You're the CEO. There's an environmental crisis. What do you do?

Let’s say you’re the CEO of Wolverine Worldwide. Your company has a 130-year history of shoemaking. Your brands are well known – Sperry, Keds, Saucony, Stride Rite and licensed names like Cat and Harley-Davidson, among others.

Today you woke up to a New York Times article that essentially blames Wolverine for an environmental crisis near its western Michigan headquarters.

The story has been gaining traction for some time but really took off this year when tainted water was discovered near your former tannery. The gist is that the old tannery allegedly had dumped scraps, sludge and toxic substances for many years in the area, polluting the local water supply with PFAS, a group of manmade chemicals linked to health problems potentially including cancer.

The New York Times coverage changes everything. It magnifies the heat on Wolverine exponentially. Media attention will increase massively. It won’t be long until the social media arena explodes. There will be calls for boycotts. Elected officials will engage. Partners like Cat and Harley-Davidson are protective of their brands and will demand answers. Investors will be nervous. The list goes on.

As the CEO, your already rocky road ahead just became a mine field. What’s your next move? How do you respond to the NYT article? What do you communicate and to whom?

Since no one like a 50,000-word blog, let’s look at some especially pressing needs.

Take the Wolverine Worldwide website, for example. On the plus side, the site devotes its “Environment” page to the dumping situation. Of course, the word “dumping” is nowhere to be found, as you’d expect.

But the tone of the page is cold and corporate. Probably because it was written mostly by the C-suite and heavily massaged by a squadron of lawyers concerned solely with liability. Empathy and anything remotely human are totally absent. Here’s a key piece of text from the page:

“Wolverine has established We Are Wolverine, a blog that allows us to create a regular cadence of information and maintain transparency with residents in our hometown. This blog is updated regularly and is a recommended resource for the latest information on our current environmental matters.”

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No real person talks that way. “Regular cadence of information” -- seriously? And “environmental matters” is such an obvious attempt to gloss over the ugly reality of what that phrase really means. You can imagine someone making air quotes with their fingers while speaking the phrase “environmental matters.” Ditto for the phrase, “the situation,” used a little lower on the same page.

Words and phrases like these, which say virtually nothing, are patronizing. They likely make those dealing with “situations” and “matters” in the neighborhoods near Wolverine feel suspicious and angry. By fueling suspicion and anger this way, Wolverine is only energizing their outrage.

So, as CEO, you need the company to sound more human. More empathy, less corporate non-communication.

If the presidential election of 2016 proved anything, it’s that people are sick and tired of overly sanitized talking points. They’re onto that game and they now demand honest, frank, genuine communications. Just as true for consumer products as for politicians.

A more relatable tone shouldn’t be limited to the website. It should be baked into public appearances, news media interviews, social media, etc. The key messaging (those pesky talking points again) also should be more human in tone and substance.

Real humans don’t say things like “cadence of information.” They say, “Look, we live here, too, and we’re sincerely trying to sort everything out and make things better. Let me tell you what we’re doing about that, and tell me what’s on your mind, too.”

In short, the company doesn’t need to sound like a faceless corporation. It needs to sound like a person. A person who cares. A person who honestly wants to do the right thing.

Oh, the lawyers won’t agree. For them the only thing that matters is exposure. Each phrase, word and punctuation mark is reviewed with the only concern being whether it increases or reduces exposure to liability and legal action. That’s a legitimate priority, without a doubt. It’s almost certainly the reason for the icy language on Wolverine’s website.

What it cannot, must not be is the only priority. Every stakeholder in Wolverine’s orbit needs to know – really know – that the company genuinely cares, has a soul, and will do whatever it takes to make things right. If the lawyers have total control of words and tone, that’s not going to happen, and the suspicions and anger will grow quickly.

Eric Whittington

Recognition of our national media work

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We recently received a Gold Award from the Association of Marketing and Communications Professionals. The AMCP judges recognized the value in our work to secure a high-profile, ongoing American City Business Journals column for a client in the financial services market. 

That project required hard work and persistence. We had to identify the appropriate editor at American City to contact to discuss our idea for a column. We had to convince our client to devote time to the column on a consistent basis, generate ideas for compelling topics to cover, and research and draft the columns. 

But it was time well spent for us and our client firm. The payoff for our labors was nationwide earned media visibility among business professionals and a spotlight on our client's brand based on their legitimate expertise and knowledge. 

We're honored to have been recognized by our peers and proud of the work we do to help our clients succeed.

Eric Whittington

Writing op-eds that editors want to publish

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Editors tell us what works and what doesn’t

For years we’ve helped clients advocate their points of view through the time-honored tradition of the op-ed, which is news media lingo for “opposite editorial,” referring to the page next to the editorial page of a traditional printed newspaper.

Today those op-eds are, of course, online as well as in print. And civic leaders, public officials, influencers and community-minded people of all stripes still read them. The op-ed, which generally means any opinion article not written by the publication’s own staff or a columnist, remains an important player in the never-ending game of public policy debate.

Writing and publishing an op-ed with impact isn’t the hardest thing in the world to do well. But it does require some skill and a healthy understanding of what editors are looking for.

We know this because we’ve written dozens of them that editors across the country have seen fit to publish under the names of our clients. Our words, advocating our clients’ viewpoints, have run in all of Texas’ major metropolitan newspapers and in large and small newspapers and websites across the fruited plain. These pearls of wisdom have touched on subjects as diverse as good citizenship, healthcare, taxes, urban planning and education to name a few.

Once in a blue moon we even write one with our own name on it. But usually we’re hired guns.

Though we know a thing or two about advocacy and writing op-eds that get published, we recently reached out to several opinion editors across Texas to ask two things: First, roughly what percentage of the op-eds they receive wind up being published?  And second, what are the most common reasons for rejecting an op-ed?

We weren’t shocked at the answers. After all, we operate in this space a lot.

The first question about how many submitted articles make it to publication produced the most eye-opening answer: Most.  

That’s good news for anyone who wants to write their opinions and have major news outlets publish them. We definitely got the feeling the editors want to publish the submissions they receive.

“We run the majority of them,” said one. “Maybe 60-70 percent,” said another.

But it’s not all love and sunshine.  “Some days, they’re all great. On some other days, nothing in the inbox appears worth publishing,” said one editor. “We can get most, but not all, into readable shape,” another commented.

START WITH GOOD WRITING

And what, pray tell, might make an article un-publishable? One answer jumped to the top of the list from every editor who responded -- bad writing.

Telling someone they’re a poor writer is like telling them they’re ugly. It’s personal. Everyone wants to think they’re a good writer, good driver, good neighbor and all-around good person. But the hard truth is not everyone is good at writing, at least not at the level required by serious news organizations. (Sadly, most folks aren’t good drivers, either.)

To get over the biggest hurdle in your way as an opinion writer, the first priority has to be writing well. Meaning you need to be able to write like a professional.  Not like a Pulitzer Prize winner, but better than probably 90 percent of the population.

Get some objective feedback on your writing from someone with some serious writing credentials. If you don’t have the writing chops, pay someone who does.

Once you submit your article, it’s also important to accept editing help. If you submit the piece to a major news organization, chances are good their editors are first-rate writers. They won’t try to change the meaning of your writing, but if needed they will work to polish it and make it more readable. You’re getting professional help for free. You should accept it. Good writers know that everybody needs an editor.

BE CURRENT

Another common theme we heard from editors – timeliness. Your topic and your point need to relate to current issues in the news. You’re not likely to get any traction if you write about something that was a hot topic three years ago but is not on the public’s radar today. Or if you opine about an issue expected to be white-hot five years from now.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

Writing quality and timeliness are essential, but editors have other concerns, too.  Here are some:

Word count. Too short or too long, your piece is doomed either way. Take the time to find out how long any media outlet you are targeting wants its op-eds to be. A common number is around 600 words. But it’s not universal. Find out before you start writing.

Self-promotion. This is an easy way to kill your article. Avoid phrases that make the piece sound like an advertisement, such as “Call us at 555-5555,” “My organization is the best in the business,” or “We should win this contract because.”  Don't write in the first person. Be an expert, not a huckster.

Local focus. If your target is a major newspaper, you’re likely to have a better chance of publication if you focus on a local issue. Don’t submit a piece to the Houston Chronicle about a healthcare issue in Denver. It also helps if you have a local presence in the city as most editors prefer submissions from locally-based writers.

Facts. Back up your argument with facts and data, and cite your sources. If the editor can’t confirm your facts, your piece probably will be canned.

Cussing. Go ahead and call your mayor a no-good expletive when you’re at a bar with friends. Just don’t do it in your op-ed.  Several editors mentioned this, so it seems to be a common problem, dammit.

Op-eds remain an important part of the mix when it comes to advocacy and public policy. They also support your brand by elevating you to the position of thought leader, influencer and subject matter expert.

If you want to play, you need to honest about your writing skills, be open to outside help, and be aware of what editors are looking for.

 -          Eric Whittington