Friday, May 30, 2014

Remembering what is important in crisis communication - the CDC CERC pocket or emergency card

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are responsible for responding to public health threats like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). This month they dealt with a case where the initial rapid screening test gave a false positive result that was not confirmed by more detailed analysis: Illinois man didn’t have MERS, CDC says.

How do their spokespersons stay on message? They have a handy Crisis Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) pocket card or emergency card to remind them what is important. On the front it says to:


Empathy and caring

Competence and expertise

Honesty and openness

Commitment and dedication

and also gives these


Don’t over reassure.

Acknowledge uncertainty.

Express wishes (‘I wish I had answers’).

Explain the process in place to find answers.

Acknowledge people’s fear.

Give people things to do.

Ask more of people (share risks).

The following section lists four things to do


On the other side that card says to:


and STAY ON MESSAGE (four things).

At the bottom of the card is a reminder that


and to:


The image of a thinker by Victor Alfred Lundy came from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Being likable, Ronald Reagan and Bryan Smith

The conservative Club for Growth clearly has more money than sense. Here in Idaho they backed Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan D. Smith in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat eight-term congressman Mike Simpson in the 2nd District. Republican primary election. It wasn’t even close. Simpson won with 61.6% of the vote versus Smith’s 38.4%. Associated Press called the winner a couple hours after the polls closed.

Just through April outside spending for this election was $2.8 million. How did this deluge of money occur? In July 2013 the Club for Growth backed Smith and targeted Simpson as a moderate in a conservative district. Support for Smith by the Madison Project PAC and other conservative groups followed, and was countered by even more for Simpson from other groups.   

Mike Simpson is extremely well known here in Idaho. His official biography says that:

“His political career began in 1980, when he was elected to the Blackfoot City Council. In 1984, he was elected to the Idaho Legislature where he served until 1998, the last six years serving as Speaker.  Simpson was born in Burley, Idaho and raised in Blackfoot. He graduated from Utah State University and earned his DMD from Washington University School of Dental Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduation, he joined his father and uncle at the Simpson Family Dental Practice in Blackfoot.”

Bryan Smith was not well known in politics. His campaign bio simply said that:

“He is now the owner of several small businesses in Idaho...”

 During the televised debate on May 11th, Smith said he was a “true conservative” and that, like Ronald Reagan he believed in peace through strength. But, Ronald Reagan was a very likable guy, and Bryan Smith definitely is not. Brian looks like Max Headroom with glasses added.   

On April 13th Boise’s Idaho Statesman put him on page one with an article titled Idaho’s 2nd CD candidate Bryan Smith’s character, career on center stage. They described how back in 2001 he started Medical Recovery Services, a debt collection firm that received an “F’ rating from the Better Business Bureau. Later there also was a second firm, Diversified Equity Systems. Together those two have filed over 10,000 court cases. The Statesman article noted that:

“Steve Taggart, a bankruptcy attorney in Idaho Falls, said Medical Recovery Services pushes people into bankruptcy because it’s aggressive and inflexible. Taggart estimated that Medical Recovery Services cases have triggered between one-third and one-half of Bonneville County’s bankruptcy filings in recent years.”

Just how aggressive were they? They had tried to collect a $350 attorney fee which was more than the principal amount on some medical bills. When this was struck down by the District Court, like Oliver Twist, they appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court that, please, sir we want some more fees. On March 14, 2014 they were told no unanimously. A newspaper article originally from Idaho Falls about that decision also appeared in Boise and Twin Falls in early May.

Smith’s campaign ran a TV ad about one case where Smith was the “guardian angel” in fighting a claim being turned down by an insurance company. But, the Simpson campaign countered via a web page with a 30-page pdf about Smith as a debt collector.

His activities fit the old joke about undesirable occupations:

“Don’t tell my mother I’m a trial lawyer and a debt collector. She thinks I play the piano in a whorehouse.”

Carol Highsmith’s portrait of Ronald Reagan came from the Library of Congress. The Oliver Twist illustration came from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day - Remembering World War II Airmen

Yesterday I took this picture of a restored B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber heading towards Boise’s Gowen Field. Seven decades ago, during World War II, the Army Air Corp leased that airport with its 8,800 foot runway and used it as a training field for B-17 and B-24 Liberator bomber crews. About 6,000 people were stationed there, including the famous movie actor Jimmy Stewart. Housing units built for senior non-commissioned officers as Sergeant City are still around. Boise Weekly had an article about riding in that restored B-17.

My brother-in-law’s father was based in England and flew over Germany in a B-17. There were movies about them like Memphis Belle and Target for Today. Some crews were shot down over water, as described in an article in today’s newspaper. The generic memorial shown above says:

"We who came home must never forget those who could not."

 It is at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.   

My father worked on one detail that made those bomber crews able to fly safely at high altitudes. If almost all the moisture was not removed from the oxygen in their tanks, it would freeze and jam the valves. He helped develop canisters for drying the oxygen as the tanks were filled. Those canisters were similar to the cans for tennis balls. A company in Cincinnati made them for the Army Air Corps. Workers who assembled them were wealthy society ladies. They were served coffee in the mornings, and high tea in the afternoons. The company owner had recruited them via patriotic appeals at meetings of ladies clubs.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An otter, a vulture, a biker, and a great grandfather walk into a bar...

That’s what I imagine might have happened on the evening of May 14th after Idaho Public Television held the hour-long debate between all four Republican candidates on the primary ballot for Governor. You can watch it all here on YouTube.

The debate wasn’t originally meant to be that way. The rules had called for only “active candidates” to be included. That would have meant that two-term Governor Butch Otter would just have faced his one credible challenger, state Senator Russell Fulcher.

Apparently Otter’s campaign decided that would undesirably raise perception of Fulcher. So, he insisted that all four should appear, including the bearded biker Harley Brown and great grandfather Walt Bayes. Based on Brown’s previous use of profanity, a 30-second delay was used. Two of his memorable lines were:

“I’m about as politically correct ay your proverbial turd in a punch bowl.”

and his summation of the candidates as being:

“A cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker, or a normal guy.”

National news coverage was less than positive. An Associated Press story said Fringe Contenders Send Idaho Governor Debate Viral. The Los Angeles Times quipped Gubernatorial debate turns Idaho politics into very small potatoes.

The Today show on early morning TV had a 1-1/2 minute video clip titled Wacky Idaho Debate Goes Viral. They referred to the bearded pair as the ZZ Top candidates. Then on May 21st The Colbert Report did a seven-minute segment about Idaho’s Bizarre Gubernatorial Debate.

Results of the primary election were:

Butch Otter: 51%
Russell Fulcher: 44%
Harley Brown: 3%
Walt Bayes: 2%

So, Otter’s strategy worked. He won, though with an even smaller percentage than the 55% he got in 2010 when challenger Rex Rammell came second with only 26%.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Are motivational speakers dinosaurs?

One in yesterday’s Non Sequitur comic titled The First Motivational Speaker is.
It is captioned:

“Don’t sweat the small stuff..
And it’s all small stuff!

Well, except for that comet,
which looks kinda big...”

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff...and It’s All Small Stuff was the title of a 1997 book by the late self-help guru Richard Carlson, which was followed by another thirteen Don’t Sweat books

The image of a Stegosaurus came from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Randall Munroe’s 9-1/2 minute TED Talk: Comics that ask “what if?”

I really enjoyed watching this March 2014 TED talk, since I have been reading his XKCD comics for years. Randall discusses two questions:

1) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

2) If all digital data were stored on punch cards, how big would Google’s data warehouse be?

The first question has a surprising answer, that the baseball would become a thermonuclear weapon. His original cartoons had shown the pitch going from right to left. For the TED talk he fixed that detail to more conventionally go from left to right.

The second question visualized 15 exabytes of data as enough punch cards to bury New England about three miles deep. His indirect approach to the answer reminded me of an old essay by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein about estimating the population for the city of Moscow back around 1960.

One of my favorite classic single-panel XKCD comics is SECRET WORLDS. A recent one on TRAIN is hilarious for a very self-centered definition:

A machine that grabs the
 earth by metal rails and
 rotates it until the part
 you want is near you.”

The schematic mushroom cloud came from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 12, 2014

How is Crisis Communication different from public speaking?

Wikipedia has a web page about Crisis Communication, but it’s public-relations focused and not very useful. When I went looking for better information, I found it by starting at a web page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the topic of Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC). They have a comprehensive, 478-page Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual that you can download for free. On the cover is their mantra:

“Be first. Be Right. Be credible.”

There also is a downloadable 58-page Basic CERC Quick Guide. Figure 1-5 on print page 52 is a Spokesperson pocket guide that summarizes how to communicate in a crisis.    

In a crisis people are stressed out. The message you give them needs to be especially clear, simple, and brief. Page 57 of the Quick Guide states six principles of CERC:

“Be First.
If the information is yours to provide by organizational authority—do so as soon as possible. If you can’t provide the information, then explain how you are working to get it.

Be Right.
Give facts in increments. Tell people what you know when you know it, tell them what you don’t know, and tell them if you will know relevant information later.

Be Credible.
Tell the truth. Do not withhold to avoid embarrassment or the possible ‘panic’ that seldom happens. Uncertainty is worse than not knowing. Remember, rumors are more damaging than hard truths.

Express Empathy.
Acknowledge in words what people are feeling - it builds trust.

Promote Action.
Give people things to do. It calms anxiety and helps restore order.

Show Respect.
Treat people the way you want to be treated, even when hard decisions must be communicated.”

How can you follow these principles? In my previous post I described a technique called Message Mapping. I found a very detailed 42-minute video for EPA about it and other tools by  Dr.Vincent T. Covello. Unfortunately, the resolution is poor so many slides are hard to read. A clearer version of the West Nile Virus message map example is shown above.

Covello has presented similar material elsewhere, so you can find his other templates either here or here. You can find all his slides from his March 2010 Warren K. Sinclair keynote lecture on Risk Communication here.

The May/June issue of the Capitol Ideas newslettter from the Council of State Governments has an article titled Communication: Anticipate Prepare and Practice, which discusses the 27/9/3 rule (prepare your sound bite with 27 words, for nine seconds with just 3 messages), and quotes Covello:

“If you don’t keep it short and simple, someone else will make it short and simple for you.”

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Message Mapping is a tool for planning your speech

This week I was skimming through Carmine Gallo’s recent book, Talk Like TED; The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds. On pages 197 to 200 he discusses how to structure a speech. He says to build a Message Map in three easy steps using a template like the one shown above. Those steps are:

1. Create a Twitter-Friendly Headline.

2. Support the Headline with Three Key Messages.

3. Reinforce the Three Messages with Stories, Statistics, and Examples.

Where did this really come from? He only refers back to his July 2012 Forbes column, How to Pitch Anything in 15 Seconds.

Message Mapping actually is a very serious crisis communication tool. You can read about it in a 124-page World Health Organization book from 2005 by Randall H. Hyer and Vincent T. Covello called Effective Media Communication during Public Health Emergencies that you can download for free. Section 4.2, Prepare Clear and Concise Messages describes message maps. It is also discussed by Ivy Lin and Dan D. Petersen in a 51-page free EPA publication from 2007, Risk Communication in Action: The Tools of Message Mapping.

An example message map on what people can do to prevent West Nile Virus from the EPA publication is shown above. It is one of seven message maps they use to cover that topic.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Breaking a Barrier - the First Four-Minute Mile

Today is the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister running the mile in just under four minutes. You can watch a video of that event on YouTube. Another 5-1/2 minute  newsreel video on Man and the Mile discusses other attempts. 

Anthony Robbins discussed the four-minute mile on page 84 of his 1991 book Awaken the Giant Within:

“Do you know the story of the four-minute mile? For thousands of years, people held the belief that it was impossible for a human being to run the mile in less than four minutes. But in 1954, Roger Bannister broke this imposing belief barrier. He got himself to achieve the 'impossible' not merely by physical practice but by constantly rehearsing the event in his mind, breaking through the four-minute barrier so many times with so much emotional intensity that he created vivid references that became an unquestioned command to his nervous system to produce the result. Many people don’t realize though, that the greatest aspect of his breakthrough was what it did for others. In the whole history of the human race, no one had ever been able to break a four-minute mile, yet within one year of Roger’s breaking the barrier, 37 other runners also broke it. His experience provided them with references strong enough to create a sense of certainty that they, too, could ‘do the impossible.’ And the year after that, 300 other runners did the same thing!”

John C. Maxwell repeated that story of 37 and 300 other runners on page 106 of his 1993 book, Developing the Leader Within You. It also showed up on page 12 of the 2003 book Heroes: A Guide to Realising Your Dreams by Jim Stynes, Jon Carnegie, and Paul Currie.  Michael Cioppa repeated it in 2003 on page 27 of his book Success is Not A Miracle: The Science of Achievement. Eyal Yurconi also repeated it on page 116 of his 2006 book Being Great: Winning the Battles Within. So did William J. Nippard, on page 12 of his 2011 book, The Teamwork Ladder.

But, Anthony Robbins got both those numbers wrong. I heard them discussed by Tim Harford on the BBC World Service program More or Less in a segment titled Did Sir Roger Bannister make the ‘impossible’ possible?. Actually only one other man, John Landy, ran a less than four-minute mile in the next year, and just four people did in the 2nd year. Tim also noted that Mr. Robbins later used other numbers, saying it was either 24 in a year or 24 in a few years. So, don’t believe something just because you find it in a book. Make sure what you use in a speech is a true story rather than just a fairy tale. 

The latest and most confused version of the story misspells Roger’s last name, and gets the year wrong. Page 199 of Gary R. Plaford’s 2013 book, Fight Or Flight: The Ultimate Book for Understanding and Managing Stress says:

“A fourth factor critical in looking at success is what we believe. Prior to 1957 it was believed that the human being could not run a mile in under four minutes. That belief was stated by sports writers, by columnists, it was repeated on the radio and on television. It could not be done. The human body was incapable of running that fast for that long. Then, in 1957, Roger Banister did it. He broke the four minute mile. Once he did it, suddenly people believed it was possible.Within that very year thirty seven other runners broke the four minute mile. Within the next year another hundred did it. If we believe something cannot be done, then surely we cannot do it. If, on the other hand we believe something is possible, we will often find a way to achieve it.”  

The plaque image by Jonathan Bowen came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Whatever, Like, You Know, and Just Sayin’ were the four most common annoying words or phrases to U.S. adults for the past three years

Back on December 19, 2013 The Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York released the results of a national survey which asked 1,173 people:

Which one of the following words or phrases do you find most annoying in conversation? 
Just sayin’, Like, Obviously, Whatever, You know, [Unsure]

Results for the most annoying phrase are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view). Not obviously, for  2013 they were ranked as follows:

Whatever (38%)
Like (22%)
You know (18%)
Just sayin’ (14%)
Obviously (6%)
[Unsure] 2%)

The same ranking of the top four was found for their surveys done in 2012 and 2011. They also did surveys in 2010 and 2009, and whatever came in first there too. Like also came in second back in 2010.

So, you know, whatever you do, I’m just sayin’ you shouldn’t say like in your speeches. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fun with physics - A self-siphoning chain fountain

Back in a school science class you might have learned that a rubber tube can be used to siphon liquid from one beaker to another, as is shown above. Or, your dad might have  shown you how to siphon gas from the tank of your car to refill a gas can for a lawnmower, motorcycle, or boat.

But, watch what happens when you pull the end of a bead chain over the edge of a beaker, as shown in this video by Steve Mould. Surprisingly the chain rises above the rim as a fountain, like it’s inside an invisible tube.

This behavior was explained by John S. Biggins and Mark Warner in a scientific article and on a 12-minute YouTube video. I saw it discussed in a New York Times article on March 3, 2014.   

The image of a siphon is from Wikimedia Commons.