Archive for the ‘media relations’ Category

In interviews, you never control everything.

The Christine O’DonnellPiers Morgan kerfuffle (thanks Shel and Neville) this week intrigued me. Here’s the video of the segment in question.

Now, there’s no doubt that this isn’t the first walk-out, or the first time there was distinct squirminess in an interview.

Cases in point: Paris Hilton, post-jail, on David Letterman:

Or, Mike Lazaridis on the BBC:

Ann Coulter on Fox News:

Carrie Prejean on Larry King:

So what’s going on here?

In my opinion, these incidents stem from agendas that don’t meet in the middle. In many cases, interviews have become nothing more than glorified promotional opportunities. Hollywood has this down to a science, flying dozens of journalists to junkets for movies with the tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — understanding that the coverage will be uniformly chirpy and positive. Angelina Jolie probably took this to its apogee when she had a lawyer write up a contract (which The Smoking Gun obtained) for interviews promoting her film “A Mighty Heart” (ironically, about journalist Daniel Pearl and his wife):

Another example? The US Federal Emergency Management Association held this 2007 news conference to talk about wildfires in California:

You’ll note that the reporters don’t identify themselves. That’s because they’re FEMA employees. There were no reporters, and when it came out, the head of FEMA was not amused.

The upshot of this is that celebrities and leaders — in Hollywood, politics, business — grow accustomed to dictating the terms under which they will be covered. To a certain extent, that’s all well and good. Hopefully, no PR practitioner would recommend doing every interview and answering every question.

But in celebrityland, the prevailing belief seems to be that all the questions will be softballs and that the intent of the interview is more or less entirely promotional. And, if you read Eric Snider’s “I was a Junket Whore“, you’ll discover that the revenge on those who break that contract — or even expose it — can be swift and intense.

The bigger question is what this means for you and me, the person who does interviews that aren’t nearly so visible, who isn’t recognizable like a celebrity. This means that regardless of what you THINK the conditions of an interview are, be prepared for them to change. Don’t assume that because you’re a good person, you’ll be treated fairly. Don’t assume that because you think your story is positive and interesting that the person on the other side of the pen or mic will as well.

One of the things that strikes me about the video examples above is that people handled the shifting interview agenda REALLY badly. They saw that the ground had shifted under their feet, but they were unable to regain their balance and respond, so they walked. One way to ensure the interview agenda never shifts is to fake it, as FEMA did. Another way is to do what San Francisco’s BART transit system did earlier this month, by uploading its own version of news about how they shut down a protest:

Control is good. But in the real world, it’s better to acknowledge the limits of your control and to prepare for interviews that go out of your comfort zone than it is to be rigid and break when the wind shifts.

How to do media relations — Rob Ford style.

Rob Ford and the press

Rob Ford tells the media their questions. Then answers them. (Image from CBC)

Rob Ford is the mayor of Canada’s largest city. The dedicated Flacklife reader may note that I’ve covered Mayor Ford a couple of times here. The most notable post was the one in which I included audio of his interview (to use the term loosely) with CBC Radio’s national show “As It Happens” — an pre-booked interview which was 210 seconds of intense awkwardness.

That was October. This is August. And Rob Ford has worked hard on his media relations skills.

Today, he met with the Premier of Ontario, and afterward, met the Toronto media for a scrum. But this was a scrum with a difference. Listen and learn:

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This is taking the Donald Rumsfeld school of media relations to an entirely new plateau. News conferences are far more pleasant when in two minutes you can tell the gathered reporeters what they would be asking, answer those questions, and leave.

I don’t know whether to rejoice at the innovation or… jump off a bridge.

Audio from the National Post’s Youtube channel.

 

Don’t let your temper get the better of you on the air

I grew up in Cape Breton, where there’s been a long — and far from uniformly successful — history of government agencies trying to support and grow the island’s economy. Back in the late 1980s, when I had gone from an aborted decision to go to graduate school to being a freelance journalist, there were full page ads being taken out in the New York Times offering “Free Money in Cape Breton.” Those ads were successful in bringing in many entrepreneurs, some of whom built legitimate businesses, and others who were less scrupulous.

Currently, economic development is led by a Crown corporation called Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, which works with another entity called the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. ECBC’s CEO is a man named John Lynn, who formerly worked with grocery retailing giant Sobeys. And he appeared on CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning program as part of their annual “year-in-review” series of interviews. Former co-toiler in the trenches of freelancing Parker Donham pointed to the 15-minute conversation on his blog Contrarian. Here it is :

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I don’t know the details of the issues Lynn and Sutherland discuss. And I don’t know John Lynn at all. But I have to agree with Parker on his general assessment of Lynn’s media performance. Don’t criticize the media as he did while you’re on the air; you come off as peevish, irritable, and defensive.

Let’s compare and contrast with Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, who did NOT want to answer questions from the Today Show’s Matt Lauer about a rumoured takeover of his company by Google (I saw this via Brad Phillips, a/k/a Mr. Media Training):

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

So you can be cranky, irascible, and somewhat confrontational, or you can be quirky and a little bit off the wall.Which interview came off better?

The story of EasyDNS says important things about crisis communications. And journalism.

EasyDNS logoA Toronto company named EasyDNS has become a potent case study of two things: crisis communications and the limitations of journalism in the Internet age.

EasyDNS provides domain name servers for clients all over the place and is also a domain registrar. Until early December, there wasn’t much reason for an average person to know much about them.

But that was before a misunderstanding catapulted them into the middle of the largest news story of 2010. Someone, somewhere, confused EasyDNS in Toronto with EveryDNS in New Hampshire. EveryDNS had terminated its servicing of Wikileaks. This ticked off the supporters of Wikileaks, and when someone mistakenly identified EasyDNS as the villain, things went wrong.

Valleywag was the first major site to make the mistake, posting “Wikileaks loses its domain” on December 3rd. Within two hours of finding the Valleywag post, EasyDNS has gotten the post corrected and put up  a blog post of their own explaining the situation. After that, the Financial Times(registration required) the  New York Times “The Lede” blog, the Associated Press, and The Guardian all — independently — ran stories perpetuating the idea that a company who until now had no dealings with Wikileaks had struck the organization a blow.

Mark Jeftovic

Mark Jeftovic, EasyDNS CEO (Globe and Mail)

And in the meantime, EasyDNS’s team, led by CEO Mark Jeftovic (left), who seems a savvy and smart guy, were eliciting corrections and trying to keep their site and blog up to provide correct information. Aaaaannd… they were approached by Wikileaks to be one of several companies providing DNS services. By December 6, EasyDNS was providing service to Wikileaks.

You can read the full timeline in quite some detail in Timeline of an Epic Fail, the company’s blog post trying to compile all of this information. I’m more interested in teasing out some of the implications.

First: you are always at risk. I’m sure that if Mark Jeftovic at EasyDNS had someone tell him in November that his company would be misidentified as a “villain” in the biggest story of 2010, he’d have chuckled (or “chunkled”, as he writes in his timeline). But he was. One of my rules for crisis communication and response is that even things that are HIGHLY unlikely sometimes happen.

Second: as an organization, you need to be flexible enough to devote ALL your resources to resolving organizational crisis. At one workplace a few years ago, my team and I were running flat-out on a crisis that threatened customer service standards, financial damage, and public embarrassment. A few office doors away, I don’t think the response would have been “Crisis? Is this a crisis?” You need to have your whole organization be aware that a crisis state exists (not necessarily an EMERGENCY) and that action has to be quick, decisive and significant.

Second-and-a-half: Just because you’re totally focused on the crisis, don’t forget you have other business. EasyDNS was sending out e-mails to its customers as well as updating its own blog, as well as keeping feedback channels open on e-mail, twitter, and phone. They seem to have done a good job of keeping their existing customers informed and addressing their concerns.

Third: Be politely persistent with media who get something wrong. It’s shocking and disappointing that EasyDNS were badly served five separate times by media both blog-based and mainstream. It’s certainly made them more cynical about the quality of journalism. Who can blame them? But they did things right. What’s also interesting is that some media noted the error, while others simply corrected it in their online versions.

Fourth: Don’t be shy. EasyDNS was tireless in chasing down rumours and being proactive. Particularly if you’re “in the right” as they were, don’t just hope for things to “blow over”, be quiet, and wait for eyes to pass you over. You’re already part of the story. You might as well be a FULL part of it. I don’t know how “human” the company’s voice was before this, but their tweets, blog posts, and e-mails had a great voice, correcting errors and portraying emotion without coming off like ranters or bullies.

Fifth: recognize that in crisis lies opportunity. Jeftovic was already thinking this way when he wrote his blog post OK, so would we take on Wikileaks at this point? Now is there business benefit to EasyDNS actually doing this? Probably not directly. But my impression of EasyDNS has gone from zero — until yesterday when Jeftovic appeared on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” (you can listen to an interview with Jeftovic there) I’d never heard of ‘em — to “this is a company that has its act together and has some principles.” That can’t be bad.

Are there other lessons to be learned from this incident? You tell me. And attention Craig Silverman! There’s likely a whole chapter of “Regret the Error Volume 2″ in this story.

Crisis communications ought to be minimalist and FAST

Two Ottawa-related crisis communications stories have caught my eye in the last few days.

First, there’s a long and entirely worthwhile story in the Ottawa Citizen today about how the federal government responded to the magnitude 5.0 earthquake that hit Ottawa last June.

On June 23 at 1:41, life was proceeding in Ottawa as normal. City council was meeting, the New Democratic Party was preparing to make an announcement, people were preparing for the G8 and G20 summits in Toronto and Muskoka that were happening that weekend, etc. Then… this happened.

Buildings across the city were evacuated, and media and the public began to look for information about the earthquake.

But as Tom Spears writes in the Citizen story, precious little information was available from Canadian authorities.

Within minutes of the quake, the Earthquakes Canada web went down, quickly followed by the phone lines for public and media information.

The first government update cited news reports of the magnitude, not its own sources.

Media began to rely on the US Geological Survey, while in some cases complaining about a lack of response from Canadian government sources. People who had actually experienced the earthquake were leaving firsthand reports at the USGS site. Earthquakes Canada has the same functionality… but it was down.

An hour later, a twitterer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said “Pretty sad that the traffic has totally wiped out NRCan’s earthquake site. Emergency preparedness much?”

At 4:25, a media conference call was planned. The call was scheduled for 6:00 pm. The media advisory went out … at 6:24. Only three outlets were on the call. Not surprising.

One academic claims this is a result of a general desire for control from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office.

The department provided a statement to Spears, telling him that improvements have been made in web functionality, and that the failures of systems seen on the 23rd had nothing to do with true emergency communications networks between agencies.

That may well be true. But as a communicator who’s dealt with a few crises and who’s prepared for a bunch that haven’t yet happened, it seems to me that there were some missteps here.

  • The surge capability of the Earthquakes Canada site was obviously not there, and its phone system wasn’t sufficiently robust.
  • There were far too many approvals necessary to allow seismologists to start informing media
  • There weren’t pre-approved templates for crisis media advisories and the like which could have been issued without translations
  • There were too many layers of approval and not enough delegation to responsible public servants

Second, the University of Ottawa had an unfortunate incident take place last week. When it was testing its emergency-notification text-messaging system, it sent a notification of a violent intruder to about 3,000 members of the university community. The message read:

“LOCKDOWN in effect! Violent aggressor {in/at XXX location}. Stop all activities. If possible, close and lock the door, and turn off lights. Silence cell phones. Keep away from doors and windows. If it is safe to do so, close blinds. Take cover and remain quiet until authorities instruct otherwise.”

A number of classrooms did exactly as the message said, until about 20 minutes later, when an all-clear message was sent. Was this a fail? I’m not sure it was. I think it’s obvious that sending out the templated message was a mistake. But there was little real harm done, and rather than reduce the credibility of the university’s emergency communications, it may have reinforced in the university community that the system will work in the event that something does happen.

To sum up the lessons that I take from this:

  • Crises are going to tax all the resources of your organization. Make sure that your crisis plans assume almost total breakdown of systems and will allow you to operate with minimal functionality. One place where I was involved with crisis planning wanted to develop a “dark site” using FTP technology that would require complicated (at least to me) software and seemed to me to be almost impossible to predict would work efficiently in a real crisis. I argued for a WordPress-based site that could be updated from anywhere with Internet connectivity or from a smartphone.
  • In large organizations, make sure your communication plans are shared and tested with the other key elements of the organization and that you’ll all know how to react.
  • When you’re testing, it’s likely a good idea to tell people about the testing in advance. Saves a moment or two of stress.
  • Have someone on your crisis team who can summon the most pessimistic scenarios you can imagine. If you prepare for the absolute worst, you’ll be better able to deal with only the moderately bad. (For some reason, I secretly love doing this type of stuff.)

And the final secret you might be interested in:

I think that while nobody wants to see a crisis or disaster happen, it can often be one of the most exciting times to be a communicator. Crises tax people’s brains and judgment to the maximum. They’re like intense workouts for the brain. And the more prepared you are for the crisis, the better you perform, and the more the experience feels rewarding rather than disheartening.

Sometimes the easy to criticize aren’t the most deserving…

Two stories have caught my eye in the last 12 hours or so.

First, new rules that Canada’s Treasury Board (essentially, the financial management arm for government operations) has brought in regarding hospitality expenses for public servants; second, a fight between the Toronto Star and provincial public servants over reports on Internet surfing habits by provincial public servants. What do these have in common? To my mind, questionable premises and easy targets.

Let’s talk feds first. According to a story in The Globe and Mail, Treasury Board minister Stockwell Day is “tightening the leash” on public servants. The Toronto Star’s headline was “No more booze for bureaucrats.” But when you read the stories, it becomes clear that these new rules are being set out to catch a fairly small number of cases. For example, this passage from a story in the Sun chain:

QMI Agency reported earlier this year that top bureaucrats had expensed $506 on liquor during an off-site meeting and spent more than $495 on booze during a farewell reception in 2008. Although the Treasury Board’s policy was silent, deputy ministers and ministers could approve alcohol spending.

Meanwhile, a story in the National Post reported “figures released to the NDP on Wednesday show that total government spending on hospitality reached $556,880 last fiscal year, up from $435,280 the previous year.”

Hm. We have a federal budget of more than $230,000,000,000. Hm. That seems to make around 4/1000ths of one per cent of the federal budget.

And as the partner of a public servant, I can tell you a couple of things. She rarely travels. Her travel requests are usually approved by three layers of management, up to either an assistant deputy minister or the deputy minister. She’s fought — and lost — battles to offer people coffee at full-day meetings. Food? Hah. Paid venues for meetings? Don’t bother asking. While I’ve no doubt that other departments aren’t as parsimonious, I somehow doubt mimosas in the morning and martinis at lunch whilst basking in a sauna are regularly — if ever — on the menu.

For those of us inside the Queensway, this sort of rule-making seems a bit like outlawing public servants buying themselves Ferraris. Sure, we don’t WANT that to happen. But how often does it happen anyway?

Moving on to the provincial story. Apparently, the Toronto Star is wrestling with the provincial government to obtain reports into the Internet surfing habits of civil servants. According to the story,

the government has spent the better part of a year arguing that taxpayers have no right to know how much time civil servants spend on social media sites, sports and entertainment websites or trying to access websites that show porn or promote “Racism and Hate” or “Drugs.”

Keep in mind that the government of Ontario blocks social media sites like Facebook and Youtube from its networks already. The reports the Star wants to obtain are those of investigations carried out by the province’s IT security folks. So why wouldn’t the government release such reports. One reason cited is the confidentiality of HR matters. I can see that being a concern. But I suspect there’s a fear of the “GOTCHA!” story that would result: “The Toronto Star has learned that one bureaucrat spent six hours per day watching Danish pornography…”

There’s a perception that public servants at all levels have it pretty soft. The concern that I have is that stories and initiatives like this play into the hands of solidifying that perception based on some incredibly unrepresentative samples. As a communicator, I understand the power of symbols to lead. The question is: in what direction do we want these symbols to lead us?

UPDATED: Alberta Health Services CEO puts in a crummy (crumby?) media performance

As if we didn’t need proof that media training is an ongoing need from Rob Ford’s interview with As it Happens.

Check out how Stephen Duckett, Alberta’s top health-care bureaucrat deals with media:

That’s 134 seconds of pain that could have been avoided by a little less flippancy and a little more diplomacy.

Mitigating this: a full and clear apology and acknowledgement that he muffed it. Good on him for that.

UPDATED: Monday, November 22: The leader of Alberta’s Opposition Liberal party is calling for Duckett’s resignation. Meanwhile, a government backbencher has been expelled from caucus over a rather intemperate e-mail he sent quite broadly last week. Seems like a high-pressure time in Alberta’s health sector.

Member vs. non-member prices: recruitment inside out?

Is the price right?

... or IS it?

I get lots of invitations to events related to public relations, usually from local chapters of professional associations like CPRS or IABC or business groups like the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, or from companies like Ragan Communications. Quite often, the pricing structure for an event – a breakfast, a webinar, a professional development session, whatever – goes like this:

  • Members $40
  • Non-members $55
  • Students $20

For example, Ragan says on its site

“Ragan Select members always get the lowest prices & access to all ragan.com content.” (emphasis theirs)

This is a sensible structure in some ways. Members pay a membership fee, so this is pitched as one of the benefits of membership — reduced admission costs to events. Makes sense. Also makes sense to give students a break on attendance. I didn’t have much money when I was a student.

But I was thinking about this as a way of recruiting new members. Associations cost money. Unless you’re a student, joining CPRS will run you nearly $400; IABC is a bit cheaper. And unlike the old days, there are a ton of PD events out there that don’t require a membership: Social Media Breakfast, TEDx, Case Study Jam, Third Tuesday, Ottawa Brain Drain, Podcasters Across Borders

So if you’re an association, and you want to bring in new members, is the best way to recruit to charge people more? Might you not be better served by holding special “non-member events”, where you gave the noobs a discount? Or an event without a charge at all? And for that matter, given the negligible amount of revenue that student attendance at these events likely brings in, might it be worth it to not charge them at all?

If you don’t change your pricing structure, do you risk losing people who want to pay “à la carte” for their professional activities? Is it the membership fees that pay for things like the massive research library that IABC offers (to members and non-members, at different prices)? Without those fees, what happens to the research? Or to the associations themselves?

It feels like a truism to say that the pace of change in public relations and communications is break-neck. The advent of social media has accelerated that pace crazily. Many people in the industry are having difficulty with the way the practice and principles of public relations are being challenged by new media tactics and by the move to make “symmetrical two-way communications,” to quote the Grunigs, approach reality.

The local chapters of associations are led by dedicated volunteers looking to make connections, and in some cases names for themselves. Is the “way forward” now to volunteer for associations, or to do “personal branding?” Is the way forward going to make PR professional associations irrelevant?

I don’t know the answers. But I find the questions interesting.

I spy with my little eye, something that begins with “crisis”

I was pretty gobsmacked yesterday when I heard Richard Fadden, the head of CSIS (Canada’s intelligence agency), tell CBC’s flagship newscast The National that his agency knew of cabinet ministers in provincial governments and members of municipal governments who were “under the influence” of “foreign governments.”

Fadden didn’t point to a specific country, but dropped a serious hint by mentioning that about half of CSIS’s budget is devoted to China. He also said that his agency had informed the federal government at its highest levels of their concerns — the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Privy Council Office (PCO).

The reverberations haven’t stopped yet — and yesterday’s 5.0 earthquake that was centred near Ottawa was just a physical manifestation of those ripples.

I’ve not worked for CSIS, either as an employee or a consultant, and I’ve never played in the sandbox of federal politics . So I’m looking at this from the outside, as a PR guy.

At some time in the past several weeks, our chief spook does an interview with one of CBC’s most respected journalists (winner of multiple awards, and some say the inspiration for Live Aid) in which he subtly points at China as an influencer of Canada’s political class.

The day before China’s president arrives in Canada for an official visit, CBC airs the interview as part of a package looking at Canada’s intelligence operations. This is also just before the G8 and G20 meetings are held in Ontario, bringing multiple heads of state to Canada for discussions at the highest of levels.

Fadden then retracts some of his comments in a statement:

“Recent comments I made in the context of a special report by the CBC on CSIS have given rise to some concerns about foreign interference in Canada.  The following statement is meant to place those comments in context.

All of the activities of the Service take place within the law and the CSIS Act in particular.  The CSIS Act requires the Service to investigate threats to the security of Canada – including foreign interference.  The Service has been investigating and reporting on such threats for many years.  Foreign interference is a common occurrence in many countries around the world and has been for decades.

I have not apprised the Privy Council Office of the cases I mentioned in the interview on CBC.

At this point, CSIS has not deemed the cases to be of sufficient concern to bring them to the attention of provincial authorities.

There will be no further comments on these operational matters.”

It didn’t take long for a frenzy of reaction to start. Premiers, mayors, intelligence analysts — all were weighing in on what Fadden had said, and then on the retraction.

Calls for Fadden’s resignation began to surface, while others (such as former senior public servant and current columnist Norman Spector and right-wing blogger Adrian McNair) called for heads to roll at CBC for their journalistic practice.

So from a PR perspective, what can we draw from this?

  1. It’s pretty rare for CSIS to open itself up to media scrutiny as it did for The National. So I find it hard to believe that this was done without a great deal of forethought. And even if it was given little prep time, given the time lag between the taping of the interview, some negotiation should or could have been undertakenFoot in Mouth to mitigate the damage of Fadden’s remarks. At the very least, I hope they brought in some outside interview prep; if they didn’t, then that explains a lot in terms of the miscues.
  2. Is CBC at fault here? Should they have broadcast the interview at an earlier time? It’s hard for me to agree with that. What’s CBC’s job? To deliver news and to get ratings. They maximized their exposure with this story. Brian Stewart and Peter Mansbridge didn’t make Fadden say what he said. They ran with it. As they should have.
  3. If we agree that this was deliberate, then the most important question to my mind is: what does CSIS gain by having this information come out publicly? If we believe it was a mistake, then the question becomes: how could CSIS get this SO WRONG? Is it a case of an agency and a person unused to dealing with media fouling up? Or is Fadden just loose-lipped (NOT a characteristic he’s known for, apparently, or one that’s desirable in a spymaster).

It’s been interesting contrasting this with the McChrystal affair in the United States. In one case, a general known for his outspoken, maverick image stops too far over the line and resigns; in the other, a senior bureaucrat barely known in the media at all speaks frankly, backtracks, and appears to be waiting out the storm.

(Photo credit: Charlotte Morrall, CC licenced on Flickr)

New podcast is LIVE!

I’m really excited to announce that the new podcast PR and Other Deadly Sins is LIVE.

Mark Blevis is someone that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, as well as someone I like a lot. So it’s a kick to think that we’ll be doing this as often as we can. How often that is, we’ll figure out as we go. But for now, it’s just a thrill to get the first one out there.

Grab it at the new site PR and Other Deadly Sins. As always, thanks to Tom Hofstatter for holding my galumphing WordPress hands throughout the process.