Monday, June 29, 2009

WSO: making the symphony cool

Attracting young people to the symphony isn’t as easy as attracting young people to, say, Guitar Hero. Or is it?

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra realizes that the key to appealing to new audiences is not in the packaging, it’s in the product.

For years, symphony orchestras worldwide have been dealing with the challenge of bringing in new audiences – not the easiest task, when you’re trying to attract young people to what they perceive as evenings of classical music with their grandparents. Do you bring classical music to the shopping malls and show kids how Mozart really is cool, after all? Do you give students free tickets to Handel’s Messiah and hope they’ll come?

Not if you’re the WSO and a number of other world-class orchestras. They’re taking the opposite approach, changing their product to appeal to a new audience, rather than trying to convince that audience to buy a product that really isn’t geared to their taste.

Next month, for the second consecutive year, the WSO is hosting Video Games Live, described on the WSO website as “a groundbreaking live event celebrating the music of video games, from Mario to Warcraft. Experience the WSO and choir, accompanied by synchronized video, lighting, special effects, audience participation segments and live action.”

And while last year’s event was a hit, they’re taking it a step further this summer, adding a Guitar Hero competition whose winner, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, will get to play Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” on stage with the WSO during the July 8th performance.

Talk about user-generated content.

This has all the ingredients for success:

- it changes the product to appeal to the audience’s tastes
- it encourages young people to dip a toe in the pool (once the new audience has enjoyed the symphony in this format, they may be more apt to try its more traditional format as well)
- it gives the audience an opportunity to get personally involved and be part of the performance, enhancing personal buy-in
- it has tremendous YouTube-ability, with the potential for the winning performance to go viral, bringing lots more attention to the event and the WSO

The YouTube generation loves to get involved, and loves “fame” – this event offers the potential for both.

Another thing an event like this offers is great opportunities for marketing through social media. I wasn’t able to find an “official” Facebook page for the Winnipeg event, but the creators/producers of Video Games Live have a page, as do a number of local fans who are using the site to encourage people to support the show. The Video Games Live promotional trailer is also on YouTube (and on the WSO website).

I don’t have any further info on how WSO is promoting Video Games Live 2009 to Winnipeg’s youth; if you do, please add a comment below and let me know!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

For want of a nail…

Remember the rhyme about how little things can have big consequences?

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Source: Wikipedia

Well, I got a great example of that in the mail this week.

My sister and I have tickets to the Rogers Cup ATP tennis tournament in Montreal in August – we’ll be haunting the grounds of Stade Uniprix (formerly Jarry Park Stadium) for two days of the tournament, like we did centuries ago when we were ballgirls for the Canadian nationals at the Rideau Tennis Club in Ottawa.

We ordered our tickets online, and they came in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Then this week, I got another, totally unexpected envelope from Rogers Cup in the mail: metro tickets to get us to and from our matches.

“Great PR,” I thought – “a freebie, great involvement of a government sponsor, opportunity for the tournament to promote its sustainability initiatives – everyone looks good and the customer is delighted. Must blog about it.” I filed the metro tickets away with the event tickets.

Then this week, I saw a tweet about someone having gotten metro tickets from the Rogers Cup… but for the wrong days. So I checked mine and… lo and behold… mine aren’t right either!

I can only imagine what a logistical nightmare this is going to be for the organizers. They can just re-issue metro tickets for the right days (which could double the cost); or they can do a big internal communication initiative to ensure Société de transport de Montréal employees accept the tickets for any day of the tournament, with an external communication initiative to ensure everyone knows they can use the tickets for any day. Or they might come up with some other solution (though they wouldn’t be well-advised to ask customers to send the original metro tickets back). No matter how you slice it, it’s going to be expensive, both in time and money – likely both for Tennis Canada and the Société de transport de Montréal.

Of course, this will have no effect on how much my sister and I enjoy cheering Roger and Rafa on (Nadal’s injuries and Federer’s impending fatherhood permitting), but it does make what should have been a great gesture somewhat of a pain for the customer, and an enormous hassle for organizers (not to mention that it reflects poorly on the organization overall).

In event planning, you do your best to check, double-check and triple-check everything. Unfortunately, every once in a while, some little detail like this gets by you… and to paraphrase Vincent Gardenia’s character in Moonstruck, that is a long, bad, expensive day.


I left a voice mail with tournament organizers on Saturday, and got a call back today (within one business day). The fellow said they'd had "big problems" with the metro ticket initiative, but that they would just send out new tickets for the right dates. Potentially an expensive, but definitely the most customer-friendly way to manage it. Nice job.

Friday, June 26, 2009

New media + PR fundamentals = first-ever Cannes Grand Prix for PR

For 56 years, the world’s best advertisers have been celebrated at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. This week, the festival awarded its first-ever awards for PR campaigns, and the PR “Grand Prix” went to Tourism Queensland’s “Best Job in the World” campaign. Developed by Australian firm CumminsNitro, the campaign reportedly earned millions of dollars’ worth of media coverage and tremendous worldwide participation with an unusual want-ad.

The campaign used this video and traditional-looking job ads in publications around the world to invite people to make the case for why they should get the job – a real job created specifically for this campaign – in a one-minute video. Thanks to video sharing sites like YouTube, interest in the campaign was quickly ignited, with many among the thousands of applicant videos going viral.

Here’s one of the multiple Canadian entries I found on YouTube:

In the midst of a sea-change in the way organizations communicate with their audiences, this campaign shows how new technologies can augment the effectiveness of traditional communications. The key: recognizing that the most effective use of new media is based on PR fundamentals.

1. The concept was simple and easy to understand (“there’s an amazing job available in a beautiful place, and you can apply for it”).
2. It was supported by an extensive and well-integrated mainstream media strategy.
3. It made smart use of new technology, online communities and social media tools to get people participating – and talking to each other about their participation.
4. At a time when a large majority of marketing messages are received passively, this campaign encouraged people to buy in and get mentally involved: to see themselves interacting with the product, to build a desire to experience the product. It caused people to think and talk about Australia, to picture themselves spending time in Australia, and then, to make the case for why they should be chosen to go to Australia. It’s not that great a leap to think people might now be motivated to plan a visit to Australia which they mightn’t otherwise have even considered.

As the concept built up steam, mainstream media interest in the campaign phenomenon fanned the flames. Its success drove further success.

In the end, CumminsNitro reported more than US$100 million in media coverage (from a media budget of $1.2 million), more than 6.8 million visitors to the campaign website in 56 days, and more than 34,600 entries from 201 countries – all because of a simple concept that motivated its audience to get involved. Check out CumminsNitro’s video summary of the campaign here (click “view movie”).

And it's not over: the next phase of the campaign, in which the winner explores Hamilton Island and documents his adventures on a blog, will likely garner more online and mainstream media attention, at least at first. It's publicity that yields more publicity – what more could a PR guy ask?

With that said, it’ll be interesting to watch for the campaign’s actual impact on Queensland Tourism – the true test of the campaign's effectiveness.

The winner of the contest, Britain’s Ben Southall, will have his first day in “the best job in the world” on July 1st. In the meantime, here’s another Canadian entry... just because I think it’s fun.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

News or no news?

Politician has an extra-marital affair of which his wife is aware:
no (well, likely not much) news.

Politician mysteriously goes missing for days,
Wife says she doesn’t know where he is,
Staff say he’s taking a short vacation and decline to provide further details,
Staff later say he’s hiking on the Appalachian Trail,
Media find the vehicle he drives parked in airport parking lot,
Met by reporter as he arrives in Atlanta on flight from Buenos Aires,
Claims to have decided last-minute to go to Argentina because it’s “exotic”,
THEN holds news conference explaining trip with admission of extra-marital affair of which his wife is aware:
big news.

In PR, the cover-up often does more damage than the original offense.

Here’s the video of South Carolina Governor Sanford’s widely-covered news conference this afternoon.

Socrates! Blogs and tweets are public!

Steve Martin did a bit in 1980 in which Socrates complains that, despite all the time he and his students spent together, no-one ever mentioned that hemlock is poisonous [note: the part related to this topic is over by the 2 ½-minute mark].

Conservative Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is finding out this week that sometimes, what seems obvious (or at least, common knowledge) isn’t so obvious to everyone. He and his party are doing a little damage control after Edmonton-Calder MLA Doug Elniski posted some ill-considered “advice” to high-school girls on his blog [another note: this clip is preceded by a 30-second commercial, and followed immediately by other news stories].

Mr. Elniski reportedly has also had to apologize for comments he made on Twitter.

Everywhere we look these days, there’s discussion of how social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are revolutionizing communications by allowing organizations and people in power to converse directly with their customers or constituents online. With that free access to “the people”, though, must come the recognition that what you say using these tools is “out there.” Sometimes, it can feel like a tweet is just a short-lived, offhand comment to your friends – but when you have a public reputation you care about, you need to make sure your tweets (or blog posts, or Facebook status updates) reflect who you are professionally.

We give this same advice to our CreComm students at Red River College. What you post online contributes to how the world – including future employers – sees you; so resist the temptation to post things that will reflect poorly on your “personal brand”. Once you post them, they're “out there”, for far more than your close friends to see. People who don’t know you will make judgments based on what you post – and that may not tell the whole (or even an accurate) story.

OK, gotcha. Watch what I say using social media, check. Case closed?

Not quite.

In an article in The Globe and Mail online, Elniski says he will continue to use online communications – “but he may have his comments vetted, possibly by government officials, before they appear;” for his part, Stelmach’s chief of staff says he’s going to “send a letter to Tory MLAs in the coming days about the dos and don'ts of using social networking websites.” Certainly, that might help reduce the number of similar embarrassments to the party in future – but it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of the MLA’s personal views and judgment. [For the record, Elniski has publicly regretted and apologized for the comments, and Premier Stelmach has clearly stated that the comments don't reflect "my values, they don't reflect the values of our government, they don't reflect the values of the caucus nor of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party."]

Historically, many Canadians have voted for candidates without ever having had direct contact with them; they voted for the ideas and ideals attributed to the candidates, but didn’t have much opportunity to get to know them personally. Now, social media tools like blogs and Twitter allow politicians more opportunities to speak directly to their constituencies without the filters of the mainstream media (or even, apparently, party brass); they allow people to get to know their representatives a little better on a personal level, for better or for worse. Today, if your candidate has a less-than-politics-friendly sense of humour, people are going to notice it.

Vetting politicians' blog posts and tweets may reduce the potential for online embarrassments, but if they really represent their views, they're just as likely to express them in other forums. New media and traditional PR tactics aside, the most important ingredient in any successful PR campaign is your product: if there are characteristics of your product your customers won’t like, the best PR strategy for the long term is to address them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Everyone should be a consultant

…at least for a little while.

Today’s national news features lots of coverage of the city workers’ strike in Toronto – and specifically, the contentious issue of sick-leave banking.

Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (“CUPE”) who work for the City of Toronto are (currently, at least) able to “bank” a certain number of unused sick days every year, which they can then “cash out” on retirement. According to a CBC story today, that can add up to six months’ pay – a nice little retirement gift.

The City of Toronto isn’t the only employer to offer this, though by all accounts, the ranks of employers offering sick leave banking – or vesting, as it’s sometimes called – are thinning. The idea behind this practice is that employees who know they’ll get paid out for unused sick time won’t take sick days when they’re not sick.


My first job in PR was in a small consulting firm in Ottawa. It was an excellent firm led by excellent communicators, and I learned a tremendous amount about PR working there. But I only came to really appreciate one of the most important lessons of that early consulting role later in life: I learned the real value of my work.

In the years since, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a range of different environments – as an employee and as a contractor, as a union employee and as a non-union employee – and have been interested by how differently people perceive their relationship with their employer.

In my little Ottawa consulting firm, I couldn’t help but notice that every penny I was paid came directly out of the pockets of the firm’s two partners. What they paid me, they didn’t have to spend on things they enjoyed, like traveling abroad. Or concerts. Or even house renovations. I realized that every day, I had to put in a performance that they felt was worth what they were paying me – otherwise, why would they spend the money?

As a consultant in recent years, I’ve seen this even more acutely. My clients have to like my work enough to want to pay me – and then, even more importantly, to pay me to do something else for them down the line. In the consulting world, every day’s performance counts. You always have to be “on”, and you always have to deliver quality. There’s no “entitlement” – and you certainly aren’t paid for not not coming to work. If you don’t deliver – sick or not – you aren’t paid. Period.

I’ve heard employees of many different organizations grouse about being expected to work a full day every day in exchange for their regular paycheque. They don’t put it in those terms, of course; sometimes it sounds like a complaint about a boss being too “nosy” about how much time they spend on eBay at work (and by this, I'm not talking about people who do a great job, but do some personal things on work time and lots of work things on personal time), sometimes it sounds like outrage at being expected only to take sick days when they’re sick.

What I think these employees really need is to spend some time actually having to produce something that someone else wants to buy – that is, to pay them for – every single day. Then, they might begin to see what their employer “owes” them a little differently.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hyatt: anticipated surprises and relationship-building

In The New York Times yesterday, Rob Walker wrote about a new marketing program at Hyatt Hotels, which the hotel chain is calling “random acts of generosity.” According to Hyatt’s CEO, Mark Hoplamazian, the hotel chain will be randomly “surprising” customers with breaks on certain services – he tells potential guests not to be surprised if a Hyatt hotel “picks up your bar tab, comps your massage or treats your family to breakfast.”

The marketing objective behind this program is to encourage customer loyalty, with the underlying theory that customers who receive things for free will be more apt to come back. Walker’s article discusses a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Marketing, which examines this theory.

More interesting to me from a PR perspective, though, is Hyatt’s choice to proactively “announce” the program publicly in a USA Today business travel blog. From my perspective, this initiative could have been more effective in building customer loyalty had the company just rolled it out, without telling its customers to expect it.

I'm not an expert in the hospitality business, but I'd wager that few people would make their decision on where to stay based on the possibility of a free breakfast. To me, the true value of a random gift program like this one is in its relationship-building potential.

At some levels, people respond to relationships with companies in the same ways they do with people. When someone does something nice for you out of the blue, it makes you feel good about your relationship. But if you feel there’s an ulterior motive, you are less apt to be impressed – and may even feel manipulated, which could be worse for your relationship than not having received the favour or gift in the first place.

Of course, today’s consumer is sophisticated, and most likely understand that freebies are generally given to encourage return business. But when you come right out and announce a random giveaway program, you turn what could have been a “gee, the people at Hyatt made me feel special” experience into an “I guess I got lucky this time, maybe I should go out and buy a lotto ticket” experience. The latter doesn’t deliver the same ‘warm and fuzzy’ factor, which can help significantly in building loyalty.

And worse, because customers know about the program from having read the publicity, you also create the "I guess someone else is getting my freebie" experience for everyone who doesn't get chosen. That's (I'm assuming) the majority of customers, walking away with a disappointment they didn't need to have in your hotel.

Hyatt’s “random acts of generosity” plan could indeed be a great way to make customers feel good about doing business with the hotel chain; everyone loves a freebie, and random giveaway contests are run regularly in all kinds of businesses. But for real loyalty-building, I think it could have been even stronger had they kept it quiet and allowed the resulting customer experiences to be true surprises – with all the warm and fuzzy relationship-building feelings that would come along with them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Charisma + charm + substance = a truly great communicator

President Obama addressed the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner tonight in Washington.

His thirteen-minute speech poked some lighthearted fun at the media, and more at himself, members of his administration, and his government's actions since assuming office; it allowed him to personally connect with his audience before concluding with sincere recognition and thanks for the important role journalists play.

Obama is walking proof of the positive impact of charisma and charm in leadership. We can all think of politicians who offer tremendous substance, but whose personalities aren't quite as attractive; while they may indeed provide excellent direction for our government, we aren't as quick to get behind them. That personal charisma factor -- a gift, impossible to teach or to learn -- is what sets the truly great communicators apart from the very good.

This isn't to say that charisma and charm are enough. Without substance, a candidate won't go nearly as far (or at least, not with longevity); but as Obama has proven time and again, a leader who exhibits both personal "likability" and real substance is tough to beat.

When advertising and PR diverge...

Jon & Kate have an announcement.

You have to admit:

1. The Gosselins (the parents, anyway) have participated in this show voluntarily, and the family has benefited materially from its success.

2. TLC has a show to sell.

3. The public cares about this family in crisis.

So this ad shouldn't make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Right?

And yet...

The promotion of this "special" episode, which promises a life-changing announcement expected to be about whether the Gosselins' marriage -- not to mention the show -- will survive, leaves a bad taste.

From an advertising perspective, it's an easy sell; people love to watch other peoples' lives fall apart (if you doubt that, consider the popularity of shows like A&E's Intervention), and even more, to watch them triumph.

But from a PR perspective, it's a tough one to position gracefully. When TLC launched Jon & Kate Plus 8, it was a feel-good, watch-how-these-everyday-folks-deal-with-their-extraordinary-family show. With the stars' marriage reportedly in crisis, and relentless media and online speculation about each partner's infidelities and personal failings, though, that has all changed.

TLC's PR objective here is likely to minimize the impression that it is taking advantage of a family's turmoil. Unfortunately, to my mind at least, that's a pretty tall order. But TLC probably expects that people who'd be put off by this promotion would be unlikely to watch the show anyway -- and it's probably right. The fact is, in business, sometimes the ideal PR scenario and the smart business decision don't align.

When non-disclosure is the best approach

Yesterday’s tragic report of the mid-air death of Continental Airlines Flight 61’s pilot over the Atlantic raises an interesting question Continental’s corporate communications team would have had to consider: what do we tell the passengers on board in a case like this?

Continental reportedly elected not to say anything to passengers while the flight was in the air – rather, crew made an announcement asking for medical assistance, without providing any further details, and then cabin crew calmly and professionally resumed normal activities.

The rest of us on the ground, however, were reading reports of the pilot’s death and the back-up pilots’ assumption of the controls before the flight landed.

Continental’s approach – to protect its passengers from unwarranted panic (since there remained two highly-qualified pilots on board to complete the flight) – worked out well, and all the passenger accounts I’ve heard and read have expressed gratitude at not having been aware of the situation until after they had safely landed.

The story raises an interesting question, though: given the almost instantaneous spread of news over the Internet, would the approach have been the same had there been a greater possibility of passengers communicating with someone on the ground? What if the flight hadn’t been transoceanic, and passengers had been more likely to use phones? Might the airline have shared the information in a calm and rational way with passengers, to reassure them they were in good hands before the opportunity for panicked interpretation from the ground crept in?

I’d imagine these protocols are all set out in advance in every airline’s crisis communication plan, so decisions like these don’t have to be made on the spot. This response is likely just one aspect of Continental’s overall crisis communication plan – and a real-life illustration of why every organization should have one at the ready.

[Update] A Different Situation Entirely:

After having read this post, a faithful reader reminded me of this story from 2005, when a JetBlue Airbus drama unfolded before the world's... and the passengers'... eyes on television.

Thanks Jackie!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hats off to PETA

Whether or not you agree with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)’s hard-line stance on animal rights or its envelope-pushing tactics to support it, you have to admit the non-profit is a master at earning headlines.

In its latest PR coup, PETA has publicly promised to send President Obama a “Katcha Bug Humane Bug Catcher”, which allows you to catch flies and release them outside, rather than killing them. This follows the President’s much-celebrated fly-swatting during an on-camera interview with CNBC correspondent John Harwood on Tuesday.

PETA has taken exactly the right approach: it has taken advantage of a topic in the news, and employed non-confrontational tactics to earn media coverage and make its point.

It’s a great lesson in how smart PR can help you get your message out – without a huge investment in advertising.

John Edwards: “I'm not engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign”

This morning’s Washington Post contains an article on John Edwards, the former Presidential candidate who was forced to admit he had cheated on his wife with a campaign staffer.

Edwards’ initial reaction to persistent questions about an affair were to brush them off, dismissing them as “tabloid trash, just full of lies”. [Note: the volume on this video is low, and the question about the National Enquirer allegations comes at around the 34-second mark]

But the tabloids dogged him on the issue; and once he’d reportedly been cornered by reporters in a hotel with the woman, the jig was up, and he had to come clean.

Students in my PR class – and students of PR everywhere – know that the key to crisis management is to:

• Tell the truth,
• Tell it first, and
• Tell it all.

A powerful person caught in bold-faced lies and running from the media makes for far juicier television than someone proactively admitting an affair. Just think back to New York Governor David Paterson’s admission of his and his wife’s extra-marital affairs, on the first day of his term. He raised it before anyone could discover it – and took all the fun out of the story.

It was a one-day issue – and he kept his job, to boot!

In his recent 90-minute interview with The Washington Post, reportedly his first since the immediate aftermath of his admission, Edwards claimed not to be “engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign.” His focus now, he says, is simply his “ability to help people. That's the only reason [his reputation] matters.”

Edwards’ words ring a little hollow – which is the problem with being publicly shown to be a liar.

In addition to claiming to be neither conducting nor interested in a PR campaign, the Washington Post article reveals that Edwards:

• “can't help but fret about how Washington and the country are getting on in his absence.”
• “worries about the concessions that may be made on health-care reform, which he was promoting more aggressively than anyone on the presidential campaign trail.”
• “worries about who will speak out for the country's neediest at a time when most attention is focused on the suddenly imperiled middle class.”
• believes that he “pushed Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a more progressive direction on issues including health care – Edwards was the first to propose an individual insurance mandate – and that the value of his run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.”

Edwards concludes with assurances that he meant everything he said in his fight against poverty, and that his stands were “real, 100 percent real… The stands were honest and sincere and idealistic.” The problem is that he sounded honest and sincere, if not idealistic, when he was urging us to ignore the tabloids and their “trash, just full of lies”.

Despite his protests to the contrary, Edwards’ quotes in the Washington Post interview sound much, to me, like the beginnings of an image rehabilitation (i.e. PR) campaign.

But let’s assume he’s telling the truth about only wanting to regain influence so that he can use it to help people – can he do it? Maybe, but it’ll be a long road. Credibility is fundamental to any PR campaign; when you’ve shot your own credibility, it’s a long, steep climb back.

In the world of reputation management, the smart money’s on David Paterson’s rip-off-the-bandage approach. It’ll sting for a few minutes, but then it’s done… and you won’t spend the rest of your career paying for it.

[NOTE: The original version of this post contained an error in the timeline of Edwards' withdrawal from the Presidential race; he had already withdrawn from the race when the affair was made public. I apologize for the error.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Air Canada: Customer health and safety are so 2006

You have to be careful with your messaging when you reverse a previous management decision – especially when you justified that decision with concerns for your customers’ health and safety.

Today, Air Canada announced that, beginning next month, it would allow small dogs and cats in the passenger cabins of its flights. According to Air Canada’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Ben Smith, in the news release issued this morning, "This is the latest of our customer-friendly initiatives that underscores our renewed commitment to listening to our customers and offering a competitive product that meets their needs."

That is very nice. A customer-focused company listens to its customers’ feedback, and responds by introducing a new service. Sounds like good PR.

But here’s the thing. The CBC reports that “In September 2006, Air Canada became the country's first airline to bar pets — with the exception of guide dogs — from its cabins on domestic flights. The airline cited the health and safety of its passengers for the decision.”

So here’s the dilemma: how will Air Canada respond when asked why it is no longer concerned about the risks of having animals in the passenger cabin to the health and safety of its customers?

It’s not news that Air Canada is suffering financially; the government is now reportedly considering a bailout. So for Air Canada to introduce this service, which in 2009 is “customer-friendly” but in 2006 was potentially customer-threatening, may just as likely be seen as an opportunity to raise some much-needed cash.

They’ll have to be careful, though, about how they manage their messaging on how they moved from point A to point B. In its outline of this new option on, the company undertakes to make “every reasonable effort” to move other customers with pet allergies away from four-legged travellers in the cabin. (It’s not clear what they will do for you if someone else’s pet urinates or defecates in its carrier under your seat at the beginning of a cross-country flight, mind you.)

If the move to ban animals in the passenger compartment in 2006 was about health and safety, then not addressing that issue in today’s communications is – to me – a big hole. I haven’t read any media reports yet challenging them on what they’ve done to their airplanes in the last three years to reduce or eliminate the health risks that had caused them to bar animals in the first place – but I expect to.

It’ll be interesting to see how they respond; anything short of actual improvements to the in-cabin environment (i.e. making physical changes to address the health risks that caused the 2006 ban) could expose the company to further criticism about its customer focus – and perhaps its honesty.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dispatches from The Dark Side

I was alerted yesterday to an article on Yahoo hotjobs entitled “Good Careers with Bad Reputations” featuring – you guessed it – PR.

This wasn’t news to me; I’ve become well accustomed to references to PR as “The Dark Side”. We all know that journalists are universal truth-seekers who selflessly dedicate their lives to exposing lies and protecting democracy, while PR people hide “the truth”, deflect attention from things that really matter, and protect liars and thieves, right?


The fact is, as the Yahoo article points out, there are good practitioners and bad practitioners in every field. Just as there are dishonest PR people, there are agenda-driven journalists – and either side of that equation inevitably leads to misinformation in the public discourse.

Ethical public relations practitioners help their clients communicate with their audiences, period. Yes, it’s our job to help the client put its best foot forward – but if that’s dishonest, then so is anyone who trims a beard, irons clothes or applies makeup before going out.

Good PR people are not in the business of obfuscation or dishonesty; we are in the business of communicating effectively. That can involve a number of strategies and tactics, but it isn’t dishonest: we recognize that we communicate in a noisy world, and that we have to be smart about cutting through the clutter with the information that really matters to our audiences.

Likewise, good reporters aren’t in the business of imposing their opinions or slanting coverage to suit a personal agenda; they are in the business of telling stories objectively.

I’ve worked with a large number of excellent reporters over the course of my career in PR, who have come to my clients for comment on a wide range of issues. Their stories didn’t always paint my clients in the most flattering light – but then, my clients weren’t always on the most desirable side of the issues in question. These reporters gave us fair opportunities to comment, and relayed our positions accurately. Unfortunately, I’ve also had the misfortune to deal with a far smaller number of reporters, who didn’t uphold those same standards of fairness in their reporting. Fortunately for our entire mass media structure, those individual performances don’t taint their entire profession.

Good PR people advocate for the interests of the public (and for those of the media, I might add) within their organizations as much as they advocate for their organizations externally.

PR shouldn’t have a bad reputation. What PR really needs is… PR.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Humour and “rank hypocrisy”

David Letterman has attracted the wrath of the political right in the U.S. with a tasteless joke.

Professional communicators know that humour can be one of the most effective and the most dangerous tools of communication. People love to laugh, so well-targeted humour can go a long way toward making a connection with your audience. But intelligent humour also requires the listener to make a leap, which in turn raises the risk that some of your audience won’t make it the full distance with you. And therein lies the danger.

Here’s the offending joke:

Problem is, Governor Palin was accompanied to the game by 14-year-old daughter Willow – not 18-year-old Bristol, a teen mother who has proactively campaigned about topics of teen pregnancy.

Letterman attempted to clarify a couple of nights later:

There’s been lots of commentary about Letterman’s apology not being sincere enough… but he’s a comedian. Sarcasm and poor taste aside, I think he made it abundantly clear he didn’t mean the joke in the way in which it was taken – but Governor Palin and her supporters won’t hear of it. They have seized on the opportunity to turn Letterman into a scapegoat for the left, accusing him of joking about statutory rape and suggesting the “left-wing media” softballed its coverage of the conflict.

Governor Palin and an army of right-leaning commentators have elevated the issue from outrage over what is (no matter how you slice it) a tasteless joke, to an illustration of how the media is unjust in its treatment of the right.

An article on Politico today about this controversy quotes Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, saying it “underscores everything that conservatives are saying. If Rush Limbaugh had made a joke about Barack Obama’s daughter, he wouldn’t finish the sentence before they were calling for him to be fired. It is beyond a double standard. It is a rank hypocrisy, and everyone sees it.”

To my mind, this is indeed where the hypocrisy sets in.

• Neither of Barack Obama’s daughters has been a high-profile teenaged mother.

• Neither of Barack Obama’s daughters has embarked on a high-profile campaign discussing abstinence as a realistic means of birth control for teens.

Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy is a “discussable” issue because Bristol Palin’s mother was the Vice-Presidential candidate for the party campaigning on “family values”, and because she herself proactively participated in the national media conversation about teen pregnancy. At 18, she is an adult, legally eligible to vote, to go to war, to sleep with whomever she pleases, and to speak out on political issues; at 18, she is also fair game for late-night comedians.

Letterman’s joke was in bad taste – he admits it. But to call the media’s coverage of the ensuing flap hypocritical is… well… hypocritical.

Why do I raise all this on my PR blog? Because to my mind, this is spin at its worst. When powerful people compare apples to oranges for political gain, they undermine public confidence in the entire system. The outrage over this joke has been way overblown, and even Republican media consultant Fred Davis recognizes that it could backfire on the GOP, saying: “I think it's a mistake too many conservatives are making right now. They are trying to find anything to attack.”

This kind of spin sows distrust. If we don’t bring more frankness and rationality back into public debate, bit by bit, mock outrage after mock outrage, participants on all sides of the media conversation will pay the price – no joke.


Letterman made a further apology on his show tonight.

He hit all the right notes from a PR perspective; in a serious and respectful tone, he acknowledged that the intent of the joke was irrelevant in the face of the offense it had caused, and apologized personally to the Palin family and anyone else offended by it.

If Governor Palin plays it right, she'll take the high road, accept his apology, and leave it at that. We'll see.

Friday, June 12, 2009

If every CEO were this natural...

... PR would be a much easier job.

Thanks to Jackie Shymanski for bringing this to my attention.

Have a great weekend!

Driving the brand

On my way to work this morning, a truck belonging to a local company accelerated through a stop sign to cut me off. 

It ticked me off – and it got me thinking.

A company’s PR department can do whatever it wants through media relations, or community investment, or social media – but if its employees don’t “live the brand” – that is, act in a way that reflects the organization’s commitment to customer service – the customer (or potential customer) won’t have a good impression.

Think back to the last crummy customer service experience you had, and how it made you feel about the company. Did you go their website to find out what good things they’re doing in the community, or for their industry, or for humankind? I doubt it. You likely griped about it to friends and family, as many would.

Good employee communications is fundamental to good PR. 

Employees need to know what’s expected of them in their duties – that’s a given. But they also need to understand what’s going on in the company and its environment and, most importantly, how their role and performance contribute to the company’s overall success, to feel truly engaged and motivated to work hard.

Some companies don’t invest much in employee communications, assuming people will naturally link their performance to the company’s success and their own continuing employment.  But the fact is, they often don’t; we’ve all heard employees on picket lines spreading vitriol about their employers and encouraging customers to go to the competition. They don’t think about how those customer dollars going to the competition will help pay their salaries once the strike is over – often, I’ll wager, because they don’t realize how their actions, customer loyalty, and jobs are inextricably linked. Making that connection at every possible opportunity is the #1 job of internal communications – and key to supporting a healthy brand.

A good PR department recognizes that employees are fundamental to a customer’s good brand experience.  If your customers are getting crummy service on the front lines, or are getting cut off by vehicles emblazoned with your logo, it won’t matter how much care you put into your news releases or your beautiful annual report. They won’t want to do business with you, period.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just apologize

The ongoing Lisa Raitt saga has given us another PR primer: when a recording of you saying something insensitive comes to light, apologize. Right away.

The Federal Natural Resources Minister has been the target of shots from politicians, reporters and everyday Canadians for a few days following the public release of a private conversation in which she referred to the shortage of medical isotopes as a “sexy” issue, which she hoped to be able to work to her political benefit.

Whatever your political stripes, you have to agree that it was not the Minister’s finest hour. But here’s a shocker: people say and do stupid things. We’ve likely all said things we’ve regretted at some point. When the people saying and doing those stupid things are influential, though, it gets attention – and it should. The question is: from a PR perspective, where do you go from there?

Time and time again (often in the context of extra-marital affairs – think John Edwards, Ted Haggard, Bill Clinton) we see leaders caught misbehaving, and trying to ignore the issue in the hopes it’ll go away. The problem is that it usually doesn’t – so on top of it all, the offender also looks dishonest, sneaky, and arrogant. Minister Raitt’s position on Tuesday spawned countless further media stories about her refusal to apologize and the Tories’ attempts to downplay her regrettable comments.

Depending on your offence, people may be able to understand that you’ve made a mistake; everyone makes mistakes, after all. But if you act as though the hurtful or disrespectful thing you said or did isn’t a big deal, you’re showing a lack of regard for others – which some will perceive as a much deeper personality flaw, more difficult to forgive.

In my professional life I've had occasion to debate with clients about the need to apologize for having “wronged” people, however inadvertently. Their position was that “apologizing is essentially admitting we willfully did something wrong, and that isn’t the case. It was a mistake, and people will just get over it.” The problem with that logic is that it isn’t about us – it's about the people we hurt. Our intentions are irrelevant; we need to acknowledge and apologize (sincerely) for having hurt people, however unintentionally it may have been.

If an embarrassing statement or act comes to light, it’s out. You can’t erase it, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Your choices are either to act like it’s not a big deal and draw out the agony as outrage grows… or to show humility and apologize right away.

If you’ve acknowledged your error and apologized quickly, there’s not much left to report on. There’s still lots of work ahead to restore your reputation, but at least you’re able to stop fending off reporters and get to work.

A video of Minister Raitt's apology (issued Wednesday) is posted on the National Post website here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

PR excellence, prairie-style

At its annual awards gala in Vancouver last night, the Canadian Public Relations Society (“CPRS”) recognized the best and the brightest in the Canadian public relations industry. The winners were from top-ranked agencies, governments and businesses across the country; and as you might imagine, a large percentage of the winners were from Toronto and its environs.  But two of  last night’s major awards show that Manitoba is growing into a centre of excellence in PR.

First, I am proud that Red River College’s own Steve St. Louis received The CPRS/CNW Student Award of Excellence, which recognizes the outstanding public relations student in Canada.  Steve is a more than deserving recipient of this award, having demonstrated outstanding leadership, skills, and insight throughout his studies in our Creative Communications program. I’ve no doubt that he’s a future leader in our industry.

I also noted that Winnipeg’s ChangeMakers Marketing Communications received a CPRS National Award of Excellence in the Electronic & Interactive category.  ChangeMakers has been a trailblazer in integrated marketing communications for a number of years, and I’m glad to see them recognized by the industry nationally. It happens too infrequently for practitioners in the prairies.

We put a new focus on social media and its role in public relations, advertising, and journalism in the Creative Communications program this year, and are working to incorporate even more interactive and Web 2.0 media in the curriculum for the academic year to come.  Our grads come equipped with all the strategic, writing, public speaking, campaign development, and production skills employers are looking for – and they also have an extra edge over many of their more experienced competitors in the job market: they understand the power of social media, and know how to use it to help clients meet their objectives.

Portage and Main may not be Bay Street – but our little PR community is doing great work, and is spawning excellent firms that help organizations benefit from the power of social media.  In addition to ChangeMakers, check out Dooley Communications and ICUC Moderation Services – they’re all helping their clients interact with their audiences in new ways through social media.

I’m happy for ChangeMakers and proud of Steve and his classmates, and am excited about the future of PR in Manitoba.  Check out the full list of CPRS National Awards of Excellence in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business today, or see the list online.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Raitt-gate" spurs my first blog post

Former Tory communications staffer Jasmine MacDonnell is this week's poster-child for the importance of remembering the little things (like "where you left your top-secret binder") in big PR jobs (like "Press Secretary to a federal Cabinet Minister").

In case you missed the story, Ms. MacDonnell was the Press Secretary for Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt; she reportedly left "a binder full of sensitive government documents concerning Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the troubled Chalk River reactor at the CTV Ottawa bureau last week" (see Joanna Smith's full article on The Toronto Star's website here). 

The leak of the contents of that binder became headline news, and embarrassed the government. Minister Raitt accepted Ms. MacDonnell's resignation, and members of the opposition called for the Minister's job, as well. Smith quotes Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff  as saying "I don't like people blaming 26-year-olds"; but if published accounts are correct, the fact remains that Ms. MacDonnell had a job to do (i.e. enhance/protect her client's reputation) and didn't do it.

PR professionals handle a great deal of information: some public, some confidential, and some potentially embarrassing. We develop and implement communication strategies to help every client put their best foot forward, which can be heady work -- but which is all for naught if our own actions harm that client's reputation.  

I'm sure Ms. MacDonnell is a fine person; any online reports I've read about her performance outside this incident cast her as a capable PR practitioner. [UPDATE: further media reports are indicating that this may not have been an isolated example of poor judgement on Ms. MacDonnell's part. Apparently, the binder and a voice recording of Minister Raitt referring to cancer issues as "sexy" were left behind at different media outlets on different occasions; and when a reporter called to let Ms. MacDonnell know she'd left the voice recorder behind, she promised to pick it up but didn't. That reporter only listened to the tape after the AECL binder story had broken. And we haven't yet touched on the topic of trying to have publication of the found recording banned by the courts...] But she's learned an important lesson the hard way: in PR, professionalism is paramount. Especially if you're going to play with the big boys, there'll be people watching for slip-ups; so you can't slip up.  

I used to joke with a colleague that the ideal PR person has that perfect mix of strategic ability, common sense, clear communications, manners, work ethic, and OCD.  That last part -- the part that makes you check your briefcase eight times for that top-secret binder [and your voice recorder] before leaving the building -- might have saved Ms. MacDonnell's job, and given her client one less bomb to defuse.