002: Col Mike Lawhorn on the Power of Asking “Why?”

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Col. Mike Lawhorn on the power of Why


In this episode, we discuss the power of Why? plus:

  • How changing the words you use can have powerful results
  • Three key questions to guide your work
  • The importance of reading professionally
  • The importance of being a team player

Col. Lawhorn’s Key Points:

  • Help your boss articulate the outcomes he or she is looking for.
  • Before starting a project, always ask these three questions:
    1. What problem are we trying to solve?
    2. Why is this a problem we need to solve?
    3. What do you think it will look like when we solve this problem?
  • Think about how communication can help achieve organizational objectives; don’t just focus on separate communication objectives.
  • Substitute the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ when disagreeing with somebody to help find a solution.


Malcolm Gladwell “Blink

Malcolm Gladwell “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference

Col. Mike Lawhorn


Mark:         Welcome to Better PR Now, episode two. I’m Mark Phillips and today we’re talking with Colonel Michael Lawhorn about how his experiences as a senior Public Affairs officer in the U.S. Army helped him become a better communicator.

 We’ll explore the importance of asking, “Why?” Mike explains how changing the words you use can have really powerful results. We will also discuss how we can all adopt the strategic mindset to guide our organizations in making wise decisions. Let’s get started!

I’d like to welcome Colonel Mike Lawhorn. Mike, would you give us a brief introduction, a little background on yourself?

Mike:         Sure, thanks Mark. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. My name is Mike Lawhorn. I’m a U.S. Army officer and have been an army officer since 1989, when I was commissioned. I’ve been a public affairs practitioner, which is the military’s version of public relations, for about 15 years. In fact, Mark and I met each other when we were in graduate school together. I was getting my Master’s degree in Public Relations at the University of Maryland.

I’ve had an interesting military career. More than most officers, I’ve moved from one career field to another. I was an enlisted military policeman when I started out. I was a field artillery officer in my early days. I went over to military intelligence and worked at the NSA for a couple of years. That’s where I made the transition to public affairs (or public relations) and have since done that for about 15 years now.

Mark:         Mike, you’ve had a really fascinating career in army public affairs. You really are one of the best practitioners I’ve ever known. And your passion for the work that you do and for public affairs, public relations, organizational communications is such that one of your daughters is following you into that career field. Can you give us some sense of what your typical day is like from the time you get started?

Mike:         Sure. Before I do that, let me step back to give some background. You’re right, I have been very fortunate and blessed in the military public affairs career field to have a variety of interesting assignments.

For example, I was the commander of the American Forces Network of Korea (part of AFN Pacific), where I had my own radio and TV stations in Korea for three years for an audience of about 50,000 folks. I was also fortunate in that the Army selected me for a fellowship with what they call the Training With Industry program at Fox News in Manhattan for almost a year. I was also at the U.S. Army Central Command as a communication planner at a major joint command.

One of my most interesting jobs was, for the last two years, I was on the Joint Staff as a public affairs communication synchronization observer trainer, which really meant I got to go around the world to major exercises to coach and train their public affairs communication synchronization teams in best practices. And I got an opportunity to see best practices around the world in a joint military environment.

Mark:         Let’s dig a little bit deeper into that. Out of that last experience, what was the most salient lesson?

Mike:         I think from a non-public relations perspective, the lesson that has stuck with me most is, how challenging it is for senior executives to lay out their vision that allows the team to get after tasks and objectives. This vision would really focus on, “Hey, what is this supposed to look like when we’re being successful?”

I think with the advent of technology, I sit in a lot of briefings where military officers throw a lot of information up on the screen because they can. And it’s very similar to what Malcom Gladwell talks about in his book Blink, about the challenge in how we make decisions.

The challenge is not finding a piece of information that we don’t have; it’s finding a piece of information in the thousands of pieces of information that we can now gather and put together.

So I watched teams do these briefings where they will throw everything and the kitchen sink at a commander because they can, because technology allows us to gather all this information. But really, it’s because they don’t know what the boss is looking for. In many cases, I’m not sure that the boss has clearly articulated what it is they’re looking for.

Mark:         That problem actually has been turned on its head in the last few decades. It used to be that organizations and organizational leaders suffered from a lack of information. Now they suffer from a deluge of information. Picking out what is most important from that sea of data is the challenge. From the role of a senior communications person, is there a way they can help them articulate what success looks like?

Mike:         I think there is. That’s one of the things that I’ve kind of made into a cottage industry: Asking three key questions.

The first of those questions is, “What problem do you think we’re trying to solve?”

In my experience, I have been provided or asked a number of times to communicate, to get the word out to solve a problem. But when I ask, “What is the problem that you think that we’re really trying to solve here?” very often people may not know. They also may not know what it looks like when it’s been solved, or especially on a team of people, there may be a variety of opinions about what is the problem that we’re actually trying to solve.

Related to that, the second question I’ll ask is, “Why do you think this is a problem that we need to solve?” Sometimes it may very well be a problem, and sometimes it may be a problem that we don’t need to solve. It can be something that we can live with.

Then finally, I ask, “What do you think it looks like when we solve this problem?” What do you think it looks like on a daily basis, who’s doing what?

Trying to have that discussion with people, I’ve started to develop another question. In the military and public relations, we get,  “We’ve already decided what we’re going to do, now we just need public affairs to come and explain it.” So we get asked to get the word out; that’s a phrase we hear a lot: “We brought you on because we want to help get the word out.”

And I’ll ask, “Why do we want to do that? Why do we need to get the word out about this particular thing?” And the response is often, “Well, isn’t that what you do?”

“It is what we do, but why do you want us to do it in this particular case?” What I’ll start to ask then is “What are you afraid will happen if we don’t get the word out, if we don’t do anything, what do you think will happen?” Then, from people who are not communicators, I’ll start to get a much clearer answer about what it is they’re trying to do. I’ll get an answer like, “If we don’t get the word out, we may not get approval from local authorities to hold this exercise.”

Okay, well that’s a great answer, because now you’ve just narrowed for me what the problem is, who the target audience is, and you’ve practically told me how we’re going to assess success in this communication effort.

Now I know that local authorities are my primary audience. We want them to agree to let us hold a particular exercise, and success is measured in whether or not we can get approval to do that.

Mark:         So by following that process, you’re able to help them better articulate the desired end state, and then work backwards from that. That sets the stage for figuring out what’s our plan of action to get to that end state?

Mike:         Right. That’s a good point. What just occurred to me as I’m listening to you rephrase that, is that one of the challenges for communicators is that when the boss comes to talk to you, she or he may not have in their mind what the organizational objective is. They’re coming to you because they have a different communication objective. They’re only coming to you with the mindset of “I’m talking to you as a communicator, because I want you to get the word out.” Then, when you have this conversation with them, they can articulate what the organizational objective is.

And I think that’s an important point: Communicators often feel that we have certain communication objectives. I think a much more effective way of looking at it is that the organization has organizational objectives, and we should think about how communication can help achieve those organizational objectives, rather than focusing on separate communication objectives.

Mark:         Yeah, I totally agree. You know, one of the things I hear practitioners complain about is they feel like short order cooks, where people will come into their offices and it’s almost that they’re ordering off a menu. They’ll say, “Hey, I need a press release and a side order of promotional video. And by the way, I need a website too.” And we’re primed to say, “Okay, great, I’ll get right on that.”

But if you don’t stop and ask key questions like why do you need that, why do you think you need that, or what is it that we’re trying to accomplish, and get to a deeper understanding of what is it that we’re really trying to do, you might end up doing work that is unnecessary. You might end up trying to solve a problem that could be better solved another way. Getting that clarity up front is probably effort well spent.

Mike:         I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just a few weeks ago, we had exactly that problem. We participated in a organization-wide exercise. One of our subordinate organizations had a problem: The entire staff was brought together to figure out how to help them solve that problem, and an operator came over and said, “Public Affairs, your task is to put out the press release. Have you done that?”

We had to explain to them why we wouldn’t put out a press release in this situation, because we wouldn’t have the authority to speak at this particular level of exercise. It would be something that comes out of the White House or the Department of the Army. We went around and around for the better part of an hour trying to help them understand; “I get that on your checklist you’ve written one task: Make sure public affairs puts out the press release. But in this particular case, that’s not going to happen.”

Now what I had to coach my own staff through was, when you are working on a staff with others, you can’t be the person that just says, “No.” You have to say, “Well, what problem are you trying to solve? Here are other things we could do to solve that problem.”

In the short run, the problem that person was trying to solve was that his checklist says public affairs puts out a press release. The only problem he cares about solving is that the public affairs people tell him that they will put out a press release.

So, we said, “Okay, if there is a press release to put out, it will come from the Department of the Army, and we will get you a copy.” And that was close enough for them to mentally check that block. So we’ve solved the short-term problem, but then we have to go back and help solve a longer term problem of the exercise checklist doesn’t accurately reflect how public affairs can best contribute to the success of the mission.

Mark:         Absolutely. It sounds like the difference between between focusing on tactical actions (like writing and sending a press release) versus a strategic approach (which is trying to figure out what is it that the organization is trying to achieve and what role can public affairs play in achieving that). As counsel to leaders, public affairs or public relations can help the organization better understand and articulate that desired end state.

Mike:         I think you are absolutely right. That’s why I like to go back to those three questions about what problem are we trying to solve, why is this a problem we need to solve, and what do you think it will look like when we solve that problem. And I think that starts when you’re on a team staff members that you can help by getting agreement about the problem that we are trying to solve.

When you are dealing with other human beings, it’s very easy to have that problem. People want to do a good job, they want to get after a problem and start problem solving. For a long time we have really emphasized, I think particularly in western culture, the success of the person who is a doer. You are doing things, you’re implementing solutions, and you’re solving problems.

Mark:         I think that is particularly acute in the military, where we are primed to take action. The boss says “Go” and we go. You know, we are not necessarily encouraged to stop and question.

Mike:         Right. I think the military adds to that the additional challenge of people moving in about a two-year window. So at the end of your two years, you need to be able to show a list of problems that you have solved and solutions that you have implemented.

Mark:         There’s a bias toward action.

Mike:         Right; not the length of time it took you to arrive at a really, really good decision.

Mark:         Totally agree. So, let’s switch focus a little bit. If you had the opportunity to communicate with your younger self just starting this career, would you have any advice for yourself?

Mike:         I think the one thing that I probably haven’t done enough of is reading professionally. It’s one of those things that is easy to fall by the wayside. It’s one of those things, especially now, that can seem overwhelming. Especially with the Internet, there are a lot of places to get information. I think maybe picking one good professional journal to go back and read periodically, one good blog, or one good electronic website; I’ve just started to get back into that. You know, set aside 15 or 20 minutes a day to do that.

I’m not what I would consider a very organized person, so one of these tricks I have learned, which is useful, is just putting that time on a Microsoft Outlook calendar. Set aside 15 minutes a day, not to surf the Internet, but to actually pick out an article and say, “I’m going to read this to make sure that I’m keeping up on what is going on in my profession.”

It’s one of those things that a lot of people talk about, but I think it’s easy for that to fall by the wayside, and that’s probably one of the things that I have not done as well as I would have liked.

Mark:         Okay good advice. What do you think you’re better at than other people?

Mike:         I think one of the things that I bring to the table is that framework for thinking. Just asking that question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” I am amazed that when I asked that question of three people, I will get three different answers a lot of times. And I think it goes back to that bias for action. Everybody wants to jump right into the problem-solving and solution-implementing phase.

That challenge is exacerbated when the boss often says that they will know what they want when they see it. But that doesn’t translate into clear guidance and objectives given up front. So very often, the staff is left to decide for themselves what the problems are that we need to solve. One thing that I think do very well is raise my hand and say, “What does everybody here think is the problem that we’re trying to solve?”

Mark:         Yeah, that’s probably a rare instance. Okay I’m going to throw you a bit of a curve ball. I want to ask you about when you’ve experienced failure in your career and how you dealt with that, as well as when you’ve had success in your career. And what I’m looking for is how we can learn from both of those experiences.

Mike:         Okay. I think on the failure, early in my career as a public affairs officer I had gone out to the National Training Center (at Fort Irwin), which is a big testing area in the Mojave Desert, where forces come out and do these large combined arms exercises.

I was responsible for running the base newspaper. An individual had come over to ask if we could run pictures of pets for adoption in the base newspaper. Well, I was all excited. I had just come from getting my master’s degree in public relations, and I was ready to do a complete campaign plan of how we were going to identify the problem and get after it, and do all these different things to help.

We identified the real problem as people were abandoning pets as they left the desert, and so the vet clinic was overwhelmed with the number of pets that were up for adoption. So we had planned out this campaign plan of education about pet adoption, and to build that into the end-or-tour processing stations there on post. What I did not realize was that the woman that came to talk to me only wanted to solve one problem: She had told her boss she would get the newspaper to run pictures of pets for adoption. And that was the only thing she was interested in solving, because it was an additional duty for her.

She wanted to get back to her real job and wanted to check this box and move on. At the end of the conversation, I agreed that, at the very least we can run pictures of pets for adoption. But we never went back and figured out, if we really believe that pet adoption is a larger problem, who do we have to go talk to to help solve that problem? Because it became very easy to get overwhelmed by other things, and I knew that this individual wasn’t the right person to engage. Because it was an additional duty for her, she was not interested in going back and being involved in that process.

She had a very clearly defined problem that she wanted to solve. She got her problem solved, and she was ready to move on to the next thing and not revisit this. So we never did. We never went back and looked at this at a larger level to try to solve that issue.

On the success side, we had a challenge with a joint exercise involving the Jordanian armed forces. Because the exercise was in Jordan, they were going to be the responsible party for approving any materials that got released publicly; any sort of imagery, press release, etc.

In the military, we have a thing called a public affairs posture, which says it’s either respond to query or defining how active a hand we are going to take in releasing information and imagery. Because the Jordanians were the host country, they have the approval authority for any imagery that would get released.

Well, typically in the military we only use one of two postures: We’re either actively going to release all the material, or we’re not going to release any material. So the Jordanians said, of those two we’re going to pick the posture that says we’re not going to release any material. But I was getting some pressure from back in the United States to release some imagery showing the United States abroad participating in this exercise. The problem was the military only looks at the PA posture as you have two options: Release things or don’t release things.

So, after we sat down and examined the problem that we were trying to solve, we came to the conclusion the real problem was that the Americans want some imagery of Americans doing things and aren’t necessarily wedded to the idea of having to have Jordanians in the photo.

The problem was also that the Jordanians were not going to release any imagery, as long as we were giving them a dichotomy of choice. So we went back and we wrote these special instructions to say that we wouldn’t release material, but in the case of American imagery that shows American soldiers and does not show Jordanians, we would have the authority to release that sort of imagery. And the Jordanians agreed.

I know that sounds like a small thing, but when your institution is so used only doing things in one of these two ways, it was quite an issue and it took us several days to work through a third option.

We were able to release the US imagery in a timely fashion without offending the Jordanians. As you know from being deployed before, host nation sensitivities are one of the top issues that we’re concerned with when we’re operating in a coalition environment with other armed forces around the world.

So that turned out to be a success for us. We were able to solve everyone’s problem by going back and looking at the real problem that we were trying to solve. What does this look like when we’re solving this problem? Well, it looks like the Jordanian’s are allowed to have approval authority for everything, showing both countries, and yet the Americans are allowed to release imagery in a timely fashion, as long as it only shows US forces.

Mark:         I think that’s a great example of taking a strategic approach to solving a problem in the moment, in the field. I assume you are still excited about being a public affairs officer and doing that job in today’s Army. What has you most excited about being a practicing public relations professional today?

Mike:         What I really like is the energy of the people who are in this career field. I get to lead a team of folks who really want to do things well. I’m excited about the level of knowledge they bring to the career field for using things like social media and traditional media as well. And it really is exciting to go into work every day and be around folks who want to get after big picture issues, help the organization solve problems, and bring an incredible amount of technical expertise to that.

One of the things that I really appreciate most is, in this particular career field, the level of drive that people have. I can get the team together and have a discussion about where we want to go, what problem we’re trying to solve, what it looks like when we get there, and then people are off and running, doing some amazing things and thinking that next step ahead.

I think that is an extra advantage when you have that discussion: Focus more on what this looks like at the end, instead of giving people a task list. People will come back to you and say, “While I was thinking through this, I came up with these two or three other great ideas, which will help us get to where we want to be at the end.” I think that’s the thing that excites me the most about working with the people in this career field.

I also love that this career field seems to attract creative types. You know, I make a joke among my soldiers that a lot of times it is the people who were either in band or in drama in high school. It’s those creative types. I love those kinds of people. I was in band myself, and so it’s nice to feel that I’m around those kinds of people. That energy and creativity is what excites me most about being in this career field.

Mark:         Fantastic. I have a son who just finished grad school. He’s just starting his first professional job in an ad agency (Venables Bell & Partners) on the West Coast. The advice I gave him, aside from work hard and do the best job you can, was as you’re learning your job and your craft, try to learn the jobs that everybody else in the agency is doing. He’s a brand strategist, but there are a lot of other folks; there are copywriters, art directors, and many others. My advice to him was: Try to glean as much knowledge about the other key professions in the agency world. What they do, how they do it, how they approach the problems that the agency is asked to solve, so that you can understand their views and how they approach those problems.

                   You have a daughter, who is just about to start her career in public relations. What advice would you give her?

Mike:         Based on my experience, one of the things that is really, really important is understanding how to be a team player. For young people starting off in this field, very rarely are you going to be in charge of leading the communications team. It is so important to build a reputation, at this point in your career, for being a team player. That doesn’t necessarily mean agreeable to anything that anybody wants to do. And you can still be the one asking the question, “Just so I’m clear, what problem do we think we’re trying to solve?” But you have to have a reputation for being someone who will work well on a team.

Again, that doesn’t mean you agree to everything everybody else wants to do. You know that one of the top things people talk about in looking at prospective hires and promotions centers around whether they work well on a team.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the person bringing in cookies for the team, but just someone who can articulate a vision, and can disagree well with others.

One small tactic that I have implemented, and I was amazed at how well this works, is that I try to never to use the word ‘but’ when I’m disagreeing with somebody. Everybody knows that “I see your point, but,” means that I don’t see your point at all.

I have learned to substitute the word ‘and’ instead. It’s something that sounds so ridiculously small, but will go a long way toward not turning off the person to whom you are speaking.

You say, “I see your point, and I think another way that we can help get after that is …” That small thing has really helped me be a better team player. And so I think that is the number-one piece of advice I can give to my daughter or to any young person starting off. Look at the people that other people respect on the team and try to figure out what it is that they’re doing to be a good team player, while still being able to articulate and defend their own positions when they need to.

That is the thing that is going to help you be successful in the long run. With everything we do in the communications realm, you’re not going to be a master of all trades, so you are always going to be on a team. Whether you’re leading the team or as a team member, you are always going to be involved in teamwork. Being an effective member of that team will help you go far.

Mark:         That is hugely valuable advice; thank you so much for that. You know, it gets back to what you and I have talked about many times over the years: The core nature of what we do is really about relationships.

Mike:         Right, absolutely.

Mark:        I don’t know that everybody agrees with that, but I think it’s something that we agree on. The essence of public relations or public affairs is not so much about the communication on the surface, but it’s about how that communication facilitates key relationships. How it can either help or hinder those relationships, especially those relationships that are most important to our organizations. Thank you so much for that advice.

                   Mike, it’s been a real pleasure having you here today.

Mike:         I’ve really enjoyed it.

Mark:         You know, you’re a terrific friend and one of the best practitioners I’ve ever known. Thanks for spending the time with us today and thank you for your service.

Mike:         Thanks so much, Mark. I really appreciate it.


Thanks for spending a little time with us today. I hope you found it entertaining, but more than that, I hope you found something useful, something you can make your own. I’d love to know what you think about the podcast. Who would you like to hear on the show? What questions would you like answered? What challenges are you facing?

Well, that’s it for today. I hope you’ll join me on the next session of Better PR Now. To be sure you never miss an episode, please subscribe.

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