Archive for the ‘language’ 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.

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:


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.

All dichotomies are false dichotomies

I spent a week with my mom this month. It was the first anniversary of my dad’s death, and it had been a while since I’d seen her, and I thought it was a good time for me to be in Cape Breton. So there I was.

Spending time with an 88-year-old where my access to the Internet was distinctly limited changed my behaviour a little bit. Rather than sitting in my second-floor office typing, I spent a lot of time with her, talking. Or listening to her. I think she’s a bit lonely, and having another person in the house made her want to talk. So I let her.

A fountain pen on a computer keyboard

The pen is mightier than the ‘board?

And so, one day we ended up in Baddeck. Baddeck is a tourist town at one end of the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. It’s probably best known for its association with Alexander Graham Bell, who lived there for a long time and built the Silver Dart, the first plane to fly in the British Commonwealth (in 1909) and the HD4 hydrofoil that held a speed record for boats for 20 years, and was a giant booster of Cape Breton as a place of pastoral beauty.

Today, it’s got lots of gift shops, ice cream, a museum or two, and a stunning bay full of pleasure boats. And an antique store. We went into the antique store, which had some interesting books (which I didn’t buy), some neat militaria (which I found interesting), and some china (my mom found a lovely cup and saucer). When she got to the counter with her purchase, I jokingly said “Thank God you don’t have any fountain pens, or I’d be in real trouble here.” At which point the proprietor brought out the fountain pens, and I walked away with a classic black and silver Parker 51 for twenty bucks.

It writes like a dream. I’ve used it in a notebook, on some paper, and in a handbound leather journal that I bought in Pisa at Legatoria Dante. Why am I telling you this long preamble? Because of a column I read in my morning paper. In the column, titled “The end of the printed word, revisited”, journalism professor Andrew Cohen argues


“Just when you thought that ink was over and paper was passé, along comes word that the world of books isn’t disappearing after all. In fact, its death has been greatly exaggerated.

Skeptics of the virtual life are scorned as Luddites or antiquarians. With the arrival of every new laptop, tablet and smart phone, we are to fall on our knees in wonder and gratitude.

In two particular but significant ways, though, we may be having second thoughts. One is how we are reading. The other is how we are writing.” 

Plainly put, this is a bollocks straw-man argument, which Cohen himself proves in the column. As Shel Holtz so frequently says, “New media does not push out old media.”  E-books don’t mean the end of paper books. TV didn’t end movies. The keyboard hasn’t ended the pen. About the only things that have almost entirely disappeared that I can think of are the typewriter, the floppy, and the 8-track. And even typewriters are still being sought out (by the nichiest of niche markets, mind you). The car and the motorcycle didn’t eliminate the bicycle or the train.

penbookI suspect that nobody’s ever made the kind of statements that Cohen uses as the basis of his argument. I love technology. I started using computers with my TI99/4A and haven’t stopped since. I have an e-reader (thanks to a contest run by blogger Andrea Tomkins); I have shelves and shelves of books. I have an iPod crammed with music, and I have hundreds of CDs. I have a computer I’m using to write this post. I have my pens and books to write thoughts and ideas and stories and yes, sometimes blog posts too.

Sometimes I read things digitally. Other times I want a printed version. Sometimes I grab my iPod. Others, I pop in a CD. Or I plug headphones into my computer. It’s not about either-ors. It’s about options. None of us are binary. When it comes to technologies, we’re all omnivores. Dichotomies in this world are all false ones.

If you read or hear something suggesting that A means the end of B, or that the writer or speaker is a member of a scorned minority by virtue of not liking this or that piece of technology, or social media, or whatever — do yourself and the person in question a favour. Politely tell them they’re wrong, and that reducing the remarkable complexities and subtleties of human behaviour to a binary choice is silly.

UPDATED with good news: Deliver your bad news in person. Even when it’s embarrassing.

The Fog of War cover Someone once said “Everyone has a book in them. In most cases that’s where it should stay.” But like a lot of people, I dream of publishing a book. I’ve got a novel underway, and had a very cool creative coaching session this week with Alison Gresik to try to keep momentum there. I also would like to write a business book.

But enough about me. This is about a horrible error in the publishing business.

Ottawa writer Mark Bourrie had successfully placed his book on censorship in the Second World War The Fog of War with Key Porter Books, a major Canadian publisher with 30 years of publishing books by many prominent Canadian writers. And then in September 2010, the company announced a major round of layoffs, leaving only one person on the editorial team and six employees total.

Bourrie blogged at that point that he wasn’t sure about his book’s future. Then in mid-October, he received a letter saying the book was a go, and the final tasks of layout, cover, indexing and the like were being completed. By December, the book was, according to an e-mail Bourrie sent me, at the printer, and he thought he’d made it through.

That was until he called the publisher to discuss the publication of a book excerpt in a newspaper. Then he got an e-mail from publisher Jordan Fenn, which Bourrie published on his blog:


It was communicated to me today that you had called our publicity department to query the status of your title, THE FOG of WAR, and to learn the anticipated release date of same.

It would seem that a significant breakdown in communication has occurred in that you were not notified of the hold status placed on this publication. It would seem that several members of our team were all thinking that the other had spoken with you, while in reality none of us had. This is regrettable. This is embarrassing and I suspect this is incredibly upsetting, frustrating, angering and disappointing for you.

I am available to speak with you today, or this week, at your convenience, to discuss this situation. Key Porter Books has recognized the necessity to restructure our business in light of the current market conditions and the challenges and considerable impact that this has had on our operations. The publishing industry is going through difficult times and we as a result have made drastic changes to our house in order to adjust and strengthen our position.

Again Mark, it is with sincere regret that we find ourselves in this position and even greater regret that this was not properly communicated to you.

I will look forward to speaking with you at your convenience.

Jordan Fenn

I can’t imagine how shocked I would be to receive this e-mail. The sad part to me is that the publisher chose to communicate this shattering news to his author, who not only dedicated a number of years to the project but had gone through all of the hoops of the publishing process with an e-mail. It strikes me that having cut your workforce to only six, the “we all thought someone else did it” explanation seems a bit odd. It’s also a bit of salt in the wound to still see Bourrie’s book listed in their catalogue.

It appears that the book is in limbo for a number of months. There are contractual rights that publishers have in the books. What can be done for Bourrie? I don’t know. But there’s a lesson here. Don’t deliver bad news impersonally. Take the hit and call. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that, at least write like a human being. “It was communicated to me today… a significant breakdown in communication has occurred… This is regrettable… this is embarrassing.”

I’ve asked some questions of Key Porter by e-mail, and will report back if I get any response.

UPDATE, 5:00 pm January 6: Canadian publishing trade magazine Quill & Quire says that this is part of what is effectively a suspension of the company’s publishing program, and that the only editorial employee has been laid off. Jordan Fenn’s assistant responded earlier this afternoon to tell me he would be responding on January 7.

UPDATE, 7:20 am January 7: The Toronto Star and other media are reporting, based on quotes from Mark Bourrie, that Key Porter is shutting down.

UPDATE, 4:20 January 7: The Quill & Quire blog is running a statement it received from Key Porter, which reads:

As reported in several media outlets today, Key Porter Books has temporarily suspended publishing operations while it pursues a restructuring of its business. Key Porter Books is considering a number of restructuring options, including the sale of certain titles in its valuable catalogue of Canadian works, all with a view to continuing as a leader in the Canadian publishing industry. In the meantime, Key Porter Books is supporting its authors through the continued marketing and sale of previously published works and distribution through H.B. Fenn and Company Ltd.

“Key Porter Books has played a leading role in giving a voice to the Canadian story,” said Jordan Fenn, Publisher of Key Porter Books, “and we will do everything possible to ensure that voice continues to be heard.”

UDPATE: 2:40 January 14: I heard an interview on CBC Radio this morning, reinforced by an updated blog post from Bourrie, that made me very happy. It appears that his book has found a new home at Douglas & McIntyre, another Canadian publisher (the highly rare return Flacklife reader may remember that D&M are now distributing the Giller-winning Johanna Skibsrud novel The Sentimentalists.) This is great news for Mark. Of course, the dire situation of Canadian publishing doesn’t get fixed because one guy’s book gets saved.

Is there a PR upside to alienating publics?

Cherry & Ford, in a Toronto Star photo

I’ve been dithering on whether to write about the investiture of Toronto’s new Mayor Rob Ford since I first heard that Don Cherry had been invited. You may recall that I covered Rob Ford earlier this year, when he didn’t quite do an interview with CBC Radio’s “As it Happens” on the day after his election.

For non-Canadian readers, Ford has styled himself as a plain-speaking council maverick who will stand up for the “little guy.” Don Cherry is a former NHL coach who is now a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada, a Saturday-night sporting institution. He’s also got a number of other gigs, from a radio commentator on sports radio networks to endorsements or ad appearances for things such as Cold-FX, the Quizno‘s restaurant chain, a series of hockey videos, and a chain of restaurants with the Don Cherry name over the door. He’s a passionate supporter of Canada’s military and a number of charities from organ donation to a hospice named after his late wife Rose, to whom he seemed to have been quite devoted.

Cherry is also a polarizing figure. He can seem belligerent, he doesn’t seem to suffer fools gladly, and he would likely place himself pretty far on the right of the political spectrum. In a recent byelection, he recorded a robocall in support of Conservative candidate Julian Fantino.

And then he was asked to attend Rob Ford’s investiture ceremony to place the chain of office around Ford’s neck (it should be noted that in most cases, the city clerk does this duty). Here’s what he said after he did the deed:

So. I was a little horrified at this speech. It seems to me that the investiture of a mayor and a council is a time for a little dignity and not for baiting of one’s ‘enemies’ and crude insults.

And I wasn’t alone. Spacing Toronto is holding a poll to design a “LEFT-WING PINKO” button, and others are busily printing t-shirts and other merchandise. Meanwhile, more right-wing media outlets are supporting Cherry as plain-spoken and just what was necessary. Joe O’Connor, for example, wrote in the National Post:

Be outraged over Cherry. Be embarrassed for Toronto. Or else be like this left wing, bike riding, print media wacko and lighten up. And remember this: we are talking about a 76-year-old Grampa.

But I think it’s too easy to simply dismiss Ford — or Cherry, for that matter — as ignorant or stupid. Ford is sending messages here, and I think they’re very specific. I think he’s specifically targeting the “pinko” contingent and smacking them verbally.

Now here are the public relations / communications questions, and I don’t know if I have answers or not:

  1. What does it gain Ford to do this?
  2. What are the circumstances – in politics or outside of them – when it’s appropriate to antagonize or alienate publics?

I would REALLY appreciate some insights on this. I rarely find myself unable to answer my own questions.

"This Global World"…

Maybe it’s just me. But the phrase “the global world” really grates on my ears/eyes.

I heard it about four times today, and it just tipped me over, and since nobody would hear me ranting (except perhaps the pileated woodpecker who was perched on the basswood tree in my back yard earlier, and who likely wouldn’t listen or care anyway) — I’m telling you instead.

“Global world” — stop using it. The world refers to the globe. It is, by definition, global. The world has always been global. We don’t live in a world that is more global now than we did a year, a decade, or a century ago. Just stop, for the love of the language!