Category Archives: Strategy & Tactics

Beyond COVID-19: Issue Anticipation For 2022

If we can force ourselves to peek beyond COVID and see what issues/crises might be coming in 2022, we may be able to prepare ahead of them. 

That was the topic of the panel presented prior to the Yankee Chapter of PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) annual meeting, moderated by Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA and Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, partners at the behavioral public relations firm Jackson Jackson & Wagner (JJ&W). Panelists Vanessa Stafford, VP of Communications for the NH Hospital Association, Roz Whitaker-Heck, APR, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs for Champlain College and Jayme Simoes, President of Louis Karno & Co. provided perspectives from the healthcare, education, and nonprofit sectors.

JJ&W began by sharing this 3-step model for issues anticipation

First Step: Issue Identification.  Identify the top 5-10 issues that keep your organization’s leadership team up at night. Scan the media environment for industry issues; pick the brains of your fellow industry and PR professionals and create an “issues anticipation team” that monitors those issues and communicates regularly with each other.   Note:  put together a cross-section of volunteer employees from different departments; they will offer different perspectives (note: this has the added benefit of creating cross-departmental relationships).

  • HEALTHCARE, like others, is dealing with a severe staffing shortage – hospitals have had to transfer patients to other states because even if they have the beds, they don’t have enough staff to provide care. The hotly debated vaccine requirement adds insult to injury.
  • EDUCATION has been impacted on every level, from daycare at pre-schools to remote learning programs for colleges. COVID-19 has forced changes that were bound to occur, from re-imagining how educational content is delivered, acquired & taught to creating work-life balance for faculty & staff – all while facing new financial realities that include large deficits.
  • NON-PROFITS/TRAVEL’S new challenges include finding a way to stay relevant; COVID-19 has stimulated systemic change and “there is no going back – there is only finding a way to adapt to the new normal.”

Second Step: Issue Analysis.  Brainstorm issues that could impact your organization in a variety of categories, not just the obvious “hot” issues:

  • Latent:  back-burner issues that could becoming emerging or hot, with time
  • Emerging:  10% of the population is aware of and is dealing with this issue, but it’s not yet hot
  • Hot:  All-consuming issues you are dealing with at the moment
  • Fallout: Issues that result from or spin off from a hot issue
  • Association:  An issue that happened at another organization in your industry, but could happen at your outfit

Third Step: Issue Response Strategy

  1. Brainstorm realistic strategy options.  “What would happen if…”
  2. Write scenarios of possible futures, using a “decision tree” to predict the various twists & turns the issue could take
  3. Build templates that define:
    • Strategy considerations
    • Core messaging for each crisis, with generic holding statements
    • Members of the crisis team, with decisionmakers and approval process protocols identified
    • Target audiences & the best methods for communicating with them
    • Logistics planning

For more information on PRSA’s Yankee Chapter, visit www.yankeeprsa.org.  For more information about Jackson Jackson & Wagner, visit www.jjwpr.com or contact Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA at rschell@jjwpr.com or 603/770-3607.

Helping Others To Take Care of Our Veterans: Campaigns Encourage Sharing of Resources and Support While Building Teamwork and CSR

In the month of November, and on Veterans Day in particular, we focus on those who have served, or are currently serving our country, and we thank them for their serviceJJ&W

“Ask the Question” Listens Then Shares Resources

In its effort to listen and better serve the community, the NH Legislative Commission on PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) conducted a study on NH Veterans and identified these facts:

  • There are 100,000 Veterans living in NH – the 5th largest Veteran population per capita in the nation
  • Only 30,000 of those Veterans receive their healthcare at the VA Medical Center – not all Veterans are eligible for VA care, and some choose not to seek care there
  • Those Veterans seeking care outside the VA identified one of their challenges as “not feeling understood by the providers who serve them”

The data showed that the best way to provide the care and services Veterans need – starts with all medical personnel asking the question, “Have you or a family member ever served in the military?” 

Enter, the “Ask the Question” campaign and website, funded by the NH Department of Health and Human Services. This website provides tools and information to encourage agencies and organizations from a variety of provider sectors (healthcare, social services, education & others) to 1) Ask patients if they or a family member have ever served in the military and 2) follow guidelines on how to best help this Veteran population. 

The site offers specific information to help those Veterans who are 65 and older (48% of NH’s Veterans are in this category); Veterans with families who may need support systems for children when a parent is deployed; Veterans seeking career guidance after their military career and Veterans who could benefit from the support and services offered by NH’s faith-based community.  For more information, check out the “Ask The Question” website at https://www.askthequestion.nh.gov/

Warrior Care Network: CSR for Medical Centers

Another important program for Veterans comes via a partnership between the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and 4 world-renowned academic medical centers – Emory Healthcare Veterans Program in Atlanta; Mass General Hospital’s Home Base Program (Boston); Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home Program (Chicago) and UCLA’s Health-Operation Mend Program (Los Angeles).

The program, called the Warrior Care Network, offers treatment, support and mental health care for Veterans who are living with PTSD, TBI, and Military Sexual Trauma.  Those warriors who complete the Warrior Care Network program have seen significant improvement in PTSD and depression symptoms.  Programs range from intensive outpatient programs that are 2 to 3 weeks long to treatments that include individual and group therapy; stress management; family support and education; and alternative therapies including yoga, art, and Tai Chi.

https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/warrior-care-network?item=1701

The TRACTS Program Breaks Down Silos While Serving Veterans with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)

The Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders, or TRACTS, is a RR&D National Center for TBI Research. TRACTS staff come from all parts of the hospital (from mental health, neuropsychology, neuroscience, and medicine) and their only focus is the OEF/OIF Veteran population and their unique characteristics and experiences.  Many returning Veterans report feeling more “understood” by the TRACTS research team because of their deep understanding of the Veteran population. 

The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) reported nearly 414,000 TBIs among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and late 2019. More than 185,000 Veterans who use VA for their health care have been diagnosed with at least one TBI. TBI and its associated co-morbidities are also a significant cause of disability outside of military settings.

For more information about TRACTS, click on the link below:

The Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) – VA Boston Healthcare System

Veterans Crisis Line: Outreach to Overcome Psychological and Structural Barriers

Many veterans are too proud to reach out to traditional services providers. Enter the Veterans Crisis Line, a way for them to easily connect from anywhere at anytime.  It is a free, confidential resource that’s available 24/7 for Veterans/Service members and their families – even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. The responders at the Veterans Crisis Line are with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and many are Veterans themselves.  There are options to call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1; or to text 838255.  There is also an online chat capability offered.  Responders are specially trained to help Veterans of all ages and can help the person calling through the crisis, and direct them to the services they need.

Veterans Crisis Line: Suicide Prevention Hotline, Text & Chat

For more information on identifying signs of suicide ideation (e.g. behaviors exhibited by those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts), visit the NH Coalition for Suicide Prevention website at: NH Coalition for Suicide Prevention (zerosuicidesnh.org).

Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm on the Seacoast of NH.  Contact Robin at 603/770-3607 or rschell@jjwpr.com.

Life Is Good: How To Live With Purpose & Enjoy The Ride!

The authors of the Life Is Good book (and founders of the Life Is Good company), Bert and John Jacobs, grew up in my hometown of Needham.  They lived across the street from the Cricket Playground where we spent summers playing kickball, singing silly songs, and playing games in the field house on rainy days.  While I didn’t know the whole family, I knew Bert, who was close to my age – and I knew they had a big family and came from rather humble beginnings.

We all know what a great company Life Is Good (LIG) became, and many of us (myself included) own Life Is Good hats, t-shirts or other products sporting the image of “Jake” with his infectious orange-slice smile.  What a treat it was for me to read this book and learn the details behind the story of 2 college grads who sold t-shirts out of their van (named “The Enterprise”) and grew LIG into a $100 million company!

Viewing this story through my professional lens, I am impressed by the mission of Life Is Good — “to spread the power of optimism.”  What a refreshing change from all the negativity in the world right now.  I was also struck how these brothers remained true to their values through the ups and downs of growing a business and created a corporate culture that many organizations would love to have.

Reading this blog is no substitute for reading the book, but let me whet your appetite with an overview of their sage advice, linked to their “10 superpowers”:

  1.  Openness.  Be open to new ideas and experiences; changing up your routine and your physical surroundings will open your mind to fresh perspectives.  Adopt the rule of “yes, and…” used by improv comedians.  In short:  when you are brainstorming and collaborating, accept and build on each other’s ideas rather than “brainstomping” with the word “no.”
  2. Courage.  Challenges and adversity, self-doubt, skeptics – those barriers will always be there.  Don’t be afraid to fail forward, then adjust and move on.  Have the courage to try new things.  Heed hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s advice:  “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
  3. Simplicity Say “yes” to the things that really matter and “no” to the rest.  Unplug.  Hit the “reset button” with yoga, meditation, fresh air, laughter and time with friends.  When these two brothers found they were becoming slaves to email, they made the bold move of dropping their email accounts and letting their team at Life Is Good prioritize and summarize the most important communication for them.  The result? Increased productivity and the freedom to focus on what is really important.
  4. HumorHumor is the great equalizer, according to Bert and John, and they have all the right instincts when it comes to creating a fun, productive work environment at LIG.  “When management is willing to let their guard down and laugh openly, especially at themselves, it invites others to do the same,” they said.  Humor leads to more unity and productivity in the workplace…and it is healthy to laugh!  Bert and John tell a great story of landing the Galyan’s account (later acquired by Dick’s Sporting Goods) before they had money to “wine and dine” – so they invited the Galyan executives to their small Boston apartment for a Ragu and pasta dinner.  In the end, it was the laughter around that dinner table that led to the long-term business relationship – and helped take the LIG brand national.
  5. GratitudeSee the glass as half-full, not half-empty.  Being grateful is a mindset:  change your mindset from “I have to” to “I get to.”  It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday of the Jacobs brothers, because it showcases the superpowers of simplicity, love, humor and gratitude – but their advice is, “don’t limit gratitude to just one day.  Take time every day to express your gratitude to others.”
  6. Fun.  Bert and John point to Dr. Seuss as a great example of someone who brought the power of fun to the task of reading – and changed the lives of teachers, parents and students as a result. “Fun is not a dessert reserved for special occasions; it’s a healthy party of the main course.”  The company commitment to fun resulted in the birth of their Life Is Good Festivals; their “Backyard Athlete” competition at Fenway Park (featuring games ranging from seed-spitting to Wiffle ball home run derby); and their partnership with Camp Sunshine, an organization that offers vacation retreats and other forms of support for sick children and their families.  In 2006 on the Boston Common, LIG teamed up with Camp Sunshine to gather 30,128 pumpkins in one place – breaking a world record and raising over $500,000 for Camp Sunshine.
  7. Compassion. Kids are the ultimate optimists and the inspiration for the LIG brand, so they are a natural fit for LIG’s charitable giving – thus, the decision was made to donate 10% of the company’s annual profits to helping kids in need.  When friend Steve Gross started the nonprofit Project Joy, focusing on the social and emotional health of Boston’s most vulnerable children, Bert and John were “in.”  Eventually Project Joy pivoted to “helping the helpers” by providing training and care for frontline caregivers.  The partnership grew tighter and eventually, the Life Is Good Kids Foundation absorbed Project Joy, renaming it The Playmakers and placing their offices in the center of LIG’s headquarters in Boston.  Two takeaways relative to compassion:  1) compassion begins with kindness to yourself.  2) Adopt a “just like me” mindset to help break down barriers and find common ground and resolution. 
  8. Creativity.  According to Albert Einstein, “creativity is intelligence having fun.”  Decorate your home or work space with colors that lift your mood and inventiveness (a favorite quote from the book: “Who wouldn’t cancel a full day with beige to go to a meeting with green or a party with yellow?”.  Physically explore your world to find inspiration – “exploreate”.  Choose any subject you love – read about it, listen to information about it and do something related to that subject.  Lastly, don’t keep creativity to yourself – invite others to join you.  Connect, collaborate and create.
  9. Authenticity“Be yourself; everyone else is taken” (Oscar Wilde).  Bert and John’s definition of branding?  “Know who you are and act like it.”  Understand that customers build your brand. “It’s not rocket science; we listen and try to deliver what people want.”  When you screw up, admit it – people appreciate honesty.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, or to make a decision based on what feels authentic to you.  Tell your “heritage story” by sharing what’s different and special about your company and your products; people appreciate companies, and individuals, that are real.
  10.  Love.  Bert and John compel us to “spread love like peanut butter.”  The more you share your love, the more you connect with the people you love and the richer your life will be.  Think about the strength of love during the Boston Marathon bombings.  As a direct reaction to that horrific act of hate in 2013, millions of people performed acts of love; and this inspired LIG to create their “BOSTON:  Nothing Is Stronger Than Love” t-shirt.  The Boston LOVE shirt became their best seller, generating over a half of a million dollars in profit (and in their own act of love, the company donated every penny to The One Fund, established to help the victims and their families). 

Here’s a question:  what superpowers do you have and which ones do you want to work on?  For further inspiration, learn more about this innovative company and its founders at www.lifeisgood.com.  And for heaven’s sake, read the book!

Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral PR and management consulting firm based in the Seacoast. For more information about JJ&W, visit www.jjwpr.com or contact Robin at rschell@jjwpr.com.

How To Say “No” Effectively to Leadership

Such a joy to be back IN PERSON for a presentation at the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar last week.  It reinforces how important face-to-face communication is in building relationships and cementing our learning.

My colleague John Lyday, APR, Fellow PRSA and I presented on the challenges and strategies needed to say “no” when leadership is heading in the wrong direction.  Some “takeaways” (both from us and our participants) included:

  1. Remember leaders are human too (and that includes our School Board members).  They have egos, and they do not want to appear wrong or be depicted as bullies; they want to please others, etc.  They also have past experiences that influence their decisionmaking.  The key is to really get to know your leadership what makes them tick and motivates them.
  2. Five strategies for saying “no
    • Education – being the expert before the issue arises, teaching leadership about effective communication practices and behavioral/communication theories, strategies
    • Having data – doing research on stakeholders to know them well; also having ability to do dipstick research overnight to help inform any decisionmaking
    • Offering options rather than solutions (caveat: never offer an option that is not good – it is the one they will pick)
    • Create scenarios on what is likely to happen with or without action, with options (including their suggestions).  Be sure to include pros and cons.
    • Know who influences leadership, where they stand on most subjects; and how to most effectively use their influence to help guide leadership when needed
  3. Critical strategies/theories to utilize, educate leadership about:
    • PR Behavioral Model (Jackson/Grunig) 
    • Behavioral Messaging (Grunig)
    • (email either one of us for copies!)
  4. Regularly conduct issue anticipation brainstorming to identify issues that might break and build strategies.  Group into “latent”, “emerging”, “hot” and “fallout” issues to manage discussions.  Here are some issues that were identified by session participants:
    • COVID-19 and its continuing impact on school communications
    • Critical race theory conspiracies that appear to be happening independently but are reportedly being fueled by organized conservative groups
    • Violence being directed at Asian-American families and students
    • Organized opposition to school district efforts to make LGBTQ students feel welcome and safe in school
    • Cyber-security in light of recent malware and ransomware attacks on other sectors
    • … and, of course, those that were old which may become new again, e.g. gun safety, sex education, etc.

For more on these subjects and more, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or email us. We would love to hear from you!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, Senior Counsel & Partner, JJ&W, ssmith@jjwpr.com/603.205.6302

John Lyday, APR, Fellow PRSA, jlydaycommunications.com/309.201.3669 www.lydaycommunications.com

Pearls of Wisdom from pr Road Warriors

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the PRSA Northeast District Conference called, “Pearls of Wisdom From PR’s Road Warriors.”  One of the things I value most about my membership in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is the willingness of our members to share their experiences (as well as their networks) with each other.  A few “pearls” from this session with Gail Winslow, APR (Director of Corporate Marketing, LexaGene); Clark Dumont, APR (Dumont Communications) and Gail Rymer, APR, Fellow PRSA (Gail Rymer Strategic Communications):

  •  Prepare Yourself With More Than Communications & Writing Courses.  Though the ability to communicate succinctly is important, it is not the only skill required in public relations.  An understanding of how to motivate behavior (psychology, sociology); how the organization you’re counseling operates (business); corporate culture (organization development) and research (statistics, analysis) are all essential.  “Knowing that PR is being called upon to provide metrics on outcomes and how PR contributes to ROI (return on investment), I wish I’d been less afraid of statistics back in the day,” said Winslow.  (References:  PRSA’s Barcelona Principles and 9 Ways PR Impacts The Bottom Line by Patrick Jackson). The good news:  we are never done learning in this field, and there are many opportunities for professional development, via courses offered from professional associations like PRSA, going back for a Master’s Degree or developing specialized skills through certificate programs.
  • Take Advantage of Networking & Mentoring Opportunities.  Whether you are attending a PRSA International Conference, representing your organization in a Rotary or Chamber organization or volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about, there are countless ways to build your network.  “Say yes to every cup of coffee” — because you never know where it might lead.  It’s never too early to seek advice and counsel; surround yourself with people who can serve as mentors throughout your career as you build your “personal Board of Directors.”  Reference:  www.prsa.org for information on Mentor Connect. The good news:  every time you invest time in mentoring someone, there is a good chance “reverse mentoring” will occur and you’ll learn something new yourself.
  • Building Authentic Relationships Requires Transparency And Good Listening Skills.  Gail Rymer, who had a long and successful career in Environmental Communications with Lockheed Martin and Tennessee Valley Authority, faced many “angry publics” in her career.  “There is no replacement for face-to-face communication — but it takes time and effort.  Only by listening to the issues, finding common ground and providing honest answers (even if they aren’t popular answers) will you earn trust.”  Identify those who are influential “opinion leaders” who can serve as credible 3rd party ambassadors.
  • Use Core Values To Guide Your Decisionmaking.  Clark Dumont shared wisdom gleaned from a culture transformation effort he led while working for MGM.  “When you’re disrupting people’s lives, it becomes personal.  Start with the ‘why’ – providing the rationale for change is key.”  Using values as their guide, MGM established themselves as a leader in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion).
  • Trust Your Gut And Have Confidence In Yourself.  Confidence comes from a combination of experience and education, but even highly-skilled practitioners can suffer from “imposter syndrome.”  Have open conversations with organizational leadership; talk their language but stand by your own principles.  Explained one panelist: “I was told by leadership that I didn’t have the pedigree – meaning I didn’t have a degree from Harvard – to continue advancing in that organization.  During COVID-19 I took an executive leadership course at Cornell University that helped me build the confidence in myself to walk away from that job and find a better fit for my skills, talents and career path.”

Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm based in the Seacoast of NH.  For more information, visit www.jjwpr.com or contact rschell@jjwpr.com.

Using the Triggering Event of COVID to Impact Culture Change

Triggering events, whether created for us or by us, can create a fissure in the current behaviors and beliefs of stakeholders. These fissures, if smartly managed, can help transform an organization’s culture.

Even before the trauma of the last year, healthcare was reeling from a bevy of changes and pressures. Nursing shortages, changing business models, cut-throat competition, systemic racism, the disappearance of small, rural hospitals, and more had an already shaky system on the edge.
Staff were dissatisfied and demoralized. This was no longer a profession respected and supported or so it felt.

The upheaval of an event like COVID19, for all its negative outcomes, can be a catalyst if harnessed, to re-imagine and re-create an internal culture that can thrive going forward.

Five COORR steps to take:

1. Catharsis
2. Opportunity
3. Ownership
4. Repair
5. Repeat

Catharsis: Allows employees to express their feelings, pain, ideas. This is the time for leadership to listen, empathize, comfort and express humanness. It is accessed through meaningful and thoughtful listening by way of qualitative and quantitative research.
Opportunity: Opportunities and problems are identified in Catharsis and with an environmental scan to see what in the future may become pressing. These are verified with employees, prioritized.
Ownership: Responsibility for seeing that change happens is assigned at all levels, not just leadership. By spreading responsibility throughout the organization and levels, silos can be torn down and healing can begin.
Repair: Measurable goals and objectives are established, strategies determined, and action is taken. Ongoing measurement tracks successes and need for tweaking actions.
Repeat: Change is not a “one and done” process. Different groups are ready to move at different times. Some need others to take the lead, to make sure change is not dangerous. Sometimes alternative strategies need to be adopted to move those who linger.

As vaccines ramp up (a triggering event of its own), and COVID winds down (hopefully), the window for change is ending from this triggering event. Make use of professionals with communication and organization behavior expertise to be most effective in this effort. Act now and make a difference for your organization.

#MASKUPMA: APPLYING THE BEHAVIOR CHANGE MODEL TO COVID-19

Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has launched the #MaskUpMA campaign to raise awareness and stimulate behaviors that will reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our state in the coming months.  His collective efforts to guide the public’s behavior during the pandemic follow the 4-Step Public Behavior Change Model, based on the work of leading public relations behaviorists Jim Grunig, Harold Mendelsohn, Max McCombs & others:

  1.  Coalition Campaign:  This phase focuses on 3 steps: Problem Recognition:  Good news – the vaccines are here!  Bad news: implementation is slower than projected.  Therefore, it is critical to follow COVID-19 protocols to slow the spread as we patiently wait for the phase-by-phase vaccinations to protect us. Problem Personalization:  To date, there have been over 12,000 deaths and 420,000 cases of COVID19 reported in the state of Mass.  A visit to mass.gov will give you access to updated statistics by age, town or city and other demographics – in your preferred language. Constraint Removal:  The #MaskUpMA campaign, which reiterates the simple message “wear a mask to protect yourself and others against the spread of COVID19” includes video testimonials by everyone from Governor Baker to Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster, PSAs and a dedicated section of the Mass.Gov website Mask Up MA! | Mass.gov
  2. Enforcement:  Since Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts on March 10, a series of executive orders have been signed which range from limits on indoor (10-person) and outdoor (25-person) gatherings to required face coverings in public places to a “stay at home advisory” between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.  Public establishments violating mask-wearing and social distance protocols have faced hefty fines.
  3. Engineering:  Structural changes have been put into place to discourage behaviors that might lead to spreading COVID19.  These include closing restaurants at 9:30 p.m. to discourage large late-night gatherings, limiting the number of people per table (6) and setting up tables to comply with social-distancing guidelines.  Another example of structural changes: the requirement of temperature checks of patrons when entering certain gyms, dental offices and other places of business.
  4. Social Reinforcement:  11 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing masks and social distancing have become as familiar as recycling.  One could argue that social reinforcement has almost gone overboard as people engage in “mask shaming” – even when people are walking and riding bikes outdoors and observing social distance protocols.

This model makes sense when applied to just about any issue (see JJ&W blog from July 2017 on “Changing Behaviors on Concussion Treatment Through Chalk Talk) and will undoubtedly serve as the foundation for vaccination, COVID-testing and other behavior-change campaigns.

So What Now? Anticipating Fallout Issues In The Aftermath of COVID-19

As with any crisis situation that an organization faces, things may quiet down and even get resolved (as in a strike), but there will likely be additional issues to consider in the aftermath.  This is particularly true for this pandemic – even as it continues, other issues will rear up, case in point: Amazon’s strikes over work conditions and leadership resignations.  (See  https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52534567#)

For those familiar with issue anticipation, one of many responsibilities of leadership (especially PR/Communications) issues typically fall into 5 categories:

  • Latent:  The issue is largely on the “back burner. Nothing is really happening at this time, but the potential is there for the issue to emerge.  Example:  In the PR field, the issue of “licensing” was once hotly debated but moved to “latent” when accreditation in the field became an option that replaced the need for licensing.
  • Emerging:  A small percentage of the population has identified the issue and it is gaining traction, but it is not yet “hot”. Example: The connection between opioid overdose and brain injury.
  • Hot:  A current issue that is the subject of extensive public debate. Example:  COVID19.
  • Fallout:  An issue born as the consequence of a hot issue.  For example, one fallout issue from COVID19 might be the expansion of remote offices as companies look for ways to cut costs and gain more confidence in the ability of employees to work from home.
  • Association: An issue that hasn’t impacted your organization directly, but it has happened to a similar organization, and therefore your stakeholders are wondering “could that happen to us?” Example:  An active shooter on a private boarding school campus.

While some organizations may have been prepared for a “widespread illness” crisis scenario, virtually no organization – with the exception of some very forward-thinking healthcare organizations — were prepared for something of the magnitude that is the COVID19 global pandemic.   In fact, we have had clients ask us, in retrospect, to amend their crisis communication plans to include a global pandemic scenario. 

Now that the “new normal” is in place, it is time to think about what fallout issues we may have to contend with going forward.  Consider the potential impacts of the current COVID19 environment as we look 6 months to a year out and/or before a vaccination is approved:

  • Consumer fear as a barrier to travel, dining out, using public transportation, attending large gatherings, going away to college, etc.,
  • A potential increase in drug and alcohol misuse (as a coping mechanism),
  • Potential increase in anxiety, depression and mental health issues,
  • Remote workforce preference (by employees and corporations),
  • Labor issues in the spotlight as they fight to protect front-line worker rights,
  • Increase in requirements to safely produce consumer products adds to business overhead, which is then passed on to the consumer and creates more expensive products and services,
  • Increase in taxes to cover the unanticipated expenses resulting from COVID19,
  • Labor trends:  will those headed for retirement take an early retirement package or feel the need to work longer after experiencing stock market losses?
  • Investors change behaviors:  will they take advantage of buying opportunities in a down market or pursue investment opportunities with less risk?
  • Nonprofits consolidate as they compete for a smaller pool of available philanthropic dollars,
  • Decrease in face-to-face professional development (conferences, etc.) and an increase in professional development offered online,
  • Emphasis on environmental controls after seeing the short-term positive effects of the stay-at-home order on our air and water supplies,
  • Healthcare costs increase as health issues related to COVID 19 spike and vaccines for highly-contagious illnesses become mandatory,
  • Consolidation of small businesses as many experience bankruptcy after extended period of closure forced by restrictions,
  • Trend of “gap years” and community college attendance in lieu of paying high college costs for what could end up being a remote learning experience, at least in the immediate future,
  • Increase in “depression-era savings mentality” now that the new generation has lived through uncertain financial times.

It is the role of every public relations/communications leader to think about and prepare for what is next for your organization and to think strategically about how you will communicate about it.  Building trust and communicating with transparency will be critical. 

How effectively your organization communicated during this crisis and responded to stakeholder needs will either have improved your reputation as a trustworthy company or damaged it.  Either way, communicating in the “new normal” era will require your organization’s highest and best skills going forward , so those in the PR/communications field – and those they report to — should consider them “essential”!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm based in the Seacoast of NH.  For more information, visit JJ&W’s website at www.jjwpr.com or email Stacey at ssmith@jjwpr.com.

Summary of JJ&W’s WEbinar for PRSA: External Communication with Stakeholders During Covid-19

What is known about how humans process risk and crisis remind us that not every member of a stakeholder group is at the same point in their understanding, acceptance, processing or action steps.  In fact, most are likely ricocheting daily, if not hourly, between these waypoints as they deal with the mental and emotional toll that the all-consuming change that is COVID19 has taken on their lives.  Today they may feel positive and productive.  Tomorrow they may not.

How we deliver the messages that need to be communicated, the words we use, and the environment in which messages are received must be carefully calibrated to resonate with our stakeholders. They must take into consideration their values and their current emotional state.  They must be clear enough to motivate specific behaviors.

Thus, we move to the lowest common denominators when preparing communication:

  1. Use simpler, more direct language
  2. Elevate empathy
  3. Include doable action steps

Simpler, more direct language   Write at a 7th or 8th grade level (see Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests). Even the most educated have problems processing ideas when things are stressful or there is upheaval. Say what needs to be said in the simplest way possible – short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. 

Elevate empathy   Express shared emotions without telling them how they feel.  “We are all anxious” is different then “We know you are anxious”.

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Doable action steps:  Suggest something they can do as a result of your communication.  “Make a donation”, “call a friend”, “read on our website” are all actionable ideas.  With no call to action, your messaging is just a big “so what”. For example,  COVID19 communication now has plenty of “calls to action”, including:  “maintain a 6-feet-apart social distance when out in public”; “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “stay at home unless you are an essential worker or you have to get gas, groceries or pharmacy items.”

In addition, don’t make stakeholders work to find your messaging or create additional “new” vehicles to communicate.  That is just another stress on them.  Use the channels they are comfortable with, used to using, and trust.

Finally, monitor the environment for ongoing changes that might make your communication insensitive if not offensive.  This requires being flexible on how you choose to communicate and constantly monitoring the environment for potential message conflicts.

For instance, the cruise lines for too long continued to run ads and send mailing that promoting trips.  The hotel industry was slow on the uptake as well. Some smaller organizations, perhaps being nimbler or more empathetic, switch gears faster e.g. Planet Fitness suspended monthly fees right away and ramped up their online platform to encourage continued activity.  Compare that with Boston Health Club (see good reading on that one see Robin Schell’s last blog)! 

Stay well!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Counsel & Partner, Jackson Jackson & Wagner

A Case Study In How NOT To Build Relationships With Customers: Boston Sports Clubs

Here’s what happens when you are NOT proactive and DON’T LISTEN to customers … I’m afraid Boston Sports Clubs are about to learn a painful PR lesson.  

While many gyms communicated proactively to customers that they would be halting billing and freezing memberships, Boston Sports Clubs went out of their way to make it nearly impossible for members to cancel memberships and freeze accounts during the COVID19 closure period.  A few weeks after closing, they sent an email to customers letting them know that when they re-open, they will work with members on credit arrangements.  They did not, however, provide any options for stopping payment while they remain closed.  As a result, they find themselves in the following boat:

  • Angry customers are blowing up BSC’s Facebook page with complaints
  • A class action suit filed against parent company Town Sports International, alleging it is impossible to cancel memberships
  • In Massachusetts, multiple complaints have been filed with the AG’s office and they are now investigating
  • Local media covering the story and suggesting members who want out of their memberships call their credit card company to cancel payments. 
  • Media have asked for personal stories about member experiences with BSC, indicating this negative press is far from over

In visiting the FB page of the local BSC, I found many negative comments about the rudeness of staff and dirty condition of the gym. BSC uses the same impersonal response every time:

Boston Sports Clubs We appreciate you taking the time to review our club. We’re very sorry for the issues you have experienced and we’d like to follow up with you personally. If you could email HereToHelp@tsiclubs.com, a member of the Customer Services team will get back to you shortly. Thank you for reaching out. Best, The HereToHelp Team

BSC fails to realize that this is a time to “serve not sell” your customers, not take advantage of them.   When gym members are being forced out of their normal behavior routine of going to the gym and are finding alternatives (exercising outdoors, constructing home gym setups, live streaming yoga classes), they should be finding ways to excite members about coming back, not drive them away.   Clearly BSC did not study their competitor’s policies or look at some of the creative ways other gyms are using their space to serve the public and build relationships with members (https://www.patriotledger.com/news/20200331/quincy-ymca-to-serve-as-secondary-homeless-shelter). 

All of this could have been avoided with some proactive communication and customer-friendly policies.  Lesson shared!