Archive for the ‘fail’ Category

There’s a difference between a news hook and newsjacking

When I used to do media relations for a university, I was — all modesty aside — pretty good with a news hook. When there was a disease outbreak, a political crisis, or whatever, I could find an expert in our faculty and get that person in front of microphones pretty darn quickly. I remember the big power outage in 2003. I got a call from a radio program doing crisis coverage asking if I had any experts in history of society before electricity. As it happened, I knew a great social historian who was both expert in that period of history and a good interview. I told the producer “Give me a minute”, hung up, found the prof’s home phone (everything was shut down), called him, and within 10 minutes, he was on live national radio talking about the changes that widespread electrification brought to Canadian society and what this power outage could teach us.

But there’s a material difference between finding a news hook and newsjacking. Newsjacking is an attempt by an organization to exploit an event for its own purposes. This can be done well. For example, when there was a power outage at the Super Bowl, Oreo had a spectacularly successful tweet out in mere minutes:



But that’s a best-case scenario.

How about:

  • A fashion house sending out a release and photos showing actor Amy Adams with one of its handbags. The photo was taken at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s funeral service.
  • Another fashion retailer using the unrest in Syria to create a “boots on the ground” themed tweet. (Two of three examples from this blog.)

Or, just this morning:

  • A PR company suggesting that the death of Robin Williams was an opportunity to talk about identity theft and pitching their client as an interview.

I guess it needs to be said. This is wrong. It’s tacky and tasteless and gross. So I’m going to suggest we do a couple of things.

  1. If you receive this sort of messaging, don’t use it. Don’t make it successful. Contact the company and tell them how offensive their action is. Tell them this will cause the opposite of their desired goal (whether that’s sales, media attention, or whatever). Don’t share their content. Don’t give it a life that it doesn’t deserve.
  2. If your company is being told it should do this, be very cautious. If the idea is related to some sort of tragic event, it’s almost impossible to think of a good reason to do it. Run it past some people not connected to the idea. See if it seems tacky or opportunistic. Err on the side of caution.

Communicators — we can be better than this. Please don’t do this.

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.

Don’t mix your messages: UPDATED

There’s a shop in my neighbourhood with a patio that intrigues me every time I go past it. Which is just about every day.

They have a lovely patio. It has the following sign on it:


Which is lovely, right? Friendly,  inviting, colourful. Sadly, the website isn’t operative right now, but if my research has not led me wrong, Corrie Gibson was a young artist who died in 2009. What her connection to the store was I don’t know, but the patio is there.

Except when your head turns to the right about 10 degrees, and you see THIS sign:


Hm. “Sit :: Relax :: Enjoy” vs. “PATIO IS FOR THE USE OF BAGELSHOP’S CUSTOMERS ONLY.” What’s the result? The patio isn’t used a great deal. And I think it’s because of the sign.

Messages are important, and they don’t exist independent of each other. When you send out mixed messages like this, you confuse and alienate the people who receive them.

Don’t do that.

UPDATED, July 12: I’ve been trying to figure out the deal with this patio. And this newsletter article from the local BIA makes things curiouser and curiouser:

“It’s not every day that a business owner turns part of his property into a public park but that’s just what The Ottawa Bagelshop’s Vince Piazza has done with his lovely new urban patio and garden.

Need to put your feet up after a shopping spree in Wellington West? Or maybe you just need a nice shady corner to read a book? No matter the reason, Ottawa Bagelshop’s Vince Piazza welcomes you to take advantage of his comfy and accessible new patio.

Nobody will ask you to buy or order anything when you’re enjoying the garden. It’s a gift of public space from Vince, and on the community’s behalf we want to say thanks!” 


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.

UPDATED: Just how bad a PR move is shutting down “World Nutella Day?”

Seeing lots of chatter online today about the pending shutdown of World Nutella Day. World what-what? Yeah, World Nutella Day.

Now, I’m not a user of the world’s favorite hazelnut spread. But plenty of people are. But many people are. Enough that back in 2007, an American woman named Sara Rosso who lives in Nutella’s homeland of Italy created (of her own volition) World Nutella Day.

Since then, their site has become a go-to destination for people who like the product (created by the same people who make Ferrero Rocher, Kinder candies, and Tic Tacs) for recipes and stories. Rosso and her Nutella-loving pal Michelle Fabio also have written the e-book The Unofficial Guide to Nutella (affiliate link).  

But apparently, no more. Rosso’s website says (I’ll paste the text here in case the site disappears):

“On May 25, 2013, I’ll be darkening the World Nutella Day site,, and all social media presence (Facebook, Twitter), in compliance with a cease-and-desist I received from lawyers representing Ferrero, SpA (makers of Nutella).

Seven years after the first World Nutella Day in 2007, I never thought the idea of dedicating a day to come together for the love of a certain hazelnut spread would be embraced by so many people! I’ve seen the event grow from a few hundred food bloggers posting recipes to thousands of people Tweeting about it, pinning recipes on Pinterest, and posting their own contributions on Facebook! There have been songs sung about it, short films created for it, poems written for it, recipes tested for it, and photos taken for it.

The cease-and-desist letter was a bit of a surprise and a disappointment, as over the years I’ve had contact and positive experiences with several employees of Ferrero, SpA., and with their public relations and brand strategy consultants, and I’ve always tried to collaborate and work together in the spirit and goodwill of a fan-run celebration of a spread I (to this day) still eat.

I have hope that this is not a goodbye to World Nutella Day forever, for the fans’ sake, and hopefully it will live on in one form or another in the future.” 

So. From all appearances, this is a big corporation knuckling down on a humble blogger. Certainly, that’s the theme on the Nutella Facebook page, where several hundred comments are roundly criticizing the brand for its actions. Some are even posting video responses:

Doesn’t get much more emphatic than that.

But… what if there’s more to this? As a teacher, one of the case studies I have used for a long time in social media classes has been what’s become known as “The Ranger Station Fire.” This 2008 incident began when Ford sent out a cease and desist letter to someone operating a web site dedicated to the Ford Ranger.

Here’s Ron Ploof’s summary, an eminently useful document.

The Ranger Station Fire by Scott Monty

So at this point, all we have is the World Nutella Day website. We don’t know the contents of the C&D letter (which is more than likely in Italian). We haven’t seen any response from Ferrero. On page 8 of “The Ranger Station Fire”, Ploof describes the fact that the Ford fan site was selling unauthorized products with Ford’s logo on them. They then (VERY quickly) separated out the demands for the URL and compensation from the IP issue.

In the Ford case, they did not end up killing The Ranger Station. It’s still thriving, and they’re still selling products (now compliant with Ford’s IP).

What needs to happen now? Two things:

  1. Sara Rosso needs to make very clear exactly why Ferrero has asked her to cease & desist.
  2. Ferrero needs to do the same thing.

Right now, it’s impossible to know if Ferrero has done something really stupid, or has done something right & executed badly, or whether this is the best of their alternatives and they’re just communicating poorly.

If Ferrero has no compelling reason to have taken this action, they are likely going to be a case study for teachers like me to use in the future — in how to alienate the people who love you.

I have asked Ferrero for comment, and I’ve also sent questions to Sara Rosso. I’ll update this post whenever I have new information to share. 

UPDATE: around 4:00 pm EDT, I saw a statement from Ferrero on their Italian site. Get the update in this post.

Is your work decent? Ask yourself. UPDATED

I rarely blog in anger. But my blood is boiling right now.

I got pointed this morning to a blog post by a UK copywriter.

She called out Hyundai, and its ad agency Innocean, for this ad:

In case this is pulled, the idea is this: Man tapes up his car windows, seals himself in the garage, and feeds his Hyundai’s exhaust into the car. But it’s so green, he can’t complete the act of suicide. 

Copybot writer Holly Brockwells was upset by this for two reasons. One, it’s offensive. Two, her father killed himself in just this way when she was a child.

I, too, am a survivor of suicide in my family. And I can’t tell you how angry and upset I am that someone would not only conceive of this ad, but then go through all the steps necessary to COMPLETE it.

I’m not going to go through all the reasons why this is so offensive and hurtful. You’re all smart enough to know why already. So some advice: whatever your work is within the world of communications and PR and social media, ask yourself a question:

Is what I’m doing or saying decent?

If the answer’s no, STOP.

UPDATE: Hyundai has issued a terse apology for the ad: “We at Hyundai Motor America are shocked and saddened by the depiction of a suicide attempt in an inappropriate European video featuring a Hyundai. Suicide merits thoughtful discussion, not this type of treatment.” Note that they are distancing themselves from it being a Hyundai ad. I have reached out to Hyundai’s media team asking questions about this. This National Post story suggests Hyundai wasn’t involved in making the ad.

Bad Science blogger Ben Goldacre says this ad could actually increase suicide rates by this method.

UPDATE 2: I have a response from Hyundai USA’s corporate comms folks and a statement from Hyundai Europe.

“Hyundai Motor deeply and sincerely apologizes for the offensive viral ad.

The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval. It runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community. We are very sorry for any offense or distress the video caused.

More to the point, Hyundai apologizes to those who have been personally impacted by tragedy.”

I have an email out to Hyundai Europe and to Innocean with questions. I will update when I have more.


Hyundai Europe provided the following response:

Dear Bob,
in response to your note I like to provide you the following statement -
“Hyundai Motor deeply and sincerely apologizes for the offensive ad depicting a suicide attempt in one of our vehicles.

The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval. Nevertheless, it runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community. We are very sorry for any offense or distress the video caused.

More to the point, Hyundai apologizes to those who have been personally impacted by tragedy”

I hope this helps and you will understand we are not commenting beyond this. Thank you.

In Mitch Joel’s post about this fiasco, finally evidence that Innocean is actually not an “affiliate”, but … a subsidiary of Hyundai. Which makes their responses seem nauseatingly disingenuous.
I just received the following only partially responsive email from Innocean:

Dear Bob Ledrew,

In regards to the recent film “Pipe Job” which has caused controversy in the media recently, firstly we write to confirm that the film was produced by INNOCEAN Worldwide Europe GmbH without the approval of our Client, Hyundai Motor Company.

The film was designed to creatively dramatize the technical strength of the vehicle featured and posted just in Youtube of INNOCEAN Europe. Clearly we misjudged consumer sentiment and INNOCEAN Worldwide Europe has already issued a formal statement of apology.

INNOCEAN Worldwide deeply apologizes for this incident and would like to express our sincere apology to everyone for any distress caused.

we will endeavor to learn from this unfortunate incident and will continue to work with added vigor to become the Company that better understands consumers, human and worldwide.

Regards,Peter Kwan
Sr. Manager
PR Team / INNOCEAN Worldwide Global HQ

I’m responding with further questions.

Choose event settings carefully

Before I get into the blog post proper, a quick note: my heart goes out to all those suffering in Boston. If you would like to help those affected by the bombings, I might suggest The One Fund, which has been established by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts.

All right. On to a crisis of a much less dire nature.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty looks at a Joe Mamma bike in this Toronto Star photo from last October.

Last fall, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty held a media event at a bike shop here in Ottawa. Joe Mamma is a funky shop here in town, specializing in hipster fixies and cool cruiser bikes. In the event, Flaherty talked about some of the measures contained in his government’s 2012 budget, highlighting a small business tax credit and the government’s decision to hold the line on new taxes. The 2012 budget also elminated duties on miports of athletic equipment. Good news for an indie bike shop owner.

Fast-forward a few months: Same bike shop. Different MP from an opposition party. Different message.

In the 2013 budget, the government announced a number of new tariffs (which, they told media nad opposition, aren’t taxes at all), some of which affected … you guessed it… bicycles. Now looks like those bikes that Jose Bray sells at Joe Mamma are going to be MORE expensive. So the NDP, Canada’s official opposition party, held a news conference at Joe Mamma to criticize the 2013 budget.

I’m not going to get into the politics of this — beyond saying I like lower prices for bikes because I’m a cyclist.

But if you’re doing any sort of public or media event, you may want to think about that event setting. I’m sure Flaherty’s staff thought Joe Mamma was an ideal setting for an event. But they missed the contingency that budget changes that were likely being discussed as they held that event could irritate the owner to such an extent that he would hold another event to criticize them.

If you’re the “backdrop” for an event, it might be a good idea to be very clear with the event organizer about that’s happening. In one story talking about the duelling photo ops, shop owner Jose Bray talked about about not being aware of what was actually being announced by Flaherty, and then feeling blindsided by the new tariffs. Even if it’s a cabinet minister, you have the right to ask exactly what they’re announcing. They may tell you to pound sand and find another location. But that’s the way things go sometimes.

And kudos to the NDP’s staff, for making the opportunity happen by reaching out to him.

A bad event is like taking a photo in the middle of Times Square. A good event is like taking a studio portrait of someone. Your goal, whether you’re the organizer or the “backdrop”, is to control as many factors as possible to allow your messages to get out. The studio’s lighting, props, and makeup are the same thing as the event’s backdrop, spokespeople, and schedule. Make sure that you’re making decisions that are designed to benefit you or your organization to the greatest extent possible.

Lots of news on group buying services

Groupon’s stock price: a symbol of the inherent problems with the group-buy model?

I’ve written several times about group buying services and the problems they can pose for businesses and for consumers. Here in Ottawa, a Byward Market butcher shop nearly ran itself into the ground after trying to use group deals to dig itself out of business trouble.

Well, I have to revisit the topic based on two news stories that I saw today.

First was news that king of the group-buy services Groupon had missed already cautious revenue and earnings targets. This led to its stock price dropping as low as $3.21, from a giddy IPO price of $20.

And back in Ottawa again, consumers are VERY upset with ambitious group-buy company Your City Deals. Why? They offered a $100 gas card for $49. After nearly 10,000 were sold, they announced they couldn’t fulfil the deal — the SAME DAY they announced a $50-million deal to expand their service.They’re getting lots of negative feedback on Facebook and on Twitter, as you might guess.

So there are a few things to point out here. Number 1: Don’t go on TV when you’re trying to drum up business and support for your fledgling group-buy company and say you’re in the business of supporting small to medium business marketing efforts when you’re offering up gift cards to a national gasoline retailer. What business is that helping?

Number two: What chump threw $50 million into a market segment that seems to be falling apart?

Number three: if you’re a business with $50M in financing, shouldn’t you do something about an office beyond renting a post-office box at a photocopy shop? That’s what CBC found out.

I have no idea whether this fiasco is just one more in a series of roup-buy fiascos, whether the people behind this company are simply in over their heads or whether there’s something more nefarious at play.

But if you didn’t already think that group buys were a really bad idea for businesses and consumers, I don’t know what more evidence you’d need. Or am I wrong? Tell me if I’m off base in the comments.


The value of awards programs, punk style

Punk views logoI’m blogging today over at Punk Views on Social Media about the ethics, costs and value for not-for-profits of entering awards programs like this one, from PR News.

Head over there and join the conversation, whyncha?

UPDATED 23/4/2012: Is good news not as good as NO news?

This story is getting a lot of attention, at least in Ottawa and Canadian political circles today. I encourage you to read the whole thing, including the online version.

But here’s a précis. Tom Spears is the science writer for my local broadsheet, the Ottawa Citizen. In March, he saw a news story that suggested NASA was flying research planes into snowstorms near Lake Simcoe, and that our own National Research Council might be involved.

You’d think this would be a good news story, right? Back in my time in university media relations, this sort of story was our bread and butter. But you’d be wrong. In some quarters, it feels like an annoyance that must be smothered under a pile of wet wool blankets.

As Spears recounts, his inquiry generated a 52-page trail of e-mails (which he obtained using an access-to-information request) among 11 people. At the end, Spears received an e-mail message that actually doesn’t mention snow, but explains where on the NRC plane the radar devices were located. Here’s the story that resulted.

I’ve embedded the whole sordid tale, but if you want to see his question and the eventual answer, here it is: 

The whole chain is in this Scribd document: A simple question, a blizzard of bureaucracy

Spears has chronicled (and I’ve chronicled his chronicles at least once) the misadventures of Canadian government communicators in the past. He’s talked about how government communicators wouldn’t take media calls for FIVE HOURS after a major earthquake that affected Canada’s capital city, and how they issued a media advisory for a briefing 25 minutes after the briefing began.

So what’s going on here?

  • Some bloggers are fulminating about the culture of top-down control that they argue has created a culture of paranoia within the public service. Spears’s fellow Citizen writer Dan Gardner has related this case to his ideas around open and closed government. I think there’s likely something to that.
  • I think there’s also a level of fear and loathing in government around getting something “wrong”, about making a “mistake.” In university media relations, the fact that our faculty had academic freedom insulated us. If the expert we found for a journalist said something outrageous, we wouldn’t get in trouble. If someone at the NRC said something untoward, there would be much kerfuffling, as can be seen by the comments in the Scribd doc around the omission of the Canadian Space Agency. So you copy the world on e-mails. You ensure that the higher-ups and the highest-ups sign off on everything. 
  • There’s also the tradition that ministers speak for departments and that public servants do not. While in the past that hasn’t prevented scientists within the public service from speaking about their work, there have been rumblings that this is no longer the case. One of the  most prominent public calls for change came from the Canadian Science Writers Association during the last election campaign.
  • But I also wonder if, for the political masters who set policy for departments and agencies, if there’s no upside from showing what government does RIGHT. It may be that there’s a spoken or unspoken belief that showing good stuff the government’s doing might lead people to think government agencies are valuable and/or worth preserving, which would fly in the face of our current government’s budgetary direction. If your ideology tells you that small government is the way to go, why show off success stories?

I suppose it’s not surprising to me that as I read this, I felt as much sympathy for the government communicators as I did for Tom Spears. They are likely as frustrated by the process as he was. Certainly, I noticed one of my Facebook  friends who is a government communicator wincing about the story.And my recent quest to find out information about the government using social media to monitor conversations about the seal hunt led to a similarly unsatisfying response e-mail from a communications officer, several DAYS later.

The saddest part of the email trail comes when the communicators begin to talk about a media visit to the facility next summer. Yes, let’s invite the reporter we just annoyed and treated poorly to come to look at our snowstorm research plane. In the summer. When it’s 40 with the humidex, and the last thing anyone want to think about is snowstorms, and the last story that an editor will accept is a story about snowstorms.

By my count of positions in the government’s electronic directory, there are more than 40 people working in communications at the NRC. I’d bet that if you set those folks free, told them to court people like Tom Spears — not with boozy lunches or junkets, but with really good stories — and make good news happen, they could and would. We did that when I was working in the university sector. It worked. Who woulda thought that if you give journalists good story ideas, they’ll pick ‘em up and run with them?

It’s unfortunate that ideology, bureaucracy, paranoia, or something is handcuffing our government and its employees and keeping them from doing so.

UPDATE: Science writer Margaret Munro files this story for Postmedia about Environment Canada’s insructions to its scientists attending a conference on polar science.  There appears to be some difference of opinion about the “instructions.”

Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesperson, says there is nothing unusual about the plan, which he describes as “standard practice” and consistent with the government’s overall communication policy.

Others see it as the latest evidence of the warped culture of obsessive information control inside the Harper government.

“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.

“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”

UPDATE: April 24: A blog post by PostMedia’s Mike deSouza quotes Environment Minister Peter Kent on his department’s media management practice:

“There is nothing new in the email that was sent to attendees…It is established practice to coordinate media availability. In fact, many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff.  Where we run into problems is when journalists try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters. When it comes to policy, ministers address those issues.”

Kent was challenged in this open letter on April 4:

Open Letter to Peter Kent