of situations? How is it possible that they could have made a strategic mistake of such magnitude?

Without a doubt, in disasters such as these the first priority for a government or corporation should be the physical security of people and the environment. However, during these events, the flow of reliable and correct information is
not secondary but also a priority because it directly impacts the security of the population and the environment. During a catastrophe, knowing how to communicate effectively saves lives.

Unfortunately, more accidents or natural disasters are in our future. We will see if BP and the Japanese government, as well as other institutions and businesses have learned from these mistakes or history will repeat itself.

From Miners to Celebrities… and All the Way to the Bank

October 16, 2010

 “Chile will be remembered and recognized not for Pinochet, but as an example of unity, leadership and valor, faith and success,” stated Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera to the Times of London.

Chile has written a story that will be very difficult to overcome not only in the field of mine disaster rescues, but of public relations.

As the Chinese proverb so well states, every crisis is an opportunity and the Chilean authorities have masterfully positioned their country during this crisis as not only an empathetic, brave and hard-working nation, but as an especially effective one.  That knows how to do things correctly.  A model to be followed.  No public relations campaign, not even one with an unlimited budget, would have been able to get these results.  Not by a long shot.

The rescue work at the San José de Copiapó mine was done by the book.  Rescuing all the miners was undoubtedly a miracle, but a miracle that became a reality thanks to a minutely planned strategy that was executed with the utmost level of professionalism.  Nothing was left to chance.

Today, after this epic rescue, any average observer from around the world would think that Chile has one of the safest mining industries in the world.  But they would be wrong.  According to CNN, last year 50 people lost their lives in Chile’s mines.  Even though mining represents 40% of the national income, it is only 1% of the world’s market.  And with this 1%, Chile contributes 8% of the world’s mining accidents.  That is, Chile has a clearly high number of mining accidents.  The government states that this is a problem limited to small companies which lack the resources to prevent them.  CNN also points out that the area where this accident took place only has three government inspectors for 800 mines, adding that this accident should never have happened because the safety issues at the mine were well-known.  The mine had actually been shut down in 2007.  And, one of the first things that the miners did after being rescued was to ask the President to take the necessary measures to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

Nonetheless, the perception is that Chile’s mining industry is excellent in terms of security and, as we all know, perception is for all practical purposes 90% of reality.  And this has been achieved by the Santiago government, apart from having organized a successful rescue mission, through a perfectly executed media show. 

First of all, and prior to their rescue, the authorities provided media training to the miners to teach them how to deal with the media.  Yes, you read it right.  The miners learned about how to deal with the media at 700 meters below the earth’s surface.  Secondly, the government provided full-access coverage to everything that was happening.  This was a decision that was not only intelligent, but also brave because the rescue mission was a success – it could have been a failure.  A failure covered by 2,000 reporters and millions of television viewers as witnesses.

TV cameras were everywhere and, most importantly, all the participants in the rescue cooperated 100% with the coverage.  It was clear that they had been told what to do.  Even the doctors at the hospital where the miners were being treated opened the doors over and over again so that the cameras could better film the miners on their gurneys. 

And when I say that the cameras were everywhere, I mean they were everywhere.  Even, as incredibly as this may seem, inside the mine: 700 meters below the surface.  Viewers could see the miners in real time, as well as the first rescuers who descended to help them.  This allowed for the levels of emotion to reach stratospheric heights and, therefore, had viewers all over the world glued to their television sets and computers to watch the miracle live.

There were also cameras on the miners’ helmets, which allowed us to view their ascent on the Phoenix rescue capsule over the narrow tunnel from the mine to the surface.  Of course, there were cameras following every move of the above-ground rescue equipment and rescuers, of the awaiting families and of Chileans all over the country (and the world) crying as they proudly waved the Chilean flag.  And, naturally, a camera witnessed the first moments when each miner emerged from the Phoenix, hugging and kissing their relatives and immediately after hugging President Piñera, the Mining Minister and their rescuers.  It was impossible to remain unmoved.

If Chile’s government had not been as intelligent and hadn’t provided those images, the level of interest about this story would not have been the same.  Even though all the images were provided by the government and no other cameras were allowed to transmit, the truth is that those images were made available to everyone.  Limiting access to only the government’s cameras is never the ideal situation, because it can be perceived as biased, it is easy to understand that it was impossible to allow 2,000 reporters direct access to the rescue zone.  It really was a total of 2,000 international reporters that traveled to that remote region of Chile to cover this story.  There is a factor of security and distraction that cannot be ignored. 

Everyone lived the odyssey live. The words, the emotions, the hugs, the tears of joy.  Chile was able to create an emotional connection with millions and millions of people all over the globe.  We were all Chileans at that time and we were moved just as if we were witnessing the rescue on site with them.

However, there have been many mining accidents that have been completely ignored by the media. By facilitating coverage, the government was able to take advantage of a golden opportunity to receive support for the rescue operation and reinforce the country’s image as a place where things are done correctly.  The rescue mission has cost between 20 and 30 million dollars, a third of which will be covered by donations.

Everyone, with the possible exception of the mine’s owners, has come out a winner.  The miners were rescued and Chile is admired all over the world.  Such is the case of Laurence Golborne, the Mining Minister, who has an 87% approval rating and is already being touted as a possible successor to President Piñera in the 2013 elections.  

This story teaches us the importance of openness.  Of transparency.  We must help the media to do their job.  Hiding facts and not providing information is the worst thing to do.  Because, among other things, the media always finds out what it needs to find out.

In January 2006, I covered the accident at the Sago mine in West Virginia, USA.  It was an information disaster.  Journalists received information piecemeal, and then to make matters worse we were provided erroneous information.  The authorities even said, mistakenly as it turned out, that 12 miners had survived the explosion.  All the news outlets relayed the news enthusiastically.  After the tense hours of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones, the families began to celebrate the miracle.  However, the information was subsequently refuted.  Only one miner survived.  It is not difficult to imagine the families’ reaction once they found out the news.

I also remember the accident at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Mexico in February 2006.  It was estimated that 65 miners were trapped below ground.  The mining company said that they were 150 meters below the surface.  The accident took place on February 19.  On February 25, the company announced that “there was no chance of any survivors after the methane explosion.”  The next day the authorities announced that the mine would be closed indefinitely.

In Chile there was also great pessimism about the situation with the miners.  On August 22, the Mining Minister said that the possibilities of finding the miners alive were slim.  We have to remember that it wasn’t until 17 days after the accident that contact was made with the miners.  Seventeen days!  However, the authorities, despite the initial pessimism, promised not to give up and they didn’t.  They were true to their word.  And the prize was when the miners were heard from and, after a tense 69 days of wait, all the miners were rescued safe and sound.  All 33 miners.

Without putting into question the Chilean government’s conviction and compromise with the rescue mission, whether or not there was media coverage, does anyone put in doubt that the media’s presence and interest help in similar situations to ensure that full-blown rescue efforts continue?  What would happen in these disasters if no cameras reached the area to explain in images the titanic struggle to save the miners trapped under tons of stones?  What happens is that many times the effort is not as strong and the possibilities of saving those lives are greatly reduced.  In Mexico’s case there was quite a bit of coverage, but it cannot be compared with the Chilean government’s deployment. The Chileans became masters of communication.  The media’s work is essential in this type of situations and the intelligent Chilean government understood this perfectly.  And now, Chile’s image in the world has been incredibly strengthened.

Another very intelligent decision was to train the miners about how to deal with the media.  First of all because of psychological issues, and secondly because of practical matters.

Do you remember the accident in 1972 when a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes?  After another epic story of how to survive in below zero temperatures after they had been given for dead, 16 people survived.  Well, some of those survivors visited the mine in Chile to share with the miners their experiences after being rescued.  To go from being an anonymous miner to being known internationally practically overnight, is not always an easy transition.

The Chilean authorities explained to the miners that there were many reporters waiting for them, that all of them wanted to interview them and that they would be very persistent to get those interviews.  That their lives would be open to scrutiny, for better or worse.  We now even know the names of one of the miners’ mistress.  The training served to at least be a bit more ready for what was to come.

But there is another angle – the money.  The miners made $1,600 a month for their hard work.  Undoubtedly, this rescue will be told in books and movies, and the miners will travel the world telling their stories in person.

The Real Madrid and Manchester soccer teams have invited them to their games.  A Greek mining company has invited them to vacation in Greece’s paradisiacal islands.  And they will get many more invitations, both as prizes and paying them for their attendance.  Some outlets will even pay them a lot of money to interview them.

The miners said that they reached an agreement among themselves to share all their earnings from sharing their experiences about the accident.  Even if this does finally happen, who will make the most money?  Obviously, the person who best knows how to explain what happened, who best articulates the story, the one who communicates the most.  That person will be the one to travel and give speeches, that person will be preferred by television networks for interviews.  Even if the training they received was, for obvious reasons, very basic, knowing just a little better how to effectively communicate a message is something that can make a fundamental difference in the lives of the miners.  If they are skillful, they will never have to work another day in their lives.

Journalism on Life Support

July 24, 2010

With a few honorable exceptions, in my opinion, journalism is clearly declining.  Every day it becomes less relevant when it comes to exercising its primary function as an independent mechanism of oversight and investigation of the government and organizations regarding issues of vital importance for our society.  The latest example is the surreal case of Shirley Sherrod.

For openers, it is surreal because President Obama called her twice, couldn’t reach her and she didn’t even return his call until the following day.  What?  What do you mean?  THE President Obama?  The one that world leaders constantly court and go through hoops to hold fleeting meetings with at the White House?  Yes, the very same.  Just like you have read.  And when he was finally able to speak with her, it was to apologize.  And this is just the latest of the twists in this story of journalism-fiction.

What could have led to this Presidential apology?  Mrs. Sherrod was an employee of the US Department of Agriculture.  This past March 27, Sherrod made a speech at an event of the NAACP, an organization that defends the civil rights of minorities in the United States.  A few days ago, a blogger and conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, uploaded on YouTube a video clip of Mrs. Sherrod’s remarks.

On the video, she admitted that 24 years ago she hesitated about whether or not to help a white farmer who came to her for assistance to save his farm.  The reason?  He was White.  At the time, Sherrod worked in the south of the United States for a non-profit agency established to help African-American farmers.  Mrs. Sherrod is African-American.

When the media got a hold of the video, all hell broke loose.  A strange and schizophrenic virus took over all media outlets, the Administration, as well as the public.  A first year journalism student would have behaved in a more professional, ethical and responsible manner than the reporters who covered this story.

Especially, the conservative media began to attack Sherrod furiously, accusing her of being a racist.  Like an out-of-control forest fire, the video spread throughout the Internet and the attacks increased, culminating in the Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to fire Mrs. Sherrod.  Some commentators have said that the White House responded so quickly and forcefully out of fear that the Administration of an African-American president would be accused of racism against Whites.

There’s a small problem.  It happens that the video uploaded to YouTube was a specifically edited clip of what Mrs. Sherrod said during the NAACP event.  The real story told by Sherrod was the complete opposite:  one of redemption and racial reconciliation.

At the event, Sherrod acknowledged her previously held prejudices, her inner struggles and stated that she finally decided that she and the farmer were human beings and that there were no differences between them.  She not only helped the White farmer to save his farm but a long-lasting friendship grew from their encounter.  The farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family confirmed that everything that Mrs. Sherrod said was true.  That is, the exact opposite of the image that the world built of Mrs. Sherrod was real.  However, there she was: fired from her job, slandered and constantly criticized by one and all.

Afterwards, the conservative blogger acknowledged that the video he uploaded to YouTube was actually an edited version of the speech.  According to him, the people who gave it to him never told him that the video was made up of selected clips.  Whether or not this is true, the damage was already done and journalism in general suffered a serious setback.  Others accuse the blogger of knowing exactly what he was uploading and that he did it anyway to create a controversy that attacked the Obama Administration and promote his blog.

Did no one verify to make sure that the story and the accusations were true? Where did journalistic ethics go? Where are objectivity, the sense of information equity and justice?  Did nobody bother to request a complete copy of the speech to find out if the quotes reflected accurately the spirit of what was said?  Or was it that, just like it happened, the quotes were taken out of context?  Did anyone find someone who actually attended the event to confirm the authenticity of the remarks?  Did anyone check with a variety of sources to verify the information? Did an experienced editor or producer review the story before printing or airing it? Was nobody suspicious that an organization such as the NAACP, which is on the forefront of calls for social harmony, would invite a supposedly racist speaker to their event? Did this simple fact not raise the alarm?  Did anyone bother to speak with Mrs. Sherrod to allow her to defend herself? Did anyone demand that the story not be made public until all the information had been verified, to ensure that irreparable damage to her reputation was not made if the accusations were not true? My goodness, I could go on and on all day writing this type of questions.  These are the basic tenets of journalism.

However, as I mentioned previously, this situation goes further.  How could the Obama Administration fire someone without verifying that the accusations were true, basing this decision only on press reports?  Is it that those in the government do not know that just because something is published by the media it is not necessarily true?  Then, is it true that, as some people insist, President Obama was actually born in Kenya and that instead of being a Christian is actually a Muslim?  Is it true then that Elvis Presley was having breakfast this morning in Las Vegas? And, how is it possible that the general population can also let itself be influenced in such a manner by the media without displaying the least interest in finding out whether or not this story was true?  Did anyone say, “Wait a minute, is this true? Could someone be making too big a deal out of this?  Couldn’t these be politically motivated falsities?  Has she been given the opportunity to defend herself?”?  No, no one said anything and the life of a woman who has fought during decades on behalf of others’ civil rights, regardless of their skin color, radically changed in a matter of days.  Suddenly, the entire country saw her as a racist.

When everyone finally realized the enormity of the mistake they had made, a great feeling of collective guilt took over.  The Secretary of Agriculture apologized during a press conference and offered her another job.  Some of news outlets also apologized and President Obama himself called her to apologize on behalf of his Administration.

However, once again, this case goes beyond this one situation affecting Mrs. Sherrod.  These are the consequences of what we see in journalism nowadays.  On the one hand, newspapers, television and radio stations fire a large number of experienced journalists to replace them with recently graduated one who are paid a third of the fired journalists’ salaries.  However, they clearly have no experience.  News bureaus have less and less true professional journalists on staff and those who are still around have an enormous amount of work.  They cannot properly do their job.  It is not their fault.  Journalists nowadays have to do the work of two or three people, support the online side of the news, as well as sometimes film and edit the stories they cover.  It is impossible to deliver good, solid work as a journalist under these conditions.

On the other hand, there is the emergence of the so-called blogosphere, which isn’t necessarily journalism.  Many times it is its very opposite.  A weird world where we come across true professionals, but also an army of lunatics and people without the most basic knowledge of issues or journalism but who sell themselves as “serious” journalists.  That, of course, without including the throng of crazed political activists who want to make themselves pass for journalists and don’t have a clue about what they’re writing about.  The result is that you can come across anything on the Web, but readers don’t always know or can’t distinguish between good information and blatant propaganda.

Media outlets always want to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to reporting news.  It is the nature of the business.  To be first.  However, with the arrival of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the struggle is now down to beating the competition by mere seconds.  The pressure to be first is very strong and, as we can see from this example, the right steps are not always taken before publishing or going on air with a story.  Speed trumps the truth.

The media needs to be an institution where respected journalists and professionals come together and are able to inform the nation in an independent way. People who dedicate their lives to investigate and report the news objectively and truthfully to their readers, viewers, and listeners.  They have to be the point of reference for the public, where they can confidently go to get the news.  The media cannot be the circus sideshow that we just saw with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have profound admiration for journalists who embrace and take seriously their profession.  They are vital to our society.  A real democracy cannot function without a strong, independent, truthful, qualified and brave media.  In spite of this, I think that journalists who are not in this group do real damage to our society and we have to protect ourselves from them.

Many will view this episode as anecdotal, but the problem is that it isn’t.  It represents a very dangerous tendency.  Do you remember the Iraq War?  Do you remember the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly being hidden in Iraq?  The media did a terrible job in its coverage prior to the war.  And what can be said about the current economic crisis?  How is it possible that financial sector journalists didn’t investigate the problem that was brewing?  Now we know that more than a few predicted something was going to happen, but where were those reporters to talk about these concerns, about the imminent danger of a financial catastrophe?  Surely, due to the decrease in newsroom budgets, these reporters were covering several stories a day and didn’t have the time to cover any of them properly.

From my vantage point, there are only a handful of news media outlets with the financial resources and professional staff to truly make a difference in today’s media world.  Most journalists are doing the work of several people or are deeply enmeshed in looking for the daily irrelevant scandal to increase viewership, ratings, and the number of newspapers or magazines sold.  Many bloggers don’t even care if what they write is true or a lie.  Everything is geared to creating a scandal to get the most hits on their page.  And with that, to increase their notoriety.  Fame.  Others, with political motivations, whether on the right or left, don’t even care about that; their concern is to politically hurt their opponents.  Again, without caring if their accusations are true or merely made-up.  As you well know, a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

All of this is truly dangerous for our democracy and for the overall well-being of our society.  Crises bring about serious economic problems for millions of families.  Wars bring about death and enormous debt.  The public has a right to be well-informed to be able to make important decisions.  Journalism’s mission is to provide this information.  It has always been said that journalism “informs, educates, and entertains.”  From my point of view, today’s journalism informs very little, educates even less, and entertains us more and more every day.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner didn’t deliver

April 15, 2010

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, gave a speech at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on April 9, 2010.  The powerful US Chamber has three million members.

In his introduction, Chamber president Thomas Donohue told President Fernández de Kirchner that the US business entrepreneurs in the audience were especially interested in three subjects:  corruption, transparency and accountability.

The president, during her more than 30 minute talk, gave a detailed, precise and very well executed accounting of her country’s economic situation and sold it as a very good place to do business.  She only mentioned in passing that problems or conflicts always exist between partners and that their obligation is to find a solution to those disputes.  However, she never directly addressed the issues that concerned her audience. 

There are two ways to look at this situation.  The first one is that the president simply did not want to delve on these issues and avoided them.  The second is that she was not ready for the questions or did not understand what was asked of her.  I do not know if Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner understands English well enough.  Her presentation was in Spanish.

Regardless, the result was a negative one.  If she did not want to speak about the issues of concern to the audience, the question at hand is why did she accept the invitation?  Since she took the time to be there and obviously made a real effort to convince the potential future investors that Argentina is, according to her, a good investment choice, it is not logical that she then did not address her audience’s most important concerns.  The reason is that if these questions are not addressed this obviously will not help to convince them to invest their capital in Argentina.  On the other hand, if she did not understand what she was asked, the result was equally damaging.

The conclusion is that her presence at the forum did not meet its objective.  The president should have addressed these issues in more detail, even if she didn’t focus the presentation on them; otherwise she should not have gone to the event.  President Fernández de Kirchner could have talked about Argentina’s economic situation and at the same time touched on the issues of corruption, transparency and accountability. 

Was the purpose of the event not explained thoroughly to the president?  Did she not understand well the audience to which she would be speaking?  What is clear is that many of the entrepreneurs, after the event, said that they left with the very same questions they had when they arrived.

What was clear to me is that the message was not well prepared and that it was a lost opportunity to attract investments to Argentina.  It isn’t every day that a political leader can speak to an audience of the most powerful and influential business leaders in the United States.

Later, during the question and answer period, the president did something that, from my point of view, gratuitously distracted attention from her message to encourage investments in Argentina.

A member of the audience asked regarding the issue of copyright piracy, such as DVDs.  The moderator said that piracy was a current and global phenomena and that it can even be seen on the streets of Washington.  The president said that she agreed with the statement that piracy was a current issue and then mentioned the subject of the Malvinas [Falkland Islands].  The audience laughed.

We do not need to address the issue of whether or not the islands are Argentina’s; that’s not the point.  The point is that such a statement from such a high-profile official immediately distracts the audience and distances it from the message at hand.  They did not listen to her message about piracy because everyone was commenting about the statement about the Malvinas.  In addition, if the implication was that the British are pirates because of their presence on the islands, we must remember that the United States assisted Great Britain during the Falkland Islands war; therefore, if the British are pirates, so are the Americans.  I do not know if it is appropriate to call the Americans pirates to their face during a presidential visit to Washington, and then ask them to invest their money in Argentina.

Definitely, the issue that the audience talked about at the end of the presentation was not that Argentina was a good investment opportunity, but that the president had not talked about transparency and corruption and what the diplomatic reaction would be from London to the president’s statement comparing the British to pirates.

I do not think that the event helped the Argentinean leadership’s goals for more investment in Argentina.  They were not effective in getting their message to their audience and this could result in less foreign investments in the South American country, resulting in less economic growth as well.

The Argentinean president cannot be aware of everything, but I think that she was not well advised or prepared for the event.  However, I also think that she made a mistake by not honing in on her key message and introducing an unrelated controversy, distracting attention from the main focus of her presentation:  invest in Argentina.

The White House Learns a Lesson the Hard Way

February 18, 2010

President Obama has recognized that his Administration is not communicating well.  According to him, this inability to communicate effectively with the American people has been one of the main reasons for the Democrats’ most recent setbacks.  Poor communication equals big problems, be it in the political or business arenas.  Does this sound familiar?

The Democrats are still in shock after the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts that during almost five decades was a Democrat stalwart, and more specifically a Kennedy seat.  Republican Scott Brown’s surprising victory put an end to the Democrats’ super majority and, more importantly, with Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.  That is, the proposal the President wanted.

The White House stresses that the plan isn’t at fault; the problem is that the American people have not been told clearly what the plan entails.   The Administration is now retooling its communication strategy.  It will now include quicker responses to political attacks, a more stringent control of messages and more public appearances by the President.  The White House has said that its communication team allowed the opposition to take the lead with its message and failed to counterattack effectively.  Some examples of the new strategy include Vice President Biden’s appearance in two network Sunday shows.  After seven months, President Obama held a press conference last week – another example of the new strategy.

The conclusion is clear.  The White House has taken the offensive to be able to ensure the same support it had during the presidential campaign.  Everyone recognizes that the campaign communication strategy was one of the pillars of its successful run for the White House.

Another important part of the new strategy is getting the President out of the White House, to enable him to be seen in other scenarios where he is not surrounded by “Washington suits.”  If he is going to speak about the environment, he’ll go to a national park.  If he’s going to announce an initiative about the automobile industry, he’ll do so at a car assembly line in Detroit – the perfect photo op.

You can never let your guard down when it comes to communicating.  You must be proactive and sell your message constantly.  You must define your message and not let others do it for you.  If you do so, you’ll pay a very heavy price.  The White House has understood this all too well.

Bad Communication in Massachusetts: A Recipe for Disaster

January 22, 2010

I recently wrote about the Haitian government’s failure to communicate during the tragic times it is going through.  Today we will see how this doesn’t just happen in poor countries without resources, but also in the wealthiest ones.

The US political world is still astonished by Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in a special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Massachusetts is a bastion of the Kennedy family and the Democrats.  Up until a few weeks ago, the Democratic candidate led her Republican opponent by more than 20 percentage points.  Nevertheless, she lost.  After practically five decades in Democratic hands, the seat now becomes Republican.

This change has national repercussion because the Democrats lose their 60 seat majority in the Senate, needed to prevent Republican filibusters.  The immediate result is that the Health Care Reform Plan, one of the pillars of President Obama’s domestic agenda, is in danger of not being approved.  Or of being approved without most of the provisions the Democrats wanted.

What happened?  President Obama stated it clearly:  bad communication.

President Obama said that even though his Administration’s programs are good, there has been a failure in not communicating and explaining well to the American people the projects’ benefits and advantages.  “We were so busy doing our work and managing the immediate crises at hand that we neglected to speak directly to the American people,” said Obama during an interview with ABC News.  During the 2008 campaign, even Obama’s detractors praised his communication strategy, singling it out as innovative and one of the main keys to his final success.  This is precisely why the experts are so confounded about this failure.  If they had such an effective communication plan during the campaign, why did they stop using it?

There were communication missteps at both the national and local levels.

The first misstep, the local candidate’s.  Be it due to arrogance, excessive confidence or a rather imprudent underestimation of the Republican candidate, many Washington Democratic leaders predicted that the election would be a “cakewalk” for Martha Coakley.  But did they ever have a rude awakening.  These same Democrats openly admit that Coakley neglected her campaign.  For example, from December 23 to the 30, she made no public appearances.  Before she aired her first TV ad, Scott Brown had already aired two.  In addition, the Republican candidate took much better advantage of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Some Republicans say that the Massachusetts election became a national referendum of President Obama’s Health Care Reform Plan and the money that is being spent in it and other programs.  The second misstep was at the national level, which Obama himself has admitted.  According to him, the message regarding the Plan’s benefits was not properly conveyed to the middle class.  Republican analysts state that the plan created uncertainty and unhappiness among the middle class and that this unhappiness carried over to the Massachusetts election.

Once again, poor communication at the highest levels causes devastating damage.  The political consequences for the Democratic Party and the Administration could be very painful.  Those who do not understand the value of knowing how to communicate are destined to fail or to succeed incompletely.  Even professional politicians forget the most basic rules: constant communication, conveying a clear, ongoing and easy-to-understand message.  Don’t become distracted from your message.  Know the audience to whom you’re speaking.

And now, there is even talk of Scott Brown as a possible Republican presidential candidate.  Until a few days ago he was a true unknown in the national political arena.  Now cameras follow his every move in Washington as if he were a Hollywood star.  He is a lawyer, handsome, young, a good communicator, not easily intimidated, who knows how to highlight his virtues and how to best expose his opponent’s weaknesses.  In addition, he understands very well the importance of communicating and especially of social networks.  Is he presidential candidate material?  Who knows! There still is an eternity left in political terms to know the answer to this question. His political experience is limited to having served as a state legislator.  But Obama was also unknown barely three years ago.  What we do know is that the last person to underestimate Brown paid dearly for having done so.

Russia-Georgia: Who won the information war?

September 1, 2008

Russia decisively won the war against Georgia, but on the international stage, it was Georgia that won the information battle against Moscow. The military action was backed by a large segment of Russian public opinion. This means that, on a domestic level, the Kremlin authorities came out strengthened. However, internationally, Russia did not organize a powerful information campaign as one would have thought in order to defend its stance. At least that’s my humble opinion as I watched from Washington, DC the continuous coverage of the crisis. The result has been that Russia’s image has been seriously damaged, especially in countries such as the United States.

Georgia did the opposite. Its young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, immediately understood that the battle would not only be waged with rifles and tanks, but also with microphones, so he quickly went into action. Saakashvili didn’t only study in the former Soviet Union, but also in the United States. He has a law degree from Columbia University in New York. He lived in the United States for several years, understands very well the power of the media in this country and in addition to other languages, he speaks English fluently.

Georgia’s president didn’t waste any time and became immediately available to all US media outlets that wanted to listen to him. He also gave interviews to journalists from other countries, especially from Europe. He gave his point of view in a simple and plain language that anybody could understand. He spoke of agression, concentration camps, a holocaust and ethnic cleansing by the Russian Army. He compared the current Russian leaders with Stalin and said that Georgia’s cause was one of democracy against dictatorship, a cause that everyone should support. A message that he repeated constantly. Tirelessly. Every day. On live television.

Russia, on the other hand, didn’t understand how important it was to effectively convey abroad its point of view. Saakashvili practically monopolized the message on the airwaves and also on the Internet. Pro Saakashvili organizations immediately posted their support on the Web. Posters, articles, pictures, blogs. 

You name it.  Only once in a while did the Russian ambassador show up at the United Nations to speak on behalf of Moscow. No doubt he was a very skilled diplomat and a very eloquent spokesperson. But his press appearances were very few. Some US media also interviewed politicians in Moscow, but as in the case of the ambassador their appearances were very sporadic. Russia never understood that it should have had an army of English-speaking functionaries available 24/7 to the US, European and worldwide news organizations. The objective would be clear: to counterpoint what the Georgian president was saying.

Moscow should have been proactive. They should have called continously all the international media to give their point of view about what was happening, which was completely different from Mikheil Saakashvili’s. And not doing this was a grave mistake. Why? Because Georgia’s president was extremely effective and with his continous interventions in the media, was able to make his message the dominant one, for example in the United States. The result: his version of events was, on a popular level, the most accepted one. In the meantime, the Russians were nowhere to be found in the media.

I emphasize that this reflection is not about who was at fault in the war or who started it, but only about how the message was managed by both sides. From my point of view, Mikheil Saakashvili took advantage of every second given to him by the press and promoted his cause extremely well. Russia, on the other hand, didn’t know how to effectively react before the international public opinion. It didn’t offer spokespersons, it wasn’t proactive in distributing its message and it was never able to defend in an efficient and continous way its decisions before the world. If the Kremlin had a communication strategy, I never saw it.

It is true that Vladimir Putin and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev spoke a few times very effectively in front of the cameras when they said that they were only responding to an act of agression by Georgia. However, the Kremlin cannot expect that the international audience is going to be watching television 24/7 waiting for these few ocassions when the Russian leaders gave their point of view.  That message cannot be expressed only two or three times. It has to be repeated over and over to the point of exhaustion to ensure it is heard. Georgia did it, Russia did not.

In a globalized world such as ours and with a subject as important as this one, it is not enough to believe that you are right. You have to know how to communicate your point of view. Russian authorities vindicated themselves before the Russian people, but they lost the battle to successfully share their message with millions of common people in countries such as the United States.

And that brings negative consequences for Russia. Europe is talking about sanctions against Moscow. Poland signed a missile treaty which it had previously been hesitant to join. Former Soviet republics put pressure on NATO to join the organization. Many US politicians are saying that Russia is becoming a new threat for the United States’ national security and that measures have to be taken against Moscow. How much of this could Moscow have avoided with a massive and efficient public relations campaign? Did the Kremlin handle this crisis well?

By: Pablo Gato, Gato Communications