Archive for the ‘Public 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.

 

Social media mind, beginner’s mind

This is the kanji for Shoshin, the state of "beginner's mind" discussed in Zen Buddhism.

This is the kanji for Shoshin, the state of “beginner’s mind” discussed in Zen Buddhism.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years teaching at Algonquin College and at Eliquo Training and Development, and because I’ve done a fair amount of speaking on social media and communications topics, I’ve found myself doing lots of “social media 101″ talks. And I’ve written dozens of posts here under the “how-to” or “SMB101″ categories, which are posts particularly useful for people trying to get started in social media.

Do I find that repetitious or tiring? I suppose that would be possible. But as I’ve been doing this, I’ve become more and more convinced that even though “going deep” is appealing, business as a whole is still at the beginning stages of exploiting social media.

Given that social media has been a “thing” for a number of years, the following stats may surprise you:

These stats, and the feedback I get from students, tell me that while those of us who think about social media all the time are busy talking about some of the minutiae, trying to figure out the latest changes to the Facebook algorithm, and pushing the discipline forward, a large portion of the people who are actually working with customers are still trying madly to figure out if and how to do a blog, start a Facebook page, or get on Twitter. And another large group of businesses have started using some or all of those tools, but are floundering.

While it’s a joy to be on the cutting edge, it’s important to realize there are a lot of people out there running businesses who are just struggling to get by. It’s easy to say “Well, they just need to buckle down and get going,” but it’s nowhere near that easy to DO. Let’s not leave them behind.

 

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.

Anatomy of a pitch

Even a little PR / social media blog like this one gets pitched. A lot. The vast majority of the pitches I get are absolutely awful. So I’m going to profile one that made me WANT to write about it and explain why. 

This is the email I got:

daspitch

So why am I writing about this, and not the roughly 20 other pitches I got this week?

First, it’s an unusual concept. A legal insurance firm like DAS Canada doing a contest is unexpected (at least to me.)

Second, it points out a serious, real problem — being able to afford legal representation.

Third, it’s in the range of things that I might write about anyway — social media related, has a business application. You’d be surprised how many pitches I get for stuff that I would never in a million years write about on this blog (would you believe beach umbrella anchors?!). And you’d also be surprised by the people who pitch to me even after I’ve explicitly written to them and asked to be removed from their lists. (I’m looking at you, Imal Wagner, who pitches books to me that I would never cover, and has been told so).

Fourth, the release is reasonably well written. I could get the concept. And they quote the president of the Canadian Bar Association, which gives it some relevant credibility.

What didn’t I like about the pitch? The subject line’s kinda clunky. And I would love to have seen some personalization. A multimedia component would also have been nice — links to imagery or audio or video.

For all I know, the people at Pointman PR did absolutely no research, and me getting this was just a lucky chance for them. Or perhaps they thought about it a little. Either way, it worked. So what can you learn if you’re doing pitching to blogs or to mainstream media?

  • Just look at the blog a little. I’m a PR blog. It’s not that I don’t care about children getting impaled by rogue beach umbrellas. It’s just that it doesn’t fit my slant. So don’t WASTE MY TIME PLEASE!
  • Think rich content. If there had been a picture, I probably would have used it.
  • Personalize. Yes, it’s a pain. But do it anyway.
  • And if you’re told to stop pitching to someone, FLIPPING WELL STOP PITCHING!

 

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:

corriecrop

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:

bagelshop

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!” 

 

The PR / journalist firewall is not a bad thing

I have to admit to some shock at the announcement that the just-announced successor to Ted Koppel at ABC News’s Nightline program is Dan Abrams. Why?

Because while Dan Abrams has some significant experience in journalism, he’s most recently been a CEO in the PR and marketing industry. Koppel, by contrast, was a lifelong journalist (and, of course, remains a journalist and commentator).

Many journalists leave that trade to begin working as public relations practitioners. That’s nothing new; there are decades of history pointing to that, including my personal history. It’s much less frequent to see people move from the PR industry back to journalism.

For what it’s worth, I think there are good reasons that PR people should be PR people and journalists should be journalists. When you embark on a media relations initiative, the theory is that media coverage tells the reader / listener / viewer that while there may be a “PR angle” to the story, the “media” have judged it worthy of coverage. Hence the phrase “newsworthy.”

There are many ways in which the wall between editorial decision-making and the advertising / marketing / PR / communications world gets chipped away. When I edited some magazines nearly 25 years ago, I would regularly have the sales manager come to me, saying “You know, it’d be great if you covered something about McBlatherston’s, they just took a full page…” I didn’t do that. And the ongoing tension and conflict was a big reason I left that job.

Publications often create “special advertising sections” that use cheaply produced or free copy that surrounds ads. There are  “infomercials” that try to mimic the look and feel of news reports or programs. There was the VNR, or Video News Release, which caused quite a scandal in the 2000s. And there are publications which simply sell their editorial space. Sometimes it’s completely obvious, as in a full-page article on a business with a facing page ad for the business; other times, it’s much more subtle.

When Abrams left journalism to start PR businesses, his first idea was to have working journalists consult with corporate clients on communications strategy. That didn’t fly, so he moved on to a suite of websites (probably led by Mediaite, a media news blog) and Abrams Research, “a full service digital and social media agency, specializing in the development of web-based digital marketing campaigns, in addition to advising on social media strategy for non-profit, international, financial, political, sports, entertainment and Fortune 500 clients. In a nutshell, we help brands direct their social media efforts to efficiently reach and engage their target audience(s).” Now, he’s back in journalism as the anchor of a TV show with a fearsome reputation for indepth journalism.

ABC has said that Abrams no longer has any responsibility within the companies that bear his name. But he remains an owner of those companies. I don’t like that. This is a game of perceptions. If and when I watch Nightline with Abrams, I don’t want to be asking myself if the guest is or was a client, or whether there were arrangements made with one of his companies regarding the questions to be asked.

I’ve noticed a trend in retail: auto parts stores selling grocery items; pharmacies selling electronics; office supply stores selling food; grocery stores selling DVDs. I want to buy my drugs and antiperspirant at the pharmacy; I want to buy my food at the grocery store. AND I WANT MY JOURNALISTS TO BE JOURNALISTS, NOT PR  PEOPLE.

I think that this sort of thing not only harms journalism, but also reduces the ability of a public relations campaign to actually influence its audience. If there’s no editorial coverage that isn’t bought, if there’s no more trust, why bother doing media relations at all? Just do social media.

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.

If PR isn’t about substance, why bother?

I saw a very disappointing infographic this morning, via Dave Forde’s PR in Canada site. Produced by the Max Borges Agency, it chronicles the history of public relations. I was interested to scan it. And so I did. I invite you to do the same:

 

Okay. Notice something?

We have

  • Ben Franklin.
  • Tom Paine.
  • Ivy Lee advising John D. Rockefeller.
  • Edward Bernays advising Coolidge on foreign affairs.

And what do we have representing the last 13 years, the 2000s?

As entertaining as these entries are, are they telling us something? I think they are. PR practitioners should look at this and ask themselves on what side they fall. Are they contributing substance, or are they simply carrying out stunts? Are they using the tools of communication at their disposal (obviously including the suite of tools that make up “social media”) to make change, to influence people on important issues, or is it about a cookie or a taco?

And if we’re seeking to summarize our contributions to society, are those the best examples we can find?  What about the role of Twitter in the Iranian demonstrations? What about the ability of people to organize using social media to create events like Twestival? What about the Tylenol crisis? I could go on.

If public relations is to be considered a serious discipline, doesn’t it makes sense that we take on serious work, and talk about serious issues? And talk about them in public? Sometimes I think I oughtta find a new career.

Live interview technique tip: keep talking (updated)

I was asked by the organizers of next week’s Social Capital Conference to join organizer Lara Wellman on the local CTV morning show to talk about the conference, keying in on a tart little infographic they published recently: 10 Ways to Suck at Social Media (I’ve put the infographic at the end of the post, if you want to check it out).

The interview, done with cohost Jeff Hopper, reminded me that live TV interviews are a unique experience for even experienced interviewees. Cameras (in this case, one robotic and one human-operated), lights, a computer monitor behind us — distraction is easy and time is short. In this case, I think (THINK – always hard to KNOW) the interview went well, in great part because Jeff Hopper was already knowledgeable about social media, and because he had an obvious personal interest in the topic.

So here’s my tip for today. When you’re doing a live interview, either on TV or radio, KEEP TALKING. The host will find his or her way into your chatter to ask questions, get clarification, or take the interview in a new direction. What lies behind the dictum KEEP TALKING means you should be conversant enough with your topic to theoretically deliver a monologue for the length of the interview.

The easy way to KEEP TALKING is to have a set of key messages in your head and ceaselessly repeat them. This is not ideal. People know “key messages” when they hear them, thanks to politicians who seem to think we won’t notice them robotically repeating them. Here’s probably the most egregious example ever, courtesy of ex-Member of Parliament Peter Penashue:

The key here is to balance out your ability to KEEP TALKING with your ability to be a gracious part of a conversation. It’s a skill that takes practice to develop.

I won’t be talking about media training at Social Capital, but I’m happy to talk to you about it, or to meet you at the Social Capital conference, where I’ll be doing a talk on “Why You Are Stupid.” (pssst: The “You” in my title also includes me.) It’s not too late to register and hear from some truly un-dumb people, including Gini Dietrich (Chicago-based owner of Arment Dietrich and co-author of Marketing in the Round), and Danny Brown (cofounder of ARCompany and author of the hot off the press book Influence Marketing) (affiliate links).

And if this is something you need heavy-duty help with, you might want to check out Brad Phillips, a New York-based media trainer, and his Mr. Media Training blog. He has tons of great tips, techniques and case studies that he updates pretty much daily on his site.

UPDATE: Here’s the interview, as uploaded by CTV Ottawa Morning Live.

And here’s the infographic:

Social Capital's 10 Ways to Suck at Social Media

Social Capital’s 10 Ways to Suck at Social Media