Friday, November 27, 2009


Brian Burke is the President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His son Brendan is a former goalie and holds a staff position with the highly regarded University of Miami (Ohio) hockey team, currently ranked first in the NCAA. The hockey world – long a bastion of machismo – hasn’t had an openly gay figure within it, until now. Brendan Burke disclosed his homosexuality in an interview with this week, and it has attracted a lot of attention for both son and, here in Toronto, for father as well. Brian Burke, a quintessential hockey tough guy, has responded with nothing but loving and supportive comments for his boy. “I just wish every parent could experience having a child like him,” he said, who recognizes the trail-blazing position that both he and his son are now in. “I've got six kids, I drive a truck, I own a shotgun and I chew tobacco, so sure, this adds a different dimension,” he said. “This isn't about me and it isn't about the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's about a young man who has done something that takes a lot of courage. But if my acceptance can turn into more acceptance on the part of other people, that's great.” Brian Burke understands that his position in the sports world has given him a chance to send a very strong message with respect to this family development, and he has done so with clarity and class. Brendan’s boss had been similarly supportive in his public comments, and the younger Burke has also been impressive in his communications: “Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized,” Brendan told “People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are.” Sure, it’s hockey, but it’s still Touchdowns all around.


On a somewhat similar note, Adam Lambert kept his orientation close to his chest when he was an American Idol contestant, but after finishing second to some other guy who has gotten way less attention ever since (and at the time, too, for that matter), Lambert has become one of the few former Idols to maintain some pop culture interest. His biggest performance to date was last Sunday’s American Music Awards broadcast, at which he ruffled some feathers with a decidedly risqué number – one that quickly became the headline item on the coverage of the event. So controversial were his same-sex kiss and other stage shenanigans that ABC’s Good Morning America program promptly unbooked him from a scheduled Wednesday morning follow-up spot. CBS snapped him up for its rival “Early Show,” during which Lambert pointedly didn’t apologize. “I admit I did get carried away, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I do see how people got offended, and that was not my intention,” he said. Normally, we would counsel clients in hot water – regardless of intention – to apologize for the unintended offense, but Lambert had a point to make: “Janet Jackson’s crotch grab – I haven’t heard one peep about that.” His message was clear: there’s a double standard at play between the tolerance for edgy performances from straight artists versus gay ones. Touchdown. Now, a warning to young Mr. Lambert: all publicity is not necessarily good publicity. He has gotten a great ride out of the controversy around his spot on the AMA’s – but if his next high-profile performance is similarly about the shock rather than the rock (and his ability as a singer), he runs the risk of cementing his still-being-formed brand in the wrong direction. Caveat rocker.


OK, time to break the thread here … well, except maybe for Beaker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, the single most forwarded viral video clip I’ve been bombarded with in a loooong time is that of the Muppets doing a brilliant take on the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you haven’t yet seen it, pull your mouse out from whatever rock it has been trapped under, and get thee over to YouTube. I didn’t know anything about it until it started popping up on Facebook and everywhere, but that’s what makes it viral – turns out that Disney, who bought the Muppet franchise a few years ago, released the clip to coincide with the 18th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death this week. But the company’s broader PR motive is to put some fresh life into a brand that hasn’t been up to much over the past number of years, to the point where there is now a cohort of little kids who have no idea who Animal, Miss Piggy, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew or even Gonzo The Great are. This oughta go a long way toward fixing that … MAMA!!


When crisis hits, it can be tempting to run and hide or to become defensive. How you deal with a crisis can make or break your company’s reputation. That’s the challenge B.C.’s Stork Craft Manufacturing Inc. was faced with this week as it became the centre of the largest crib recall in Canadian and U.S. history. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the voluntary recall of 2.1 million of the company's drop-side cribs, saying that more than 100 injuries and four infant deaths had been linked to the products. Health Canada issued a similar warning. The news sent parents scrambling, crashing the company’s website and jamming the phone lines for hours. Stork Craft’s President and CEO, Jim Moore, responded by shifting the blame to caregivers, telling reporters that the deaths were a result of improper use, "We do have to tell people these cribs are safe, if you follow the assembly instructions correctly and heed the warnings.” Not only did he essentially absolve his company of any blame, he did not express any concern or sympathy for panicked parents. Empathy is a powerful yet often overlooked communications tool in a crisis situation. By expressing genuine concern, Stork Craft could have established a human connection with the people affected who might have been a bit more understanding about the situation. Instead, the company is now facing a long list of class-action lawsuits and a Veritas Fumble.


A great story appeared in the Globe and Mail last Saturday with a complementary documentary on CTV’s W-FIVE that heralded research done in Italy by Dr. Paolo Zamboni that, in the words of the Globe, “could well turn what we know about Multiple Sclerosis on its head.” In Canada, with one of the world’s highest rates of MS, it is very exciting news and the story was full of some wonderfully positive anecdotes about patients who have been treated successfully. And where was the MS Society of Canada on this? When initially asked about it they said, “many questions remain about how and when this phenomenon might play a role in nervous system damage seen in MS, and at the present time there is insufficient evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is the cause of MS,” which seems to be the equivalent of saying we’re not interested. However, it’s what followed that, in the view of TD&F, gives them a Touchdown. On Monday, they not only praised the “encouraging results” but put their money where their mouth is and issued an invitation for research proposals to get the evidence needed to validate it. It was a rapid response from an agency not necessarily known for speed and it was consistent with their earlier comments that there is insufficient evidence at this point in time. By championing new research, the move actually positions them in a leadership role.


When normal people propose to their loved ones, it is usually a case of getting down on one knee, revealing the rock and then hopefully popping the champagne. But when social media-ite Justin Johnson proposed to his fiancé Marissa, he had a special idea in mind. Helped by his friends at the blogging service tumblr, he created what’s known in the online ad world as a “takeover” where every user's admin page was reconfigured to host a charming video proposal. She said yes but a “technical glitch” prevented her message back from being displayed, leading in turn to a slew of messages to Marissa instructing her to “visit tumblr and say YES”. The proposal garnered more than 9,000 messages of support along with the cynical gazes of other online commentators. As one said “Happiness is a pill hard swallowed by the unhappy.” However, in this inaugural Special Teams piece, I give Justin and tumblr a Touchdown. Justin, for having the guts to put his heart on his sleeve and communicate his feelings not just to his soon-to-be wife but to the world; and to tumblr for finding a really wonderful feel good story to test a new ad format on. Undoubtedly we’ll see this being rolled out by tumblr as a formal offering for advertisers and, with a success story like this, who could turn them down? For more, on the story and the inevitable technical glitches check out New Tee Vee.

Friday, November 20, 2009


This week's perspective from Beverley Hammond

If it seemed like Sarah Palin was everywhere you looked this week, it’s because she was. It was like Palin-Palooza with her new book “Going Rogue: an American Life” in virtually every media format from news to entertainment news, late night talk to drive time radio chatter. It felt more like a Harry Potter release than the launch of a political autobiography. While the book appears to be all about exacting revenge on those who wronged her during her failed Vice Presidential bid, the book launch itself was far more pop culture than politics - as evidenced by her leaving Sean Hannity of FOX News and Conservative talk radio king Rush Limbaugh waiting for interviews until after she sat down with “those liberal media types” Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. As Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University put it, "this 'second-wave Palinism' seems a lot less likely to be aiming toward the White House than toward her own television show". Her interview with Oprah has been described as a “talk-show marriage made in ratings heaven” and when Regis and Kelly observed that it served as an example of how America can accommodate different points of view (to wild applause from their New York studio audience) it was obvious the launch strategy worked. Through all of it, Palin followed the rules by staying true to her brand and sticking to that “aw-shucks” style she tried to ride to the White House last year. What didn’t work at the polls made for some great daytime TV and then subsequent news content around the globe, including her reference to Katie Couric (whose infamous campaign interview with Palin suggested she didn’t read a newspaper) as “the perky one” and her assessment of media reports about her family as “bull-crap.” For Americans, it seems not having to worry about whether she’ll be Commander in Chief makes it a lot easier to enjoy her. This week the number of fans on her Palin Facebook page broke the million member mark and bookstores can’t keep up with demand for “Going Rogue.” As Mitch Potter reported in the Toronto Star, even though polling would suggest she doesn’t have a chance at the White House, as a candidate for celebrity, Palin has won. By a landslide.


This week's perspective from Ed Lee:

News this week that eBay, the online auction site, had sold the Web phone call company, Skype, back to its founders also uncovered a cautionary tale in online privacy. During the protracted sale process, Skype founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, now running the online TV venture Joost, found themselves bidding against a consortium of venture capital funds, led by Index Ventures for their creation. Nothing new in that but the lead VC firm was proposing former Cisco executive Mike Volpi as the chairman and CEO of Skype, should they be successful in their acquisition. So what’s the problem? That Mike Volpi was the acting CEO of Joost – in effect, bidding for his potential employers against his existing employers! We can’t comment on the legal play but what we can call out is the communications fumble of Volpi using his work email address to conduct negotiations with Index Ventures and providing critical intelligence and unbounded criticism against his employers. As both communicators and consumers, we get lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to using email, thinking it is secure and that only the recipient can read it but in truth, email is far more like a postcard than a sealed letter. Almost anyone can read your email if they really want to. So what does this tell us? Never use your work email for anything other than work and always think about how your emails will seem if they are uncovered and published (with or without context) or used in court filings, as they are now.


This week's perspective from Kathy Barnett:

A clip from Global TV Calgary caught my eye this week. It asked, “How do you call a news conference to cut rates, and end up making a whole city furious?” The Calgary Parking Authority did just that when its General Manager, Dale Fraser, called a news conference (to the surprise of City Council) to announce rate reductions in key downtown parking zones. While the move might seem like a PR home run, it quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster when savvy reporters took the opportunity at the newser to question Fraser about budget documents released the day before. Those documents outlined a number of proposed revenue generators for the CPA – including extending hours for metered parking, and charging for parking on Sundays and holidays – to recoup the shortfall the rate reductions would cause. Council officials quickly took an opposing stance, the resulting media coverage was less than flattering, and the public outcry was immediate – plunging the CPA into damage control mode. All in all, it was an ugly, ugly fumble. Regardless of the logic behind the proposed changes, trying to spin part of the package into a good news story and expecting that the remaining goods will go unnoticed is a dangerous strategy. No matter how lovely the lipstick, if it’s on a pig…well…you get my point.


Two weeks ago I gave Premier Dalton McGuinty strategic communications props for not running from the spectre – which he floated himself originally – of so-called “Dalton Days” or the potential of forcing members of the broader public sector to take unpaid time off to help trim the public payroll in the name of deficit reduction. He has been consistently letting that one simmer out there, in what sure looks like a ground-softening exercise. But here’s the thing about strategic spin: you can’t have it both ways. And that’s where the Premier dropped the ball this week, when he seemed to suggest that the media were solely responsible for creating the idea in the first place and then keeping it alive. He has left everything on the table throughout the deficit debate, and joked just two weeks ago he said he “liked the alliteration,” adding that the government would have to “sit down with our public sector partners” and talk about various belt-tightening solutions. But this week, it was a different tack: “I never said we were going to do that,” he said, and when pressed to rule it out added “Why should I now say that I’m not going to do something when I never said I was going to do it?” Trial balloons are tough things to steer sometimes, to be sure – but you can’t be happy letting one bob around in the breeze for weeks, and then get testy with the press once it starts gaining some serious altitude.


Sometimes the best communications play is to shut the hell up. Apparently this fundamental is lost on French national footballer Thierry Henri, AKA the most hated man in Ireland right now. Henri set up the go-ahead goal that saw France defeat Ireland for a berth in next year’s World Cup – and did so helped by a stunningly blatant case of “hand balling,” meaning he touched the ball with his hands during the play, which is an absolute no-no in soccer. But let’s look, as we do here at TD&F, purely at his communications performance. Caught red-handed by everyone except the referee, Henri fully admitted the foul. “I will not lie, there was a hand. The ball ran up against my hand and I continued to play, the referee did not whistle and there was a goal,” he said. Full points for honesty, and for that reason, it was probably the smartest thing he said after the fact. But Henri blew it when he threw also threw in a finger-point – “I’m not the referee” – and then the capper: “It was just necessary to exploit what was exploitable. The Irishmen could have doubled their lead two or three times.” In other words, I got away with cheating, and they could have done the same thing if they were as weasely as I am. Audacious. Shameless. He won the game, but he has Fumbled his brand forever.


Some very, very tough questions were put to Defence Minister Peter MacKay both in the House of Commons and in a series of media appearances yesterday, in the wake of claims by a former senior diplomat that Afghan prisoners handed over to their countrymen by the Canadian Forces a few years ago ended up being tortured in custody. For TD&F purposes, this is at its essence a classic crisis communications scenario: what did you know? When did you know it? What did you do about it? These are the key questions at play. And having watched MacKay closely both in Parliament and in media interviews, I say he had some very solid answers. I won’t transcribe the exchanges, but suffice it to say that he had details where details were required, and he never missed an opportunity to bring things back to his top-line messages: the specific allegations don’t stand up to scrutiny, and on the broader issue of prisoner treatment, Canada took action to address concerns two years ago as soon as they were raised and verified. MacKay is an outstanding communicator – he keeps his cool, he addresses questions raised, and he never misses an opportunity to bridge from there into other essential aspects of his message agenda when he’s got the floor.