“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
If my students’ reaction to a public speaking assignment is any indication, my fellow Massapequan Jerry Seinfeld is right. Nothing seems to instill more dread than giving a speech in front of 20 fellow classmates. So can you imagine the fear when you have to make a presentation to 50 or 100 or even a thousand people? What happens when the day comes when you’ll need to express your ideas to your boss or the management of your company? If you’re in PR, you’ll be giving media presentations, tours, emceeing events, and acting as a spokesperson for your clients to the media.
Texts and experts provide us with helpful hints on making a good speech: Stand up straight. Anchor your body. Don’t read. Lead with a story or joke. Keep it short and simple. Slow down. Use your hands. Make eye contact. End with a strong conclusion. It’s an awful lot to remember, especially if you’re nervous.
When I worked in radio, speaking on the public airwaves was easy for me because I never saw my audience. And although I’ve since made hundreds of presentations and have taught hundreds of students, I can still have moments of nervousness before I begin. I’ve found the best antidote for the fear of expressing myself in front of an audience is plenty of preparation. This is true whether I’m about to teach a class or make a presentation or a speech. The more I’ve familiarized myself with the material and the more I’ve actually practiced out loud, the more calm and comfortable I am.
Expressing yourself on a piece of paper is challenging enough. Expressing yourself to a group can be frightening. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld. He does it all the time, and with plenty of preparation and rehearsal. Your thoughts?
Every year, 40 million Americans and I spend three hours in front of the TV watching celebrities collect their Oscar. They talk about the sacrifice, the skill, the risks, and the importance of their craft, and we share the joy and disappointment our favorite actors feel win they win or lose the Academy Award. We do the same when watching the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and countless other awards shows.
A month ago, 111 million (!) people watched a terrible football game because it was the Super Bowl. There were millions of gatherings centered around this yearly television ritual, with parties and office pools and catering and multi-million dollar commercials supporting the spectacle.
Countless hours and pages and tweets of commentary, analysis and predictions surround these annual events. There are few other landmark moments in U.S. pop culture that receive this amount of attention and hype.
Meanwhile, CNN’s “Heroes Awards,” a program celebrating the top 10 real-life heroes of the year, earns about 250,000 viewers when it airs, barely a sliver of the Oscars’ and the Super Bowls’ audience. Yet most of us would agree that the actions and achievements for which these people are recognized have far more impact–and are often far more amazing–than those of any actor or athlete.
And what of the AMA or the Lasker Awards, which celebrate achievements in medicine? Or the AACR and the Breakthrough Awards, recognizing accomplishments in the field of science? And then there are countless awards for teaching and other important professions. Who’s watching their TV shows? And are these awards even televised?
We pay more money and attention to our stars and athletes than anyone else in this country, while people in nobler roles and professions struggle for funding, income, and recognition. No public relations campaign in the world could motivate millions of Americans to watch an awards show for them. Perhaps we should pause to think about where our societal priorities lie, or at least ponder the question of why we give so much greater value to our celebrities and their achievements than to anyone else. Your thoughts?
Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent column for The New York Times, “Too Many Sorry Excuses for an Apology” focused on the recent barrage of “I’m sorrys” from leaders when something went wrong or offended people. In the article, social observer Dov Seidman labeled what we’ve been seeing as “apology theater.”
“Target’s chief executive, Gregg W. Steinhafel, apologized for a security breach that affected as many as 110 million customers,” Sorkin wrote. “Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase apologized, multiple times, for his firm’s regulatory lapses. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey apologized for controversial bridge lane closings and traffic jams. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins apologized after comparing the treatment of America’s wealthiest to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. LeBron James apologized for using the word ‘retarded,’ calling it a ‘bad habit.’
“The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite,” Sorkin continued. “It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with, ‘I hope to put this behind me.’”
“We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end,” Seidman said. “…Leaders in apology mode (should) conduct a ‘moral audit’ that includes a hard look at ‘How did I get here and how did I drift from the person I aspire to be?’”
When I talk about PR crises in class, I suggest a four-step process for dealing with the aftermath: first, acknowledge the problem and apologize; then show sincere empathy for those who were negatively affected; tell everyone how the mistake will be fixed; and finally, fix the problem. As Seidman points out, sometimes the problem is within the person who created it. Even still, there’s still no substitute for a well-articulated public apology. Your thoughts?
When shown pictures of presidents, my students can identify John F. Kennedy but they stumble over Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. They recognize the Eiffel Tower but don’t know the Brooklyn Bridge. They know who “The King of Pop” was but never heard of “The Great Bambino.” Tina Fey is a familiar face but Elizabeth Taylor is a total stranger.
My students look forward to my 12 trivia questions at the start of each class. They’re common knowledge questions on topics ranging from popular acronyms to foreign alphabets. Students are challenged to remember facts they learned in elementary school (“Name the three primary colors” or “How many inches in a yard?”), and many of them are first seeing what Walt Disney or Eleanor Roosevelt looked like.
The point of this classroom exercise is to emphasize the importance of general knowledge. PR professionals and communicators who create content for public consumption must include historical, cultural and current news references if they hope to reach their audiences effectively. I’m happy when my students get at least half the answers right, but it worries me when they get some of the more “obvious” ones wrong.
I believe everyone should know the White House’s address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or the Corleones are the central characters in “The Godfather,” or that a 20-year old should be able to name all four Beatles. It’s sad to me that my students can instantly identify Justin Beiber but have so much trouble with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman. They know Kim and Kanye are engaged but can’t tell you what happened on July 4, 1776.
Maybe I’m wrong to assume what’s “obvious.” I understand completely that our knowledge is mostly based within the period in which we grew up and now live. But it seems most of us spend too much time in our information and entertainment comfort zone and we don’t explore. I believe this puts future PR professionals at a disadvantage. So read newspapers. Watch classic movies. Sample trendy TV shows. Visit a museum. Because intellectual curiosity matters. Your thoughts?
George Carlin, the brilliant and controversial stand-up comedian, understood the impact of words. He was a harsh critic of language use, and most of all disliked jargon and euphemisms. ”I don’t like words that conceal reality,” Carlin said. “And American English is loaded with euphemisms…Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it.” In an on-stage routine Carlin noted, “We have no more deaf people in this country. ‘Hearing impaired.’ No more blind people. ’Partially sighted or visually impaired.’ No more stupid people. Everyone has a ‘learning disorder.’ Because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die. I’ll ‘pass away.’ Or I’ll ‘expire,’ like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they’ll call it a ‘terminal episode.’ The insurance company will refer to it as ‘negative patient care outcome.’”
In the public relations world, words are our primary tools but some of us seem to rely on jargon, euphemisms and superlatives. In an article published this week, Bulldog Reporter‘s Steve Beale focused on journalists’ complaints about annoying words they see in press releases. Leading the list were words more typical of advertising: “best,” “most,” “highest,” “lowest,” etc., without any supporting evidence. ”Even worse,” he wrote, “is claiming that your client’s product or service is ‘revolutionary’ or represents a ‘paradigm shift.’” Beale added “solution” to the list, which “does not give me the understanding I need” to understand how the product solves the problem.
Tom Gable of Gable PR put “solution” at the top of his list of words to avoid in PR writing. He added “leading,” “seamless,” “cutting edge,” and “state-of-the-art.” In his website article, Gable called for “jargon-free PR” and created a Jargon Trash Index we can use to clean up our PR writing.
In PR, we’re not writing ad copy; we’re writing truth. That being said, I’m taking my well-fed, follically-challenged self to the best, state-of-the art sushi restaurant in town and have an adult beverage. It’ll be revolutionary. Your thoughts?
Predicting the weather has become increasingly accurate as the tools of the trade become more sophisticated. While never perfect, it’s reasonable to say that when a storm is coming we pretty much know what to expect before it hits.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal seemed quite surprised, however, when a snowstorm paralyzed several southern states last week. Just two inches of snow and ice crippled much of the region, most notably in Atlanta, where thousands of motorists were stranded and more than a thousand accidents were reported. According to USA Today, “Marshall Shepherd…president of the American Meteorological Society…said the weather service issued a winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area…expecting 1-2 inches of snow. The city got about 2.6 inches.” Governor Deal apologized for the debacle. “We did not respond fast enough,” he told reporters. “We will be much more cautious — and much more aggressive in terms of taking action in advance.”
Deal wasn’t the only politician giving post-storm apologies. After Upper East Side residents complained that the plows never showed up after the January 21 snowstorm, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also felt the need to take blame. “After inspecting the area and listening to concerns from residents earlier today, I determined more could have been done to serve the Upper East Side,” he said.
Elected officials often wind up taking the public relations hit when the aftermath of storms aren’t handled perfectly. Mother Nature is cruel and we humans aren’t very patient. Weather events can create havoc, so we expect our leaders to monitor them closely and handle them efficiently. But do mayors and governors personally direct plowing and sanding operations? What if plow operators do a poor job? Who’s to blame if the weather takes an uglier turn than predicted? And how many people ignore warnings about driving?
It’s usually not a mayor or governor’s fault when these situations turn ugly. But they should be prepared for a blizzard of bad PR when people are inconvenienced or put in harm’s way. Your thoughts?
A long time ago there were reporters and publicists, an often adversarial relationship in which publicists would spend their days trying to convince reporters to write something–anything–about their clients.
In recent decades, reporters have generally enjoyed more congenial, mutually beneficial relationships with public relations professionals. PR people became information brokers, serving as reliable resources for reporters looking for good stories to tell. This, for the most part, is the way it is today.
However, much like the technology that puts a computer, phone, still and video camera, and a TV screen into a single hand-held device, the two professions are rapidly converging. In the Internet’s world, reporters and PR practitioners are often both referred to as “content providers,” hired to fill an infinite amount of cyberspace with stories, data, news, photos, video, and interactive information.
As traditional media impact shrinks, rough estimates put the number of active web sites at more than 700 million and blogs at 200 million worldwide. There’s tremendous need for content that can tell a story, distribute facts, inspire participation, motivate actions, sell products and services, and change opinions. This work is being placed upon PR pros exponentially; they’re providing content for clients on web, news and magazine sites; blogs and podcasts; YouTube and other social media; and countless other platforms. The World Wide Web is incredibly hungry for content.
While this hunger creates a golden opportunity for PR people and their clients to reach their audiences, it also creates a huge need for effective writers. And while good punctuation and grammar are still highly valued, the search is on for public relations writers who can tell stories in a compelling, relatable way. As content providers, public relations practitioners must be able to be both technical and creative, straightforward and humorous, informative and inspiring. Web content isn’t just to fill space; it–like all PR work–also has to create, reinforce and change attitudes.
I’ve said it countless times here and in my classrooms: in PR, good writing is not only important, it’s essential, now more than ever because “content is king.” Your thoughts?