Monday, January 24, 2011

Oprah's Announcement is a Great Lesson in PR

January 24, 2011 -- Oprah Winfrey dropped a bombshell on her audience today when she announced that she had a half-sister of whom she had no previous knowledge. Depending on your viewpoint (or the level of your cynicism), this was either a classic TV moment or a classic Oprah moment: a dramatic reveal, lots of tears, getting to know the sister named Pat, and much time spent on the background of this event.
However, I come at it a different way. I propose that this event is a perfect example of good public relations, such as Oprah and her team have practiced so expertly in the past. Mainly, it supports the notion that a person or organization often should disclose developments or news proactively in order to maintain control of it. Winfrey said as much at the top of the program. She said that she was revealing the news proactively because she and her family wanted to do it on their terms. Based on my own experience, I believe that this was an extremely wise decision.
"I'm telling you today because once the blogs and all the media get hold of this news, there is no telling what they will do with it," Winfrey said.
Her strategy aligns with my own, based on my own duties as a media or communications leader. I have often advised my customers and employers that, just as there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum in nature, neither is there one in news. When a story breaks and there is a shortage of information, people will fill it however they can, whether with innuendo, unsubstantiated sources or even misinformation. At that point, you have lost control of your message, and you are now playing catch up. This problem is exacerbated with the social media, where anyone with a Twitter account can send an erroneous message around the world.
Unlike Winfrey, Jay Cutler, quarterback of the Chicago Bears, has allowed such a lack of control to victimize him. He left yesterday's NFC championship game complaining of a knee injury. But many observed that he seemed to be walking with no apparent pain. It was also observed that he was disengaged from the game, not even advising or interacting with his back-up quarterbacks.
Sports talk radio is now abuzz with conjecture about his "heart," his ability to play big in a big game. Some time soon, an examination of his knee will be made public, and if he does not have a major injury, he will be pilloried both in the Chicago media and across the nation.

Oh, I'm sorry, too late, Jay -- That has already happened. Now you are points behind in your PR game and little time left to fill the gap. Is that a familiar feeling?

When many public officials and other figures were caught doing something they should not have, we have often used this term afterward: "The cover-up is worse than the crime." It is an oft-told tale, yet the large majority of people do not learn from it. Maybe this time, the lesson from Oprah will take.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Power of Poltical Words: Kennedy's Inaugural Address at 50

Quick, how many U.S. Presidential inaugural speeches can you recall? Other than the words "With malice toward none, with charity for all," from Lincoln's second inaugural, do any phrases jump to mind?

I didn't think so.

This week, on January 20, we observe the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. Though I was a child, I remember how it caused a stir. Now, a half-century later, I know the speech to be stirring still, a testament to speech craft that communicators should continue to study and revere.

Why does this speech, just shy of 14 minutes, stand the test of time? You can't say that it was the national swoon with youth, when the youngest man elected President succeeded the then-oldest in Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan would become the oldest man elected President.) That zeitgeist is lost to us today. It's not even all the themes comprised in the address, as some are anachronistic. For example, Kennedy pledged a measure of militarism that might not be tolerated or appreciated today.

No, the secret to this speech's longevity is its art employed by the writers. (I am purposefully vague here, as the authorship is not completely certain. For decades, the speech was credited to Ted Sorensen, which he denied. Indeed, there are notes in Kennedy's own hand that indicate he was actively involved in writing the address's key phrases.)

As you listen to the speech through this link on YouTube, hear the various devices. One common device is the use repeating phrases that conclude in different sentiments: "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

As is common in these sorts of speeches, Kennedy strikes a conciliatory pose, offering to stand above the fray. When he says, "We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom," he practically dares his opponents to diminish his disputed victory.

There is also the power of the repeated word. Look at this use of the simple word "any": "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge -- and more."

Similarly, look at his use here of the words "both" and "problems":
"Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations."
It is both an invitation to negotiation and a challenge to it.

And of course there is that use of the antimetabole (called tongue-in-cheek by some, the "reversible raincoat"), which repeats words in successive phrases, but transposes their order for effect. Of course, the most famous example of this produced the most-quoted phrase: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Another example, seldom cited, simultaneously expresses strength and conciliation: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

We often forget that much of the success of the speech depended on Kennedy himself and his ability to deliver such lofty rhetoric. His voice would rise when needed, and he punched the words that needed emphasis. And yet again, there was Kennedy's youth. As I listened to the speech today, I really had not remembered how high his voice was. This was a man with the energy and enthusiasm to deliver on these problems.

But beyond the craft, I believe the the speech stands up because of the optimism, the ideas that this was still the American century in 1961. "Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors," Kennedy intones, an appropriate sentiment during the paranoia of the Atomic Age. "Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce," he called, and Americans believed that there was nothing we could not do.

Sadly, the speech was sadly prophetic of his rudely interrupted term of office when he said that "All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Today, polls show that Kennedy still ranks as the best of the post-World War II presidents. This surprises me, but perhaps the answer lies in this speech. In an era when many so-called political stars speak without wit, compassion, or solutions to the problems they cite, the inspirational words from a man whose best was yet to come are all but irresistible.

Friday, January 7, 2011

ROYAL TREATMENT: Lessons from "The King's Speech"

The King's Speech is a movie about a man finding his voice. It is about friendship. It is about mutual respect. It is about integrity and the sometimes dubious value of "professional certification." It is a movie about courage. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about this wonderful film is that it touches all of these themes so deftly and warmly.

The main architect of the English language, William Shakespeare, wrote in Twelfth Night, "Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." Prince Albert, cum King George VI (the father of the current Queen), had greatness dubiously thrust upon him when his brother, King Edward, abdicated the throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. But Albert (known as Bertie to his family who treated him cruelly) did not seek, did not want, and was not prepared for this royal role for one reason: He spoke with a ferocious and painful stammer. It was difficult for him to get out a simple sentence. He wondered aloud, how could he lead a nation when he could not even speak to them?

Bertie's caring and supportive wife, Elizabeth (played lovingly by Helena Bonham Carter), wants to spare him public humiliation, so she seeks out so-called "professional" speech therapists. Despite their credentials, they seem to be little more than hacks. One prescribes the soothing and relaxing qualities of cigarettes to Bertie. Another employs the tried, trite and untrue method of putting marbles in his mouth. No one seemed able to help.

Then Elizabeth finds Lionel Logue, a struggling (if not failed) actor, and to boot, an Australian, an emigre to the England from their penal colony. Portrayed by the great Geoffrey Rush, Lionel has no academic credentials, but his confidence, skill and humanity are the stuff of success.

To begin, he insists on interacting with Bertie on a first name basis. No titles here. (Having worked in hospitals myself, I found that this practice was important. I learned not to use the title "Doctor" and to address physicians by their names, forcing them to deal with me as a colleague.) Furthermore, Lionel is firm with his patient, insisting on excellence and never patronizing him. He believes that Bertie can be successful, and he wants Bertie to believe it, too.

As Prince Albert, Colin Firth gives an inspiring performance. As the father of a son who has triumphed over stuttering, I could feel his frustration at the inability to get out a simple sentence. I sympathized with his stumbles over a conga line of consonants. But I could also sense the satisfaction that comes with overcoming this problem. (I have learned from my son and others that, like alcoholics, there are no "former" stammerers. One beats the condition every day through sheer determination.)

At one point in the film, Lionel's honor is called into question. He is accused of taking on the job merely to have the cache of a royal client. But at this very moment we realize that Lionel has acted exactly opposite to that charge. He assumed this assignment because of commitment to his craft rather than the bloodlines of his student. (In fact, Lionel displays a measure of disdain for royalty, which is not unusual for someone from outside England.) Furthermore, he becomes Albert's friend, confidante and counselor. Through their interactions, we learn the roots not only of Albert's speech but also of his underlying uncertainty.

After all the preparation is done, and when it comes time for the new King George to inform the British Empire of their entry into World War II, director Tom Hooper makes us feel not only the historical import of the event, but Albert's singular success. The camera follows his walk to the recording studio through long corridors strewn with cables, symbolizing his long journey to get to this moment. As Albert speaks, Hooper cuts to visuals of listeners who would fight this war for the Crown: factory workers, truckers and the middle class. We also see signs at the transmitters that show how the message is being broadcast to the colonies of the U.K., a symbol of the reach of the new King's power.

One could argue that Albert was born great just by virtue of his royal lineage. But he had greatness thrust upon him in an unusual turn of unforeseen and unprecedented events. Through his own courage and the help of a loving partner-in-life and a new-found friend, he achieves his own measure of majesty. It is a simple story made great by the telling, a footnote to history that we may not have known. As a speaker and communicator, this film resonates with me. As a man, as a husband, and as a friend of others, I find it unforgettable and inspiring.

As an extra bonus to you, my loyal readers, here is a link to the actual speech by King George in which he rallied the English people to enter the War, made available through the BBC archives. It is important to know that this wonderful script was written by David Seidler, who was a stutterer himself, but was inspired to fight his situation by this very event. Unfortunately for all of us, he promised Elizabeth the Queen Mum that he would not make his script known until she was gone. However, she had the temerity to wait until 2001 to pass, when she was 101. Otherwise, we may have enjoyed this story much earlier.)