Lee statue: propaganda in bronze

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.

What makes a ‘good story well told?’

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?

Communications chiefs need to be team players

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 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.

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