Sunday, April 3

Making A Mountain Of Lies

It was no surprise to me to learn that scientists on the nuclear waste project in Nevada fabricated their quality assurance reports. As a junior in college, majoring in journalism, I wrote an article about the Yucca Mountain project in 1990. It was prompted by a comment made by one of the presenters at the first public forum held in Reno, Nev.

The presenter stated to a group of 50 residents that spent nuclear pellets were ''safe enough to hold in your hand.'' It was a lie, the first of what would later become a 15-year mountain of deception from the U. S. Department of Energy, an agency with a long track record of lies.

The newest batch of fabrications and cover-up tactics were recently released in a 90-page collection of e-mails uncovered by a subcommittee headed by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev. One e-mail highlighted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal states: ''I've made up the dates and names. ... If they need more proof I will be happy to make up more stuff.''

It's scary stuff to think people entrusted with the transportation and storage of deadly nuclear waste would lie. And it's equally scary to me that we continue to see a growing number of people — public figures and politicians — who seem grossly ignorant of how to remedy their own dishonesty. They should take the time to know. After all, it seems to me that most severe credibility damage is never the initial fabrication but in how truth is handled when it finally comes to light.

More often than not, modern liars will attempt to cover up the lie or somehow attempt to minimize it with invalid justifications. This flawed tactic leads to more lies, half-truths, or demands of privacy (usually to protect other lies that have yet to be uncovered), which inevitably leads to complete self-destruction. They eventually lose everything instead of simply taking responsibility for what is sometimes a much lighter infraction. The motivation, of course, is fear. Someone caught in a lie is afraid of the consequences so they will do anything and everything to cover it up, which only makes it worse.

The best remedy to prevent such a catastrophe is to make it a point to never lie. Ethics 101. Professional communicators engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding. The ''spin'' factor does not apply.

However, since we all know people are human and are often tempted to do the wrong thing, it might be helpful to know the only strategy that truly succeeds at remedying the wrong done to others by perpetuating lies. First and foremost, stop it. At some point, the lies have to stop or they and any cover up will consume your life until you won't even know who you are anymore.

Second, admit the mistake and the lie(s), recognizing your wrongdoing, and promptly correct any erroneous communication for which you are responsible. This is your one and only opportunity to come clean by providing full disclosure of any related misdeeds and lies. The smallest details matter. If you don't move to voluntary offer full disclosure, you risk losing even more credibility when related lies are uncovered (they always are) or in demanding partial secrecy (as the person asking for a second chance, you must give up your right to make demands).

Third, make a real effort to undo any damage caused. It is not enough to admit the mistake, demonstrate remorse, and promise to never do it again. Inevitably, when someone lies, people suffer. And even if no amount of positive action may ever truly heal the damage caused, it remains the burden of the liar to do everything possible to remedy or minimize the damage done to the people they hurt.

Fourth, volunteer to be transparent, forgoing secrets or privacy for some undefined period of time, which is usually dependent on the severity of the misdeed and the number of lies that followed. Open and honest communication is the only way to restore credibility and trust. If you make continued demands for privacy, it only reinforces the idea that you have more to hide from the people who suffered. In time, you may be trusted again.

Fifth, promise to never lie again (not only to the people you lied to, but to yourself), exonerate the victims (most lies and cover ups involve discrediting the victims), and always guide others to making better life choices. In short, let your example, provided it does not hurt or embarrass someone, help other people avoid making the same mistake.

It is almost never the error, but in how we handle the error that defines our character and public perception. So in the months ahead, it will be no surprise to me if some proponents of Yucca Mountain attempt to do exactly the opposite of what I outlined above. Most will be too afraid to attempt such a remedy. After all, they weren't brave enough to face the truth to begin with, which is exactly why they resorted to one lie, and then a mountain of them.

Tuesday, March 29

Transforming Blogs Into Business

I have a confession. Almost a year ago, my partner expressed an interest that left me unconvinced. She said that web logs (blogs) were going to have a lasting impact on the communication industry as we knew it.

At the time, less than 50 percent of Internet users had even heard of blogs, less than 10 percent read blogs, and less than 5 percent had any interest in creating a blog. I was skeptical, thinking that blogs would capture about as much attention as message boards. Still, despite my initial disbelief, I approved what became a yearlong study on the patterns, perceptions, potential, and business application of blogs.

It’s a good thing I did. In the short span of six months, blog readership has grown to include 30 percent of Internet users by November 2004 and is projected to reach 80 percent by November 2005. Blogging is not only here to stay, it is fast becoming the number one underutilized business communication tool today. So much so that when the International Association of Business Communicators/Las Vegas (IABC/Las Vegas) asked me to speak on what I thought was the most pressing communication topic today, I immediately knew it had to be about blogs and their impact on communication strategy. Here are some highlights of the presentation, which will be released later today by IABC/Las Vegas:

Communication Evolution: Transforming Blogs Into Business Strategy

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently welcoming Web log writers (bloggers) alongside mainstream media at news conferences in South Korea and Wired News warning that companies slow to embrace blogs will rapidly appear outdated or untrustworthy, communicators are learning that blogs are not a fleeting fad among online consumers. In fact, new research indicates that blog readers grew from 15 percent to 30 percent of Internet users from February to November 2004 and are likely to reach 80 percent this year. So no matter how you feel about them, web logs are influencing the public and the media about products, services, policies, daily operations, and a company's bottom line.

IABC/Las Vegas presents Richard Becker, ABC, president of Copywrite, Ink., in an exploration of blogs, blog myths and misunderstandings, their impact on communication, and the merits of integrating business blogs into any communication strategy. In addition to his role at Copywrite, Ink., Becker is an examiner for the IABC International Accreditation Board, appointed state commissioner and vice chair of the Nevada Commission for National & Community Service (AmeriCorps), and instructor for the public relations certificate program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The luncheon and presentation will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday, April 8, at the Las Vegas Country Club 3000 Joe W. Brown Drive. It is $23 per person for members and students, $28 for non-members. There is an additional $5 fee for walk-ins. No-shows will be billed. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

RSVP to cindy.herman@cityofhenderson.com by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6.

Thursday, March 24

Writing For Your Life

According to a recent survey by the College Board's National Commission on Writing, 33 percent of employees do not meet the minimum writing requirements for the jobs they currently hold. While the report falls short in suggesting that Americans write worse, it is apparent that the demand for better writing skills has spread to jobs that once were filled by employees who didn't have to know a verb from a noun, including electricians, engineers, and foremen.

"There's no way to say that writing has gotten worse," said Susan Traiman, director of the education initiative for the Business Roundtable, told The Associated Press (AP). "The demand has gotten greater."

Part of the reason is attributed to computers. Approximately 66 percent of all salaried workers in large U.S. companies have jobs that require at least some writing. Among the top writing problems for most employees: accuracy, clarity, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and conciseness.

The demand for writers continues to plague the communication industry as well. The frequency of errors has become so common that even American Idol was prompted to rerun an entire show after phone numbers were incorrectly displayed during the original show.

"Businesses are really crying out. They need to have people who write better," College Board President Gaston Caperton told the AP.

While more than half of all companies surveyed now say they assess writing skills when they make hiring and promotion decisions, most seem to settle for people with only adequate skills. The survey was done with 64 companies across six industries representing 4 million employees: mining; construction; manufacturing; transportation and utilities; services and finance; and insurance and real estate.

Tuesday, February 15

Putting Accuracy First

When I teach Writing for Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), one of the first lessons I share with my students is that great writing is accurate, clear, concise, human, and conspicuous. And there is a very good reason that accurate is at the front of the list.

Recently, Johnson & Johnson faced a lawsuit over its marketing campaign for Splenda, which is an artificial sweetener. Part of the campaign's success has been attributed to the copyline "Splenda No Calorie Sweetener is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Or is it? According to the Sugar Association, Splenda is an artificial chemical sweetener that does not contain sugar. It is made by converting sugar into no calorie, noncarbohydrate sweetener. The patented process selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms.

The Sugar Association says the marketing pitch does not accurately reflect the end product and is misleading because it gives the impression that Splenda contains natural sugar (and is a natural product). Possibly, but I'm not entirely convinced. Yes, Splenda's copyline might have been more precise had it said "Splenda No Calorie Sweetener starts with sugar so it tastes like sugar,” but to conclude it is a natural product that contains sugar based on the aforementioned copyline would require the reader to infer a message that does not exist.

Still, regardless of the outcome, this case demonstrates why accuracy is so important. It's never enough, even in advertising, to simply be clever. Unless, of course, your client does not mind the occasional lawsuit.

Sunday, February 6

Forgetting The First Amendment

This morning, I read a column by Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that shared some disturbing (but not so surprising) survey statistics that revealed how much 112,000 high school students valued the First Amendment.

After having the First Amendment read to them, 35 percent agreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" and 21 percent were undecided. Even more troubling, when asked whether newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story, only 24 percent of these students strongly agreed. Thirty two percent also concluded the press had too much freedom.

A year earlier, a similar survey was conducted among adults. Sixty five percent disagreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" yet only 48 percent strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story. While not much better, we could at least find some comfort in that a majority of Americans truly valued one of their most important Constitutional freedoms.

While one can only guess, there seem to be several reasons that the First Amendment is losing its luster. Among them: a growing mistrust of the media and its corporate owners, the increasing number of news stories that have been proven politicized or biased, the continuing number of inaccurate stories that are the result of journalists who sacrificed accuracy for expedience, and the ever-present emergence of less credible yet popular publishers who specialize in pushing the boundaries to the extreme. In short, the media is very often its own worst enemy in demonstrating its vital role in preserving our most basic freedoms for one reason or another.

Personally, I tend to subscribe to the theory that any abuse of the First Amendment tends to die in a day, while any restriction to the First Amendment will last generations, if not indefinitely. Unfortunately, I find myself in a shrinking minority, perhaps because my fellow citizens sometimes have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

They don't always understand that increased government scrutiny on the media would include increased government scrutiny on their individual thoughts, views, and opinions as well. Perhaps it is ignorance, but they don't seem to understand that the day they begin a website or blog is the day that they have effectively decided to become a publisher, subject to the same restrictions that might one day be placed upon the media. Second, and even more startling to me, they sometimes seem to think that the government (whether local, state, or federal) will always act responsibly and never do anything to undermine the freedoms we have been granted, especially the First Amendment. But then again, I know better.

A few years ago, I worked on now State Senator Bob Beers' first run for the state assembly. During the race, his campaign team published a direct mail piece that brought to light several lies being promoted by his opponent during the primary. Once the piece was published and mailed, his opponent filed a complaint with a state commission and this governmental body ruled that although the piece was factually accurate, Beers should be fined because, in sum, the commission did not like the presentation of the content. Right. Beers was literally fined for telling the truth, a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, Beers was exonerated and went on to win his first bid to serve in the legislature as an assemblyman. Last year, he was elected to the state senate. Coincidentally, we again faced a challenging primary from a 20-year incumbent who allowed his campaign team to publish countless misleading information and blatant lies about Beers. We decided, rather than file a complaint with a governmental entity, to employ an old-fashioned solution: the best way to remedy an abuse of the First Amendment is not by censoring the abuser, but by a candid, timely, and open discussion and presentation of the facts. In doing so, relatively few people were swayed by the opponent's misleading statements. Bob Beers won handily, and is currently representing his district as the clearest voice among fiscal conservatives and as vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

My point is simple enough. The First Amendment does not simply protect the media. It protects all of us. Value it. Preserve it. Protect it. Without it, we may very well one day have to apply for a license to publish something as simple as a blog post.

Tuesday, February 1

Adding Value With Philanthropy

Last week, I received a news release from a friend of mine at Bank of America announcing that the Bank of America Foundation gave more than $800,000 in financial support to 83 agencies in Nevada last year. Bank of America volunteers also logged more than 3,500 hours in the community. Nationwide, the company's foundation contributed more than $109.5 million in cash to nonprofit organizations.

Although Copywrite, Ink. is a small company in terms of size, we also formalized a corporate giving program a few years ago. In most cases, we provide nonprofit and professional organizations with in-kind communication services that greatly exceed any monetary contributions our company could allocate. Last year, we assisted 16 organizations by providing an in-kind services that were valued at more than 20 percent of our gross income. I mention this not to 'toot our own horn,' but to illustrate how even the smallest companies can develop beneficial giving programs.

The Bank of America release also reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago about business giving, which is still relevant today. I've included the article (featuring interviews with Microsoft, Salesforce.com, and the Business Community Investment Council) as a comment to this post with the hope that it might inspire a few ideas for small business owners. Our company has also assisted several companies in developing giving programs as part of their overall communication strategy. Enjoy.
 

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