Friday, September 25, 2009


Ontario seniors will be getting their regular flu shots first this year, ahead of the rest of us, in October. That’s because older folks aren’t as succeptible to the swine flu, also known as H1N1. But Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Arlene King, says all of us will get the swine flu shots when they become available in November. And then, after that, the under-60 crowd will get back in line for the regular flu shot. And all of this comes in the midst of an “unpublished” report based on data from three Canadian provinces which shows that last year, people who got the regular flu shot were about twice as likely to come down with the swine flu compared to those who didn’t get the standard flu vaccine. Whaaaaat? Confused? You bet. What shot do I get when? And getting the regular flu shot puts me at risk of the swine flu? This is the result when people are bombarded with information and yet no clear direction is provided. Yes, all the information is there in the news stories, but based on the panicked reaction to open-line radio shows, this thing had no clear sales proposition and way too much room for fear-mongering and misinterpretation. Tell people what they need to do, and when. Keep it simple. If there are several moving parts that might be confusing all at once, dole them out over time. Now, which shot do I get when, again?


This week perspective from Kathy Barnett

There’s more to communications than the spoken or written word. In fact, nothing paints a better picture for your audience than, well, painting a picture. Whether it’s a compelling visual, a strategic handshake or a symbolic gesture, sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words…and actions truly do speak louder. Such was the case this week when the underwhelming performance and unsportsmanlike behaviour of the University of Oregon football team prompted one fan to demand a refund. The fan – one Tony Seminary – had travelled out of state to see the game and was so displeased with the experience, he sent an email to Ducks coach Chip Kelly with an invoice for his travel expenses. "The product on the field Thursday night is not something I was at all proud of, and I feel as though I'm entitled to my money back for the trip," he wrote. Kelly promptly responded to the email by mailing a personal cheque to Seminary for the full balance of the invoice. Widespread coverage of the classy gesture has cemented Kelly’s personal brand and effectively “changed the channel” on the story of a poor game and a player suspension. ‘Nuff said.


This week's perspective from Kathy Barnett

We’ve said it time and time again here at Touchdowns and Fumbles: “off the record” simply doesn’t exist. If you don’t want the media to hear it, know it or cover it, just don’t say it. Let me get out the megaphone…When you’re in the public eye, everything you say is public! That’s why we were so dismayed to hear former Alaska governor Sarah Palin deliver the following line as she explained why her keynote address to the CLSA Investors' Forum about U.S. foreign policy, governance and healthcare would not be open to members of the news media: "If I do that with the press in the room, I will have to say different things." Anyone who has heard the phrase “sources say” knows that Palin’s rationale is just plain na├»ve. Communications lesson? The press is ALWAYS in the room. Even when it’s not. And Ms. Palin knows this as well as anyone.


Guest item compiled by Ed Lee

Here at TD&F we pride ourselves on the quality of the calls we make. However, there are some times when a call on the field is inconclusive and we have to head to the booth for review. Domino’s Pizza is one of these calls. Back in April, when a video was posted to YouTube featuring Domino’s employees doing unspeakable things to the food they were serving customers, we gave them a Fumble based on a slow response time and for not being on top of the online monitoring of their brand. Everything else, we thought, the team did extremely well. However, on review by the booth, we are changing that call to … Touchdown! What we couldn’t see was what actually went on behind the scenes and as this article shows, the Domino’s communications team followed the crisis communications manual to the letter. The team had the video in their sights within 45 minutes of it going live and clearly took all steps necessary to mitigate the damage to the brand. It just goes to show, in a time of crisis, events unravel at the speed of light. As a communications professional, you must be prepared for crises to hit, and to make quick decisions which will be put under the spotlight at a later date.


Tone is a very important thing in communications. I like to say the music has to match the words. But just like in music, contrast can be a dramatic thing. Case in point: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s unusually aggressive tone in slamming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations – in advance of the address and of the Canadian delegation’s planned walkout on the speech over Ahmadeninejad’s oft-repeated denial of the Holocaust. Many have been critical of Harper for not going to speak at the U.N. himself, but that’s not the focus here. As widely reported in the media, Harper “set aside his normally staid demeanor and delivered an impassioned critique” of the Iranian president. "President Ahmadinejad has said things, particularly about the state of Israel, the Jewish people and the Holocaust that are absolutely repugnant," said Harper. "Canada does not want to be equivocal at all in terms of our view on that. We find it disgraceful, unacceptable and we are going to be absolutely clear on that." Strong words, delivered in an uncharacteristically strident tone. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was any kind of “performance” on the PM’s part, but the fact is, performance is an important part of skilled media engagement – and the dramatic departure from his less-than-scintillating norm was apparent to all, and earned him considerable media mileage as a result.


And so it begins. Now, I’m a monthly Metropass subscriber – it comes in the mail, debited right out of my bank account – so as a matter of policy, I don’t want to see the price go up. But as a matter of communication, we are witnessing the start of a major communications play on the issue. There has been zero talk of a TTC fare hike until this week, when the issue landed squarely on the radar through what initially seemed like a good news story: TTC ridership is at record levels. But the flip-side was the fact that revenues are falling short of projections, with the blame being placed on the all-you-can-ride Metropasses proving way more popular than expected. I’d say the real story should be the TTC’s fumbling of its projections, but instead what is front-and-centre is the notion of a coming fare hike (January 1st has already emerged as the date), specifically on the price of the monthly pass. The debate will roil on between now and then, but this was clearly the launch of it – putting the idea out there, starting to rationalize the need, and getting people used to the notion. Stand clear of the doors and mind the gap, now.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The 25th annual MTV Video Music Awards aired this past Sunday. A-list celebs and screaming pre-teen girls were a huge part of the night’s event. Did you watch it? To recap: during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, rapper Kanye West rushed out on to the stage, grabbed the microphone from Taylor and exclaimed that Beyonce’s video was the best of all time. It left the sweet 19-year old Taylor speechless. The next morning, the "Kanye Chronicles" was the hot topic of coverage with entertainment media. Most considered his outburst appalling and uncalled for. But as the week progressed, the story continued to unfold. The day right after the award show, Kanye sat next to Jay Leno, during the premiere of Leno’s new show, claiming how truly sorry he was. And then Wednesday brought buzz about an upcoming tour for the rapper himself. Coincidence? So what call do we make on Kanye? If his ‘tantrum’ was premeditated to stir up some buzz, perhaps we should consider a Touchdown for him. But in reality, his plan backfired. It was a clear Fumble. He took the ‘bad boy’ rapper image a bit too and if you ask me, it’s getting a bit old.


We saw how carefully everyone – reporters and various commentators – chose their words in the wake of the Michael Bryant incident, and for good reason: when police have laid charges, an ill-considered comment can potentially imply guilt before the matter even goes to court. In the internet/blog/Twitter world, it’s astonishing to see the kinds of defamatory comments that get instantaneously “published” when a public figure gets into trouble. So it was shocking indeed to see the words of former Conservative MP Deborah Grey, in response to the charging of fellow former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer with impaired driving and possession of cocaine. “You get older, you’re supposed to be smarter,” Grey said. Under the law, all who are charged with any offense are presumed innocent unless/until proven guilty in court. Grey should be smarter, indeed. Kudos to Jaffer’s wife, Helena Guergis, MP for Simcoe-Grey and the minister of state for the status of women, who has refused any other comment other than to profess her love for her husband.


At the end of the day, I’d say Barack Obama actually came out a winner with his off-handed “he’s a jackass” comment about Kanye West’s reprehensible hijacking of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at last weekend’s MTV Awards. I think the U.S. President nailed the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans with the brief one-liner. But I must however call a Fumble on the communicator-in-chief, for making such a water-cooler-newsworthy comment – while wired up for a TV interview – and then asking if it could be kept off the record. It’s interesting to note – and, I would say, honourable of them – that CNBC and interviewer John Harwood uttered not a word of comment on Obama’s remark, saying that it was outside of the formal interview and therefore, in their view, off the record. However, a staffer with ABC News, with whom CBNC shares a fibre-optic feed line, saw it differently, and having listened-in, promptly put it online via Twitter and suddenly Obama’s shot was literally heard ‘round the world. Officially, ABC said that was wrong, and subsequently deleted the posts and formally apologized to both the White House and CNBC. Regardless of what the “rules” may be, assumed or otherwise, the lesson for all is clear: the safest approach going into any interview situation is to assume that anything you say – before, during or after the “real” interview – can be reported. Assume that the mic is always live, and that the pen is always on the notepad – especially if you are a public figure in any realm.


Formula One has had its share of scandals in recent months, but nothing tops this new one: the Renault team ordered driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash his car into a concrete wall at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix (a tight street circuit where fans are close behind fencing) so that his Renault teammate, Fernando Alonso, could go on to win the race. It not only takes cheating to a higher level, but Piquet’s crash was a significant one. “We’re not talking about a spin here, we’re talking about quite a large accident, which is quite extreme. It would go against every instinct you would expect a driver to have,” former F1 champion Damon Hill told the Associated Press. Renault’s Fumble, notwithstanding that a few members of team management have resigned over the incident, is for not apologizing or showing any remorse for what happened, or empathy for the fans who could easily have been injured by flying debris. Not to mention apologizing to Piquet Jr., who revealed the “crash order” after leaving the team. Renault initially denied it, then confirmed what had happened. “All I have asked is we do not react in the heat of the moment, that we examine the facts and look at exactly what happened,” Renault president Carlos Ghosn said, referring to an investigation that has been launched. Folks, in a crisis, you apologize, show empathy, explain how you have fixed the problem and what steps you’ve taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Instead, Renault’s message to the public was “don’t pre-judge us.” Hey, you ordered the guy to crash (and potentially risk his life) so your other driver could win a race. Are you kidding?


Lets get one thing straight: I love Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. It was my privilege to first meet “Hurricane Hazel” when I worked for the Mississauga News, and several times since. She’s widely respected by politicians across North America. That’s why it’s so noteworthy to see her make a rare misstep in a story about her involvement in a land deal her son’s company was (and is) trying to close to build a hotel near Mississauga City Hall. The Mayor attended at least two meetings to advocate for her son Peter’s company in its bid to purchase land from OMERS and build a hotel on it, even though the necessary re-zoning was an issue before her City Council. She did initially declare a conflict on the issue, but said she thought it only applied to Council votes. “It doesn’t prevent me from hoping something will happen,” McCallion told the Toronto Star. Asked if she thought it was appropriate for her to have attended one meeting that included officials from the land seller, OMERS, she said: “I was there and I don’t quite know what else to say… I am answering it to the best of my ability. You can come to your own conclusion.” Communicators need to evaluate in advance of such interviews what the public perception might be of their planned answers. This one looked like McCallion might have respected the letter of the conflict law, but certainly not the spirit of it. Better to admit you’ve made a mistake and apologize. For someone with McCallion’s enormous political capital, that forgiveness would arrive swiftly.


Budding Oprah Winfrey-esque TV mogul and former model Tyra Banks was profiled earlier this month by ABC News Nightline’s Cynthia McFadden in a piece titled “Tyra Banks – America’s Next Top Mogul.” Banks and her PR handler committed one of the worst communications Fumbles in recent memory. She was asked by McFadden about being criticized by former models Paulina Porizkova and Janice Dickenson, both of whom were once cast members on Banks’ show America’s Next Top Model. Porizkova, for example, claimed she was fired from the show on her birthday, that Banks ignored her off camera and that Banks was up to 6 hours late at times for the show’s judges’ panel. The video (here: is worth watching. Banks’ response to McFadden’s question was silence. She smiled and arched her eyebrows. Meanwhile, off camera, her publicist, Lisa Israel, is heard telling McFadden: “Lets not go there.” ABC chose to identify Israel by name on screen, although she is not seen. And with the cameras still rolling, McFadden looks over angrily and tells Israel: “Well, I am going there. I am going to go there.” This was the first mistake. Folks, never tell media how to do their job. Red flag – bull. Your job is to be prepared for any question. If this was Banks’ strategy, it was dumb. Otherwise she was simply unprepared for what was an obvious potential question. After again refusing to answer why the two former models criticized her, Banks asked McFadden: “Why do you think?” Meanwhile, Israel is heard again off camera saying: “She doesn’t want to go there.” The ABC reporter asked a question back: “Jealous? Is that what you’re saying?” Banks’ reply: “I didn’t say it. You said it. I didn’t say that word.” And it really went downhill from there, with Banks at one point calling McFadden out by name and implying that she, as a talk show host, knows how the game is played. I beg to differ. This reeked of Diva syndrome. Banks actually appeared sinister. She came across as if the criticisms of her are probably true. The exchange was so bad it was picked up by various blogs, including the Huffington Post, and has the potential to cement an image of Banks in people’s minds that could take a long time to dispel, assuming it’s even untrue. Thanks to a loyal TDF reader for suggesting this item.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Team Huddle compiled by Lauren Cosentino

This Labour Day weekend, Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris took a break from crude lyrics and his bad boy rapper image to give back to the community. Luda gave out 20 cars to Atlanta residents in need. The promotion called "Stars for Cars-Luda Day Giveaway" was created by the rap star's charity, the Ludacris Foundation. Since then, Ludacris has hit the headlines across North America with nothing but positive press while also managing to secure photos with the contest winners in almost every piece of coverage. This celebrity CSR pass is complete and we’re awarding Luda with a game winning Touchdown. Fans may question his motives for going to such a charitable extent but it’s his attempt to broaden his appeal to the masses through a philanthropic effort that makes this communications play a good one. Could this be the restaging of the Ludacris brand? It could be a start at changing his persona from the bad boy pimp rapper to the successful business man and philanthropist. Luda showed his commitment to the cause and the beginning of his transformation stating, “this year we want to do something to help youth and families manage during tough economic times. Having a vehicle to get back and forth to work and day care can make the difference in getting and keeping a job.” With last year’s press surrounding degrading lyrics about Hilary Clinton and his record sales, this is a step in the right direction for him. In an ever-changing music scene, it is those who reinvent or evolve their brand (Madonna, The Beatles, etc.) that push the limits of their expiry date. While this remains to be seen for Ludicris…., the stars that seem to have the most longevity are the ones which give back and transcend music to become business people and brands in their own right.


Gasp! Stephen Harper would prefer to be leading a majority government! Can you believe it?! As if there has ever been a politician who would rather be outnumbered by his opponents on a continuing basis … but in the hyper-exaggerated world of yet another possible election, this becomes big news – especially when “secretly” videotaped at a “private” speech to supporters, and then promptly leaked to the CBC. Mother Corp and the opposition leaders went hog-wild with it, trumping it up into one of the bigger political stories of the week. But the major Fumble here goes to Harper, who should know better than to expect that anything said in a room full of people might stay within the walls, in this day and technological age where every phone is a camcorder. Bill Walker and I once Media Coached a lower-level politician who was astonished that comments he made at a small town luncheon were suddenly the talk of the town even with NO recording device being employed. Comments made at any gathering by any public figure are ALWAYS public – or, at the very least, always potentially so.


Blah blah blah Obama blah blah blah health care reform blah blah blah “death panels” blah blah blah … That’s roughly how most Americans have been taking in the great debate on overhauling their health care system, a key objective for President Barack Obama and other key Democrats. They know there’s a lot of talk about it, they know he’s leading the charge, and they also hear some scary stuff being thrown into the mix by his opponents. So Wednesday night’s prime-time address to Congress was a high-wire act, being the first exposure that so many of those viewers (well, the one’s not watching “So You Think You Can Dance” anyway) to Obama’s pitch. As usual, he did many things right: he kept it fairly simple and straightforward – “No one should go broke because they get sick,” he said, adding later, “I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.” He also addressed negative attacks on his message, something we normally advise steering clear of except when, as in this case, the elephant is in the middle of the room – referring to talk of “death panels” by calling it “a lie, plain and simple.” Now, we all know Obama can give a great speech, but the ultimate question is, did the message get through? One overnight poll showed a shift on the issue by 14 points in his favour. That’s great, but whether it holds is another thing altogether. So a good job by the prez, even invoking the memory of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the longest proponents of major health care reform, without being gratuitous about it. But I also give points to the Republicans. They chose Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana to deliver their official response – since he happens to be “a heart surgeon with more than 20 years experience, where I saw first-hand the need for lowering health care costs,” as he put it in introducing himself. That credibility, combined with his message of agreement with Obama on lowering costs and increasing access, made for powerful stuff – and he skillfully included a number of references to “government-run health care,” a message with huge traction for reform opponents. This scrimmage is far from over, folks.


There is a rare exception to the “do not speculate” rule in media relations. It relates to deliberately speculating about a future outcome to achieve a specific objective. In other words, you speculate because you’ve planned to speculate, you’ve war-gamed it out in advance, you’ve discussed the key messages you’ll use when you speculate and you have a good idea how the story will play out. It’s common to see labour unions speculate about outcomes if new contract agreements are not reached. It’s a deliberate attempt by the unions to move negotiations forward. Fair enough. Minister of Energy and Infrastructure George Smitherman did this with some considerable skill when he finally speculated about running for Mayor of Toronto. “It’s important to just take a look and see whether other options that are available might be well-suited for me and might contribute something to my city,” Smitherman told reporters. “There is a bit of a consensus forming in the city that the status quo is not getting the job done. I just thought it was important to publicly acknowledge that is something I’m thinking about.” Trust me, Smitherman did this very deliberately. He’s one of the best communicators in politics. And he did it to achieve certain objectives. And he did it very well. His speculation traveled forward the precise distance he wanted it to travel, and then stopped. It’s a difficult thing for inexperienced communicators to do effectively, but when well done, it can work.


The savvy Toronto Blue Jays Interim CEO Paul Beeston knows how not to speculate during a media interview. He was on the FAN 590 radio morning show live this week and was edged toward speculating about the future of Jays’ General Manager JP Ricciardi. Beeston skillfully discussed the facts as he knew them at that moment, namely that when the Major League Baseball season ends he will be reviewing a number of team personnel issues. He also said that, in his view, the team’s performance on-field and as a sports business was disappointing this season. He talked about the need for accountability. All those comments were excellent. They were facts “in the here and now” as we often refer to them. As a communicator you are always on solid ground when you talk about things you know to be true and factual “in the moment.” You cannot predict outcomes. Beeston came right out and told the sports radio station that he cannot speculate on the outcome of his review of various team personnel. It was a great example of someone recognizing he was being asked to speculate, telling his interviewers he recognized that, and stating flatly that he had no intention of doing it. It’s a solid response that works every time. As Bob Reid and I often discuss when media training, just remember the “here and now.”


It’s always difficult to know with comedians when they’re being serious and when they’re going for a laugh, but something Jay Leno said this week provides a good communications lesson in the importance of not speculating about the future – no matter how hard the media tries. Leno was doing interviews for the launch of his new primetime TV show on Monday night. One resulted in a headline in the New York Post titled “What happens if Jay bombs?” The headline was brought on by Leno himself, who entertained speculation that, even though he’s the former king of late night talk, he may indeed fail in primetime. “You know, it’s like I always tell people, the reason that TV pays a lot of money is so that when you get screwed, you have something left over. I mean, eventually this will happen,” Leno said. The comment was unhelpful to Leno’s presumed objective in doing the interview: to increase anticipation and excitement about the debut of his show. To even entertain failing before the first episode airs is an example of speculating about a negative scenario. Media love this because it creates the “conflict” story and headline they sometimes seek. Leno could have simply answered by saying that he thinks the show is great and he hopes it will be a hit. That’s all he knew at that point in time he did the interview. He cannot predict the future. So why try?