Yes, you can write that speech

First, let’s dispel a persistent myth regarding speeches and public speaking: there is no definitive evidence that Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death.

That canard began in the 1970s, when the Book of Lists put public speaking at the top of the list of Americans’ fears, with death coming in second. It was later found that, apparently, those surveyed were just asked to identify their fears, and public speaking was identified more than death. But the respondents were never asked to rank their fears, nor compare the fear of public speaking to that of death.

As for me, if I ever find myself in front of a firing squad and somehow learn of another person who’s been asked to give a speech, I’ll be glad to trade places.

Wherever it may rank, however, there’s no question that the fear of public speaking is very common. To help overcome those fears, I’d like to offer a few tips– specifically, for the first step involved in a public speaking opportunity: writing the speech.

I’ve been a speechwriter throughout my career, and it can be a satisfying opportunity to work with top management and utilize communications to help them achieve important goals. So if you’ve been assigned to write a speech, here are some tips – not a complete “how-to,” but some ideas to consider as you stare at the blank screen:

1. Research the audience. This is a simple step, yet one that can easily be overlooked if the speechwriter is too focused on what the speaker will say. Before beginning to write a speech, find out as much as you can about who will be in the audience, what they’re interested in, what opinions they may have, and what concerns them. The goal, in this step, is not to find out what people want to hear, but to understand the audience as much as possible so that the message of the speech is most effective.

2. Don’t start with a PowerPoint. When meeting with executives to begin preparing speeches, I’ve often been amazed to hear the speaker begin by saying “Let’s start with a PowerPoint,” as if completing a PowerPoint presentation is the same as writing a speech.

Much has been written on how PowerPoint has infiltrated corporate America to the point where some executives cannot speak to any group without it. Yes, PowerPoint has many uses; for example, it can be a great way to illustrate trends or complex data. But it’s a speaker support tool – it’s not a substitute for outlining, then writing, an actual speech.

Instead, start with a thesis. How to form a thesis? A very helpful resource is a book written in 1970, How to Write and Deliver a Speech, by John Ott. Although there are many other books about speech writing (a search of the term on the books section of yielded more than 40,000 entries) this still remains a good, easy-to-use manual for the craft of speechwriting.

Ott writes that a speech can have one of six purposes:

  • To inform,
  • To persuade,
  • To motivate,
  • To stimulate,
  • To entertain, and
  • To commemorate.

Based on the purpose of your speech, how you will achieve that purpose provides the basis for your thesis or objective.

A still-useful guide to structuring the speech is perhaps one of the oldest: A good speech requires a lot of research, organization, writing, re-writing and more re-writing. But one guide for how to structure a speech still resonates:

3. “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ‘em what you said.”

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But you’ve probably listened to many speeches that were structured just in that manner. where the speaker may have opened with a story, joke or other introduction, and then said “Today, I’m going to talk about ______ ” [the thesis; for example, the need to support a ballot measure]. “I’m going to address these three [supporting] points.” Then, at the end, the speaker reiterates those three points, and winds up with a big finish reiterating the main thesis.

You’ve may have heard many speeches organized this way. It’s a popular way to do it, because it works: if the thesis and supporting points are presented in this way, audiences tend to remember them.

4. Don’t be vague or theoretical: be concrete and vivid. 

Tell stories; use metaphors; try to “paint a picture.” Here’s one way a portion of a famous speech, delivered in 1963, could have been written:

When our nation was founded, documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution referred to “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which were guaranteed to “all men.” At the time, however, those rights didn’t apply to large segments of the population, including slaves. And even after a Civil War was fought to resolve the question of slavery, and after progress in black-white relations, many black Americans still do not share those same rights. Because they do not fully share in the rights guaranteed in our nation’s founding documents, many people of color remain dissatisfied.

But when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King made that point, but much more effectively, through the use of a simple image:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The image of a “ promissory note” was powerful and meaningful for his audience, and remains memorable and vivid today.

5. Write for the ear, not for the eye.

This might be one of the most difficult aspects of speechwriting. In our education, we learn more through reading than through listening.  If we then become writers, it’s natural to write with the expectation that what we have written will be read, not spoken.

For the speaker, however, it’s easier and more effective to deliver a speech with short, direct sentences, and with words that begin with more “hard” consonants (for example, k’s, m’s, p’s) than “soft” ones (in particular, s’s). For the listener, simple, active, direct sentences – with varied rhythm and tone – are, for the most part, easier to listen to and follow than long, complex sentences, phrased in the passive voice.

This may be especially important today, where the pace of communications and notoriously short attention spans demand that speakers be more direct, concise and to the point. One example, to perhaps the leading speaker of our day, is President Obama. His speeches contrast to the texts of great speakers of the past (Reagan, Kennedy, King, Roosevelt) in this regard. Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, has commented that paring down the words of a draft speech to such direct and active sentences was often his most consuming task when helping the President with a speech text.

6. Leave ‘em wanting more.

Have you ever found yourself listening to a speech and, well into it, you begin to think that it seems that it could have ended a lot sooner?  Often, that’s because you’re correct: it probably should have ended a lot sooner.

It can be tempting, in writing a speech, to be so eager to make a point that you load up the text with as much supporting examples, documentation and information as you can, as if you’re doing a summation in a trial. The best speakers, however, know when to stop – they have made their point effectively, supporting that point with well chosen and memorable examples and evidence, and ending at a place where the audience has not only heard it, but is ready to respond: with agreement, action, approval, or whatever the speaker sought to achieve in the occasion. Following a speech, you want the audience to think, “That person is a real authority: I want to know more,” not, “Thank God that’s over.”

These are some ideas to help in the first half of speech preparation: writing the text. The second half involves delivering the speech. I’ll offer some ideas on that in a future blog post.

There are many volumes (as noted earlier, at least 40,000) that offer help in speech writing and delivery. These six recommendations have helped me as a speechwriter: what are principles that you consider important in speech writing?


Reputation insurance: a product in search of a market

Warren Buffett

Few statements sum up the value of managing and protecting a reputation – the principal role of public relations – than this from Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

A reputation is not easily attained or purchased: a company or organization develops and invests in it over years of consistent, ethical practices. Yet one case of poor judgment, corner cutting or scandal can put that reputation – acknowledged so often as a company’s “most important asset” – at serious risk.

With commentators, executives and directors so concerned about new risks to reputation – for example, intense competitive pressures, or the possibility of negative publicity “going viral” via the Internet or social media – it would seem that the best way to follow Buffett’s advice would be to ensure that reputation management is viewed as a role of top management, with reputation management professionals “at the table” with top execs. And, that’s the case with many successful, leading companies.

It therefore seems illogical, inconsistent and unnecessary that several leading insurers have proposed addressing reputational risks with a product – reputation insurance — that sends just the opposite, wrong message. These are liability insurance policies that cover the costs of responding to such threats as adverse publicity. Policies cover the costs of the counsel and assistance of public relations firms, advertising, social media campaigns and the monitoring of a company’s brand perceptions.

Please note: I use the terms “public relations” and “reputation management” interchangeably.  Several years ago, whether to better describe the profession or to combat the negative attributes associated with the term “public relations,” many in this profession described their work as reputation management. Whatever the term, managing a reputation with all audiences and stakeholders is at the heart of the field of public relations.

Reputation insurance products have not been developed without thoughtful consideration of reputational risks and how to manage them. For example, they can provide the client with access to an experienced public relations firm, enlisting the help of expert reputation management professionals.

Yet that doesn’t outweigh three significant weaknesses currently reflected in reputation insurance:

  • First, it’s reactive. For the most part, the coverage provides funds for services and counsel needed to respond to a public relations crisis.  Crisis communications are essential tools for any organization with a public reputation, but they need to arise from comprehensive plans developed in advance of any contingency.  Even more important, developing a strong reputation to begin can provide an organization with a reservoir of goodwill to help it overcome a crisis. Acting only when the crisis is happening can be too little, too late.
  • Second, if a company doesn’t activate a policy and utilize these services until after a crisis has occurred, it’s already playing “catch-up” in its efforts to restore its reputation, and may be vulnerable to various threats to relationships with its various stakeholders.
  • Third, it doesn’t cover the real damages that may occur following a crisis, nor can it.  Such damages can include a decline in stock price, loss of market share or unfavorable public opinion. Yes, those factors can be quantified, and all are indicators of a company’s reputation. But paying for financial damages is not the same as restoring a company’s reputation.

Perhaps the biggest deficiency of the concept of reputation insurance – at least, as reflected in current product offerings – is its incomplete understanding of the practice of public relations.  By emphasizing media relations in crisis situations, it ignores the role and importance of building strong relationships with an organization’s audiences and constituencies; for example, investors, employees, regulators, elected officials, suppliers and other organizations, as well as the news media. Simply equating reputation management with media relations fails to acknowledge the full scope of the practice of public relations, and what is needed to manage a public reputation.

One such reputation insurance product underwritten by a Lloyd’s of London syndicate reportedly is part of directors’ and officers’ (D&O) liability coverage, and would “exculpate” directors and officers from the damages resulting from an organization’s reputational risks. That may be an innovative development in D&O liability insurance, and it protects directors and officers, but it offers little or no protection to a company’s reputation.

Interior, Lloyd’s of London

I would not, however, suggest that the work of insurers in this area simply be dismissed.  In fact, public relations agencies and professionals could benefit from the work being done by insurers to quantify, evaluate and analyze reputational risks.  The analytics being employed regarding these and other risks could provide valuable information for corporate executives – and their public relations counselors – in monitoring and assessing possible threats to a company’s reputation.

But if a corporate executive wants to insure his or her company’s reputation, better to invest in the people and expertise needed to build, enrich and maintain that reputation over the 20 years suggested by Buffett, rather than buying a policy to deal with the aftermath of the five minutes it can take to destroy it.

The slippery slope of “sponsored content”

You’re scanning a news-related website, checking the headlines, and one catches your eye: “The End of Barack Obama?” Hmm, what’s this?  You click on it, but instead of a news story, you see an advertisement for an investment adviser.

Bob Garfield

That was the experience of Bob Garfield, advertising blogger, onetime commentator for Advertising Age magazine and author of The Chaos Scenario, which traces the upheavals in the media since the advent of online journalism, the decline of traditional print media and the struggles to monetize journalism on the Internet.

What Garfield encountered is a form of “sponsored content” — in his case, on the web site of the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer. Garfield railed at the Inquirer’s deception in exchange for advertising dollars – what is often called “clickbait.” Garfield proposed that, to keep “paid” and “earned” media distinct, news outlets adhere to standards of disclosure. As the Edelman public relations firm – which has developed such standards for public relations practitioners – has indicated, doing otherwise could spark penalties from such government agencies as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Perhaps such standards of disclosure for sponsored content can help ensure the integrity of the three entities involved in the publication – the, media, sponsoring organizations and their public relations staff and agencies. Perhaps.

But first, let’s be clear: the sponsored content that serious, ethical firms such as Edelman and its clients include informative, well-researched articles, providing useful and informative content to readers. They’re published under the auspices of a sponsoring company or other organization. And they’re clearly labeled as such.

But although sponsored content can be a legitimate as component of a public relations strategy, the three entities that can be involved in sponsored content – the sponsoring entity, the public relations advisers and the news media — should carefully consider the pros and cons of sponsoring, placing or publishing it, as it carries specific risks for all three

The news media

Pros: Hit by dwindling circulation, new competition and other economic pressures, sponsored content would seem to offer an important new source of revenue for news outlets.  And research indicates that readers – especially from the business world – may be more amenable than in the past to receiving information directly from sponsoring organizations.  As an article in the January 2013 edition of Inc. stated, “Business-to-business customers would much rather read an article or white paper – or watch a video or slide show – than see a pop-up or banner ad.”

Cons: The Inc. article discussed sponsored content versus traditional advertising. In that comparison, sponsored content that consists, for example, in a white paper can have much more credibility than a traditional ad. But it’s a different question altogether when you compare sponsored content with professional journalism.

Just as important, the incentives of sponsored content for news outlets are not positive: how often will a news organization, stretched for funds, sell space for sponsored content at the expense of its regular news coverage?  And, more insidiously, to what extent will news organizations lure readers to such clickbait as in the case of Bob Garfield, thus weakening their credibility as independent sources of news and information?

The sponsoring organizations

Pros: Much of the public – in particular, business leaders – today has a low opinion of the news media.  Executives often complain that a reporter “got the facts wrong,” or forsook accuracy in an article or report in order to inject more conflict or drama into an article. Why run that risk, an organization may ask, when you can “go direct” in a sponsored article placed in a news or trade publication?

Cons: Although blogs, web sites, Facebook and many other new tools of social media and the Internet give companies, organizations and individuals legitimate new opportunities to present their viewpoints and information, research continues to indicate the value of third parties in the news and information equation.  While audiences are increasingly open to a variety of information sources, news and information that is edited or curated by a respected third party generally is assigned more credibility than sponsored content.

If you have the money, it may be easy to “buy” media coverage, whether in an advertisement or sponsored article.  But “earned” media continues to have more credibility in the eye of the reader.

Public relations practitioners

Pros: Traditionally, public relations pros – whether in agencies or on corporate staffs – have had journalism backgrounds, with journalism degrees or experience with news organizations.  Knowledge of the news and information gathering process, and the ability to write clearly, effectively and fast, are required to do their jobs effectively.  Writing well-researched, informative and persuasive articles is part of their DNA: they’re well qualified to produce sponsored content.

As the demand for sponsored content has increased, large public relations firms also have formed units that will specialize in sponsored content, tapping a growing new source of revenues.

Cons:  Advertising and public relations are both part of the marketing mix, but they have very different purposes.  Advertising seeks to provide memorable messages directly to potential customers or supporters. Advertisers pay for that capability, and the messages are so delineated.

Although public relations has long defied definition, the description of the public relations function in 1923 by Edward L. Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations,” still carries weight today:

…information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Public relations, therefore, participates in the public news and information process, and effective public relations practitioners represent their clients successfully and ethically in that process.  That’s why smart companies and other organizations hire them: if the organizations want to place ads, they’ll hire advertising people.

I have obvious biases here, but one of the reasons I have pursued a public relations career is that the results of effective public relations – for example, being quoted or cited in a major national or global news outlet – are much more powerful than advertising.  In my view, neglecting that role to pursue such activities as sponsored content ignores more powerful and beneficial opportunities.

The recent fixation on sponsored content presents risks for the news media, sponsoring organizations and public relations pros.  As they should consider those risks, consumers and readers of news should also ask: is that content really what you think it is?

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

We live in a time when public opinion on many issues is almost evenly divided, when politics has changed from a search TCB-22230for compromise to the “permanent campaign” of “us versus them,” and when, as a result, discourse and debate often devolves into a coarse exchange of personal attacks and disrespect.

In this environment, have social media and online communications only made things worse, giving many the anonymity to engage in personal attacks and even hate speech?  And what are the implications for influencers, communicators and others who work within open and free channels of communications?

I’ve often wondered about this when, after reading articles online, I’ve perused the “comments” section that follows, only to find it full of name-calling and extremism. But, after ignoring such vitriol, I was struck by a recent New York Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.

Referring to Twitter, and why he doesn’t Tweet, Nocera wrote: “What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful.  It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life.”

He then referred to an “investor and CNBC commentator,” who “regularly tweeted his investment insights,” and had 63,000 followers. But the commentator withdrew from Twitter because of nasty and foul messages.  “I received several life-threatening tweets,” he told Nocera.  “I concluded it wasn’t work navigating the sharks to find the good fish.”

So, it’s at least worth reflecting on whether social media have opened new avenues for hateful anonymous speech that will only continue to worsen public discourse. Thought leaders in public relations and marketing commented that such speech is an unfortunate but not unexpected byproduct of developments in media, yet media and communications professionals can play a role in addressing it.

Just ignore it?

Ron Culp

Ron Culp

Although such online disrespect seems to be increasing, it’s important note that, as with speech in other media, many are ignoring it it.

“If I had 63,000 followers, I’d put up with a few social media shark bites,” commented Ron Culp, public relations consultant (formerly, general manager of Ketchum PR’s Chicago office) and now professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. “Anonymous social media comments — both negative and positive — carry little weight with most readers, so throwing in the towel over a few discouraging comments seems a bit thin skinned.”

Likewise, Augie Ray, a social media leader at an East Coast-based Fortune 100 company, pointed to how anonymity and public discourse aren’t necessarily compatible, and how readers can avoid the vitriol by frequenting platforms where commenters identify themselves.

Augie Ray

Augie Ray

“I’m increasingly a fan of dialog in places where anonymity is not the rule or where moderation is possible,” Ray said. “For example, I’ve observed Facebook being used for more professional and political discourse than was common years ago.

“I think there will always be a place for the open, anonymous dialog on places like Twitter (where I’ve never had a problem with nasty or threatening tweets, by the way), but I also think the benefits of civil discourse are easier to achieve when people have to be themselves, where community managers moderate discussions or where reputation matters.”

When reputation matters

That’s perhaps the key word for public relations, marketing and other professionals who ply their trades in communications and media: reputation.  For professionals whose responsibility is to manage reputation, should we care about the coarseness and vitriol seen on social media?

Mr Seitel043013

Fraser Seitel

“You bet we should care,” responded Fraser Seitel, New York-based public relations consultant, adjunct professor at New York University and television commentator on news communications and marketing-related topics.  “Social media devices are compulsory tools for public relations,” Seitel said. “But they are just ‘tools.’ What matters much more than a facility with social media is knowledge, counsel and judgment.”

Social media, Seitel added, “has not only made coarseness and vindictiveness a prevalent no-risk proposition, but it also has given voice to unknowledgeable, inexperienced, no-talent novices parading as experts; who lower the standards of that on which they opine.

“For public relations people who should be concerned about ‘standards,’ social media pose a new threat to the perception of the field’s professionalism,” Seitel said.

That’s a pretty strong statement, underscoring the special responsibilities of those who work in communications.  In light of the comments of Tim Brunelle, a Minneapolis-based brand strategist, such risks and responsibilities have already existed in other areas.


Tim Brunelle

“The Internet (and social media specifically) are duel-edged,” Brunelle said. “They empower — but that gives fuel to the best and worst of humanity. The same is true of the printed word, of art, of science.

“It’s just easier to run into mean-spiritedness and cruelty in the new social spaces,” Brunelle added.  “And let’s not forget that social media is a child, very few years old. Children are cruel.”

We’ve been here before

Nocera and his friend, therefore, may have been started at what they encountered on social media, but I believe their response – to withdraw from it – is incorrect. The duty of commentators like them, or public relations and marketing professionals who listen to such teachers as Ray, Culp, Seitel and Brunelle, is to remain in the realm of social media, adhering to professional standards by exhibiting reason, respect, and decency.

John Milton wrote almost 400 years ago that competition in the marketplace of ideas is the only way to ensure the best ideas prevail. Today, the same principle applies to the tone and manner of public speech: as social media are used to enlighten and inform, rather than degrade and defame, more will focus on the former and ignore the latter.

That, perhaps, is one of the great potential opportunities of social media: to elevate public discourse as the public is exposed to more information and more points of view.

What, then, is your view?  Do you agree or disagree? And have the comments of some on social media caused you to withdraw from it, or to participate with a better type of public discourse?

Danger and Opportunity

(The following originally appeared in the July 16, 2013 edition of O’Dwyer’s PR Newsletter)

Several years ago, a 3M Corp. engineer – a native of China – developed the company’s program for reducing its generation of pollution. He acknowledged the public’s view of the pollution “crisis,” but still provided a positive emphasis by noting that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” combines the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.”

Chinese for “crisis”: “danger” + “opportunity”

I’ve thought of that perspective – that a crisis can not only involve preventing or removing a danger, but offers an opportunity to learn, grow or even benefit – as I’ve read recent tips and commentaries by PR thought leaders on crisis communications.  Crisis counsel is among the most important roles for public relations professionals, and public relations firms have developed robust crisis communications practices.

Yet such commentaries usually emphasize defense and protection: responding quickly, managing the media, deflecting attention and protecting the stock price. Key considerations, of course, but do we often overlook the “opportunity” part of the crisis equation?

Effective crisis counsel should evaluate not only the initial response, but how to build on that response by leveraging a company’s reputation to enhance its standing among key publics. In fact, clients should ask themselves and their public relations counsel well before any crisis occurs if they have forged a sufficiently strong reputation to manage a crisis to their advantage.

Tapping community support

Please note: I’m not referring cases involving human tragedy: in such crises, safety, security and even survival must be primary concerns.

Nor am I necessarily referring to self-inflicted crises, such as that created recently by Food Network celebrity Paula Deen — although even that case, had it been addressed early and sensibly, could have been managed to restore and even build her reputation.

Perhaps the best example of what I am referring to occurred in 1987.  “Greenmailers” were rapidly accumulating stock of the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, signaling a prelude to a hostile takeover of the department store firm.  As Dayton-Hudson management undertook various immediate legal and financial actions, the company’s head of public relations, Ann Barkelew, rallied to the company’s side leaders of the many nonprofit organizations that had benefited from the company’s largesse.

Members of the Dayton family, since the inception of their firm, had demonstrated a longstanding commitment to their local

The onetime Dayton’s department store (now Macy’s) on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis

communities through such measures as financial support of nonprofits.  Community leaders from an array of nonprofit organizations joined to support and lobby on behalf of the company. Dayton-Hudson had incorporated under Minnesota law, not, as with many of its competitors, Delaware law, and the community groups drove public opinion that resulted in new legislation that made such takeovers of Minnesota-domiciled firms much more difficult.  With that public support, the takeover effort stalled and eventually failed.

Dayton-Hudson had built up a reservoir of goodwill through its community efforts, along with ethical business practices, a high level of customer service and other factors in its long history.  The 1987 crisis became was an opportunity to tap that support and goodwill to fend off a threat to the company. But it also served as an additional opportunity, to remind the community of the company’s importance and to further build and enhance its reputation.

Don’t wait for the danger

Since then, changes in customer preferences and the economics of retail have reduced the popularity of such department stores and led to the rise of such “big box” retailers as Target, once a division of Dayton-Hudson but, today, the surviving and much larger firm.

But the lessons of Dayton-Hudson’s experience are relevant for a company of any size or industry.  When the crisis hit, the company had built up support among its community and customers and developed a strong and authentic public reputation.

When help was needed, that reputation counted for a lot.  But the experience of the crisis itself, by reminding the public of the community asset represented in Dayton-Hudson, helped to further enhance and strengthen the company’s reputation.

Likewise, if you run a company and want to ensure that, if a crisis hits, you have the resources to deal with it, it’s not enough to have the phone number of a crisis counselor who can step in when the emergency occurs.  The best preparation is to work with public relations counsel to build the strong marketplace reputation that, if a crisis occurs, will enable you to take advantage of it as an opportunity – and not just survive the danger.

A chicken sandwich with religion on the side

I have often viewed mixing business and religion – or, more specifically, the values, stances and opinions that a business owner may derive from his or her religious beliefs, particularly when the business has no religious connection – as contrived and cheap attempts to curry favor with customers.  Recent events, however, should remind businesses that such a strategy can become an unnecessary risk to a company’s reputation.

The risk was illustrated vividly during the past week of historic change in the United States.  The U.S. Senate passed major immigration reform legislation.  Earlier, the Supreme Court issued a string of major decisions, striking down a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, then issuing two major gay rights decisions: striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that struck down California’s Prop. 8 and, as a result, made gay marriage legal in that state.

Perhaps overlooked by many was the ill-advised Tweet by the president of fast food chain Chick Fil-A following the Court’s gay marriage decisions:

“Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

The Tweet was quickly removed from the company’s Twitter feed, and a spokesperson did her best to defuse the controversy with a Tweet saying the company’s president:

“…has his own views but we are focused on providing great tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.”

The controversy, however, had begun.  While the company may have hoped attention would turn to its products and services, it remained focused on the executive’s personal views on a sensitive social and political issue.

Most Americans are aware that Chick Fil-A, a company begun in the Southern United States, built its brand on identification with “down home,” Christian “traditional values.”  It puts those values into practice, for example, by not opening on Sunday’s, so that employees can attend church.

As the spokesperson’s follow-up Tweet illustrated, however, a corporation that takes such an approach in today’s diverse society cannot “have it both ways.”  Although the company president was moved to use his bully pulpit on a social issue, the spokesperson sought to move Chick Fil-A past a controversy it didn’t need.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Any organization that decides to stake its reputation on an issue in this manner m risks the consequences, which can easily be divisive and negative.  Someone in company management needs to ask, “What in the world does religion have to do with serving a good chicken sandwich?” And if we position our company in this way, won’t consumers avoid us due to their reluctance to support certain political positions?

Which leads, perhaps, to a broader issue, something that consistently baffles business people in countries outside the United States.  Why, they ask, are people in this country – which led the world in separating church and state – so inclined to mix business with their own religious views? As the global economy has developed, successful and sensible companies have recognized that business success should not depend on the sect you belong to or whom you associate with, but on performance, innovation, competitiveness and achieving company goals.

The best of intentions

Such risks to a company’s reputation, however, are not limited only to such public controversies.  At a company where I once worked, the talented and committed CEO was very supportive of employees, often seeking their views on how the company could improve and succeed.  In a commendable effort at employee communications, he would periodically email all 100 employees an update on company progress, priorities plans.

The CEO, however, would often include in the emails comments on the importance of his faith and beliefs.  Although never emulating the Chick Fil-A president by commenting on controversial social issues, the CEO was eager to share how his religious principles guided him in leading an ethical and successful company.

During a conversation on company communications, I suggested to him that although employees understood and respected his values and beliefs, such comments could risk making some employees uncomfortable, or could distract from the company’s principal mission and focus.  At first, he didn’t entirely agree and was somewhat defensive.  But eventually he did acknowledge that he could talk with employees about company values and commitment to the company’s goals without introducing an element of religion.

Unlike the Chick Fil-A president, he knew that leading all employees in a successful business purpose did not require them to endorse or even agree with any belief that, in essence, is something each employee is free to choose and decide on privately.

Successful corporations, to use a rather outdated term, “respect diversity” not simply out of a desire to recruit the best talent from a work force that is much more diverse than just a few years ago.  It also reflects a professional understanding that employees, customers and other stakeholders consider certain beliefs and choices matters of private, personal choice. Although religion has played an important role in U.S. history, so, too has the American belief in individualism and desire privacy. In today’s global economy, that belief has become universal.

The values and ethics of a business are certainly important to employees and their commitment to a company’s mission: they provide the basis for the firm’s identity and reputation. When a company, however, decides to express a religious view – totally unrelated to its business purpose – on a sensitive public issue, it must tread carefully.  An impetuous Tweet by a national executive can pose an warranted risk to his own company’s reputation.

Ethics and professionalism in international PR: putting dubious practices behind us

In response to my most recent post, on media relations in China, a reader who related an experience he’d had in that country.  A reporter, he said, asked him for a “facilitation fee” to cover his company.  Although I’d never had that experience, it got me to thinking about the topic of corruption in international public relations.  In light of past accounts of U.S. public relations representatives who have worked internationally, some may wonder if they can expect reporters in other countries to expect compensation (in other words, bribes) for covering their companies.

Based on my own experience, here are some observations on ethics in international public relations, and how the actions of international PR representatives can reflect on their U.S. client companies:

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Before embarking on international public relations work, a U.S. PR professional should consult the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a federal law signed in 1977 and amended most recently in 1998.  The law sets penalties for such corrupt activity as bribery of foreign officials by U.S. firms.  Although the law pertains specifically to relationships between U.S. companies and foreign governments, the lines between government and the media – as illustrated in China – can blur.

In fact, the term “facilitating payment” is specifically included in the FCPA as one of the few exceptions from the law’s anti-bribery prohibitions.  In the law’s context, such a payment to a foreign official is allowed for such “routine governmental actions” as processing of papers, issuing permits or other expenses of a “non-discretionary nature” that are needed to carry out a government action (and, coming after the government decision, would not influence the government).

Is a reporter in China entitled to a “facilitation fee”? I would counsel the U.S. representative to review the FCPA and other commentaries on international PR, and to ask if the fee, rather than a routine expense, could instead be construed as an unfair attempt to gain influence and favor.

The natives may not know best

In addition, I would recommend that a company interacting with the news media in a country outside the United States enlist portada_elpaisthe services of broadly experienced international public relations counsel, and not just rely on employees who are native country.  I encountered this firsthand several years ago, when I led a “media tour” for my U.S.-based company, visiting major newspapers; for example, El Pais and El Mundo.

My role was as a corporate staff person, and I was working with staff from offices in Madrid, London and Brussels.  At the same time, a division of my company operated in Spain, and employed a Spanish national as a marketing-communications person, responsible only for the Spanish market.  When I mentioned that my colleagues and I had appointments at several major newspapers, she responded, “You must have the money to buy a lot of advertising.”  No, I said, we were simply briefing editors on our perspective on issues that might be of interest to the news media.  But she insisted that we could only obtain media coverage if we were willing to purchase advertising in those news media.

I note this because, although her views today would be viewed as crude and archaic, the division she worked for – managed by Americans – assumed, since she was a native of Spain, that she would know best.  As I expected, because she followed that approach and had a limited marketing budget, she purchased minimal advertising and gained next to no news media coverage.

Perhaps more importantly, the practices of that marketing person did nothing to build the company’s reputation or gain the respect of the local news media.  Fortunately, they were short-lived, as they also risked endangering our company’s reputation internationally.

Latin America: major growth – and increasing attention

As public relations practitioners represent their U.S. clients in other countries, and assess local public relations practices, it’s important to consider PR in Latin America.

Several years ago, as I met with international PR people from other U.S. companies, I often heard stories of bribery and less-than-ethical practices among news media on that continent.  Although I had very limited responsibilities with my company’s own Latin American operations, some of our executives there contented that it was common practice, for example, to purchase advertising in exchange for media coverage. And, based on reports of government corruption in such countries as Mexico and Columbia, U.S. executives likely assumed that such practices “came with the territory.”

Today, international media coverage of companies operating in Latin America is certain to increase, as the region experiences dramatic economic growth.  According to Global Reinsurance magazine, Latin America is “a hive of activity as highways, railways, stadiums, bridges, energy projects and other major construction takes place across the region.”  Brazil, the magazine adds, is setting the pace with the government anticipating around $100 billion in annual investment through 2017 to help the country meet its transport, logistics and energy needs.

So, based on rumor and stories about past practices, how should U.S. PR professionals approach Latin America?  To get a better picture of today’s situation, I contacted Jeffrey Sharlach, chairman, chief executive officer and founder of JeffreyGroup.  Headquartered in Miami, where it was founded in 1993, the public relations firm has long been viewed by U.S. firms as one of the best firms focused on the Latin American market.  Today, the company has offices in Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and New York, in addition to Miami.

“We have never paid journalists for coverage, although at the time I first started working in Latin America I was told the same thing: journalists expect an envelope of cash with the news release,” Sharlach said.  “Still, once agencies like ours began representing the top companies and brands expanding in the region, it was difficult to ignore news of Nintendo, Discovery Networks, Kodak, MasterCard, and British Airways (to name a few early clients) investing in these countries.

“As other global agencies began to expand in Latin America, that trend continued, since most multinationals — and the firms that handle their communications — also had strict policies against paying journalists,” Sharlach said. “Today throughout Latin America, and particularly in the most populous markets of Brazil and Mexico, I would say without hesitation that nearly all journalists operate with the same high standards that you would find in most developed countries.”

With both business and information now operating on a global scale, and development continuing in many world markets, successful international public relations practitioners must adhere to the highest standards of ethics and professionalism. Failing to do so risks both the effectiveness of international PR programs as well as public, international reputations.