AARP Helping Caregivers


We work with the AARP in educating its membership about a wide range of topics, including this month’s article on how one California legislator is using her firsthand experience to help the millions who provide care to their aging loved ones. Please see it by clicking here.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown helps her husband, Hardy, with daily tasks. She is authoring legislation to help California caregivers.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown helps her husband, Hardy, with daily tasks. She is authoring legislation to help California caregivers.

Correcting Mistakes: Responding Quickly & Effectively

Urban Outfitters made a big mistake when it marketed this red-stained sweatshirt because it evoked the 1970s shootings on campus of Kent State students.

Urban Outfitters made a big mistake when it marketed this red-stained sweatshirt because it evoked the 1970s shootings on campus of Kent State students.

Credibility is a hard-won attribute in today’s fast-paced and multi-dimensional communications landscape. Thorough editing, fact checking and reviews by multiple levels of people within a company or organization will help guard against mistakes. But when they do happen, the challenge is retaining the organization’s credibility in handling the mistake. With a 24/7 news cycle, quick  but measured responses are essential to successfully navigating mistakes ranging from a mere gaffe to a major crisis.

The magnitude of the response depends on the magnitude of the  mistake. Once the magnitude of the mistake is determined, the responses vary, as follows:

  1. If it’s a simple mistake, a simple correction may be all you need. This could be an updated press release, a call to a reporter to correct misinformation or a Tweet or other social media post. The Detroit Free Press, for instance, accidentally used football coach John Harbaugh’s photo on a story about his brother, Jim Harbaugh, who is also a football coach. The editors won over Twitter followers by using humor in their correction. The paper posted a series of tweets, expressing its embarrassment and featuring short video clips, or GIFS, that showed a kid hitting himself in the head with a yo-yo and other characters embarrassed by their mistakes. The humorous approach won over followers, as USA Today reported here.
  2. More substantive mistakes require more substantive explanations. Avoiding defensiveness, taking responsibility and apologizing for the mistakes will help resolve the issue quickly and efficiently. This past year, for instance, Urban Outfitters came under fire for selling a red-stained vintage Kent State sweatshirt that evoked the 1970s student shootings on campus. The red stain appeared to be blood splatters. Urban Outfitters issued an apology, saying it never intended to “allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.”
  3. Serious mistakes that lead to loss of reputation and/or harm may require pro-active solutions. In addition to taking responsibility and apologizing, saying how it will avoid the same mistakes in the future will help a company or an organization recover its reputation and credibility. This past year, the National Football League’s handling of the domestic abuse case involving Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice demonstrates how failing to provide a pro-active remedy quickly can lead to more days of negative coverage than the story might otherwise get.

The NFL and the Ravens failed to adequately investigate the original abuse allegations and failed to pro-actively address their failings when the explosive video of Rice hitting his wife aired on TMZ and other media outlets. Moving quickly to admit their mistakes and outlining a pro-active NFL domestic abuse prevention program would have helped turn the tide of the coverage from their failings to their new determination to address one of the sport’s major problems.

What advice would you have for correcting mistakes?

Helping Rebuild: A Look Back on the 10th Anniversary of the World’s Worst Tsunami

The 2004 Asian tsunami swept this 75-foot fishing boat onto a two-story home. It remains there as a museum exhibit of the power of the tsunami.

The 2004 Asian tsunami swept this fishing boat onto a two-story home. It remains there as a museum exhibit of the power of the tsunami.

On the 10-year anniversary of the most deadly tsunami in recorded history, news outlets around the world are reporting today on the rebuilding and recovery of Banda Aceh, the Indonesian province hardest-hit by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Asia on the day after Christmas in 2004. More than 230,000 died in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. Our president, Laura Mecoy, led a relief mission to Banda Aceh region two years after the deadly tsunami.  Following are the stories she wrote about that trip for the Sacramento Bee and other news outlets:

Trips that Feed the Soul

First published December 2006, a year after our trip

Two years ago, the deadliest tsunami in recorded history ripped a 40-foot fishing boat from its moorings and deposited it on a house nearly half a mile away.

The homeowners have left the rusting vessel right where it landed — even though it prevents repairs to their house beneath it — because they consider this massive hulk to be a “gift from God.”

It became their refuge when a wall of water swept through their neighborhood early on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004. By their count, 57 people ages 4 months to 90 clambered aboard this modern-day Noah’s Ark and safely rode out a flood of biblical proportions.

“We just looked out and there it was,” Bsyariah, who goes by her first name as do many in the region, said through a translator. “It is a miracle.”

The aging matriarch invited me onto her porch to cool off from the work I was doing as one of five Southern California women using our vacations to help tsunami survivors.

We had arrived here worried about our safety and our reception in a Muslim stronghold that had been virtually closed to Americans before the disaster.

We left 10 days later, unharmed and uplifted by the generous hospitality of Bsyariah and others, their strength of spirit, and the good we saw coming out of this tragedy.

“To hear people say they were blessed to be here and for them to have an attitude of thankfulness was amazing,” said Marilynn Allain, one of the women I traveled with to Indonesia.

Banda Aceh, the provincial capital we visited at the northern tip of Sumatra, was the closest city to the epicenter of the 9.3-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunami two years ago.

Nearly 167,000 people died or went missing in Aceh province. A quarter of the population lost its livelihood, 500,000 lost their homes and 2,240 schools were destroyed.

Allain, Becky Grassl, Sheri Walsh, Cynthia Bates and I signed up to help them when our Manhattan Beach church, Journey of Faith, asked for volunteers to work with a Banda Aceh Christian relief organization.

But I almost canceled my trip when I read State Department warnings telling Americans to avoid Banda Aceh because of the possibility of terrorism and armed conflict.

Since 2002, the State Department reports, 248 people have died and scores more suffered injuries from terrorist bombs in Indonesia.

A brutal, 29-year civil war had taken an estimated 15,000 lives in Aceh province and kept out most of the rest of the world.

The tsunami brought peace to Aceh. But Aceh remains extremely conservative. It is the only Indonesian province where Shariah, or Islamic law, is enforced.

Before arriving here, we received stern warnings to be careful because Sharia prohibits — among other things — alcohol consumption and Christian evangelism.

We stayed with a missionary family in the Banda Aceh home of our host organization, Indonesia Bangkit Bersana.

The organization’s leaders insisted that an interpreter accompany us in public to avoid misunderstandings. It was a good thing because one man we encountered told our translator, Lydia Suharni, that he hates Westerners and Christians. He said he believes his Muslim leader’s teachings that the tsunami was God’s punishment for the Acehnese who adopted Western ways.

Our hosts also required us to wear traditional Muslim garb as a sign of respect. Even so, Acehnese men made rude comments, gestured and, in one case, followed us along the streets.

Seeing an American in person is still such a rarity here that people often shouted “bule,” their word for Westerners, when we passed by.

I had expected some unpleasant encounters. A Pew Research Poll conducted before the tsunami found just 15 percent of Indonesians had a positive opinion of the United States. But it also found that American aid is helping to turn the tide.

A year after the tsunami, the same polling organization found that 38 percent of Indonesians had a positive opinion of the United States and 79 percent said their view of America had improved because of the relief efforts.

By going there, we hoped to contribute to these changing attitudes while helping with the recovery.

“Instead of just hearing from their leaders what Americans are like and seeing it on TV, now they have actually seen Western people there,” said Grassl.

Many residents came out to watch us — the sweating, red-faced “bule” — working under a blazing sun to haul away buckets of muddy salt water and debris the tsunami had left in their neighbors’ wells.

Some of the women, like Bsyariah, took pity on us and invited us onto their porches to cool off. One family invited us to their housewarming party, and a few were so welcoming that they invited us to stay in their homes.

In another neighborhood, a group of 21 women showed up at a moment’s notice for a class we held on making braided rag rugs, an American skill that the women hope to turn into a home-based business.

At a kindergarten where we taught crafts and took photos to replace ones lost in the tsunami, the children thanked us with their highest sign of respect. They pressed the backs of our right hands to their lips and then to their foreheads.

In the remote village of Poroy, the principal and teachers took us on a picnic at their local waterfall as a thank-you for teaching them. The tsunami washed away the school building, killing 55 of its 98 students, the principal’s wife and one of his two sons. The principal, Abubakar, conveyed these facts without rancor and, like many others we met, expressed thankfulness for his survival.

“There was pain, but there was a glimmer there of hope and joy,” said Allain, a member of our team.

In one of Banda Aceh’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, a sad-eyed boy seemed only wistful as he recounted the decision by his family to ignore his warnings to flee the tsunami.

Syahrul Ramadhan said through a translator that he was at a friend’s house when he heard people yelling for their neighbors to run from the water. He ran home to tell his family and then fled to safety at a neighboring two-story house.

He said his family listened to his father, Ahapradul Umam, who urged them to stay at home. His mother, three sisters and two brothers died.

“I don’t know what they were thinking,” the 13-year-old said.

Umam, the only other member of the family to survive, said he doesn’t know how he managed to avoid drowning in the three waves that swept away his home and family. But he said he does know that God kept him alive to raise his one remaining child.

Two blocks away, Abdul Wahid, a father of three, showed no anger as he described his Job-like life since the tsunami. He lost his home, two rental houses and his job at a nearby fish market.

He and his wife were living in a refugee camp. Their children were two hours away in another village where they could attend school.

“I lost everything,” Wahid said through an interpreter. “But I feel God gave me a chance to live my life. It was such a blessing my family survived.”

He said he alerted his family and neighbors of the oncoming wall of water, and more than 100 took refuge on the roof and upper floors of the neighborhood’s tallest house.

The homeowner, Idaman Sembiring, and his family are Christians, while most of their neighbors are Muslim.

Despite decades of conflict between the two religions, the tsunami swept away their differences.

In April, the Sembiring family held a thanksgiving party to celebrate their survival and their return to their recently rebuilt home. They invited their Muslim neighbors and us to join them.

“It is a thanks to God for giving us life and a thanks to the people who care about me and my family,” said Eliyani Ginzing, the homeowner’s sister.

More than 95 percent of Aceh’s population is Muslim, and she said Christians often experienced discrimination before the tsunami. After the disaster, she said, Christians faced fewer problems.

The tsunami also brought peace to the politically unstable region for the first time in 29 years, and it opened the door to Westerners and Christian organizations for the first time in a generation.

Thousands of aid workers have come here, and people around the world have pledged $8.9 billion to rebuild the region better than it was before.

While much more must be done, I left Banda Aceh thankful for the mostly warm welcome we received, humbled by the strength of its people and inspired by the good that is coming out of tragedy.

I hope one day to return and find that the help we provided and the aid from around the world has made Aceh a better place than it was before the earth shook, the waters rose and a boat appeared on dry land.

Our team cleaning out wells

Sony Hack Attack, Part 2: More Ways to Avoid Damaging Communications


Email hacking Our recent post on the Sony hack attack generated a great deal of comment on LinkedIn, mostly from people who agreed that email should be treated more carefully. Most agreed with our contention that that “all communications should be professional. Being derisive, racist or sexist in comments not only opens us to litigation and damaging publicity – it’s just wrong.”

Commentators also provided some great ideas on avoiding private thoughts and conversations becoming public. Here is some of what they had to say:

Mel Hopkins, a storyteller and former broadcast journalist, says the one thing she learned as a broadcast journalist is your “mic is always hot.”

“It was that lesson that allowed for me to not so much safeguard what I say (or write for that matter) but rather (to) check the source of my contempt within and correct it,” she wrote. “Maybe that might be the first lesson in effective business communication. After all, we are adults.”

Paul Busch, who describes himself as an experienced sales and operations executive, says employees should realize that “email is a company resource and all materials are subject to review, sometimes by people that you think will never see what you are writing…Commonsense could have saved Sony some embarrassment, with or without the data breach.

Our friend, Steven J. Ibarra, JD, an executive consultant, said he always trained his students to “assume you are being photographed (or) recorded….there is no such thing as confidential communications, and to always assume you are talking to law enforcement.”

This is great advice, especially with everyone carrying a camera and tape recorder on their mobile devices. The proliferation of cameras has become an issue in sports clubs’ and other facilities’ dressing rooms, where privacy can easily be violated. With mobile devices nearby, private conversations also are easily recorded.

Chris Brooks, IT chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, warns that the “expectation of privacy is always going to be in question across the electronic mediums.” He also notes that “even phone calls are subject to monitoring.”

Cell phones, on which we increasingly rely, are notoriously vulnerable to hackers who can intercept and record conversations. As you may recall, phone-hacking scandals plagued the royal family and many others in Britain in the 1990s and early 2000s. The News of the World newspaper folded amid the controversy surrounding its role in hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.

Many commentators decried Sony’s lack of proper encryption and security on its email system – a topic the media has explored in some depth. Large corporations around the country and the world undoubtedly are re-examining their security protocols. So should employees. How many of us are truly good about changing passwords frequently and using unique passwords for each site or email account – if our company doesn’t force us to do so?

Updating passwords and avoiding the obvious ones helps avoid hacking. Deleting defunct email accounts also will avoid the embarrassment of reaching out to friends to urge them not to open files sent by hackers from an old email account.

Patrick Rardin, of Eagle Feather Enterprises, Inc., had the best new tip for managing email. He said that many email programs offer a delayed sending option for all outbound email. He has his set for a four-minute delay, and he says that delay “has saved me a lot! Additionally if your email message is heated in any way, save it to drafts and let it ‘rest’ as oftentimes a night’s sleep may change your reaction.”

We recently posted six commonsense rules for email that provides other email tips as well. Do you have any additional thoughts on how to guard against communications that can embarrass or harm your business and/or brand?

Lessons from Sony’s Hacked Emails


Avoiding e-mail snafus

The revelation of racially insensitive comments in emails written by Sony Pictures Entertainment co-Chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin provide another lesson in what not to do with our most frequently used form of communication.

Their comments, suggesting President Obama would only like African American-focused movies, came to light because of a cyberattack on Sony. While most of us will never be the subject of a cyberattack, litigation and email snafus can easily expose our innermost thoughts, tasteless jokes and other ill-advised comments to the very people we would never wish to see them.

With auto-completer, it’s easy to accidentally send an email to the wrong person. Email recipients also can forward – either accidentally or on purpose – an email to others who may find the original emailed comments offensive or demeaning in some way. Litigation or complaints filed by a subordinate or employee can require disclosure of emails. The emails of public employees and contractors for public entities can be made public through reporters’ and others’ freedom of information or public records requests. In these cases, deleted emails may even be retrieved.

We’ve provided six commonsense rules for email in a previous post, so we won’t revisit those. But the media firestorm surrounding Pascal’s and Rudin’s emails remind us all – once again – that all communications should be professional. Being derisive, racist or sexist in comments not only opens us to litigation and damaging publicity – it’s just wrong.

Even with the most professional of approaches, we can still make errors or simply convey the wrong tone. Here are three easy tips to avoid such email snafus:

Re-read the email with the recipients in mind: Reading the email’s contents before sending the email and trying to put yourself in the position of the recipients will help gauge how the contents and wording will be received by them. If the email is especially sensitive or you’re still concerned about the contents, asking a colleague or friend to read it will provide the outside eye that may be needed to fully assess the potential impact of the language used.

Enter the email address last: This helps avoid sending the email prematurely. It also helps ensure the promised attachments are indeed attached.

Use the phone: Even with emoticons, jokes can often fall flat in print. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Pick up a phone if you wish to make a quip to someone or say something you wouldn’t want others to see in print. Pascal and Rudin claimed they were joking in their exchanges. Both have apologized, but speculation is swirling that Pascal’s days are numbered at Sony.

Why are People so Bad at Pitching Stories to the Media?


Pitching stories to the media is a fine art. Most people have no idea what makes for a good story. We have a background in reporting. It helps us be more successful because we understand what makes a good story.

PR News created the following infographic, which details many of the tips for successful pitching.

media pitching infographic

Three Lessons from Bill Cosby’s Silence


NPR Coverage

Bill Cosby, once one of the most beloved TV sitcom fathers, tried to remain silent when decades-old allegations of rape and sexual assault resurfaced in the media on Saturday. But his silence reverberated through the media’s echo chamber, spreading more widely with each passing hour.

Cosby only shook his head and said nothing when first questioned by NPR reporter Scott Simon about allegations he drugged and sexually assaulted women in incidents dating back to the 1960s. His silence became the news in yet another indication of how “no comment” rarely works for public figures or public scandals in today’s 24/7 news cycle.

Fair or not, a no comment or silence in the face of damning allegations is often perceived as an admission of guilt. So what could Cosby have done instead? Here are three lessons from Cosby’s current crisis:

  1. Be prepared for the hard questions. Cosby and his wife were seeking publicity for the donation of some of their art collection to the Smithsonian. Seeking coverage of such positive news is likely to trigger some tough questions because reporters don’t want to serve as a celebrity’s PR machine. Moreover, the allegations surrounding Cosby’s past behavior had resurfaced when a video of a comic’s standup routine about the charges had gone viral. Cosby’s publicist should have known he could face some hard questions and had him ready to respond on NPR.
  2. Say what you can say. After Cosby’s silent response, his attorney issued a statement, saying: “Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.” Cosby could have provided an answer along these lines. The statement is missing the denial most would like to hear from Cosby. But it at least tells the audience that the allegations are extremely old, and it asserts they were discredited.
  3. Get the right answer the first time. You don’t want to have to backpedal and correct. That only gives the story longer legs as reports on the correction add another day of coverage. In Cosby’s case, a second statement appeared today on the website from his attorney and the attorney for one of the women who claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her. It said: “The statement released by Mr. Cosby’s attorney over the weekend was not intended to refer in any way to Andrea Constand. As previously reported, differences between Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand were resolved to the mutual satisfaction of Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand years ago. Neither Mr. Cosby nor Ms. Constand intends to comment further on the matter.”

After three days of reeling from the charges, Cosby and his team are starting to rally support, which is probably the best they can do at this point. Whoopi Goldberg spoke out for him today on “The View.” Other supporters will likely join the discussion, raising questions about the veracity of the allegations. But at least one of the women claiming he sexually assaulted her is making the talk show tours, and the ongoing debate will only increase the knowledge of the allegations at exactly the time Cosby and his wife were seeking to solidify their legacies as philanthropists.

What other lessons can be learned from Bill Cosby’s response to these allegations?

Honoring Veterans’ Sacrifices through Storytelling

President Reagan's words inscribed in the memorials at Pointe du Hoc.

President Reagan’s words inscribed in the memorials at Pointe du Hoc.

As we honor our veterans today for their many sacrifices for our liberty, we are reminded of one of the great storytellers of modern times and his ability to capture one of history’s greatest moments, the taking of Pointe du Hoc during the Battle of Normandy. Whether you liked his politics or not, you must acknowledge that the late President Ronald Reagan could capture the imagination and inspire the public through his storytelling skills, his masterful delivery and his sense of the moment.

The words he used to retell the story of Pointe du Hoc on the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy in 1984 were poetry. His delivery – with the aging “boys of Pointe du Hoc…the men who took the cliffs” seated before him – is etched in our memories. His speech is preserved in plaques at the memorial and in videos, such as this one.

President Reagan, of course, had the advantage of years of training as an actor. But watching him and listening to the words of this speech honoring the sacrifices of our veterans are good reminders of how powerful storytelling and presentation can inspire and influence us all.