Friday, June 26, 2009


Veritas Team Huddle compiled by Lisa An.

Every year, the MuchMusic Video Awards attracts quite a bit of publicity, before and after the event, and this year was no exception. The drama at this year’s awards involved celebrity blogger Perez Hilton (real name Mario Lavanderia) who attended the event as a presenter and the hip-hop group Black-Eyed Peas. According to Hilton, he was allegedly assaulted by, a member of the Peas, at an after party. Rather than calling the police following the altercation, Hilton posted a series of messages on his Twitter page requesting that readers contact the authorities for him. In response, issued his own Twitter messages and a video statement shortly after the incident. Not to be outdone, Hilton responded to those messages with a 12-minute video statement on his website. Phew! Mud slinging aside from both parties, most of the Veritas team agree that Mr. Hilton Fumbled this play big time. Admittedly he stayed true to his brand—he is the king of smut, after all—and leveraged a number of communication channels, from radio to video to blogs, to get his message across. But Hilton’s downfall wasn’t so much the way he communicated but rather the timing and quality of his message. Compare Hilton’s video statement to’s response. Hilton comes across as a histrionic, vitriolic individual compared to’s calm demeanour. Integrity and professionalism is automatically awarded to, and when criminal acts are involved credibility is especially important. At Veritas, we counsel people in these situations to let the police and courts do their jobs—that’s what they’re there for. By publicly renouncing and his band in such a dramatic fashion, Hilton wildly colours public perception of the situation, either in support of him or against, which can backfire in a court of law. But more importantly (from a communications standpoint, at least), Hilton abused the immediacy of Twitter as a communications tool. Not only did he tie up police phone lines by issuing a Twitter distress signal to readers — arguably putting more important matters in jeopardy — but he further compromised his credibility when in fact — whoops! — charges were laid not against but rather the band’s tour manager. As com.motion, our social media division, would say the timing of the message is just as important as the message itself, especially when it comes to the social media space. When firing accusations it’s important to get all the facts right the first time otherwise you run the risk of having public perception go against you. Which is exactly what Hilton is faced with right now: the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is denouncing Hilton for calling a derogatory slur and several celebrities such as John Mayer and Pink have posted Twitter statements against Hilton.


International espionage at times has nothing on corporate espionage! While there may not be any James Bonds hunting down blueprints of the next great widget stolen by megalomaniacs, there can be plenty of snooping around in an effort to get a jump on the competition. Apple is one of the most secretive companies when it comes to guarding its information. While they’re within their rights to protect information, things have gotten somewhat dodgy when it comes to communicating what’s going on with the company – and in particular its CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs whose health has been subject of much rumour. Considering his importance to the company, and by extension its financial well being since an ailing leader could create hesitation among investors, you can see why Apple would want to control messaging fairly tightly. But there is such a thing as providing ‘too little’ information. ‘Be prepared to give as much information as you can’ we counsel clients during our media coaching sessions. The caution we add is that if you aren’t addressing the situation adequately, you leave the door open for others to formulate their own suppositions and conclusions. Where Apple has failed has been to forthrightly address Jobs’ health. The recent admission of his liver transplant now makes earlier claims of a ‘hormonal imbalance’ look like a deliberate mistruth. The company now faces the prospect of losing the faith of investors because the information the company is conveying appears to be tainted. Had Apple at least chosen a path of cautious, but open, communication right from the start of this situation, they would not have been forced into a defensive mode. Their own ‘cone of silence’ is causing them to lose the ability to control their own messages.


Communicating on the Internet – be that on a blog, on Facebook or via Twitter – has been likened to standing on a street corner and yelling at whomever passes by, or plastering every light standard everywhere with messages for anyone to come by and look at. The thing is, this isn’t new anymore. People who value the Internet as a communications tool also see the need to watch what they say. Alberta MLA Doug Elniski really should have been one of those people. He has a blog and uses Facebook and Twitter so he should be aware of the inherent peril of mis-communicating in an instantaneous medium. Yet he stumbled headlong into controversy by posting some seemingly sexist comments. What’s worse is that this wasn’t the first time he came under fire for such an online indiscretion. Where Elniski gained yards towards credibility was in his apology. He addressed those he had offended, explained the context in which he had made the comments, admitted fault, allowed himself to be self-effacing and conceded that he had learned a lesson. "In hindsight, it was a stupid, inappropriate thing to put on the blog," he admitted. "It completely missed the message I was trying to achieve." His apology was accepted by other Alberta politicians including Premier Ed Stelmach. But how he moves forward – both in actions and in what he says – will determine if he can shake the unappetizing moniker he’s earned as the politician who put the “twit” in Twitter. And since he only won his seat by fewer than 200 votes in the last Alberta election, it remains to be seen just what the voters think of Elniski’s attempt at redemption.


Leadership – and communication thereof – starts at the top. So it was all well and good for the Canadian Forces to announce that it is placing a new priority on post-traumatic stress issues, prompted in part by the release of a House of Commons report on such matters (and a not-so-coincidentally timed Toronto Star investigative series). But when the top dog spoke to it, everybody listened – especially the men and women in uniform. Savvy communicators must always assess up front who their priority audience(s) is/are, and Chief of Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk clearly did that when he said, “You're strong, you're well trained, but guess what? We don't show weakness particularly well and therein lies the problem," he told an assembly at National Defence headquarters. "We're tough and yet we won't ask for help. So I'm telling all of you wearing this uniform, if you have an issue, c'mon on in. Because we can provide the help." It was powerful stuff, coming right from the top, as evidenced by the reaction of special adviser Lt.-Col. Stephane Grenier, whose role is to advise on these matters. “It's not that he gave permission; nobody needs permission to go see a doctor," said Grenier, who was among the boots on the grounds in Rwanda in the mid 1990s. "Once somebody who is a leader – like the chief of defence staff – says it's all right, he has just given everyone blessing. So culturally this is a huge thing for us." A huge thing indeed, showing the communications power of the person at the top when it comes to highlighting priorities.


I understand the timetables at play, but I still think that the optics are terrible. Toronto has been hit with a strike by city workers who take care of a number of priority services including garbage collection, city-run child care and summer recreational programs. Indications are that, if this thing doesn’t get settled by the weekend, the strike could drag on for quite some time. Now, juxtapose against that the fact that city council is having an emergency meeting today – not to talk about any of the above, but rather to try and come up with a way to re-jig spending plans in order to find a way to fund the big purchase of a fleet of new streetcars. As I said, I understand that bargaining is continuing (for now anyway) on the strike front, and that the clock is about to run out on the streetcar deal. But the fact that the strike is nowhere on the agenda for this emergency session of council makes it glaring by its absence, and will make media critics and the general public question city hall’s priorities as a result. “Special meetings are called only to discuss specified items, and the notice of motion says the light rail deal is the only item on the agenda,” the Toronto Star reported. Taxpayers trying to figure out who will take care of their kids and/or their overflowing blue boxes will wonder why.


We’ve often commented here at TD&F about how different people will communicate in sometimes very different ways when tragedy strikes their circle. Some say nothing and cling to their privacy. Others use the media spotlight to highlight an issue or concern. There’s no right or wrong. So it really caught my attention when former Michael Jackson lawyer Brian Oxman pulled no punches in the wake of the news of the superstar’s death, saying he had been concerned for quite some time about the “enablers” who were keeping Jackson in an “over-medicated” state. He said he has vowed for a while now that, should Jackson suddenly drop dead, he would not hold his tongue in exposing a situation which he said makes that of Anna Nicole Smith pale by comparison. Strong allegations in the wake of the death of a mega-star … but a communications play which is cutting through, no doubt about it.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Veritas Team Huddle compiled by Caroline Murphy.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you have to explain the joke, then it’s not a very good one.” CBS Late Night’s David Letterman relearned that lesson the hard way this past week, when he/one of his writers Fumbled with a bad joke during his opening monologue. The slip featured one of the daughters of the infamous and outspoken Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin. What would have been a joke in bad taste regardless, was taken to a whole new level when the quip intended for 18-year-old Bristol, herself a public figure, mistakenly referred to Palin’s 14-year-old daughter Willow. Controversy sparked last week the moment Dave – who claimed he was referring to Bristol – said the teen “was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez” during the seventh inning, when in fact it was Willow who attended the Yankees game he was referring to. Within hours of the Palin family formally lodging a public complaint, the media and online world was abuzz on the topic. Most berated Dave for his slip and some even went as far as to call for CBS to fire him. One advertiser followed through and cut ties with the network, while a group of about 50 protesters took up residence outside of the famous Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York. Despite Dave’s initial (and somewhat weak) explanation that he was referring to the “other” daughter, Palin fought back; accusing the funnyman of making “sexually perverted” comments. But after all was said and done and on Monday night Dave made a formal sincere apology, the Veritas team scored it as a Touchdown for Dave. He took full responsibility for his slip-up even though comedians are constantly in the business of making light of serious situations and are often unapologetic. The team felt he did the right thing when he acknowledged that his joke went too far and apologized for his comments, while at the same time stayed true to his brand by using self-deprecating humor to make a point. While telling a joke about Bernard Madoff, whom he refers to as “the most hated man in America,” he amended the list to two; “Me, Bernie Madoff,” he said. “He was waaay out in front until a couple of days ago.”


Our Take Command issues/crisis management unit’s stock in trade is helping clients deal with an issue as soon as it arises. Two articles came out this week that David Braley, owner of the BC Lions, was in some way financially tied to the Toronto Argonauts. Early suggestions were that Braley had provided financial assistance to Argonaut owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon when they purchased the ailing franchise several years ago, and that the Canadian Football League didn’t know a thing about it. Very quickly, rumours spread about just what the assistance had been. Along the way, comments on everything from conflict of interest to league ineptitude began to swirl. That the league supposedly knew nothing of this could have led to considerable embarrassment, but this is where the CFL stepped in and scored a communications Touchdown. Within hours of the initial articles, the CFL distributed a public statement of its own accompanied by statements from both David Braley and the owners of the Toronto Argonauts. While the statements did not necessarily answer all of the questions, they did put to rest some of the rumours and ‘what if’ scenarios pertaining to the financial relationship and the league's role in all of this. The messages the CFL delivered were succinct and well structured to the issue. They addressed the situation, acknowledged what they knew and what they had learned, corrected misinformation and most importantly, articulated how they could learn from this issue and move ahead with greater transparency. As I mentioned, not all of the questions were answered right away, however, by getting this information out early they put themselves in a position to control their own messages. Subsequently, the various parties were able to explain the issue with out having to address or defend themselves against rumours. This is certainly a case where ‘no comment’ would have lead to no good.


As national icons go, the Peggy's Cove lighthouse in Nova Scotia is nearly synonymous with Atlantic Canada and our maritime heritage and culture. And as a tourist draw, the old light doesn’t do badly, bringing in nearly half a million people per year. So when some locals (and tourists) expressed dismay that the lighthouse was in dire need of a new paint job — one which would only cost $25,000 — it didn’t seem like getting the work done would be a problem. However, thanks to some confusion over just which department should be shouldering the work, things didn’t get off the ground. A situation like this is ripe for finger pointing and blame, and indeed there was some. Observers saw this as a lot of needless bickering over such a small amount to pay considering other expenditures. Into the fray stepped Defence Minister Peter McKay (the MP for Central Nova) with a simple message. “We’re going to ensure that this lighthouse is put back in proper repair.” Saying it is one thing, but he cut through the jurisdictional quagmire when he presented a realistic solution as to where the funds would come from. In the end there were still questions as to what should have been done, when and by whom, but Mr. McKay’s clear and simple message of commitment was a clear beacon cutting through the fog, if you will.


Sometimes they’re almost too obvious. Iris Evans is the name of Alberta’s Minister of Health, and she was speaking in Toronto this week when she felt compelled to offer comment on the notion of households where both parents work, leaving the kids in child care during the day. She related a personal anecdote about her own (adult) children forgoing a second paycheque in order for one parent to be at home with the kids. Now, using an anecdote to underscore a point is a tried-and-true, effective communications technique. The problem came when Evans added the comment that “they’ve understood perfectly well that, when you’re raising children, you don’t both go off to work and leave them for someone else to raise. This is not a statement against daycare. It’s a statement about their belief in the importance of raising children properly.” Not surprisingly, child care advocates from far and wide – along with the minister’s political opponents - denounced the comment. She attempted to clarify her remarks, but virtually all of it struck me as so much bafflegab: "The references I made to parenting were in respect to a question about financial literacy and making sure children understand the value of a dollar," she said in a statement. "My intent was to point out that understanding money and finances starts at home, not in the schools. And I was specifically pointing out that my three sons have done a better job than I had in passing this on. I understand some people were offended by some of what I said. I did not intend to suggest there is only one way to raise a child." Well, from where I sit, you suggested there’s a “proper” way (both parents at home) – which infers that there’s also an “improper” way, which can only be the opposite case, namely both parents working. And what they heck does all that “financial literacy and making sure that children understand the value of a dollar” stuff mean? When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If your communications efforts have landed you in hot water, apologize, take your lumps, and move on. Sometimes the attempted recovery can be just as bad – if not worse – than the original Fumble.


Just yesterday I was leading a Veritas Media Coaching session and we spent some time on the power of analogies in illustrating a message and how that can amplify its impact. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney gets this, as evidenced by the colourful parallel he drew between anticipation of an economic recovery and that of crop yields on the prairie. Stock markets have been on a roll for the last three months, and Carney used an analogy to call for caution against unbridled enthusiasm. “Some now refer to green shoots as if the global recovery is a foregone conclusion or even as if sustainable growth had already begun. Would that it were so easy. Saskatchewanians know that it is a long, anxious time between the appearance of seedlings and the harvest.” Now, it helped that he was in Regina at the time, but still, the quote got very high placement in the Globe & Mail’s coverage, and it offered the rest of us in the communications realm a timely and colourful example.


Stop any average person on the street and ask them what the substance of this week’s high-wire act between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was all about, and you can probably watch their eyes glaze over on the spot. I follow politics more than most, but I was still left with a headache over the whole EI issue which touched off the whole thing. Which is why I'm very happy that I only need to comment on the communications aspect here at TD&F, so here’s my take: what the whole thing was really about was positioning for both leaders. Ignatieff leveraged the issue into an opportunity to get himself what any opposition leader needs most – exposure. He was the man of the hour for a few days, basking in the spotlight of the media of a nation desperately hoping that he wouldn’t make us all have to put up with an election just as the weather’s starting to get nice. Ignatieff was also able to position himself (setting aside the political dimension/debate about how truly effective the effort was) as on the side of jobless Canadians, and as the guy holding the PM to account on their behalf. Touchdown. But I think Harper got equally good mileage out of it, by using the dispute as an opportunity to appear co-operative and conciliatory (something his personal brand strongly needed), meeting with his rival, suggesting and agreeing to a compromise, and in the process creating a platform from which he could tell the media that he’s always open to good, constructive ideas from any side of the Commons. Touchdown. Now, back to your lives, citizens …

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I am delighted to be able to announce that com.motion and Veritas are both growing with the hiring of Sean McDonald as an Account Manager. I had heard nothing but great things about Sean over the last couple of years from various people in the agency world so it was a real pleasure to meet him and get to know him.
Clearly we liked what we saw and, despite my best efforts to soak him in beer (a long story), so did Sean. He will be starting in the next couple of weeks – exact date is still TBD as he puts the finishing touches on his Masters work, but take it from me, it can’t come soon enough.

I’ve said before that working at com.motion has been a great experience for me, and I hope the team. We are privileged to have some great clients who are willing to do interesting and thought provoking things in the online/social media space and for that I continue to be grateful.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters!) are doing some great work on some very cool campaigns and I will try and share them with you as appropriate.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Runner-up American Idol, Adam Lambert, has mastered the art of “sex sells.” Kris Allen was the 2009 American Idol, but it is Lambert – the runner up – that landed the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.From day one of American Idol, Lambert has marketed himself like a brand. Whether it was his sky high hair, vibrant outfits or unique versions of classic songs, Adam kept the audience wanting more. Now, he’s using details about his personal life to enhance North American’s curiosity and fascination with the ‘Adam Lambert’ brand. Whether you’re a celebrity, corporation or not-for-profit, everything you do and everything you say should reflect your brand. Why? A strong brand is what sets you apart and helps you break through the clutter.When it comes to celebrities, Lambert is not alone. Celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton have all marketed various aspects about their personals lives to enhance their ‘brand’. What do you think about celebrities using their personal lives to further their careers?


Veritas Team Huddle compiled by Matthew Naftolin.

When a great national news story presents itself, great communication can make the difference between a one day miracle and a season of great coverage. The Vancouver Aquarium was presented with such an opportunity when their 20 year-old Beluga whale gave birth to a calf. From the beginning, the aquarium made it clear that its number one priority was the health and well being of the calf and her mother. In this type of situation, temptation exists to jump right into a marketing campaign, but the aquarium resisted. Being dedicated to public education and the conservation of animals, this move strengthens their brand and message that the safety of their animals (and mammals) comes first. In addition, the Veritas Team feels that this provides them with future marketing possibilities that can extend the period of great coverage. The aquarium has already introduced a 24-hour webcam, educational learning programs on-site, and their vice-president, Clint Wright, has even hinted at involving the community in choosing a name. The fact that the association stayed true to its brand, earned them the continued respect of their customers and a Veritas Touchdown.


When you are going against the grain with a communications effort, it is always best to approach cautiously, be aware of potential pitfalls, address concerns before they are sprung on you - and offer up avenues to move the discussion forward. The current economic situation is obviously wreaking havoc around the world. In the U.S., the Obama administration put forward suggestions for a “Buy American” policy. Now, while it’s obvious that Canadian companies would be concerned about this, it was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCoC) who took a surprising stance against the policy – at least somewhat. Myron Brilliant, USCoC’s senior vice-president, outlined some of the potential results of protectionism, namely the risk of retaliatory responses from trading partners like Canada. “We could be at risk for billions of dollars and we're very concerned about those numbers,” he told reporters in Washington. “We're sending warning signals now that if we don't fix it the numbers could get very big. We would face potential retaliation from our friends in Canada, potentially from Europeans, and we want to avoid that.” Equally important, Brilliant set out some ideas on how to alter the current policy and made suggestions regarding next steps. Communicating positives and providing forethought when presenting a contrary idea makes it easier to focus on what can be done rather than getting into mud-slinging. In stark contrast to the efforts of the USCoC was the executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition who offered nothing constructive, nor did he try to diplomatically open the door for discussion. Rather than seeing an opportunity to talk, he merely said the USCoC’s position was laughable. Comparatively speaking, Mr. Brilliant’s communications were nothing short of, well, brilliant.


Communications can be both liberated and constrained by language and the meaning of words. Adding to the fire, certain words take on unintended inferences – often as a result of their use in pop culture. It is important to recognize what problems can arise from language and/or understanding before making announcements and developing a plan to deal with that issue up front. Such is the case with the word “pandemic.” Though all it really means is “widespread,” when we hear it and we tend to think of some apocalyptic plague with scenes right out of a movie. The World Health Organization (WHO) faced this as the H1N1 influenza virus, spread around from country to country. When making the declaration that H1N1 was now at pandemic levels WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl was very clear early on as to what this meant. “[The declaration] doesn’t mean anything concerning severity, it is concerning geographic spread. Pandemic means global, but it doesn’t have any connotation of severity or mildness.” With all the chatter about a looming pandemic it was critical for WHO to lay down a common base of understanding as to what this all means so as not to incite panic or undue fear. Making the communication of this message even stronger was the consistency of what was being said. WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan stressed that the pandemic alert-level "reflects the spread of the virus into various regions of the world, not the severity of the influenza." By providing a consistent explanation, WHO has established a foundation based on common understanding. In doing so it has eased the minds of the public who previously may not have understood what was being declared. With the foundation in place WHO can better focus its communications towards "next steps" such as monitoring the disease, assessing risks and assisting governments to find solutions.


The leader of the nation, sitting on a stool, speaking to an in-the-round audience of area residents, workers and businesspeople, talking about his government’s record of decisive action aimed at helping the community he was in and the country as a whole recover from the tremendous economic upheaval we’ve been living through. Barack Obama? He uses the “town hall” technique to great effect on a consistent basis alright, but no, I’m talking about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Cambridge, Ontario yesterday, in which he used every play in Obama’s book with respect to such events. The result was a well-controlled, visually powerful and on-message communications effort, and one which did two things: helped position the Conservatives as having gotten busy flowing stimulus funding in a range of areas, funding which is having an impact – something critically important in the run-up to the “report card” demanded by the opposition parties; and second, it helped change the channel away from “Raitt-gate” and John Baird’s F-bombing of Toronto and back onto more substantive matters of government. There’s a reason Obama likes these events so much; expect more of them from Harper.


Contrast Lisa Raitt’s experience to that of her colleague, federal Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Baird, who also found himself in hot water this week over a remark which became unintentionally public. Baird was also chatting with an aide, venting frustration with the City of Toronto over the way it has handled requests for transit funding, when he mistakenly walked – in the middle of an expletive-laden sentence – into the media room at a Whistler, B.C. conference of Canadian municipalities. But unlike Raitt, Baird did two important things: he acknowledged, when read back his words by a reporter, that he had in fact said what he said; and then in his first appearance back in the House of Commons, he offered a full apology. “I was speaking out of frustration, and I certainly expressed that,” he said, noting that he had called Toronto Mayor David Miller that morning to personally apologize. After that, it was all about moving forward positively, a high-road approached echoed by Miller as well in his subsequent comments on the matter. A plausible explanation, a sincere apology, and the matter was quickly put in the past. Sure, Baird’s temper and stance regarding Toronto will be oft-referenced on into the future, but in terms of his approach to damage control in the immediate term, that’s the way it’s done.
A lesson to all in the public eye: the public will, by and large, forgive mistakes. That is, provided they are legitimately explainable, and if the party responsible offers sincere – and TIMELY – regrets, apologies and/or contrition. Federal Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt had the first part in spades, when inadvertently taped comments she made in a private conversation with her now-former press secretary came to light this week. Many media commentators, from CFRB’s Bill Carroll to the Toronto Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein to even Chantal Hebert at the Star (normally not one to take the side of a Conservative cabinet minister) remarked that Raitt’s description of the crisis in supply of nuclear isotopes critical to cardiac and cancer care as a “sexy” issue wasn’t much different than how such life-and-death issues are discussed among the nation’s journalists. Though blunt, her comments were explainable, principally since they were made within the confines of what was only ever intended to be a private, confidential discussion with an aide, and never designed for public consumption. Her ultimate apology, in which she teared-up in front of reporters while speaking of her father’s death from colon cancer and the loss of her brother to cancer of the lung, was heartfelt and sincere. But the 24 hours between, during which Raitt (with the apparent backing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper) refused to apologize for any offence taken, still warrants a Fumble. The minister was in a crisis communications situation, and one which could have been a lot less rocky (well, in some aspects, anyway) had she promptly offered an apology to those who took offence – however unintended – at what she said.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Thanks to the power of YouTube, Susan Boyle is now a household name in North America.Boyle made reality television history when she auditioned for the popular U.K. show Britain’s Got Talent. Despite her frumpy appearance, the 47-year-old church volunteer from Scotland blew the judges and audience away with her version of Les Miserables’ I Dreamed a Dream.Boyle sang her way through the Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals, but last week lost to a street dance group called Diversity. But her popularity has already taken flight, thanks to the online world.According to the Toronto Star, Boyle’s video on YouTube was viewed more than 200 million times. This attention lead to Boyle’s appearance on Oprah and fans worldwide include U.S. President Barack Obama and actress Demi Moore.When used wisely, YouTube truly can transcend oceans and international borders making it a very effective publicity tool. But, like all good public relations, it must break through the clutter. And there is a lot of clutter in the online world.If you need help breaking through online, give us a shout at com.motion.