COVID-19 Linked to Alien DNA

Fake News, Media Bias, and How to Protect Yourself

Be honest; you wouldn’t have clicked on this if the headline said it was a blog post on media literacy. I offer the following as a communications professional with more than two decades of experience in media and public relations. Please try this at home. 

The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has brought fresh attention to social media’s potential negative impacts on human behavior, in part through the proliferation of fake news and other tactics designed to manipulate and polarize the public. While outlets like Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to flag questionable content for its users, there are many simple things you can do to protect yourself from the intended consequences of fake news. 

What is Fake News?

To put it simply, fake news is made up, fictional, not true. Throughout history, real news stories have served to move public sentiment around specific issues or individuals. For example, coverage of the death of George Floyd during an arrest last summer in Minneapolis had a measurable impact on public sentiment around the issues of racial justice and policing. 

Fake news seeks to do that same kind of thing. Organized operations and individuals create and distribute fake news pieces, mostly on social media, to move public opinion. Examples from 2019 include fake news stories about U.S. Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez seeking to ban motorcycles and President Donald Trump’s father being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The goal is that people will see these stories as confirmation of their own beliefs and biases and will share them on social media without verifying their accuracy, thus proliferating the false narrative and moving public opinion accordingly.

Unfortunately, it works. 

The most effective fake news stories are shared millions of times, fomenting lies at a scale that would have been impossible before the advent of social media. In 2016, a fake news story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., prompted a man to go to the business with an assault rifle and open fire in an attempt to “rescue” the children. Fortunately, no one was injured. While the story was circulated in a clear attempt to damage Clinton’s presidential campaign, the effects resonate today, four years later, as the story continues to be shared and the owners of the pizzeria report on-going threatening phone calls and emails, harassment of employees, and vandalizing of the business’ vehicles. 

What is Not Fake News?

If a news story was generated by a real news organization, it is not fake news, in spite of the increasing tendency for some to refer to legitimate news outlets as the “fake news media.” A legitimate news story may contain inaccurate information or may be reported with bias, but that does not classify it as fake news. Media bias, of course, is very real; you can watch coverage of the same story by a variety of outlets and see an equal number of takes on the story, but that doesn’t mean the story is not real. Since the beginning of news coverage, outlets have exercised varying levels of bias, which manifests in what stories they choose to cover and how they choose to report them. 

Protecting yourself against media bias requires a little work but is far from impossible. As comforting as it is to get all your news from the outlet that puts your preferred slant on its coverage, becoming an active news consumer will help to provide a broader, more comprehensive look at the important stories. You don’t have to do with this with every story, but for the big ones, look at a sampling of coverage from different outlets, including overseas outlets. At that point, it’s easier to see that Outlet A focused on different details than Outlet B and Outlet C ignored some elements of the story altogether. 

The bottom line is that if we automatically discount everything reported by the mainstream news media, we will be in serious trouble. 

Protecting Yourself from Fake News
  • If you see a story that looks suspicious, don’t share it until you have verified its authenticity. If you start typing the words, “If this is real,” stop. 
  • Many fake news posts include a fake attribution, such as “NBC News Reports that Taylor Swift is a Robot.” If you see a suspicious story like this, go to the NBC News website and search for the story. If it is not there, it’s fake. 
  • Real news stories with a sensational bent typically draw the attention of large numbers of news outlets. If you see a provocative news story and it was reported only by some site you’ve never heard of and ignored by the known outlets, it is likely fake. This can be checked in seconds by putting some or all of the story headline into any search engine. 
  • Fact-checking websites like Snopes and Politifact are good at doing this research and rendering a verdict: true, false, or some mix of the two. They also provide links to their sources, so you don’t have to simply take their word for it.

In the same way that Netflix serves you content it thinks you will like, news sites and social media serve you news content they think you prefer. The effect of this is increased societal polarization and tribalism along ideological lines, which makes us more susceptible to fake news and media bias. It also means that our elected representatives are less likely to look beyond their bases when making important decisions. 

But studies have shown that when people are exposed to viewpoints outside of their comfort zones, they are more open to conflicting points of view and form a broader societal outlook, rather than simply demonizing those who disagree with them. 

The solution is not to simply turn off social media, though you could probably do with less of it. We can easily counter the worst effects of fake news and media bias by becoming smarter consumers of information and taking a few small steps. The internet and social media have made it easy for us to fall victim to these forces, but the same tools make it equally easy for us to fight back. 

Notes from the Void, Part 2

Run the Mile You’re In

I had to go for a run today. 

In my previous post, I referred to the void that is left when a person loses a job. Then, the job search process becomes the void. It is the dark, echoless expanse into which we send job applications and emails to HR reps. It is the space we occupy, wondering if we will ever find our way out again with meaningful employment that resembles our former position. 

It has been a gut-wrenching two days with three rejections from employers with whom I had interviewed, two of which I felt optimistic about. I needed the jolt of positive brain chemistry that comes from running, so as the afternoon set in, I changed into my running clothes, laced up my shoes, and headed out the door into the warm afternoon air. 

It has been 4 ½ months since my university communications director job ended, a casualty of budget cuts prompted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. I have applied for dozens of jobs since then and have had 12 or so interviews, including a flurry of four in a recent two-week period. For the first time in a while, I was feeling confident this would soon be over, then came the first rejection at the beginning of this week, and the second, and the third. 

In spite of the two active interviewing situations that were still in play, I felt in many ways like I was starting all over—an endless cycle of hope and disappointment, playing out over and over. 

I cruised through the neighborhoods, the sidewalk rolling along under my feet, and at about a mile I passed a house with a plain white yard sign out front with a simple message in large black letters: DON’T GIVE UP

The sign has been there since the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders this spring, but it took on special resonance for me today. I read the other side on the return trip: YOU ARE NOT ALONE

It’s true. My family, friends, and loved ones have been there since the beginning with support and encouragement. Also, a handful of people that I have worked with and some that I have known more casually have taken an active interest in my job search, providing connections and endorsements, even going so far as to call their contacts and offer up referrals on my behalf. 

After one such person, whom I’ve only worked with indirectly, offered up a glowing assessment of my abilities to a potential employer (and not for the first time), I told her that I deeply appreciated her interest and support of my job search. 

“I’ve been there,” she responded.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about this community, the job seekers, it is how supportive they are of each other, even when they aren’t job seekers anymore. 

I arrived back at home, drenched in sweat, kicked off my running shoes, stretched, and showered before getting back on the computer to check email, scroll through the job boards, and touch base with recruiters and contacts to let them know I’m still out there and available. 

In addition to the fact this experience has been like signing up for a 5K and discovering after starting that it was a marathon, it has shared more than a few things with running. A wise coach I know is fond of saying, “Run the mile you’re in.” Keep your focus where you are, and then run the next mile. The same is true with job hunting. Focus on today—the interview, the job applications—do the best you can and don’t obsess about a week or a month from now. Thinking too much about “what if” can only lead to more anxiety, as if there were not enough already.

To the void, I will say only this. 

I’m a distance runner. I’ve run through sweltering heat and stifling humidity, and I’ve run when the mercury didn’t even touch 10 degrees. I’ve run through injuries, and I finished a half marathon with my calf cramping up like someone was shoving an icepick into it—I got a personal record anyway. I’ve never quit a race. 

If you think you can intimidate me or make me give up, think again.  

Notes from the Void

Thoughts on moving forward after a job loss

When we come to the end of something that has occupied a piece of our lives, whether it be from a death, the end of a relationship, or graduation from school, a void remains where that thing used to be. The same is true of the end of a job, and the longer you served in that job, the bigger and more profound the void is, especially if the end of that job was not voluntary.

A little over two months ago, like millions of other Americans who lost employment, I learned that my 14-year PR and communications job at a local university was coming to an end. The culprit was dire enrollment projections due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the pandemic, I was working from home at the time and learned of this by video conference at 3 p.m. on a random Friday afternoon. 

After the call, I returned to the deadline email distribution project I was working on beforehand. It had to be done, and I wasn’t sure what else to do. I’ve been working since I was 17, and this was the first time I’ve lost a job. 

In the ensuing three weeks, I finished up some big projects I’d been working on and came to campus, where I accessed my empty and echoing office building and collected my belongings, mementos from a long tenure at the university. I was grateful for the solitude as I went about this task, glad that I did not have to do it with my colleagues nearby. 

I also began the process of trying to figure out the next step—updated the resume, enrolled in several job sites, notified my contacts of my availability, etc… 

Since then, I’ve assembled some thoughts on navigating the void that have helped me, though I still have my days when catastrophic thoughts take over my psyche. 

–Just like at the end of a relationship, the first impulse is to replace that job as quickly as possible with anything. I’ve applied for dozens of positions, but I would consider only a handful of them to be really good fits for me. We have to make money, which is where the urgency comes from, but try to focus your search on positions that you could easily picture yourself in. 

–This process is rejection-intensive. I used to tell my Applied Mass Comm—PR students that it is important not to take it personally when you don’t get an interview or when you do land an interview and they don’t select you. (I’ve had to remind myself of this one a lot.) I have hired enough people to know that the decisions on whom to interview and hire come down to some very minute factors. They are usually looking at large numbers of applicants, and I’ve told many people who would be perfect for a job that they did not get it. 

–All the rejection and the loss of your job have nothing to do with your value. 

–When applying, take the time to do it right. Write a cover letter specifically for that position, rather than repurposing the same one over and over. Truthfully, explain why you are applying and provide specific examples of how your background and skills address the duties and competencies outlined in the job description. If you are having trouble explaining why you are right for the job, you might not be. 

–This is even more true in an interview. Do your homework beforehand. The first question I would ask applicants is, “What can you tell me about this organization?” It was shocking how many people fumbled this question, sometimes even internal candidates. Even if they don’t ask that, going into the interview with a body of knowledge about the employer can only help you. After your interview, send a thank-you note and make sure they know you are interested in the job. 

–I’ve applied for dozens of jobs in the last 2 ½ months and have done six interviews. In between have been long stretches of maddening quiet, and this is when the doubts creep in. You can easily spend as much time looking for and applying for jobs as you did working in your old job. Of course, this is important, but also take some time to work on some things you want to do. Focus on yourself and the people that are close to you. 

–There is nothing wrong with taking a “bridge job” to get by in the interim. We do what we have to do to pay the bills. As you go, it does not hurt to touch base with your contacts so they know you’re still available.

I am reasonably confident, most of the time, that I will eventually wind up in a job that works for me. We will get through this, and it helps to know that virtually everyone you know is pulling for you. 

In the meantime, remember, there is life beyond the void. 

A Game of Catch—A Father’s Day Reflection

The week before Father’s Day, my 18-year-old son Nick and I went on a hike on a wooded trail in St. Charles County out to the Missouri River bluffs. Nick was diagnosed with autism when he started kindergarten after a four-year period during which it became increasingly clear he was not developing appropriately—delayed acquisition of language skills and other missed benchmarks were the primary indicators. 

While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more. 

We made our way through the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the flat forest path gave way to a series of climbs and descents. It was at times a challenging hike, but he didn’t complain. He never does. A lifetime of hard work in school without the level of communication and reading comprehension that his peers take for granted has prepared him for challenges. 

He walked behind me as we climbed up rocky ascents and crossed fallen trees and dry creek beds, and I could tell from the sound of his footsteps on timber or rock that he was copying my movements over these obstacles. I began to think of the things we take from our parents and pass along to our children. 

My love of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals undoubtedly started with my parents, as well as my tendency to yell at the TV during games. My daughter, Laura, now on the verge of 25, is herself a Cardinal fan, and Nick enjoys going to games as well. 

In the year following my divorce, not long after my mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s, I lived with my father and learned a number of his quick and easy meals during that time. Our favorite was penne noodles mixed with canned chili and marinara sauce. The dish took on the name Mosta-chili and later, courtesy of Nick, Monster Chili. Today, Monster Chili is in the regular rotation of our meals at home. Laura took it with her to college and hooked her roommates on it as well. 

Nick began running with me several years ago, and when he started high school, we asked him if he wanted to run cross country. Of course, he did. He embraces every challenge that comes his way. He competed with the team all four years, adding track and field in sophomore year, eventually becoming much faster than I ever was. He reveled in the company of his teammates, who embraced him as one of their own. After his senior season, he was awarded his team’s spirit award, which goes to the runner who best exemplifies the spirit of the team. 

In presenting the award, his coach said, “If everyone went through life with the attitude that Nick has, the world would be a better place.” 

The honor was not lost on him. He recently had to fill out a questionnaire which asked what one item he would take with him if his house were on fire. He selected his spirit trophy.

While I surely have an important role in teaching my children, through example and good old-fashioned advice, I learn from them almost as much, if not more. Laura, now an occupational therapist, a career she selected because of her brother, inspires me with her intelligence, her compassion, and the simple joy she derives from performing music and listening to it being performed. She makes a difference every day working with children who have been dealt a hand like the one her brother got. 

And Nick—he teaches me every day about courage, goodness, and hard work, not to mention the importance of living in the moment. Without my asking, he tells me when he is happy, and he tells me this a lot. I have never heard him say a mean or critical thing about anyone. 

Parenting is very much a two-way transaction in that manner, like a game of catch. We throw the ball to our kids, and then it comes back to us—back and forth, over and over, exactly like that. We are fools not to play along. 

Media Pitching in Interesting Times

In the current media landscape, we have a multitude of means to distribute messaging to our constituents, including email, texts, our websites, and a vast and growing array of social media platforms. Even so, pitching to mainstream media outlets is still an important part of any good communications strategy. 

Regardless of what is going on at the time, PR professionals need to honestly assess whether their story is relevant to the broader community.

Earned media placements allow us to reach a larger, broader audience than our more targeted efforts, and they serve to credibly reinforce what we put out to our followers on the web and social media. My initial plan for this post was to walk through the elements of a successful media pitch, but I’d like to frame that discussion instead in the context of the current situation—a global pandemic and a national discussion of racial justice. 

During normal times, a successful earned media strategy requires public relations professionals who know how to construct a strong release and, more importantly, understand the news media, what approaches will capture their attention, and how and when to distribute to them. PR professionals know the best times of day to pitch to broadcast media outlets, that Friday is generally a bad day to distribute a release, and that right after Christmas, media are hungry for stories that have nothing to do with Christmas, among other things. 

In that vein, distributing a release about an organizational announcement or achievement in the middle of a national catastrophe is ill-advised. The media’s attention, as well as the public’s, is elsewhere, so your chances of it getting picked up are small. 

What are you to do, then, when the national catastrophe goes on for months and is then joined by daily nationwide protests over the issues of race and police practices? The first question to ask when considering a media pitch is about relevance. Regardless of what is going on at the time, PR professionals need to honestly assess whether their story is relevant to the broader community or to more granular pieces of that community. This typically determines whether the media can be expected to pick it up and which media outlets to target. A story that is typically relevant becomes less so during times of crisis. 

Surely, some stories are so important they will always resonate, regardless of what is going on, but they are rare. That doesn’t mean you must go dark at times like this. In the midst of the pandemic, my previous employer, a local university, donated thousands of units of personal protective equipment to SSM Health to help address shortages of those items in the healthcare community. We wrote and pitched a release on it with pictures, and it was picked up by multiple news outlets in the St. Louis area, including three television stations. 

If you have stories that strike at some aspect of these larger issues, then by all means, send them out. Otherwise, take a quick scan of a couple major news sites; the number of stories you see that are unrelated to the big issues at hand is a good indicator of their openness to your release. 

In the meantime, don’t stop communicating directly with your constituents. They need to hear what you are doing in response to the pandemic, and they want to know where you stand with respect to support for the African-American community. It is no coincidence that many major brands and organizations have recently released statements supporting the black community and opposing racism. In fact, at this time, not releasing such a statement is itself a statement. 

Don’t worry. While I am not sure we will ever entirely return to what we used to consider “normal,” we will arrive at something similar to it, gradually. Until then, in the grand scheme of things, not being able to distribute your media releases in the manner you’re used to is a minor inconvenience. 

What are your thoughts on this? Please let me know what you think in the comments.

What is Your Story?

Everybody loves a good story. Stories compel us. They inspire us. They move us. They can prompt us to take action. 

In the communications industry, we spend a lot of time talking about branding, a broad term that encompasses everything from the look of an organization to its mission and philosophy. I like to think of branding as an organization’s story. Through advertising, promotional pieces, earned media placements, social media, and other means, communications professionals build that story.

Many things contribute to our story, including some we do not intend, such as negative news items, public controversies, and the like. My previous post on crisis communications addresses how to keep those things from defining our story. In this post, I’ll focus on how to use storytelling to build that narrative for our constituents. 

Let’s consider Subaru as a good example of a brand that has used storytelling to effectively build its image. We interact with Subaru primarily through its national advertising. Subaru’s tagline speaks not to quality, but love, and the company’s television advertising strings together a series of small narratives, often told in first-person, that explain how love implies attributes like quality, safety, and reliability. 

My favorite of these, “Making Memories,” depicts a father cleaning out his Subaru and removing items from under the seats that evoke memories of his young daughter riding in the car over the years. At the end of the commercial, we discover he is cleaning it to pass it along to the daughter—an act of love, made possible by Subaru’s reliability and longevity. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Subaru has also donated millions of meals for the needy. While this act has nothing to do with cars, the company has publicized it because it builds that broader story about the company philosophy and lends credibility to the rest of the Subaru’s marketing narrative. 

In our own organizations, as we craft taglines and marketing strategies, we should think comprehensively about what story they tell, and on the PR side we need to seek out real stories that build up that narrative. In short, reinforcing our story with organic content affords all-important authenticity. Conversely, we can spend all the money and creative energy we want to on flashy taglines and marketing assets, but if that story is contradicted by negative exposure and our constituents’ personal experiences, it will quickly backfire. 

In a well-executed marketing and PR strategy, organic stories that reinforce our marketing messages find a home on our websites (and hopefully also get picked up by media outlets). They also drive your social media posts, which expands the audience for that content and pushes traffic back to your website, building search engine optimization (which basically means that when people search for us or our category online, they see our content first or close to the top). 

Over time, visitors to your website’s news page should see in the stack of releases there a consistent representation of the story you are trying to tell with your marketing assets. More importantly, if your marketing and PR strategy is working well together, that story will be in your constituents’ heads, too. 

In Good Times and In Bad

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, there has been no shortage of negative storylines for businesses, schools, public figures, and other organizations. This has me thinking of principles of crisis communications in general.

Every organization or public figure can count on having to address a crisis communications situation at some point–that is a circumstance that has the potential to impact your brand in a negative way. Admitting this and planning beforehand is the first step in managing these circumstances. The following are some tips to navigate the perilous waters of a PR crisis.

Think about the crisis from the perspective of each of your key constituents: current and prospective customers, employees, board members, neighbors, outside groups, etc… Make a complete list of these constituent groups, so that when a crisis occurs, you can think clearly about how it lands among those groups.

This can help you to select the communications vehicles you will use to address the crisis, as not all groups consume information in the same way. Ask yourself what information they will want and provide the answers; if possible, create a web page or some other device with comprehensive information about the crisis. Draft specific messaging for your key constituents and send it directly to them.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are acknowledging their customers’ concerns and are sending out detailed messages indicating the measures they are taking to protect them. As noted, they also have placed this information in highly visible locations on their websites.

Some crises occur in the first place because an organization did not think about how a particular action would play for all groups and then finds itself responding to backlash from an audience it had not considered. In the era of social media, these reactions can quickly escalate. Ask yourself the hard questions so you are ready when those reactions occur, or reach out to those groups before going public with the action.

When bad news lands at your doorstep and the media come calling, don’t waste time on the illusion that you can simply wait for it to blow over. This can be tempting, especially with the ever-shrinking news cycle. To begin with, not responding to media requests takes no skill; it is also horribly ineffective. Even after the media stop calling, you still have your constituents to contend with.

Our job as public relations professionals is not to make a story go away. Assuming we have a reason for everything we do, our job is to make sure our point of view is out there on equal footing with the criticism that is being leveled at us.

“We (cut that program/closed that facility/cancelled that event) for the following reasons. Here are the numbers to support our decision. Our community is important to us, and here is what we are doing instead.”

Don’t surrender your side of the narrative.

Finally, if you did do something inappropriate, running from the story only prolongs the agony. Explain that you made a mistake, along with how that mistake occurred. Then, talk about how you are going to keep that from happening again. Suppose you cheated on your spouse. It’s bad either way, but is it worse for your spouse to find out from you or from a mutual friend?

This, of course, is a mere surface-level discussion of crisis communications. Here are the key take-aways:

  • Behave as if crises are inevitable and plan for them ahead of time.
  • Look at your activities from multiple perspectives and plan for all possible reactions.
  • Don’t run from a negative story; get your point of view out there.
  • If you do mess up, own it and tell how you are going to keep it from repeating.

I hope you find this helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or thoughts about any of this.

The Write Guy’s Blog

I’m Chris Duggan, and I’ve made my living as a professional communicator my entire adult life, including journalism, public relations, writing, editing, and marketing. I have run a newsroom, managed teams of marketing and communications personnel, and worked on my own as well. I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. My bachelor’s degree was in English (yes, I wanted to be a high school English teacher at the time), and I have two graduate degrees: a Master of Arts in mass communications and a Master of Fine Arts in writing.

In this blog, I will write about issues in the communications industry, such as communications technique and philosophy and media literacy. We’ll also touch on creative writing, a big passion of mine.

The way we consume information, possibly more than any other aspect of our lives, has changed dramatically over a short time with the advent of new technologies. With these advances in technology, the basic components of good compelling communication are no different.

We’ll discuss all this and more. Welcome.