Opinion Journalism – Adding “Context” to Fact Checks

July 13, 2018

by Dan Ward

Time for my annual rant about “fact-checking,” otherwise known as opinion journalism.  Sites such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact claim to provide rulings on whether statements by politicians and pundits are factual, but the rulings are often just a journalist’s personal opinion as to the context and meaning of those statements.

Two examples from this week offer a perfect illustration (and I’m glad to say that, lest I be accused of partisanship, the examples should equally offend liberals and conservatives).

On Monday Josh Hawley, a Republican candidate challenging Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, claimed that “Claire McCaskill voted for 100 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees.”

Should be fairly easy to fact-check a statement about a percentage of votes, right?  Correct.  It was very easy.  In fact, McCaskill’s campaign confirmed that the statement was true.

PolitiFact’s ruling?  “Mostly True.”  You see, the fact-checker believes the factual statement was missing context because it didn’t also share that Republican senators voted in favor of President Obama’s nominees more than 80 percent of the time.  So, a 100-percent factual statement is not 100-percent factual.  See how this works?

The next day, Senator Charles Schumer claimed that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “has said the president shouldn’t be investigated.”  Has he said that?

Once again, PolitiFact provides plenty of evidence to back up the claim.  Kavanaugh wrote in 2009 that “we should not burden a sitting president with civil suits, criminal investigations, or criminal prosecutions.  The president’s job is difficult enough as is.  And the country loses when the president’s focus is distracted by the burdens of civil litigation or criminal investigation and possible prosecution.”

PolitiFact’s ruling in this case?  Only “Half True,” because Schumer didn’t recap Kavanaugh’s comments in full to provide additional context.

The lesson here is not that fact-checking should be eliminated.  That genie’s already out of the bottle, and journalists long ago decided that their role in holding public officials to account requires that they use their personal judgment in deciding whether facts equal truth.

Our job as communicators is to prepare for the day in which fact-checking moves beyond politicians and pundits to include a review of the statements from our clients and CEOs.  First, we must realize that being factual is no longer enough … we must provide context so that we don’t leave it up to the judgment of others to do so for us.  Second, we must not be afraid to call fact-checkers to account when they get it wrong.  Finally, we must resist the temptation to rely on fact checks to justify our own claims and actions.

We should not legitimize the practice of fact-checking until it returns to its journalistic roots: the checking of facts.


The Making of a Holiday Message

December 18, 2017

by Dan Ward

Each year, Curley & Pynn attempts (and usually succeeds) to develop a holiday card that ties back either to the practice of public relations or, more frequently, to issues that have made news in the past year.

We mailed a “hanging chad” card after the 2000 election, made fun of news polls that missed so badly in 2016, and lampooned the ACA rollout by launching our own FrostyCare Marketplace.

This year, we set out to find something from 2017 that we could turn into a positive, and hopefully funny, holiday message.  And we failed.  We pored through headline after headline, and became increasingly depressed.  Political fights, natural disasters and dozens of harassment claims do not lend themselves to fun, festive jokes.

And then it came to us.  What we all need after a year of depressing headlines is what we all turn to (some of us secretly) to lift our spirits … pictures of kittens and puppies!

And so we present the C&P 2017 holiday card, featuring headshots of our own four-legged friends and family.  We hope it brings you a little “Paws-itivity” for the year ahead.  And we also hope you can pay it forward with a little pawsitivity of your own.  Share photos of your own furry, fuzzy family members with the tags #CandP #Pawsitivity.  We can all use some positive news and images this holiday season. Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our thanks to Jim Hobart and Macbeth Studios for a fun, tail-wagging photo shoot!


Location, Location, Location

November 21, 2017

by Dan Ward

When planning a special event, the walk-through is critical. You look at the space and account for placement of signage, locations for media and VIPs, sight lines for cameras, background music that could interfere with your plans, including anything outside of your control that could impact your event.

Unfortunately, the event planners at The Weather Channel missed a couple of steps, and it offers a lesson for all of us.

The Weather Channel set up a live stream to broadcast the implosion of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, with what appeared to be a great wide shot of the dome.  Everything was great for about 40 minutes, right up until the first explosion.  That is when a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) bus pulled up directly in front of the camera.

So instead of a livestream of a massive demolition, viewers saw a bus … with some dust in the background.

Lesson: for your next event, make sure your audience has an unobstructed view.


Your Next Crisis May Have Already Happened

November 7, 2017

by Dan Ward

Professional communicators realize the importance of a crisis communications plan, guiding companies and clients on how to maintain the timely and accurate flow of information in a crisis situation.

We plan for the things that might occur in the future that could affect our clients’ business … weather-related events, workplace accidents, etc.  But the allegations that have made for breaking news since the first Harvey Weinstein story was published point out the need for companies to plan for emerging crises that may have been smoldering for years.

Perhaps the best thing to have happened as a result of the Weinstein scandal (aside from putting a stop to his alleged predatory actions) is the creation of an environment in which many women (and some men) feel for the first time that they are safe to call attention to their own stories of harassment.  And though media stories have focused primarily on the entertainment realm because of the celebrity status of both the accused and the accusers, we should expect more allegations to be made public in the corporate world.

Those in charge of corporate communications for their companies and clients should be doing two things immediately:  1) connecting with HR to ensure that corporate policies for preventing and reporting harassment are up-to-date and that proper training is taking place; and, 2) updating crisis communications plans to account for potential harassment claims.

This can be a difficult discussion to have with the CEO, but it’s a critical discussion to lead.  As with any crisis, our job is to prepare for the worst even if we believe the chances are slim that the plan will ever be put into action.  Preparing a response to a potential harassment claim is not an admittance of guilt or a suggestion of impropriety.  It is simply proper planning.

I listed the conversation with HR first, because a company’s actions in a crisis are much more important than its message.  The lack of a harassment policy can itself lead to a crisis of reputation for your company, so it’s critical that you ensure a policy is indeed in place.  Is the policy clear in defining harassment and prescribing penalties?  Does your company provide training for both supervisors and employees?  Is the process for filing complaints clear, and are complaints taken seriously?

Don’t let your discomfort with an issue that has long been taboo keep you from making the right decisions for your company and clients.


Sticks and Stones

September 21, 2017

by Dan Ward

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

When and why did that rhyme I learned as a child warp into “sticks and stones should break the bones of those whose words might hurt me?”

A new study by The Brookings Institution shows that of 1,500 college students surveyed nationwide, an astounding 19 percent believe that violence – physical violence – is an appropriate response to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking.  Let that sink in.  One in five attending college in a country that is in many ways defined by its protection of speech believe that mere words should be met, and stopped, with violence.

A majority believe it is appropriate to stop hateful speech by shouting it down so the speaker cannot be heard, and a plurality believe that hate speech is NOT protected by the First Amendment.

How did we reach a point at which young people believe the response to speech with which they disagree is to force it to stop, with violence if necessary?

One of the things taught to me as a child, and reinforced in college, was that First Amendment protections are not extended only to those with “acceptable” viewpoints, but more importantly to those with whom we strongly disagree.

I realize times have changed and we live in a charged political environment, but I remember the conversations I had with friends and family as a young man, conversations in which we discussed the need to protect hateful speech, because doing so defines who we are and what makes us different.  Our willingness to tolerate hateful, horrible words is what sets us apart.  I can only hope we find our way back to having those kinds of conversations.

As communicators, it is our job to protect and preserve First Amendment rights, and to ensure that the next generation understands these rights. As a father, I want my children to be confronted with ideas and language they find disagreeable and even hurtful.  I want them to seek out this language.  And I want them to respond not with violence or shouts, but with better arguments.

The way to confront hateful speech is not sticks and stones.  We can only defeat hateful speech with reason, with conversation, with more speech.


Mistaken Identity

August 23, 2017

by Dan Ward

Have we lost our ever-loving minds?

When I first read that ESPN pulled a broadcaster from covering an upcoming University of Virginia football game in a decision tied to the events in Charlottesville, my reaction was “he must have said something horrible.”

Nope.  He didn’t say anything.

The broadcaster was pulled from the ESPN assignment “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”

Given his Chinese heritage, few would confuse ESPN’s Robert Lee with the Confederate General who died nearly 150 years ago.  But rather than trust in the intelligence of its viewers, ESPN pulled Lee from the game. To avoid what may have caused a few moments of discomfort, ESPN touched on a controversy that has it and its communications team on their heels.

In the wake of Charlottesville, we should certainly remind ourselves that what we say matters, that we should think before we speak, and that we should be mindful of the impact of our words.

But avoiding conversation is not the answer.  ESPN says it regrets that “who calls play by play for a football game has become an issue.”  They should regret making it an issue.


Citizen Journalists Are Always Ready – Are You?

May 5, 2017

by Dan Ward

In the aftermath of the United Airlines “re-accommodating” incident, we’ve seen more headlines about airlines acting badly, usually accompanied by grainy cellphone video shot by concerned passengers.

There’s blood in the water, and “citizen journalists” at airports around the country are at the ready to report on any misstep.

What happens when they leave the airport and point their cameras at your company?

Many organizations “media train” their corporate spokespersons and C-Suite executives (we prefer to call it message training, because the process works beyond the traditional media interview).  But how many are training their front-line staff, the people who interact with customers on a daily basis, and whose comments and actions will be recorded by citizen journalists as soon as anything goes wrong?

Front-line staff need to know that they work in an environment in which every action they take may be recorded and reported.  They need to understand how to communicate the company’s key message with every customer they meet, in the knowledge that their interactions may be published on a blog or podcast.  They need to understand that their actions and comments could mean the difference between a happy customer and a viral video that will cost revenue and jobs.

Are your employees ready?


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