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Content & Crises: A Conversation with Ryan Painter

It’s often said that all publicity is good publicity. However, in 2023, this couldn’t be further from the truth. At least according to Ryan Painter, Miller Ink’s senior strategist and head of content. We recently sat down with Ryan to discuss his approach to crisis management, tips for getting started as a journalist, and the role that social media plays in the public relations field.

How long have you been at Miller Ink?

I’ve been at Miller Ink for three years.

What is your professional background?

My professional background is in journalism, politics, and public affairs.

What is your current role within Miller Ink?

Currently, I am our senior strategist and head of content.

What is your specialty within Miller Ink?

My role is unique in that it combines two positions into one. As a senior strategist, I work closely with our CEO, Nathan Miller, on all stages of our crisis management process, from designing proactive policies to managing active crises to navigating post-event realities.

As head of content, I oversee the production of op-eds, features, press releases, impact reports, annual reports, donor communications, white papers, and other pieces of long-form written content for Miller Ink’s clients. Within this role, I have the privilege of collaborating with a wide range of clients and team members.

What does a typical day look like for you?

One reason I enjoy my position is that no two days ever look the same. However, on a day-to-day basis, we may be managing an active crisis, working on a business development project, proposing new business to a potential client, drafting an op-ed or statement, or compiling an impact report. The common thread that unites the different days and disparate tasks is writing.

What are your tips for individuals looking to get started in journalism?

The best way to understand journalism is to engage with high-quality reporting on a daily basis. While it’s important to regularly read the best articles from reputable publications, that’s not necessarily good enough. A prospective reporter should look critically at good reporting and try to deconstruct it. Reading should not be a passive activity, but rather an active opportunity to expand and grow as a writer. When encountering a piece of journalism, it’s important to ask key questions: Why did the reporter make the choices that they did? Why did they structure the article in this way? Why did they decide to place a given quote at the top of the story as opposed to the bottom? These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself, as stylistic and structural choices are often deliberate. Take lessons from the best and apply them to your work.

You should also prioritize the quality of your writing. Good reporting is about writing and communicating clearly while maintaining some sense of artistic flourish.

How do you handle writing about topics that you’re unfamiliar with?

Miller Ink works with clients across a number of different industries, from public affairs to tech to nonprofits. Clients have different missions, in different spaces, that involve different people. In this business, you will inevitably work on topics about which you have little expertise. In this case, you will need to read and research.

If you are tasked with writing about an unfamiliar topic, chances are that you can find detailed articles explaining it on the Internet. I also encourage you to rely on teammates when possible. Likely, there is someone in your organization who knows more about that topic than you do. Don’t hesitate to lean on their knowledge and expertise.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the communications field?

Like journalists, communications professionals need to be effective and fluent writers. Nearly every task we perform for clients involves writing; it’s to communications what math is to engineering. There’s no way around it.

In your senior strategist role, what is your approach to managing a crisis?

The key to effective crisis management is being proactive. The more that you do on the front end, the less liability you will have on the back end. Organizations concerned about certain public relations crises should consider connecting with a firm like Miller Ink that has deep expertise in crisis management. We help clients think through potential liabilities, the specific crises that could affect them, and the ways to tailor a crisis management strategy to their particular needs.

When clients come to us in the middle of a reputational challenge, we like to think about three principles: maximizing incoming information, limiting outbound information, and achieving alignment.

It is essential to take in as much external information about the situation as possible. When reporters call, we urge clients to take down their names, outlets, contact information, and deadlines. We want to know as much as possible about the context we’re working in.

At the same time, we want to significantly curtail the flow of outbound information. Only one or two individuals at an organization—the authorized spokespeople—should be making comments to the media about the situation. Ensuring all staff at a given company know this—and understand that, unless they are an authorized spokesperson, they should never make a comment to a reporter, no matter how benign the comment may seem—is essential to avoiding unforced errors. Crises are too often exacerbated by statements from staff who were never trained in crisis management.

Lastly, it is essential to achieve alignment. This means ensuring everyone at a given company is working with the same playbook. Nothing sinks a crisis response faster than the unfortunate scenario where the CEO says one thing, and then the COO goes out and accidentally says something contradictory. Avoid these situations at all costs.

Ultimately, businesses should understand that the old saying that “all press is good press” is deeply and fundamentally flawed. Bad press exists, and it can inflict serious damage on organizations.

Is there anything you would add about the key elements of an effective crisis communications strategy?

It all centers around the objective, audience, and message. An effective communications strategy conveys a clear and concise message to a target audience to advance a well-defined objective. The message should build excitement and get people talking.

Whether through social media or advertisements, we’re inundated with information on a daily basis. So, when considering a client’s PR strategy, you should ask yourself: Will this message resonate with the target audience, or will they forget it immediately after they hear or read or see it? Our course of action will depend on the answers to this critical question.

What is your favorite thing about working at Miller Ink?

The best part of Miller Ink is the people. In the three years that I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with so many intelligent, insightful, and wonderful individuals. It’s been a pleasure to build these professional relationships.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I’m an avid distance runner. For a long time, I competed in track and field and have since transitioned to road races.

If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be and why?

The comma. The comma is underrated, and increasingly out of vogue in favor of the em dash. Whenever you put a thought on paper, there’s always more information that could qualify a sentence, add context, create background, or build a narrative. Commas are the best, and most classic, way to do that.