One of my favorite lines from the television series “Mad Men” was “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Sadly, the protagonist, advertising executive Don Draper, delivered it in the context of defending one of the worst corporate travesties of my lifetime, the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Draper framed the act as creating something new, modern and clean. I’m sure commuters would disagree vehemently.

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21087404

Today, there is a real person named Donald who constantly changes the conversation. He occupies the Oval Office. Under investigation for possible campaign collusion with the Russian government and obstruction of justice, he condemns professional athletes for kneeling during the national anthem. Criticized over the pace of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, he attacks the mayor of San Juan, accusing her of “poor leadership. On Monday, with the country reeling from the news of the worst gun massacre in modern U.S. history, he had his press spokesperson deflect attention from gun law reform.

The tactic is known as “throwing a dead cat on the table” i.e. raising an issue so dramatic or shocking that it draws attention away from a more damaging topic. Google “Trump dead cat” and you get more than a million results.

Conservatives frequently deploy the tactic. Sarah Palin talked about “death panels” when opposing the Affordable Care Act. One of my Facebook friends sparked a lively debate when he posted an item criticizing San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz’s T-shirt. A Trump supporter said she was fair game since “liberals” attached the First Lady’s choice of shoes when she traveled to Texas with the President after Hurricane Harvey. Often the issues raised by dead cat throwers appeal to people’s fears and have racial under currents.

When I became as director of public relations of City College, I was given a charge to “change the conversation about City College.” I did that, but I deployed a very different approach. I produced and placed “good stories, well told” about what its faculty and students were doing, and their impact on the greater community.

Instead of talking about faded glory, controversial professors and remedial classes; people began to speak of high-achieving students, transformative gifts from alumni and cutting-edge research. Enrollment grew by one third, SAT scores for entering freshmen rose 150 points, and the college raised more than a half billion dollars from proud alumni and other donors. We not only appealed to our base of faithful alumni, but made new fans, as well, as evidenced by the rise in applications and contributions.

Although it may seem at times that our country has gone mad, the challenge is to rise above it. Like Michelle Obama said: “when they go low we go high.” If you have a good story, tell it, tell it well and keep on telling it so that the people you want to reach hear it instead of what your detractors are saying.

At City College, I was fortunate to work with many prominent research-active scientists and engineers in a wide range of fields. Many were great sources of story ideas we could use to publicize the college as well as their work. Others, however, were publicity-shy, and concerned only with getting published in the relevant journals.

I met recently with a former colleague who, in the role of devil’s advocate, raised the issue: why should researchers publicize their work? After all, reviewers don’t take newspaper clippings into account when evaluating a grant. Here are 10 good reasons why, even if publicity doesn’t lead to more financial support.

  1. Visibility  Having a wider audience increases an investigator’s visibility in his or her field. It can lead to more citations, opportunities to speak at conferences and exposure to potential collaborators, in turn raising the investigator’s prominence in the field.
  2. Rankings  Research is a factor in many university rankings. Higher ranked institutions will attract more and better applicants. This could potentially increase the supply of graduate students who can become research assistants.
  3. Expert Status  Journalists constantly seek experts who can help them understand the topics they cover. Since research, especially fundamental research, advances knowledge in a field, active investigators are sought out because they work on the frontiers of knowledge.
  4. Campus Collaboration  Professors often know little knowledge about what colleagues outside their department do. Publicizing research findings to the college community builds awareness for what peers are doing. This can, in turn, promote interdisciplinary collaboration, especially when two or more professors are investigating the same subject from the perspectives of their respective disciplines.
  5. Community Relations  Similarly, members of the surrounding community often are not aware of an institution’s research role. Promoting that college faculty are actively investigating everything from climate change to human and animal behavior to finding cures for cancer portrays the institution in a more positive light and can improve town-gown relations.
  6. Enrollment  Research stories can reach prospective students, both graduate and undergraduate.  They can help familiarize them with an institution’s faculty and their work and influence where they apply.
  7. Promote STEM  The shortage of students in the STEM disciplines is a longstanding issue in the United States. Articles in the popular press about research investigations and other content can expose students to creative career opportunities they might not have otherwise considered. This can lead to more students becoming STEM majors.
  8. Knowledge Sharing  The wider the dissemination of information on a significant development the more people become aware of it. In turn, other researchers can use that discovery as a starting point for additional investigations, accelerating the advancement of knowledge.
  9. Public Awareness  Science communicators like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku and Bill Nye are popularizing science, helping to increase public awareness and interest.  At the same time that investigators are advancing knowledge, they can generate public interest and support for in their work, especially when it directly impacts people’s lives. Public support can translate into political support at a time when government funding for research is threatened.
  10. You Never Know  Corporations are constantly looking for new product ideas, ways to improve existing products and make their manufacturing processes run better. A well-placed story in front of the right person could lead to a lucrative licensing deal.

Research is a fertile ground for story ideas at a college, university or teaching hospital. It not only helps build an institution’s brand, but positions it on the front lines of discovery. And, it helps people see institutions in a different light, where academics not only train students, but advance knowledge in areas that impact their lives.

Five years ago, my wife and I visited Charlottesville, Va. It’s a lovely little city as well as the home of one of our finest colleges, the University of Virginia. I thought Charlottesville could be a nice place to retire.

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Statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. For some it is to be revered. For others reviled.

Among the sights we saw was a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee riding his famed horse, Traveler. The sculptor created a beautiful depiction of the Confederate military leader, who cut a striking, majestic figure atop the pedestal upon which the statue rests. At the time, I thought little of it, since statues of General Lee and other monuments to Confederates are common throughout the South.

Fast forward five years. The statue has become a flashpoint ever since the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove it. White supremacists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis have come to Charlottesville to demand the statue stay put and to rally on behalf of racism and intolerance. The most recent protests, this past weekend, led to three deaths and gripped the national conversation, especially after the President voiced sympathy with the organizers of the rally.

What I did not know, and learned in the course of following the controversy, was that the Confederate statues were more than just a memorial. They were part of a concerted effort to whitewash the sins of the South and promote white supremacy, no pun intended. These figures, erected in parks and in front of courthouses, ascribed heroic qualities to those who fought for the “Lost Cause,” but made no mention of what that Lost Cause was.

When the Civil War began, the South framed the dispute as an argument over states’ rights. The North fought to keep the Union indivisible. It wasn’t until President Lincoln made the war about eradicating slavery that the tide turned.

The rebellion continued after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and the Confederacy was disbanded, however.  Local militias fought with freed former slaves and occupying Union forces. The old guard eventually regained control of state and local governments as the northern soldiers withdrew; and they imposed “Jim Crow” segregation in everything from schools to railroad cars to drinking fountains. They also looked the other way as the KKK and lynch mobs terrorized African Americans and their supporters. The purpose: keeping white supremacy embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the South.

In a similar vein, the Nazis used propaganda to glorify the German people as the master race and to denigrate those they considered inferior, especially Jews. The effort to annihilate the Jewish people through the concentration camp system did not manifest itself in the early years of the Third Reich. Rather, the Nazis ratcheted up the pressure gradually by imposing increasingly tougher restrictions and using stronger rhetoric. Eventually, many Germans viewed their Jewish neighbors as less than human.

Thus, it was disturbing to see the intersectionality of racism and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville, even though this is not a new phenomenon. Even more troubling were the President’s statements, which one day condemned the bigotry seen in Charlottesville and walked back that position the next.

Propaganda and public relations are often confused in the public mind. While both attempt to change peoples’ thinking, the difference comes from the truthfulness of the messages. A public relations practitioner’s reputation rests on his or her credibility. I don’t see much of a future pushing “alternative facts,” and I like going to bed knowing that I did my job honestly.

The musical “Hamilton” ends with the company asking “who tells your story?” Whoever it is, make sure they tell it right.

Mark Twain said “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” Who doesn’t like a good story well told? J.K. Rowling turned the story of British school children with magical powers into a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. When one of my first editors was pleased with an article my colleagues or I wrote for the newspaper he’d exclaim: “That’s a hell of a damn story.”

Too often, however, the public relations and corporate communications arenas are filled with stories that are dull, confusing or written in language only persons with advanced degrees could comprehend. They read as if the writer didn’t want you to grasp his message or he/she buried the news on the third page of the press release.

I take pride in producing good stories well and making complex topics accessible to different stakeholders. I put technical jargon into the layman’s language and strive to keep my sentences and paragraphs brief by editing out unnecessary verbiage.

But that’s not enough. A story needs to resonate with the reader, especially when that reader is a journalist. Within a split second he or she will decide whether to open or delete an email based on the subject line and, perhaps, a few lines of the lead paragraph. So, strong headlines are a must, as is compelling content. Here are a few devices to hook your audience.

Human Interest           The student body at City College of New York consists largely of young men and women from New York’s immigrant and working class families. Many are the first in their families to attend college. They persist to graduation despite juggling job and family responsibilities, and often they have overcome adversity. Their stories touch the heart and open the wallets of generous alumni.

An example is Lev Sviridov, who lived with his mother in a tent under the George Washington Bridge when he came to New York from Russia. Lev was an outstanding student and researcher who would become City College’s first Rhodes Scholar since before World War II.

One year we sent out a simple media pitch about two other high-achieving students who received doctoral fellowships from prestigious universities and had compelling human interest stories. The New York Post bit and ran a full-page feature with the headline “They’re Back! Best and Brightest Fuel CCNY Revival.” That’s quite a turnaround from a newspaper that a few years earlier was treating City College as a whipping boy.

We later institutionalized stories like these by creating a web site called Great Grads. It featured profiles of a dozen or so members of the graduating class from across the campus. The chosen students weren’t just high achievers. Many had great human interest stories, too. We promoted the site through social media (Facebook, Twitter) and received an excellent response. Great Grads became an annual project. The development office re-purposed the content as a journal and posters for a fundraising gala. They also invited the Great Grads to attend the dinner and sit among the alums.

Relevance           Readers need to relate to a story. It has to be about something they care about. A professor could be a terrific researcher or teacher, but often interest in his or her work is, unfortunately, confined largely to his or her field of expertise.

That wasn’t the case for Teresa Bandosz, a City College chemist who researched the odor-adsorbing properties of carbons. Professor Bandosz discovered that sludge pellets heated to high temperatures and converted to charcoal could reduce the odors emitted at sewage treatment plants. This held out the possibility of relief for New Yorkers who lived near the plants. Both The New York Times and Daily News ran stories about her work.

Timeliness           “Strike while the iron is hot.” The best time to put out a story is when it offers a fresh perspective on something people are already talking about. Such was the case with a story we issued in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy about landscape architecture Professor Catherine Seavitt’s research on use of soft infrastructure to protect against coastal flooding and storm surges. She and colleagues had published the research two years earlier, and suddenly it became topical. The story was picked up by several websites, including Business Insider and World Landscape Architect.

Graphics           We all know “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Some images remain etched in our memories. Good photos, illustrations, charts and graph enhance stories and help readers grasp the content. I’ll discuss what makes for good art another time. However, being able to provide supporting materials, including video, increases the chances a story will get picked up.

Sometimes, however, a good writer can paint a picture just by using keystrokes as his or her medium and a computer screen for a canvass. Such was the case with a reporter for the Greenville News who wrote a feature story about a pig farm. It ran on the front page of the Sunday edition without accompanying photos. It didn’t need any. The writer put the picture in the readers’ minds. It was a hell of a damn story.

Numbers           To be newsworthy, something has to be the first, the fastest or the biggest. To earn one of these accolades it needs to be quantified. Numbers are news. Colleges and universities are ranked by academic standing; research expenditures, acceptance rates and the prowess of their athletic teams. Those rankings get reported and shared widely. In the investment banking world, the league tables were watched religiously as bankers vied to be listed number one in underwriting debt or equity.

The numbers aren’t always readily apparent. One client wanted me to publicize his business producing telethons to sell cable TV. I asked how many units he had sold. He wasn’t sure. Then I asked whether we could say truthfully he was at or near his one millionth sale. That became our hook, and it resulted in a nice feature in one of the cable trade magazines.

No matter whether you’re trying to place a story in The New York Times, sharing via social media or writing for a newsletter or website seen by your best customers, the content needs to be well written and hook the reader. You are competing for their time and attention. Make sure it is time well spent. What else have you done to hook your audience?

Like him or not, the current President of the United States is an excellent communicator, IMHO, even though I wouldn’t emulate his style. After all, 35 million followers on Twitter can’t be wrong.

However, he’s a poor manager, as evidenced by Anthony Scaramucci’s tumultuous 10 days as director of communications. The “Mooch’s” brief tenure makes the nine months I spent in my first communications director job seem like a lifetime in comparison.

Clearly, Scaramucci was the wrong person for the wrong job. Although he made a fortune in the hedge fund business and was charismatic, he lacked the experience and skills set for the role. It clearly showed. His rough-and-tumble style may work in the deal-driven environment of Wall Street, but it did not fit on the national stage of public affairs.

My own transition from editor of a trade magazine to director of communications for a trade association did not go the way I had hoped. My perception on the role was shaped by the interactions I had with hundreds of public relations and communications professionals over my career as a reporter and editor. I viewed media relations as their main role.

How little I knew? My new job included member communications, producing marketing tools for the industry and promoting the organization’s main event, an annual conference. I also had to contend with a difficult boss who thought of himself as a good communicator but couldn’t be clear with staffers about what he wanted.  He had gone through five communications directors before me in just seven years .

What I learned, but Scaramucci apparently did not, was that the job isn’t about you. It’s about your employer or client and, especially, its leader. It’s also about being part of a team of equals whom you want to have your back even while everyone may be jockeying for position. The President’s new chief of staff recognized Scaramucci wasn’t a team player so he got rid of him.

Communications is a critical to leadership, but not every leader is a great communicator, and vice versa. Even when leaders know how to communicate, their time is often spread too thin to be effective. A communications advisor who gets what his or her client is trying to say and can develop messaging and a communications strategy around it that resonates with diverse stakeholders is as important to an organization as a good lawyer or accountant.