Thursday, February 27, 2014

TV Viewer Advocates Could Learn from People-First Language

If you watch local TV news, you’re bound to see a viewer advocacy reporter.  This reporter is the kind of bulldog reporter you call when you’ve tried everything else and are getting nowhere.

Viewer advocacy is not only a great community service, but this kind of reporting is very good for ratings.  However, it can be a double-edged sword, because while some viewer advocacy reporters care about the people they cover, the main things they all care about are getting results, getting ratings … and getting credit for results and ratings.

With this in mind, the secret ingredient in the recipe for viewer advocacy success involves sensationalizing the victimhood status of the viewer being helped.   This kind of attention can be very humbling to the person in need of assistance, but often as not, the individual in a bind is willing to make the trade-off to have a TV reporter help resolve a specific problem.

I happened to see one of these viewer advocacy reports recently.  It was about a woman who uses a wheelchair who was getting nowhere with government bureaucracy.  It was one of those no-win situations where everything she had tried wasn’t working, so her last resort was to call a local TV consumer advocate.

To be sure, the TV bulldog came in and he did get resolution.

Case closed?  Not quite. 

The More Pitiful the “Victim” the Better 

In the course of the reporter’s story, he referred to the woman as “wheelchair-bound.”  Most people wouldn’t pick up on this as an issue.  But most people don’t find themselves using wheelchairs.  I would bet that a large number of people who use wheelchairs picked up on the unfortunate word choice.

The woman described herself as a “wheelchair user.”  She did not characterize herself as “wheelchair-bound” for good reason.

The woman’s use of the term “wheelchair user” is a sign that she subscribes to a mindset that is known as "people-first" language.  It’s not political correctness run amok.  It’s not a new set of disability-centered euphemisms that will quickly go out of style once a stigma attaches itself to trending terminology.

Rather, people-first language is a simple mindset that puts the person before the condition.  Structurally, it seeks consistency by placing the emphasis on all persons with disabilities as people first.  Then the necessary descriptor language follows.

Additional examples of people-first language would involve describing a woman with epilepsy as such, instead of labeling her an epileptic; or referring to a man with diabetes as such, rather than labeling him a diabetic.  People-first isn’t about finding the right labels, but rather it’s to eliminate labels.

Why is this important?

The old school style of describing this woman in the story I mentioned as “wheelchair-bound” portrays her as a prisoner of her chair.  In the reporter’s mind as reflected by his word choice, she was a victim long before the government penalized her.  When terms like this are commonly accepted and used, then the broad (even politically correct) assumption is that people in wheelchairs are victims each morning simply by taking their first breath of the day.  They are people to be pitied. Victims 24/7.

For some, the loss of dignity in this way is the higher cost of having a disability than having the disability itself.  People-first language seeks to avoid trapping people with words. 

The Reporter’s Take 

I had the chance to interact with the reporter after his story aired and asked him why he chose to describe her as “wheelchair-bound,” as opposed to following her lead by using people-first language.

As I expected, not only was he unaware of the people-first philosophy, but he rejected it outright on the basis that anyone who would take issue with his word choice isn’t seeing the big picture. That he’s a champion for the little guy so to speak (and the “wheelchair-bound” I presume).

His point was well made.  Still, helping those in need is not license to minimize those in need.  And that’s what people-first is all about.

There’s no harm in describing someone as a wheelchair user instead of “wheelchair-bound.”  It certainly doesn’t take any more time to say.  The problem for my reporter friend however is that “wheelchair user” may normalize perceptions of someone with a disability to the point where the news story itself may sound less dramatic, harder to hype, harder to sensationalize.

In the end, the reporter in this case indicated he had no intention of changing his ways, and he didn’t have to tell me why.  To draw viewers, he must be a hero.  To be a hero, he needs a victim.  The more he can paint the viewers he aids as helpless, the better he looks.  And that’s what matters.

My guess is this kind of thing will evolve, but probably only when more news directors, producers and anchors rely on wheelchairs or have some other form of disability. It will take that kind of change, I believe, before we see a noticeable shift in the normalization of the way people with disabilities are described in TV news reporting.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Do PR People follow AP Style?

The issue inevitably comes up almost any time a PR person writes a news release or some other form of content.  Style.  Or, writing style to be more specific.

One of the more common areas where this arises is when a PR person writes a news release and decides not to capitalize the title of the individuals mentioned in the news release.  Or the PR person decides to refer to the individual on second reference by last name only.  No first name.  No “Mr.” or “Ms.”
Usually these issues are settled quickly with a simple rationale.  “I’m following the AP Stylebook.”  

So what does this mean?

It means that most PR writing, even that developed for digital applications tends to follow journalistic roots, using the AP Stylebook as the arbiter for the full range of writing decisions.  Not only does this help the writer meet most audiences’ expectations for quality, but also, it helps to ensure consistency in all of the organization’s content.

By committing to a specific style of writing, no matter who authors the content, the organization is better enabled to speak professionally in one voice.

I haven’t seen a survey recently to know whether most PR people currently have an actual AP Stylebook in their offices and use them, or whether they picked up the style through osmosis, just imitating what they’ve read and perhaps have been taught in school.

Still, it’s hardly old-fashioned to have the reference nearby if you are in PR.  One sits on my desk for precisely those rare occasions when I run into something that’s atypical and requires a precedent.  Usually, when I need it, it ends up saving me a lot of time and wrangling over which way to go.

Does this mean we need to uncompromisingly adhere to AP Style?  That’s not my call for you, but I have to admit that there are some areas where I’m more likely to compromise than others.

 If the client wants to capitalize the title of a new “Human Resources Manager,” I’ll do it even though AP Style tends to lean against capitalizing it.  To me, it’s not a battle worth waging, and oftentimes, it actually helps in a news release to distinguish between a person’s proper title and other descriptive language in the document.

At the same time, I never use a person’s first name on second reference in a news release.  That’s not journalistic and is often perceived by editors and reporters as amateurish.

Yet, if the content under development is for a blog, a social media post or an internal memo, using the first name may be the best way to go throughout.  In that context, it’s less formal and more accessible for the audience.

Here are a few other guidelines from the AP Stylebook I tend to find helpful:

  • Percent – One word.  It takes a singular verb when standing alone or when a singular word follows an of construction.  The teacher said 60 percent was a failing grade…  It takes a plural verb when a plural word follows an of construction: He said 50 percent of the members were there.”  No matter what, AP Style does not use a “%” sign.
  •  That, which – Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.”
  •  Contractions – Contractions reflect informal speech and writing.  Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes many entries for contractions…Avoid excessive use of contractions.”  Duly noted.

And then there is one near and dear to my heart.  It’s the entry for “flack or flak.”  I’m sure someone at AP took some vengeful delight in including this one: “Flack is slang for press agent.  Flak is a type of anti-aircraft fire, hence figuratively a barrage of criticism.”

Whether you are charged with helping your organization face a barrage of criticism or not, I would highly recommend having the AP Stylebook nearby.  Since thanks to the Web and social media, everyone is a journalist today, it wouldn’t hurt to know some of the more common rules of style.

As one of my journalism professors once said to me, “To be a good writer, sometimes you need to bend the rules, but all good writers know which rules they are bending.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

Radio: A Communicator's First Love

When it comes to communications, my first love was radio.  I started by volunteering at my college radio station, which also happened to be an NPR affiliate – WDUQ-FM (now WESA-FM).  That volunteer work turned into a student job, and all the while, I was part of a group that experimented, made hugely embarrassing mistakes, and at various points did things that can only be explained by a comment from an old radio buddy, “We were too young to know we shouldn’t be able to do some things so we did them.”

Memento from a Campaign Stop
That might explain the first $40 I ever made in the business.  As a college sophomore, I attended a banquet during the 1980 primary race between Ronald Reagan  and George H.W. Bush where both candidates spoke at a little restaurant outside of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  I angled for a seat with the national press corps and badgered everyone who would give me the time of day with every question I could.  I’m sure the news veterans in the group met a guy like me in every town they visited.  But in fairness to all of them, they were patient with me that night.

Somewhere in the course of the dinner, a network reporter by the name of Garrick Utley couldn’t have looked more bored.  Political campaigns are like a traveling circus, and the press corps usually gets used to hearing the same speeches, same lines, same words over and over again.

That said, I was as plugged into the professional journalists in my midst as I was the candidates up on the dais.  So it was that I noticed that while Mr. Bush was speaking that I saw Mr. Utley lift his head with a look of surprise at what was being said at that moment. That was my cue that something unusual by news narrative standards was being said.

In fact, what Mr. Bush had said, and I had recorded, was that regardless of who won the Republican nomination, a Republican would win the election.  While not a concession speech, it marked the first time in the campaign that the man publicly left open the possibility that he might not beat Mr. Reagan, and that regardless, he’d support the ticket.

I knew what I had to do.  I gathered my tape recorder, microphone and notebook and prepared to get my sound bite.  When the formal speeches ended, the three media tables scrambled, with most charging towards Mr. Reagan.  I chose to get to Mr. Bush before anyone else.  Between the shoulders of Secret Service agents, I shoved a microphone towards Mr. Bush and asked him about his comments.  I was able to get him to repeat his statement, a little more crisply in less than 20 seconds.  Perfect.

From there, I wrote what in radio is called a wrap or a donut report where an intro leads into the sound bite, and then it is followed by a summary statement.  I put it together back at the studio and sent it to NPR as part of their overnight feed for the morning news.  The next day, my report was aired on the Morning Edition program, and a few weeks later, I got that $40 stringer check.  It was official, I was now a “professional communicator,” at least in my mind.

The radio bug had bitten me long before that moment, but it was then for me that it all came together and there was no question what I wanted to do.  I wanted to make a living in communications.

After my time at my college station, I went to a bubble-gum radio station and then to KDKA where I did radio and television production, which transitioned into advertising and then a career in PR.  But never have I ever completely forgotten those radio roots.

In radio, you learn to work quickly, meet deadlines that happen in minutes and hours, not days, write for the ear, and make your writing understandable to everyone at all literacy levels.  You learn to think more broadly than the written word, and that connecting with the audience is all that matters.

Since then, not only has my career evolved, but so has the media and the way people get and share information.  But here’s the thing.  Radio is still one of the most immediate and pervasive mediums for communication.  It’s accessible and as powerful as ever, in spite of competition from television, cable, iTunes, the Internet, social media, and smart phones.  And through it all, radio still finds a way.


It’s free.  It’s everywhere.  It’s simple. It’s interactive.  It complements every other channel.

Today, radio thrives with live sports and sports talk, news talk, various genres of music, and specialty programming that serves niche audiences with ethnic, religious and multi-cultural programming.  And it remains one of the more cost-effective mass media channels to operate.

Today’s radio landscape is much more formatted, formulaic and syndicated than the radio world I knew at the start of my career, but it has evolved quite well while maintaining its relevance.

On this Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate with my wife.  She’s the one who as my college sweetheart would stay up late at night to listen for me to play Motown songs that were secretly dedicated to her, and would spend her spare time on Saturdays hanging out with me at apple festivals and arts festivals during radio remote broadcasts.

But in the spirit of keeping this blog focused on communications, I would be remiss not to acknowledge my long-standing and never-ending affinity for radio.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Triage Model for Crisis Communications

Anyone with even the most casual interest in medical television shows or movies has heard the word “triage” bandied about at some point.  More often than not in an emergency room setting, or when the scene involves wartime action or if first-responders are at the site of some horrific event or natural disaster.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of medical care based on the patient’s condition.

Over the years, I’ve often thought of the triage model when looking at communications crises.  The analogy has worked for me.  The organization is the patient. The triggering event that caused the crisis is the equivalent to the medical event that put the patient into distress.  We, the crisis communications team, are the emergency room, each with something to contribute.

It must be noted that the crisis communications team is not made up only of communicators, just as a medical triage team is not made only of doctors. Each member has a role to play. So, just as an anesthesiologist has a role to play in triage response, so, too does the lawyer, the HR person or the operations chief on the crisis communications team.

So why triage?

A little more background may be necessary to make this analogy work.

Triage rations patient treatment efficiently when resources may not be sufficient to completely satisfy all of the most urgent needs at the time.  The linguistic origins of “triage” is rooted in the French verb “trier,” which means to separate or select.

When medical teams use triage, they are following a process to determine the order and priority of emergency care, the order and priority of emergency transportation, and even the destination to which the patient will go.

The heart of triage is the ability to immediately assess the most threatening risks and know the quickest and most efficient way to minimize those risks.  This ability or process manifests itself in levels of risk.  These levels are well-understood across the medical profession and helps responders know immediately what’s expected of them when they enter the picture.

When seconds matter, the common language and terminology of triage enables paramedics to quickly prep the emergency room staff while the patient is en route. Emergency room staff can effectively communicate with and prep surgical staff, and so on.

The Levels

At its most basic, triage tends to be broken down into three levels:

  • If the patient is likely to live, regardless of the care required.  This is the lowest-risk patient.
  • If the patient can benefit the most from immediate and urgent care, and stands a chance of making the biggest positive impact.  This is the high-risk patient who still has a chance to survive.
  • If the patient is likely to die, regardless of the care received.  This may be the highest-risk patient, but if responsible and proper diagnosis is made and still this patient is deemed unlikely to survive, then the difficult decision is made to apply medical rescue resources elsewhere.

Of course, the medical field has evolved over the years and triage is in practice much more complex than basing all decisions simplistically according to these terms.

Considerations may need to be made based on the wishes of the victims and their families if known.  And a good segment of triage decision-making today has to take into account what the latest medical technologies and treatments can accomplish and what the possible outcomes can be.

One of the more recent and common triage models is called START, or Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment.  So here are the priority levels:

·   Deceased – Victims who are not breathing and efforts to resuscitate have failed.

·   Immediate/Priority I – This is sometimes called “Code Red,” where evacuation by any means possible is required.  These victims need medical care in less than an hour. They may die without immediate assistance.

·   Delayed/Priority II – This is sometimes called “Code Yellow.”  Medical evacuation can be delayed until after all Code Red patients have been transported.  They require urgent medical assistance, but their current condition may be considered stable.

·   Minor/Priority III – This is called “Code Green.”  These individuals are not evacuated until all Code Red and Code Yellow victims have been transported.  They will likely not need advanced medical care, at least for a few hours, though they likely should be monitored for an unexpected worsening of their condition.

The Communications Triage

Typically, in crisis situations, while it’s easy to think of the entire organization as “the patient,” when applying a triage-style process, in fact it becomes the issues that make up the crisis that become individual patients.  Or perhaps key messages, departments or even geographies that can serve the role of patient.

For example, let’s say a company makes fax machines, along with other office products.  Yet, for some reason, the company was slow to give up on the manufacture of fax machines as communications technologies have advanced.  The fax machine division has drained company capital and resources.

Now it is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Using a triage model, the fax machine business is deceased and not worth spending valuable communications resources or energies.

But perhaps the plant where those machines were made has a work force of 100 people who can still cost-effectively make something else.  It may be worth considering some communication around company efforts to keep that operation alive with the proper retrofits.  Leave hope that either the company could continue to operate the facility or sell it.  Such an effort might require urgent attention, if not immediate.

Most likely what will require Code Red attention is the company’s stock price, which will show the most immediate damage if the company doesn’t do something to maintain some level of confidence on Wall Street.

Then, there may be that work horse division, the one that has carried the company through good times and bad – its photocopier division.  This may be Code Green, something to monitor, but more than likely it will survive intact once the company emerges from bankruptcy.

That’s a quick description of how the triage can be applied to crisis communications planning and response.  I know it scratches the surface, but as with any analogy, its purpose is to serve as a starting point for thinking. With that in mind, I’d love to know your thoughts on this.