Posts Tagged ‘ottawa citizen’

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.


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.

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.