Posts Tagged ‘mark blevis’

What the federal budget illustrates about social media in government

Here in Canada, yesterday was budget day. This is a major event on the political scene in Ottawa. The leadup lasts for days. The Finance Minister goes to get new shoes for each budget speech (it’s a tradition with unknown origins), and that’s always a media event.

Leaks and trial balloons abound in the media as speculation mixes with officials sliding out ideas to gauge the public’s reception.

And on budget day, dozens of journalists, stakeholders, analysts and generally big-headed people are locked in hotel ballrooms, sans Blackberries and iPhones, getting sneak previews and briefings so they can sound intelligent when the Minister of Finance rises in the House of Commons at 4 pm to deliver the budget.

One of the big storylines this year is that the Department of Finance is using social media as never before. They’ll stream the speech. They’ll have an “enhanced” buget speech with extra features. And they’ll be tweeting the budget.

All of this is great. Except… It’s more than likely just a stunt to  “get the budget messages out.”

The leader of Canada’s Green Party, Elizabeth May, told CBC Radio that she felt federal budgets were becoming “PR documents rather than financial projections.” While I am used to people using “PR” in this pejorative way, I understand what she’s saying.

And the plain and simple truth of things is, that our federal government is lagging badly behind when it comes to truly exploiting the potential of social media.

Why? There are a number of reasons.

The first is a structural fact. In Canada, there is a tradition that governments speak primarily through the elected cabinet ministers. Public servants report up to a Deputy Minister (a professional public servant), and he or she interacts with the Minister and his or her staff.

Sometimes, public servants become well known. David Philips is a meteorologist with Environment Canada who does hundreds of interviews, puts out a calendar each year that sells thousands of copies, etc. A woman named Colette Gentes-Hawn was a longtime spokesperson for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and did countless call-in shows each year to answer questions about income tax. But those are exceptions. Most of the time, public servants work in relative anonymity. That’s a historic challenge that needs to be overcome.

The second is an unfortunate truth — Canada’s federal politicians have for the most part done a poor job with social media and those in positions of power have done an even worse job empowering the public servants who work in their ministries.

Mark Blevis, inventor of the “digital makeover”

There are people at the highest levels of power — most prominently Industry Minister Tony Clement — who have mastered one or more social media tools and used them dextrously to achieve their own ends. And my friend Mark Blevis has made a bit of a splash for himself evaluating the digital performance of Canada’s Members of Parliament.

But Canada lacks a true governmental champion to lead efforts to use social media as it truly can be used. So what you’ll see if you explore social media use of Canadian federal government websites is… a lot of using social media as an add-on to the traditional pushing out of “key messages” that most professional communicators would be familiar with: news releases, Q&A documents, backgrounders…

It would appear that the Prime Minister, as well as his cabinet, are happy with this state of affairs. So that’s what is happening with the 2013 federal budget (or, as the government is calling it, “Economic Action Plan 2013”).

There’s not much more leadership at the top levels of the public service. Here’s a quote from a speech by Daniel Caron, the Chief Archivist of Canada, given in November 2012.

“The Government of Canada now uses social media and websites to conduct its business. It is fair to say that it is taking a measured and sensible approach to adopting these new platforms as part of its communication practices.

Why? Because of the unpredictable nature of technological innovation.

Government of Canada institutions have to provide Canadians with timely, accurate, and complete information about federal programs and services.

This is necessary in our democratic process.

It is also the key to safeguard Canadians’ trust in public institutions.

We must therefore be prudent in the use of new communication platforms to assure continued confidence in these public institutions.

Charged with the responsibility of spending taxpayer dollars wisely, those of us who oversee budgetary expenditures cannot trade off fiscal responsibility for the desire to embrace the latest trend in communications technology just to appear “cool.”

How are these communication technologies, such as social media and interactive websites, changing how public institutions conduct their business? Is the change profound or are we just replicating the use of traditional media on new platforms?

The impact and consequences of this shift are probably profound, but these communication technologies still rely on platforms that enable us as public institutions to exchange information with Canadians.”

Not exactly a passionate advocate. Another of Caron’s speeches, at the Canadian Library Association conference in May 2012 was the subject of a firestorm of negative reaction from conference delegates on Twitter. One of the things they found most outrageous?

“Back in 2008, LAC launched its Flickr account. It provides thematic image sets about the institution and from the collection, and to date has had approximately 400,000 views.

 Our Twitter account was launched at the end of February and now has over 600 followers. It provides information to stakeholders and citizens, allows the organization to reach new audiences, and facilitates access to LAC’s services and collection.

This week has also seen new forays into YouTube and Facebook.

We have integrated the content from our four YouTube channels into a singular departmental channel, organized by themes in order to raise awareness about LAC’s holdings and activities.

And our official Facebook account has just been launched. In addition to institutional messaging and news about launches of events and new products, LAC will initiate original features to engage with Canadians, such as “Today in History” and “What do We Have Here”? 

Finally, our LAC podcasts highlight significant collection items, share expertise and specialized knowledge that will facilitate discovery, access, and engagement between Canadian users and LAC’s collection.

This will be done through a variety of technical podcasting models, including audio, audio with images, and video. 

Each podcast episode will feature different content and, will maintain a common focus on engagement with the collection, accessibility and client autonomy.

LAC has launched two podcasts so far, Project Naming and Canada’s North and The Lest We Forget Project. Upcoming podcasts include the War of 1812 and the Double Take travelling exhibition.” 

They’ve gotten up to seven podcast episodes since they started, in February 2012. Their follower counts for their bilingual accounts total about 3200 now.  I can’t verify their claims about the Flickr stream. But when it comes to updates, there’s nothing since January.

The third thing is related to the second. Over the last couple of years, I’ve taught a fair number of public servants while doing social media courses at Algonquin College or at Eliquo Training & Development. Those two organizations are far from the only ones — there’s even social media programming at the Canada School of the Public Service. The people taking these courses are not stupid, they don’t lack motivation, and they show up on time. But they feel that there’s no room for them to really “do social media”: to engage with the citizens who pay their salaries, to get problems solved in the ways that you’d expect someone at Dell or Zappos to, and as a teacher, I sense their frustration.

The hard part for people like me is to find ways to teach them about social media that they can actually put into practice and use.

So what would make it a LOT easier for both public servants learning about social media, as well as those who teach them? Some real leadership from those at the top of the federal government.

I think it goes without saying that government organizations tend to be cautious. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. One legendary example of incautiousness was John Manley proudly announcing that he, as Minister of Industry, now had an e-mail account, and that he would answer his emails PERSONALLY! That lasted less than a week.

What has become more common is federal internet thinking that lags the “real world” by months or years. One particularly glaring example was the November 2012 ceremony in which Canada’s Governor-General (the Queen’s representative here in Canada — we are a constitutional monarchy) welcomed a number of Canadians into the Order of Canada, our highest civilian honours. The GG’s office webcast the ceremony — great! But it was only accessible via Internet Explorer, a browser used by less than one in five people, and one that the German government had recommended the public stop using due to security issues two months earlier.

To this rather depressing state of affairs, take a look at the Government Digital Service in the UK.

Where we have  tons of policies and guidelines written in impenetrable prose, they have plain language, witty writing, and accessible policies. (NOBODY in Canada’s government would write a blog post and title it “Widgets, badges and blog bling.” Trust me.)

Their Foreign Office has hundreds of bloggers (literally, hundreds) of bloggers. Many departments have effective and well-written blogs that are tied to people. Sometimes the head of the agency, sometimes not.

There are people and organizations trying their best within the Canadian government. There’s a site called “GCPedia” — an internal wiki for public servants. Organizations that have a level of independence from the government, such as the Privacy Commissioner, have done some innovative and well-received work. And individuals like Nick Charney with his CPSRenewal blog are tireless activists.

But the sad truth for Canadians is that we don’t have a champion either at the political or public service level who is willing to carry the torch for the EFFECTIVE use of social media. And until we do, we will have government social media that reflects the PR strategies of the 1950s.

Partial PAB presentation

It gave me great pleasure — and more than a little nervousness — to have my presentation idea accepted by Mark and Bob for the final PAB conference in Ottawa.

I wrote a bit about the conference earlier. But here’s an edited version of my presentation from PAB, which was an attempt to argue that bloggers and content creators could steal a technique and a principle or two from more traditional forms of content creation (like… journalism). Hope you like it. And feel free to argue with me.

Why PAB is and was FAB.

I spent the weekend at a conference. No big deal there. We all do.

But this was the final PAB conference, and like most things related to this event, it turned out to be a big deal.

The back story:

Seven years ago, Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche were fledgling podcasters, and with inspiration provided by Tod Maffin, among others, they created “Podcasters Across Borders“, a conference that took place in Kingston, ON. It was a great success. It eventually went from its original title to PAB, and moved from Kingston to Ottawa, where Mark (and I, for that matter) live.

I first attended in 2008, and I have been to four PABs. And this last weekend, they closed out their run with PAB 2012 at the wonderful National Arts Centre.

Why should you care about this? After all, you weren’t there. And the conference is gone. Who cares, right?

You should care because PAB was a wonderful case study of the power of community to form, grow, and thrive thanks to social media.

PABsters are a diverse lot. Paramedics, hardware guys, musicians, academics, entrepreneurs, public servants, car dealers, photographers, lawyers, editors, students, teachers… On the surface, there’s no commonality. So what’s to tie them together? How could the bonds formed there become so deep that copious tears are shed at each departure?

In a word, geekery. Everybody who attended a PAB was some kind of a geek. I’m a communications geek (and a guitar geek). Alexa is a food geek. Dude is a beatnik geek. I could go on through the list of people who have attended or presented, and point out the precise geekiness exhibited by everyone there. And for all of them, all of us, the geeking becamse the way of bonding — that I could talk to one person about vintage film cameras and another about the subtleties of Japanese culture and another about which hot restaurants were must-visits before they left Ottawa and another about the future of education as affected by social media turned me on. It indulged my terminal curiosity.

And PAB offers each and every one of its members a safe space to let their geek flag fly. The Saturday night open-mic allowed one branding consultant to let his Axl Rose-esque vocal style out to play. Anthony Marco brought the room to  a standstill with his version of Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl.” And while the musicianship and vocals were far from world-class, the enthusiasm and love in the room were evident.

The shared understanding that brought the PAB community together also led to some tremendous presentations over the years, either full-length or the five-minute “Jolts” that Mark and Bob introduced a few years in. I presented this year, and found myself bedevilled by nerves that I rarely feel. Why? Because I knew just how high the standard was, and how much I wanted to meet it. Later, people like Sue Murphy shared that they felt the same way.

Mark Blevis

Mark Blevis

These social media tools we all use to either create or consume content are empty tools if they don’t facilitate some sort of human contact — either human contact online, or human contact face to face.

While Mark and Bob have chosen to fold up the PAB tent, I suspect that the strong, loving community they’ve created and that I’m so proud to be part of will refuse to let the event be forgotten. Remember, if you hear about a PAB 2013, I predicted it. ;-)

Bob Goyetche

Bob Goyetche (photos: Neil Gorman)

And to Mark and Bob: thanks, and congratulations. You have done a great thing.

PAB2012 on Flickr

Audio of the infamous 2012 open mic, courtesy Shane Birley.




The tyranny of the app

I was recording a podcast with Dennis Van Staalduinen and Mark Blevis when it happened — I had an idea.

The phrase “the tyranny of the app” seemed to come up out of nowhere as we talked about creativity and the way people learn.

It was a minor epiphany, or so it seemed to me at the time. And I do think it actually has a little impact, so I’m going to expand on it here.

The backstory: while I’m one of three boys in my family, I was fairly distant in age from my brother — six and 12 years. So in some ways I was an only child. And what did I REALLLY love when I was a kid? Lego (or Legos, as I referred to them then).

Back then (the 1970s), Lego blocks were … blocks. There was the occasional curved piece. But most of them were slaves to the 90 degree angle. Squares, rectangles. Flat ones for foundations, bricks for building, long ones that joined structures together or served as wings… When I got one of these:

Lego motor set

I was done. That was IT. The world had provided a great gift to me (or at least my parents had).

The point of Lego in those times was to build things. I can remember getting small kits of things that made model helicopters or the like. But most of the time, it was to create a microcosm. A world, a building, a place. And it came out of my brain.

As I aged, I grew out of playing with my Legos. And by the time I started to buy Lego for young people in my life, it had changed. The Bionicle. The Lord of the Rings sets. Harry Potter. Mindstorms.

And as I watched kids put the kits together, the idea wasn’t to create a world, to create; it was to replicate the picture on the box.

What does this have to do with the “tyranny of the app?”

We have two ways of learning, two ways of interacting. We can create, or we can complete. We can follow a plan, or we can make a plan. We can build according to our own vision and desire, or we can take the instructions we’re given and complete them.

Either way, we make something. It’s up to you to decide which way of making something is more significant, more important. Better.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about escaping the tyranny of the app.


Looking forward to 2012

So it is New Year’s Eve2  (New Year’s Eve Eve, that is) and the time for all bloggers to either post a “best of whatever”  or a look-forward list.

I am of the opinion that Mark Blevis is on to something when he talks about someone aggregating all the best of, top 10, etc. lists that people create, so you can save time and read the “best of the best of” and save time.  But it won’t be me.

So I guess that leaves looking forward, mostly.

What am I looking forward to in 2012?

BobCat House Concerts' first anniversary cake

First anniversary cake -- what will the fifth anniversary bring?

  • In 2011, I found myself in the “smorgasbord” period of my life. I saw an even better description of this this morning, when Stuart Bruce in the UK describes himself as having “‘gone plural’ and decided to pursue a portfolio career.” I love the idea of a “portfolio career” as a descriptor of what he’s doing, and of what I’m doing — PR & social media consulting + podcasting (hopefully as a part-time sources of income) + part-time teaching at Algonquin College + private training + handling membership services for OCFF + doing promotion and media relations for musicians I love. Sounds more professional than smorgasbord (unless you’re Scandinavian, maybe). In 2012, I want to get a better handle on managing every part of this “portfolio career.”
  • As I have for the last five years, I am looking forward to more house concerts. When I first got bladder cancer (and turned 40) five years ago, I went through a bit of a struggle to figure out ways of pursuing what made me feel fulfilled and happy. At the top of that list was music. Thus was born BobCat House Concerts, with the support and patience of my partner Cathy. We are going to celebrate five years of those concerts, which bring amazing musicians to our house to perform for us and our guests, in February. It has been wonderful to expose people to the musicians that I love, and to have become friends with so many talented people. I have to single out our friendship with David Ross MacDonald, which has become really important to us. It helps that he’s a musical treasure. But even if he never wrote another song, I’d still want him in my corner.
  • And that initial splash into the “music industry” has led to a recently-ended term of service on the board of the Ottawa Folk Festival, to working with OCFF, and to the plans I currently have underway to launch a new “commercial” concert series in Ottawa.
  • I’m looking forward to inaugurating the FIR Book Club this coming January. It’s been a real pleasure reviewing books for the For Immediate Release podcast (and hopefully the authors would agree), and I’m hoping this new “talk-radio” call-in with authors of interesting PR and social media books will be lively and entertaining and informative.
  • I’m looking forward to finding out if a podcast about Stephen King can actually make its owner a little money. I suspect that the “nichiness” of my podcast the Kingcast may make it an attractive enough target for people seeking to find and reach Stephen King and horror fans that they’ll be willing to pay for it. Time will tell.
  • I’m looking forward to continuing my conversations with friends and podcasting partners Mark Blevis on PR and other Deadly Sins and with Joe Boughner and Susan Murphy on The Contrarians. Sometimes you don’t know what you think about something until you write about it. Or talk about it.
  • I want to spend a little more time on fiction writing. I’ve spasmodically worked on fiction projects. But I’ve got finishitis. So I want to FINISH some fiction and see if anyone other than me thinks it’s any good.

Andrea del Sarto (subject of Robert Browning's poem)

Man. Sometimes I get a little stressed out working on all these different projects. But when I write it out like this — that’s a lot to look forward to. I hope your lives are as full of fun and potential as this.  And if not — why not do something to make them that way?

As Robert Browning put it:

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
Happy 2012. Reach for something out of your grasp, why don’t you? And just because I like it, here’s a YouTube video that is quite sweet.   

Perceptions, power, and PAB

Hi there. It’s been a while. I’ve been busy, having a little cancer and trying to get a handle on a new job and stuff. But I’m good. That’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about this:


Several years ago, I went to PAB in Kingston, an annual conference that brings together a community of people who create things like blogs, podcasts, videos, and all sorts of other new media content. What stuck with me from that trip was the power of perception on an experience. And I was reminded of that in spades this year.

Every year, PAB has had a boat cruise. And every year, there’s been an open mic on the cruise.

The first PAB I went to, in 2008, I thought I’d take a turn at the open mic. I was not, at that point, experienced at performing in public. Playing music, at that point, had been something that had an odd mix of eagerness and … well, shame.

So I got up. And sucked. I couldn’t remember lyrics. I couldn’t get everything together. It was embarrassing and humiliating. I tried not to sotp until I got through a song. Eventaully, I crubled and stumbled my way through something. I don’t remember what. I left the ship feeling like a fool.

But the next morning, Chris Brogan redeemed me. He had written a blog post about what I did, drawing positive lessons from my onstage struggle. People at the conference were supportive, and I felt as if I had been pulled out of a toilet bowl, rinsed clean, towel-dried, and sent off on my way.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, someone I didn’t know was reading that post. And I ended up being very good friends with Susan Murphy.

As the 2011 PAB conference ends, I am thinking about that night. Because last night, there was another open mic. This time, it was in Ottawa. And I was … leading it? I didn’t realize this would be the outcome of that debut.

So with the help of my friend Tom, we had put together the open mic gear. And I figured I would start the show with one of my favorite songs, and the first song I had ever performed in public. Danny Michel’s “The Invisible Man.” That song starts, and then there’s a chorus…. “I’m the invisible maaaaa–” What the FUCK?! Somebody’s singing. And it’s not me.

It’s Valerie Hunter. Someone I met for 30 seconds during the conference. I had a backup singer. Jesus.

Valerie Hunter with Mark Blevis at PAB08

Valerie Hunter with Mark Blevis at PAB08

She told me this morning that that was the first time she’d ever sung in front of people. Wheels within wheels.

I sang a song a long time ago, that led me to a failure onstage that turned into a redemption and made me a friend and led me to lead the singing and made someone else sing for the first time and now I’m writing this. What’s next? Damned if I know. But isn’t it fun that the wheel is spinning.

Here’s what the song  REALLY sounds like:




Some news for Translucid and for Bob

Mental Health Commission logo Having done my own thing since late in 2009, I’ve discovered there are things I like about it, and things I hate. Working through the calculus of that intensifies when faced with the option of taking a “real” job. Sometimes the equation is easy to work out — hell if I’m working THERE. But it’s not always that easy.

I recently found myself faced with that option. The solution to that equation? I’m joining the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s communications team in February. The Mental Health Commission of Canada is a government-funded organization that was set up fairly recently, and has a self-described mission and vision of:

Our mission is to promote mental health in Canada, and work with stakeholders to change the attitudes of Canadians toward mental health problems, and to improve services and support.

Our vision is a society that values and promotes mental health and helps people who live with mental health problems and mental illness lead meaningful and productive lives.

I have had personal experience with mental health issues and have seen the impacts of mental health — and the stigma that exists in our society around it — that makes me support the ideas and principles behind the Commission pretty darn strongly.  Another thing that made it easy to accept the offered position was that it would give me a chance to refocus on writing — the craft that I began my career with and a craft that I’m rediscovering my passion for.

I also love working with research and researchers — a love developed during my time at the University of Ottawa. I’m looking forward to being exposed to new thoughts, new research, and new ideas. That really gets me excited.

My plans at this point are to continue blogging here, as well as to continue contributing to PR and Other Deadly Sins, my podcast with Mark Blevis, The Contrarians, with Joe Boughner and Sue Murphy, and to keep volunteering as book review editor for For Immediate Release. I also will keep doing The Kingcast, my show about Stephen King.

Book reviews in print and in your ears

booksShockingly enough, I appear to have missed an opportunity for self-promotion.

I started off 2011 with yet another contribution to the world of podcasting. Not happy with doing The Kingcast, The Contrarians with Joe Boughner and Susan Murphy, and PR and Other Deadly Sins with Mark Blevis, I’m also the new “book review editor” for one of my absolute favorite podcasts, For Immediate Release.

Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, the hosts of FIR, have been pioneers and examples of how business can use podcasting to inform, to engage, and to entertain too. Now approaching their 600th episode, they’re respected and followed by many people. Their past and present columnists, including Lee Hopkins, Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with sketch), Michael Netzley, and Dan York offer great content — to the point that I’m still a little intimidated to be sharing the webspace with them.

But never having been one to let my own inadequacies hold me back from grasping the coattails of the great and good, there I am.

You can check out my audio reviews of Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter, UnMarketing by Scott Stratten, and most recently Resonate by Nancy Duarte on their site. For a permanent fix of these reviews, there’s an FIR Reviews feed you can subscribe to. Or you could just subscribe to the For Immediate Release “Everything Feed.” If you work in public relations, communications, marketing, social media, or have a professional interest in those fields, you will find it a source of great news and analysis.

I’m looking forward to continuing to review books for FIR as well as posting new entries to the Translucid Bookshelf, and I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I do making them. If you have books you think I should review (even if it’s YOUR book), please let me know about them.

Are multiple lives the norm?

I had a coffee with Vincent White of Canada NewsWire today, the first time we’d had a chance to chat in person. He’s a recent transplant to Ottawa from his home town of Montreal. As we chatted about a number of things, with a special appearance from PR and Other Deadly Sins cohort Mark Blevis, an idea came up.

I had also met today with Kel Morin-Parsons for the first time, and while we were getting to know each other, I was able to introduce her to Kym, who photographed me earlier this year. What do Mark, Kym, and Kel have in common? Multiple lives. Not the reincarnated type.

Kel works with a national association. She works with other smart communicators. She writes academic papers. She acts, writes, and directs. She has her own theatre company.

Bob, shot by Le Mien

How an "amateur" can make a silk purse of a sow's ear

Kym is a public servant. She is a travel addict. And she’s created a web site where she takes pictures of people (quite artfully making them look fantastic and catching a sense of who they are seemingly effortlessly, from the subject’s point of view.)

Mark is a public affairs professional, a podcaster, a musician, a conference organizer

It occurred to me that these folks are far from unique in my life. Ryan works with Kel, and is a blogger. Kym has taken photos of Emily, who is a graphic designer, a t-shirt entrepreneur, and a fundraiser against cancer with her art. Rob is a singer, a revitalizer of community associations, a public servant, and the organizer of a great fundraiser. Andrea is a singer-songwriter whose work I love and who does media monitoring in the early mornings. Suze is a maker of videos, a teacher, and helped create a super web site with Cheryl, who is a videotape editor, an organizer of songwriting circles, and more. And I have this job as a public relations guy, in addition to helping to organize meetups, serving on a board, doing house concerts, podcasting about Stephen King, trying to write a novel…

This isn’t the way my parents lived. Not sure it was the way ANYone’s parents lived. As Vincent and I talked about that, he wondered if this was an Ottawa thing. One of the things he’s noticed in his time here is that this is a “community” thing that may be unique to Ottawa. (He also pointed out that when we Ottawa types go to a 5 à 7, we leave at 7 and go home, instead of heading to a restaurant and continuing the evening. That is a Montréal thing, along with the best smoked meat and Sicilian cannoli…)

So I’m asking you: is this an Ottawa thing? Are we doing this more than other people? Or is this the way we all live now?

Happy weekend, everyone.

My take on the Coulter-geist

I’ve got a bit on the tumultuous visit of Ann Coulter to the University of Ottawa in episode #538 of For Immediate Release. You can check it out on the site or subscribe using iTunes. I’m not gonna make you listen to the whole thing (but you should) — I’m at the 42 minute mark, so you can fast forward if you want.

UPDATE: Here’s the audio of my comment only. But you should really listen to the whole podcast.

If you’re in PR you should already know about Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson‘s podcast. They’ve been producing a minimum of two hours of great content per week on the main podcast for about the last five years. Add to that FIR Live and the many interviews they toss into the feed, and they are examples for all of us.

Speaking of which — we (being Mark Blevis and I) are THIS CLOSE to releasing the first episode of our new podcast, PR and Other Deadly Sins. Soon, soon.