Archive for the ‘community relations’ Category

When a landscape architect says: “Stop that racquet!”

Everybody makes mistakes. I certainly have. You have too. Even if you’re shaking your head.

The key to mistakes is getting past them. This is the story of what happens when you try not to.

Here in my city of Ottawa, there once was a man named Jack Purcell. Postal worker Jack Purcell lived in Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood and became famous for helping local youngsters to take part in hockey. For his contributions to the city, a park near his home was named after him, as well as an adjacent community and recreation centre, which opened in 1974.

That park was being revitalized, with a $525,000 budget, and it was decided to put some public art in there. Great idea. I’m a big fan of public art. But, according to the local city councillor, that’s where things went wrong. A quick Google of “Jack Purcell” led the landscape architects to a famous Canadian badminton player of the 1930s and 1940s who was the world badminton champion of his day. They then designed 10 sculptures.

CBC image of the new sculptures at Jack Purcell Park, which in NO WAY LOOK LIKE BADMINTON RACQUETS, OKAY?

Now here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. According to Councillor Diane Holmes, quoted in this Ottawa Citizen story: “The original design actually called for the racquet-shaped light fixtures — which each cost $4,595 — to be strung like real racquets, but that plan was nixed, Holmes added.”

The city staffer in charge of the project says the sculptures were never meant to commemorate Purcell, and that many people say they don’t look like badminton racquets anyway.

And — here, finally, is my point — the landscape architect says they’re stylized trees. In an interview with the local paper, architect Jerry Corush, a principal at CSM Landscape Architects, is quoted as saying ““We just didn’t stick our heads in the sands and say, ‘Well, we had a design and we’re going with it no matter what…In my eyes, it’s a stylized tree…We’ve been out there and some people will walk by and they’ll go, ‘It looks like a tennis racket, it looks like a tree, I don’t know what it looks like, and we just go, ‘Perfect, it’s a piece of art, it’s your own interpretation of what it is…This was the perfect example of why you go out to the community with design ideas ahead of finalizing anything…We knew that what we were doing. It sounds like we didn’t know what we were doing.”

This is one of those really embarrassing situations. There’s blame enough to spread around, that’s for sure. The Canadian Encyclopedia’s online entry states (incorrectly) that the centre is named for the badminton player (please note that Wikipedia does not duplicate that error). Worse, There’s not a word about who Jack Purcell is on the city’s website, or on the community centre site. And when media contacted Jack Purcell (Ottawa, not the badminton guy)’s son to talk about the sculptures, he mentioned that he hadn’t been contacted about the revitalization of the park or invited to the reopening ceremony. Awkward.

But worst of all, the landscape architect is trying to have his racquet and tree it too. While Corush might like to believe that they changed their idea, it appears the biggest change was to take the “strings” out of the “racquets” and add some LED lighting. Corush would be well advised to back down on his earlier remarks to the Ottawa Citizen and take a line like this: “We screwed up. We’ve tried to make the best of it, and eventually people will forget about all this. It’s a bit embarrassing for us, but the sculptures are attractive, and with their lighting, they’re also functional. We hope people will grow to love them.”

Public art is one of the easiest things in the world to criticize. And when something like this happens the criticism comes VERY easy. It would be better for all concerned if they owned up to their mistakes rather than trying to spin, obfuscate, or stretch the facts to try to cover up what is, in the end, a mistake.

 

When organizations walk racial tightropes

Nepean Redskins logo

The Nepean Redskins logo and team name are being challenged.

Here in my home town, there’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on about a youth league football team, the Nepean Redskins.

A local musician, Ian Campeau, has filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission over the name of the team, which he feels is offensive to him and to other First Nations. The complaint is likely no surprise to the team; Campeau has been lobbying for a change of name for some time.

And certainly in my dictionaries, the term “Redskin” is considered an offensive term. Here’s good ol’ Google’s definition:

Redskin

Given the history of controversies over  names for various First Nations sporting teams, this news story fit into a fairly convenient narrative: sports team  with a name offensive to a group comes under fire. And predictably, arguments of “political correctness run amok” and some racist commentary lit up comment streams and talk radio.

In fact, it happened just a little while ago right here in Ottawa, when the new basketball team currently known as the Ottawa Skyhawks was known as the Tomahawks for about a picosecond. And of course, there’s no shortage of examples of these controversies in US college and professional sports.

So what’s different here? Ian Campeau isn’t your average dad concerned that a racist team name may have negative effects on his young daughter — he’s a musician in a hot new group, A Tribe Called Red. The trio, as they describe themselves,

“is producing a truly unique sound that’s impacting the global electronic scene and urban club culture. Since 2010 the group – made up of two-time Canadian DMC Champion DJ Shub, DJ NDN and DJ Bear Witness – has been mixing traditional pow wow vocals and drumming with cutting-edge electronic music. Their self-titled album, released in March 2012, was long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize and included in the Washington Post’s top 10 albums of the year.”

As you can glean from the musicians’ handles, their music plays with traditional First Nations stereotypes in their music. So that makes this complaint an interesting one. And another thing that makes this dispute interesting: the team had consulted an Ottawa coalition of aboriginal groups last year to ask their opinion of the name, and came away with some positive results.

According to a CBC story, Marc Maracle of the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition said:

“They didn’t choose the name with any malicious intent to insult or criticise the aboriginal community here in Ottawa or the aboriginal population in general. And in our discussions with them, it was clearly a recognition of strength and pride and character in aboriginal people collectively”… The coalition recommended that the team publish literature about how the name was chosen, “as well as using the issue as a positive education tool, not only within their own executive but with the players and participants in their athletic club as well as with the coaching staff and the parents,” he said.

“Our opinion was that Nepean was using the word Redskins in a positive way, not in a negative way, and that’s really where it starts and it ends from our perspective. It’s unfortunate that it’s been presented in obviously a more confrontational way … as opposed to building a relationship and working at it from that angle. … It just takes on a different connotation that’s not entirely consistent with an approach that the coalition is currently engaged in.”

Once I learned that the team had consulted with First Nations organizations and had gotten at least a tacit endorsement, the narrative started to get muddled. I began to think about the Florida Seminoles. They have explicit approval from the Seminole tribe to use the name. So what if someone were to make similar objections to their name?

Campeau isn’t “wrong.” If he feels the name is offensive, it is, at the very least to him. The team isn’t doing it to offend, and they consulted with representatives of the community to ask if they were being offensive, and they were told they were using the term in a positive way. So they’re not “wrong”, either. So if nobody’s wrong, then who’s “right?” Maybe nobody’s right either.

And what to do when your organization comes under criticism for some form of insensitivity or offense? First, are the complaints justified? Second, have you consulted with anyone appropriate concerning the offensive material? A knee-jerk reaction to appease the offended person or group may be an immediate solution, but you may be in a position where, even if you’re not in “the right”, you’re not necessarily wrong.

Sometimes it’s not as simple as saying “no more Chief Wahoo” or getting rid of a logo. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and if the complainant is reasonable and a person of good faith, it’s likely better in the end to try to build relationships and find some common ground or at least understanding than to either double down or knuckle under.

It’s not that hard to listen online

Man making a tin-can telephone

Do-it-yourself social media monitoring, you say? That’s not even as difficult as making a do-it-yourself tin-can  telephone.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/hackaday/

Earlier this month I wrote about taking public stands as a business. One of the elements of that post was that you want to be listening to the conversations taking place around the issue, and around your business. Ideally, you should be doing that on an ongoing basis.

I also wrote about developing a “listening strategy.” Maybe you took those posts to heart. But, you say, you don’t regularly monitor social media? Too difficult? Too expensive? Pshaw.

Yes, you can spend money on a commercial social media monitoring service. There are lots out there. But maybe you don’t have the budget for that. Well, In a few steps, you can have a listening post set up that might not be as exhaustive as some giant corporate operation, but is certainly going to be better than ignoring conversations.

Step one: Get your Google on.

There’s more to Google than just searching for that store that sells those gadgets you need. You can use tools like Google News, Google Blogsearch, in tandem with RSS feeds and/or Google alerts to know exactly what is happening in your industry, when someone writes about your competition, or when a blog covers a topic of interest to you or your business. Don’t forget about Youtube searches as well.

Step two: Say yes to RSS.

The geekosphere mourned the loss of Google Reader when it was shut down on July 1, 2013. But there are alternatives, like Feedly. What are these things? Here’s my simple description. Websites, Google searches, and all sorts of web-based tools all generate something called an RSS feed. That feed gets updated every time the site is updated. Feedly, and other RSS readers, grabs all the feeds you want and creates a newsstand on your screen. You can skim through hundreds of websites in a couple of minutes, keep the articles you think are worth keeping and forget about the rest. To try to visit an equivalent number of sites would take HOURS. This is a huge timesaver.

Step three: Make it a nest-y habit.

Make checking this part of your daily routine. My recommendation: First thing in the morning, when you turn on your computer or tablet, you check your e-mail, right? Then you do the same thing with your RSS Reader. You then flag anything that’s of importance and act on it — give it to an employee, respond, make phone calls, put it in your follow-up file — whatever works.

If you do this? You’ll be further ahead than the majority of businesses, as you’ll see by this late-2012 study that found that TWO THIRDS of companies aren’t monitoring social media for business purposes.

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Got a question about setting up your listening post? Leave a comment.  Like this kind of post? Click on the “SMB101″ or “Tips” tags just below! Need a little help or support setting things up? No problem – contact me.

(photo: Creative Commons licenced by Flickr user Elliott Phillips.)

Using online ads? Prepare for backlash

Interesting example of one of the pitfalls of online advertising passed by on my newsfeed. Ottawa realtor Tracy Arnett had used Facebook’s new promoted posts feature on Facebook. Available since May, this new feature allows a specific post to be pushed into people’s newsfeeds (this is different from Facebook ads, which appear in the sidebar of a Facebook profile). The one I saw advertised a condominium apartment.

But what really caught my eye was the first comment on the post. Take a look:

A screenshot of Tracy Arnett Facebook advertisement

 

To the credit of the realtor, she responded exceptionally well. Apologize for the offense, explain calmly and carefully why it happened, offer a solution.

When I went to the realtor’s Facebook page, I noted the following messages as well:

Arnett Facebook page screen capture

But it points out to businesses using new social media options for advertising such as sponsored posts on social networks that they may well tick off people who see them. Be prepared to receive angry — even intemperate — feedback, and to respond in a measured and factual manner. Imagine if the realtor had responded by saying “Look, if you don’t like it just hit ignore, okay? It’s not my problem”!

And in fact, depending on the type of advertising you’re planning on doing and the nature of your business or organization, the potential for negative responses might well dissuade you from doing such advertising. Proceed carefully!

When and how your business should take a stand

It’s easy for a business or organization to shy away from taking public stands. Don’t want to offend anyone, right? But when should you take a public stand on something? And how best to do it?

I started to think about this when I saw a stand Toronto Public Health took on July 22.

Toronto Public Health went to Twitter to call for ABC to not add celebrity Jenny McCarthy as a permanent host of their morning talk show The View. McCarthy, originally a Playboy model, has developed a career as an actress, an author, and more recently as an anti-vaccination activist. She has said her son Evan was diagnosed with autism, that the autism was caused by vaccines, and that he has recovered from autism. In a CNN op-ed, she (and then partner Jim Carrey) wrote: “We believe what helped Evan recover was starting a gluten-free, casein-free diet, vitamin supplementation, detox of metals, and anti-fungals for yeast overgrowth that plagued his intestines. Once Evan’s neurological function was recovered through these medical treatments, speech therapy and applied behavior analysis helped him quickly learn the skills he could not learn while he was frozen in autism. After we implemented these therapies for one year, the state re-evaluated Evan for further services. They spent five minutes with Evan and said, ‘What happened? We’ve never seen a recovery like this.’”

McCarthy’s hiring has sparked a significant controversy. The blog post announcing the hiring has hundreds of comments, some supportive, more critical (in my estimation).

So why would Toronto Public Health, a Canadian city agency, go public on this?

I twice asked for an interview with Toronto Public Health, but they chose not to make someone available to me. So I’m going to speculate a little, based on the media release and material they sent me (I guess if I’m wrong enough, they’ll ask for a correction.)

First is the numbers argument, which was amply illustrated by this infographic they distributed when they went public.

ImpactOfVaccines

When you look at the reduction in incidence of some very serious, if not fatal, diseases, I would suspect that public health professionals felt the potential for misinformation by McCarthy (both explicit misinformation from her discussing her views on the show and the belief that her appearing on the show would lend her credibility) was more important than the risks of going public.

Second, I would guess that there was a discussion of whether going public with opposition would in itself lead to publicizing her views more.

Third, I would assume that  while it was more or less certain that Toronto Public Health would gain some widespread attention as a result of their stand, they were more interested in raising awareness of the importance of immunization in their local market.

A media backgrounder from the agency tells of a local outbreak of measles that had been caused by parents delaying childhood measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination.

It’s uncommon for a private-sector company will take a proactive stand on an issue, and it’s rare that government departments will do the same (excluding policy decisions, which are government stock in trade, and politicians taking positions, which they do all the time – it’s kind of their job). It’s much more common to see not-for-profits or associations take on the task of taking on a point of principle. But businesses taking stands is far from unheard of: in the US, the same-sex marriage debate has seen corporate interventions on both the pro side (Starbucks’s Howard Schultz telling a shareholder unhappy with the coffee giant’s support of same-sex marriage to sell his shares) and the con side (Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy tweeting that the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act was a “sad day” for the US), to point out just one example.

So when you see something happening that your company seems to have an interest in, think about whether you want to take a public stand. Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of the risks of speaking out as well as the potential benefits. Prepare yourself for backlash or criticism. Think outside your own organization and supporters. Brainstorm what the strongest opposition to your stand would or could be.
  • Decide how relevant the issue you’re looking at is to your organization’s mission. You might have a strong opinion on vaccination. But if your organization doesn’t have a lear link to some aspect of the issue, you run the risk of being accused of “newsjacking” or just making people go, “huh?”
  • Ensure you have senior-level commitment to the position. This HAS to be something the leadership of the organization must be comfortable with.
  • Base your arguments on information and fact, not on purely emotional appeals, and vet your messaging very carefully.
  • Don’t hide any interests your company or organization has in the issue. Transparency will lessen the probability that someone will come back later and attack you for a bias you didn’t disclose.
  • Have a listening post set up to monitor the progress of the conversation both before and after you intervene. (I’m going to write about this later this week).

 

Windowfarms is harvesting crowdfunded discontent

It’s hard not to love crowdfunding. I’ve participated in a pile of them. Musicians trying to record a CD? Where do I click? Woman turning a cancer diagnosis into a movement to advocate for more research and to provide items of comfort to folks with cancer? I’m in.

So I was really disappointed to see a story pop up on the CBC website today about a Kickstarter project that seems to have gone wrong.

In a nutshell:

  1. In 2009, a woman in New York named Britta Riley came up with an idea for a “window farm” where people could grow food in their windows – perfect for apartments and small spaces.
  2. In 2011, she went to Kickstarter to raise $50,000 to make a more commercial version of her Windowfarm. She hit the jackpot and raised more than $250K!
  3. By today, there’s a Windowfarms company that claims more than 40,000 people worldwide are growing food in their windows. Yay, right?
  4. There’s also a Windowfarms community online that is used to further develop the product.

In the meantime, Britta Riley became celebrated for her idea and her work. Here she is speaking at a TEDx conference:

But there’s a fly in the ointment. If you look at the most recent comment on the TEDx video, it’s about people who donated to the company’s Kickstarter and still haven’t gotten the benefits promised. And that’s what the CBC story focused on.

According to CBC, more than 150 people in Canada donated and expected rewards. The Kickstarter page for the campaign is pretty clear on what people would get, when they could expect it, and the like. And it’s been more than a year.

The bigger problem here is that the company seems to have stopped talking to these disappointed people, which has made them angry. If you need to see how angry, check out some of the messages on the Windowfarms Facebook page.

So there are some problems here. First off, Windowfarms is breaking the agreement that they made when they did their Kickstarter campaign. They’re legally in the wrong. And they’re morally in the wrong too. Founder Britta Riley apparently issued a statement to CBC, but there’s no real attempt to address the issues that people are bringing up, and they seem to be ignoring those complaints. In the meantime, they’ve also gotten themselves an “F” rating from their Better Business Bureau.

I want this to get better. I’d like to see Windowfarms FedEx 153 kits to their Canadian stakeholders. And then apologize to them. We all fail from time to time. Even when we’re trying to do good. The key to this is not that you failed. It’s that you picked up the pieces and moved on.

One of my favorite quotations is from Samuel Beckett. And it’s not about success. It’s about failure.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Hope you’re listening, Windowfarms. Because it’s time to fail better.

Why scaling up is as scary as falling apart

Lots of talk recently in my neck of hte woods about the Amnesia Rock Festival. It happened June 14-15, with 90 acts from Anthrax to Alice Cooper to Fucked Up to the Dropkick Murphys filling a field in the small West Quebec town of Montebello.

By all accounts, the music was great. But some are calling the festival an “organizational shitshow“, some bands weren’t happy that they had to pay to play, and a village councillor and others are pointing at an “ocean of pee”, giant unwieldy lineups to get in and out, shuttle buses that stopped running with thousands of people waiting to get back to campsites… And a few days afterward, the site is still quite a mess.

Concert fans at Amnesia Rockfest

It’s easy to go from this…

… to this, when you’re a business trying to scale

Organizer Alex Martel spent several days incognito, then began to speak with reporters yesterday, explaining that people were congratulating him onsite on pulling the festival off.

I know the territory that Martel is on a little bit. Music festivals are giant endeavors. There’s the money side — you contract to spend money that you hop you’ll earn back; there’s the logistics side — thousands of people showing up at an outdoor site expecting to be fed, watered, and go to the bathroom in relative comfort while the sound and lights are tip-top. In this case, there’s the complication of remote campign sites and shuttle buses. So much can go wrong, so quickly.

Since I wasn’t at the festival, I can’t say with any certainty just how gigantic a failure or success it was. But it’s a great demonstration of the difficulties all businesses can experience in scaling up.

When you start a project, it can be easy — you do EVERYTHING, and everything comes back to you. When it grows, you have to start growing with it. Maybe that means staff, or volunteers, or renting an office, or hiring subcontractors… and it gets complex. Sometimes you discover that you’ve gone from someone doing what you’re best at and passionate about to someone doing things that you really don’t enjoy.

There was a time when I was doing media relations, and then I became a manager of media relations.  It was only after I left the job that I realized just how little I had enjoyed managing people who reported to me.

I’ve seen lots of friends join startup companies that are hiring like crazy, growing like mad. And many times, those companies have crashed and burned. If you’re on the upswing as an organization, hooray! But don’t get so enthralled with the venture-capital money, the kudos, the excitement that you forget that you’re always just a few missteps away from total calamity.

And when you are blowing up the world with your products or services, remember that you’re most vulnerable to customer service prolems, communication breakdowns, and the things that can start out small but end up as fully-fledged crises. The solution?

Stay open. Use all the communication channels you’ve established. Meet your audiences where they are — at the checkout, on Twitter, Facebook or whatever other social media tools they use. Acknowledge problems, work to solve them, explain why they’re happening, and try not to make the same mistakes twice. Shutting down the lines of communication, hiding away, and moaning that people “just don’t understand how hard it is.”

If you talk to them about what you’re doing, they WILL understand. If you get defensive, they’ll stop caring and stop listening.

Not-for-profits, social media, and accountability

One of the things that social media offers EVERYONE is the chance to present important work to the world in engaging ways. Proof? Just look at a map from the James McGregor Stewart society in Nova Scotia. I think if you read this post, you’ll see that even the most underresourced organization can use online tools to do good work and spread it.

First, the inspiration. Parker Donham, an old acquaintance from my days as a freelancer for CBC Radio in Sydney, wrote in a June 5 Contrarian post:

The James McGregor Stewart Society, a small voluntary group with a single summer intern, has managed to pull off in a month what the Disabled Persons Commission of NS (annual budget: $600,000) and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ($2.1 million) have not achieved in the decades of their existence.

It has surveyed the accessibility of MLAs offices throughout the province. The results will not be a source of pride for Nova Scotia or its legislators.

So, the back story:

The James McGregor Stewart Society’s prime mover, a guy named Gus Reed, got a question from his intern. She wanted to find out  how easy is it for people with disabilities to meet with their elected representatives? So, simplicity itself. She phoned each of the 52 MLAs’ constitutency offices and asked them some very simple questions about accessibility. Here’s what they asked:

  1. Does your office have parking? If so, is it paved? Does it have designated accessible spots?
  2. Is there a power door button?
  3. Is your entrance accessible (level, ramped, and / or elevator?)? Does it have a portable or other questionable ramp? Does it have a step or stairs?
  4. Is the washroom large enough for a wheelchair? Are there grab bars and/or a wheel-under sink?
  5. Is your office on an accessible transit route?

With this, they assigned points so that MLAs could score between -1 and 6.

Here are the results:

MLA Accessibility map

The mean score was 3. Keep in mind, you could get a 3 by having a disabled parking space at your office and having a door at street level. If you had an accessible washroom you’d get a 5.  So a mean score of 3 is not exactly inspiring.

I spent a little time trying to get a handle on the Nova Scotia government’s accessibility policy. As best as I can understand it, buildings constructed since the 1990s, or buildings that have changed their purpose (from a house to a retail store, for example) are required to conform to the provincial building code, which mandates a number of measures to ensure disabled people can get access. (The building code regulations are here, and the province’s 1986 Building Access act is here.)  Unfortunately, calls and emails to the province’s Human Rights Commission and Disabled Persons Commission resulted in little useful information. However, a cheerful fellow at the  provincial department of Labour and Advanced Education (which is responsible for the building code) walked me through the regulations so that I got a cursory understanding of them.

The shameful level of accessibility is one thing. But I’m not an accessibility blogger – I’m a PR and social media blogger. So I’m gonna take on that aspect of this.

What really caught my eye in Parker Donham’s post was that nobody else had done this sort of survey before. Certainly, it’s not a technical challenge; simply pick up the phone 52 times and you’re done.

But what social media now offers is the opportunity to disseminate these findings in a graphically-rich way quickly, easily, and widely. No wire service needed, no fancy-dan graphic designers. Just Google Maps, Blogger, and email.

I spoke with Gus Reed on Skype on June 6, and he told me they weren’t sure what would happen with this survey. With no staff, the James McGregor Stewart Society has no “machine” to churn out a mass of followup documents. And this story may not make a dent in the media or in Nova Scotia government policy.

I want to draw out some public relations and social media lessons for both activist groups and for those who are their likely targets — large corporations, organizations, or government.

For activists:  

  1. Do solid work — like calling all 52 constituency offices, and tell your story well. Don’t focus only on media attention. A well-told story, like “people in wheelchairs can’t participate in basic democracy” is going to make people stop and read. If your work is shoddy or bloggers or media get burned, though, good luck getting someone to listen a second time.
  2. Use the resources you have at your disposal. In this case, the society has a blog on Blogger. Sure, they could get more fancy. But they haven’t. They used Google Maps to visualize and annotate their data. Gus Reed used Skype to give me more information.
  3. Have a plan. Even if you’re not going to push hard on the media front, doing the work requires followup. What will your next steps be? Once you do them, what’s next? Even for voluntary organizations with no staff, this stuff isn’t a closed circle, it’s lather, rinse, repeat. (Hint: there are lots of municipalities in Nova Scotia to look at, Mr Reed. Hint 2: There are 12 other legislatures that groups could survey in exactly the same way.)

For organizations:

  1. Do not look at this as a threat. Look at it as an opportunity. Even if it’s critical. And especially if, deep down, you know the criticism is well-founded.
  2. Do not ignore small organizations as powerless. The “amplification effect” may leave you chasing down a forest fire.
  3. Respond. Promptly and substantively.

What we have here…

Here in Ottawa, the most concentrated area for tourists is called the Byward Market. This historic market dates to when the city was called Bytown, after its founder, Colonel John By. And while you can still get your cheese, produce, or meat in the Byward Market, there are more than 100 bars and restaurants that compete for thirsty locals and peckish tourist, and occasionally for the Rolling Stones, who filmed a video in the legendary Zaphod Beeblebrox.

When President Barack Obama visited Ottawa few years ago, he made a side trip to a Byward Market bakery called Le Moulin de Provence to pick up some cookies for his kids:

But that bakery, a bunch of others, and the business improvement area which represents the neighbourhood’s businesses, are not too happy these days. Over the next few weeks, about 25 businesses in this area will be losing power overnight, as Hydro Ottawa, the city’s power authority, works on an underground hydro vault.

The utility provided the businesses with two weeks’ notice. Moulin owner Claude Bonnet told CBC that he looked into a generator, but that $20,000 for three weeks’ rental couldn’t be justified. At least one nightclub has coughed up for a generator; other restaurants have reduced their service hours, and the bakery is reducing hours and struggling to rework its baking schedule.

So what’s to learn here? I guess there are two lessons. First off, while Hydro Ottawa has told media it consulted with businesses, it apparently didn’t consult widely enough. And it’s hard to imagine why this work would be scheduled during the start of Ottawa’s tourist season when we have months of winter when the work could have been done, and why business owners could only be given two weeks’ notice. It’s one thing to cut off power to my house overnight; I may miss an alarm or have to set up a battery-powered alarm clock. But when you’re a food business in the premier Ottawa tourist destination, it’s not an inconvenience, it’s a disaster.

And for businesses like Le Moulin de Provence, interruption strategies are crucial. I’ve done tons of crisis communications sessions where the organization has said “but that would NEVER happen.” I’m sure that M. Bonnet would have said “Hydro Ottawa would never cut off our power three nights per week for three weeks! We’re paying customers!” Just because an event is unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

So… what we have here…

is a failure to communicate.

Gobbling up social media research? Caveat lector.

Not so long ago, my friend Dennis posted an infographic about the misuse (accidential or wilful) of data in infographics. In a handy infographic format. I’m going to take the opportunity to embed it below. It’s worth keeping.

But Dennis’s nifty graphic only tells us about one place where we can be led into temptation — the infographic.

I happened upon a newsletter today that made me think of how easy it is to make marketing and communication decisions or take action based on information that should be questioned.

Mobile Commerce Daily reported on May 29 that “44pc of shoppers will never return to sites that are not mobile friendly: report.” The story is based entirely on a survey carried out by US software company Kentico, which makes content management systems. Kentico issued a news release about the survey on May 28, but it could be that the newsletter had an embargoed copy of the release.

The information is interesting. For example, it says that nearly 9 in 10 people with smartphones use them to compare products to competitors. And 45% do it right in the store, underlining the practice of “showrooming.”

But… in the newsletter story, there’s no information at all about the survey data. Even more frustrating is the lack of a link to the source data. I tracked down Kentico, then hit their press centre, where the news release about the survey sits. If you go to the Kentico site, you discover that the data-gathering part of this survey consisted of “More than 300 US residents 18 years old and over participated in the Kentico Mobile Experience Survey, conducted online during the month of April, 2013.”

Now, a survey sample is neither good nor bad. The point is to understand that sample. Was it a random sample? Did the participants selfselect? I couldn’t tell anything more than what I just said, because Kentico didn’t link to the survey itself or a more detailed report of its findings.

I contacted Kentico’s PR company, and Chris Blake of MSR Communications was prompt, open and detailed in his responses to my questions. He gave me demographic information that SurveyMonkey, the tool they used to do the research, provided, and a copy of the questionnaire. After a brief perusal of some USA census data, I learned that their sample of 300 people skewed only slightly more male, somewhat older, and way more educated than the US general population, for one thing. And the data provided on their sample gives me a sense of the potential sampling error rate (while Chris Blake suggests a ±5% margin of error, I’m thinking more like ±10%).

I don’t think there’s ANYTHING bogus about the survey results here. But I needed to take a fair amount of time to convince myself of that. And there are many occasions on which I find the data or survey results so problematic that I forget about using them.

There’s a flood of survey results and other materials that get published by the originators of the information, by newsletters, and by people like me every minute of every day. It’s easy to take everything at face value. But think twice. As a teacher of social media, I’m constantly looking for good data to share with students. As a consultant, I’m looking for information that I can use to help clients make sound decisions. But it is dangerous to see a newsletter article and use it to tell students or clients to base their actions on the data it contains.

Back in the days when ink and paper cost money, I understand the need for brevity and concision. But these newsletters are electronic. Pixels don’t cost anything but the time to write. And if you’re not going to disclose proprietary or competitive information, why not make as much information as you can readily available?

The more easily people like me can peruse your research, the more likely we’ll be to accept its conclusions. The more difficulty we have understanding the process behind the numbers, the more skeptical we become (or at least the more skeptical we SHOULD become).

And if you’re in business and trying to grapple with the challenges of communicating using social media, either desktop-style or mobile, make sure to ask questions EVERY time you see statistics and survey results. You don’t want to have to explain to your boss why you made a bad marketing or sales decision based on data you found in a press release and didn’t vet.

It’s too generous to assume that just because someone writes a newsletter, they’re doing your due diligence for you.

Here’s Dennis’s great graphic: