Monday, December 21, 2009


Don Cherry never met a mic he didn’t like – until this week. Grapes had just been taping his FAN 590 radio show when he was approached by a 680 NEWS reporter. Both stations are owned by Rogers Broadcasting and are housed in the same complex, so 680 had an easy opportunity to seek comment from Cherry in response to criticism from neurologist Charles Tator. Tator had made headlines by suggesting that Cherry’s acceptance of fighting in hockey contributes to more injuries among players. When asked by the reporter if he cared to respond, Cherry let loose with a series of expletives. Now, most of it was done in a somewhat joking tone, which suggests a couple of things: perhaps he felt he was simply kibitzing with “one of the boys” from the newsroom down the hall; or, maybe he was deliberately attempting to ensure that his approach to a “no comment” would be completely unusable on the air. And, actually, 680 NEWS opted not to air the tape. But in the new online world, it quickly started getting passed around, and was soon in the hands of the Globe & Mail which decided to upload it to their website. From there it was picked up and broadcast by numerous other outlets, and Cherry was suddenly in the midst of a storm. As a result, the focus of the overall story immediately shifted from that of hockey injuries to the use of bad language by a professional broadcaster who is also a role model to countless young hockey fans. It’s a cautionary tale to all: in the digital era, anything can turn up online, on record and on-the-air – whether you’re just playing around or not. Second, if you don’t want to comment, a brief but respectful declination of the opportunity is always the better way to go. Notably, by subsequently refusing all requests for comment on his salty comments, Cherry did manage to starve the story of any fresh oxygen – pointing instead to his regular Saturday night slot on Hockey Night in Canada as the time and place where he will respond. He would be wise to briefly acknowledge his inappropriate choice of language, purely to assuage any parents whose kids have heard the tirade online – but should then quickly bridge to the real issue at hand, namely the allegations made by Dr. Tator and what Cherry thinks of them. Bet this week’s ratings are through the roof.


I know what he was trying to do, but U.S. President Barack Obama committed a rare communications Fumble during his otherwise flawless visit with Oprah Winfrey at the White House which aired last Sunday night. Oprah asked how he thought he was doing so far, as president. Obama replied that he feels he deserves “a solid B plus” and that if he can get his health insurance legislation passed it would even tip him into an A minus. By picking a grade, Obama was then able to rationalize it by pointing to his achievements to date despite being hit with the sharp, deep recession just as he was taking power. I’m sure he felt he was creating an opportunity to reiterate his messages about progress. I say he had that opportunity anyway, by the very nature of the question – but the Fumble was in letting himself get walled in by Oprah’s design (not that she’s anything less than a full-on Obama supporter and hardly a challenging interviewer for him). But by picking a grade, he identified a new sidebar for others – and his critics in particular – to debate. Is he marking himself too high? Too low? What’s he saying? Does he get it? You’re usually damned if you do, when given rigid parameters by an interviewer: “on a scale of 1 to 10 …” It makes for an easy headline and lead on the story, and rarely does the interviewee any favours. The best approach is usually to “leave the numbers for others to decide” and then bridge immediately to your key positioning – as Obama should have done.


A reminder, given some of the subject matter here, that we make our calls purely on the communications and not on the underlying issue itself. Right then. I wanted to comment on this one last week, and fortunately it kept rolling right on into this one: Ashley Madison, the online dating outfit aimed directly at married people, approached the TTC about ad-wrapping several streetcars with the company’s logo and slogan line – “Life is short; have an affair.” The potential for the ad campaign got significant media play, driven largely by the debate about whether it was an appropriate campaign for a public agency to take on. Then the TTC rejected it, and that got even more coverage. Then Ashley Madison said they’re going to sue and … yep, another round of headlines and reiteration of the whole thing – including another printing of the artist’s concept of what the streetcars would look like. Whatever the proposed ad budget was is irrelevant – the earned media mileage Ashley Madison got out of the whole controversy was staggering. Touchdown.


This week's perspective from Orli Giroux Namian

Earlier this week,
Lululemon launched a new collection of athletic gear branded “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition.” Suffice it to say, the Vancouver Olympic Committee’s (VANOC) officially-branded knickers are in a twist. Even though VANOC admitted that Lululemon was acting within the letter of the law, the Committee still had some stern words: “We expected better sportsmanship from a local Canadian company than to produce a clothing line that attempts to profit from the Games but doesn't support the Games or the success of the Canadian Olympic team.” Sure they were pushing the envelope, but Lululemon’s unveiling of its athletic apparel was done with the full knowledge that it hadn’t overtly broken any Olympic branding and marketing rules. “We went through a litany of things you cannot say and started throwing out a bunch of things we felt we could say that were respectful of the rules and regulations.” The brainstormers behind this clever campaign had no doubt anticipated the PR potential of a VANOC response to the provocatively branded gear. VANOC’s strong reaction was directly responsible for propelling the new gear into headline news, garnering the very best kind of marketing boost for Lululemon - the free kind. This is not to take anything away from VANOC and the important role it plays in protecting Olympic symbols and officially licensed gear that supports Canadian athletes and the Games. That said, VANOC would have been well advised to turn the other cheek because as Canadian women know already, nobody does cheek(s) like Lululemon. Touchdown.


By Aliya Jiwan

We all have bad days. The reasons vary: getting some terrible news, getting stuck in traffic when you’re already late, having a heated argument with a loved one. It happens. Last week, it seems, an American Airlines flight attendant was having a really bad day and her actions took the airline on yet another rough PR ride. John Reed of California was travelling in First Class when, by all accounts, the flight attendant went nuts after he asked for a glass of orange juice. Viral blog posts by witnesses recounted the interaction as follows: “'This must be your first time in first class,’ she said. He asked what she meant by that. He told her he was actually on the flight that made him Executive Platinum for the 10th year in a row. She said, 'You obviously don’t know how this works.’” Later, she handed him a federal warning saying that he could be jailed for interfering with a crew member’s duties. He was greeted by authorities when he landed. The viral blog posts were picked up by the media and consumer travel web sites. I should note that this is the same airline which faced public backlash after firing one of its web designers for responding to a customer complaint. Rather than take the OJ incident as an opportunity to do something right, the airline did too little too late. It took more than a week for the airline to issue an apology and the following statement “As to the flight attendant in question, American has taken specific action related to that employee.” They would not elaborate. When you’ve spent a lot of time in hot water, it’s crucial that you seize opportunities to cool public perception. Competitor, Delta Airlines did just that, offering elite status to everyone on the ill-fated American Airlines flight. A true testament to the quote: ‘When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.’ Or in this case, some OJ.


This week's perspective from Ed Lee:

Today’s touchdown is brought to you courtesy of our two friends “customer centrism” and “integration”. Whenever a new player joins a mature market, they have two choices. One, play by the existing rules and hope to beat out the established players that way, or two, to disrupt the market and focus on something no one is or has done. Wind Mobile is clearly choosing the disruptive path in the wireless market. After announcing the new brand, but no products, the company set up a virtual “soapbox” to allow disgruntled Canadian wireless customers to air their grievances. Through this massive online focus group, the company has been able to develop and refine its products to be incredibly customer centric. Whether or not input from Canadians had any impact on the final product is irrelevant – from a communications perspective, Wind can give the impression of being intune with and listening to the voice of the consumer. Touchdown! For the two-point conversion, Wind followed this up with a brilliant “hello world” creative ad which ran in the Globe and Mail (Canada’s pre-eminent national daily) containing the comments which most align with Wind’s policy and product – thanking those people by name who contributed to the soapbox discussion. Never mind the fact that “lailapalooza” or “cmisty” will likely not be the type to read the Globe and see the creative, the message comes over loud and clear to everyone – we listen to and value your opinion. This piece of integration was a fantastic play from a newcomer who needs to be disruptive in order to win in this market place.

Monday, December 14, 2009


This week's perspective from Ed Lee:
When you have a community of 350m users worldwide, 14m of whom are in Canada, it is almost impossible to make a change to your site or regulations without getting a portion of the population riled up. Every time the social network Facebook has made changes in the past, they have spurred a widespread backlash – users joining the “bring back the old news feed” group is a favourite example. So while Facebook has racked up scores of fumbles in the past, we had to award the company a Touchdown this week, in a week when the site made some serious structural changes to the way it handles the privacy of its users. Far from being the walled garden it started out as, Facebook has now set each user’s default setting to “public”. In a bid to counteract the inevitable backlash and user confusion, Facebook ensured that each user saw a message from Mark Zuckerberg when they logged into the site. The message was clear, concise and laid out each step needed for the user to protect their own privacy online. While Facebook Fumble lends itself to alliteration, we have to break convention and award a Touchdown. For more on the new privacy policies, their implications to you as a user and what they mean to communicators with corporate presences on Facebook, my colleague Sean McDonald has this enlightening.


This week's perspective from Orli Giroux Namian:

On the other side of this story, Cepia, the small St. Louis company that owns the Zhu Zhu Pets line deserves a Touchdown for its swift action in a crisis situation. Cepia CEO Russel Hornsby happened to be in China, expediting production of Mr. Squiggles and other Zhu Zhu Pets when news hit that Good Guide had issued its damaging test results that could possibly have led to a mass recall and even the complete shutdown of the company. Hornsby, a veteran of Mattel, knew that millions of parents, distributors and retailers would be influenced by Good Guide’s alarming results and knew he had to act quickly. Cepia’s first successful play was to hire a crisis communications firm. Hornsby immediately issued a statement standing firmly by its product and made its own third party independent test results public showing Zhu Zhu products were safe. Cepia also had a spokesperson front and centre to speak to media and to defend their product. The real crisis quasher was the quick reaction and response from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which declared Mr. Squiggles safe and Good Guide testing guidelines insufficient less than 48 hours later, after having run the toy through their own product recall review process. As other communicators have pointed out, “once you have government regulators on your side, its game over. You are no longer the villain.” Both Cepia’s actions and quick handling of the issue lead to the “quick exoneration of Mr. Squiggles.” Parents can now breathe easy and go ahead with plans to put the popular plush hamster under the tree.


This week's perspective from Orli Giroux Namain:

California-based consumer product testing and rating group Good Guide tried to run the wildly popular hamster toy “Mr. Squiggles” off his fuzzy little feet this week, when it issued a consumer alert claiming that the little rodent had above-legal-limit amounts of toxic chemicals in his nose and fur. Citing U.S. federal standards, Good Guide had media abuzz and parents and retailers in a tizzy last Saturday when it released the alarming results of its test. Testing the top toys of the holiday season can seem like a great way to make a name for yourself as a consumer product watchdog, but Good Guide CEO Dr. Dara O’Rourke (also a professor at UC Berkeley) should have known a thing or two about doing one’s homework before making such alarming claims. A day later, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission said it had found no safety violations involving antimony (the toxic stuff at issue) with the toys. In addition, the toy industry association pointed out that false positives are not unusual for the type of testing technology used by Good Guide, and that decisions should not be based solely on these methods. Good Guide had to retract its initial claims, admit to error for not having used tests that actually met the federal standards, and went as far as to develop new guidelines for testing that involves sending results to regulators before issuing them to the public. That’s all good, but what was missing here was a plain and simple apology. It’s one thing to recognize you’ve made a mistake, but when you are not apologizing to the people most affected by it – in this case, moms, tots and the maker and distributors of the popular toy – well, it reeks more of sanctimony than antimony. Communications rule of thumb: If you’ve done something wrong, of course fix the problem, but don’t forget to acknowledge it, apologize and be empathetic in your response. Fumble.


This week's perspective from Bob Reid:

Clearly. Honestly. Forthrightly. When you’ve got to hit the rewind button in the media, that’s the only way to do it, and that’s exactly what the nation’s Chief of Defence Staff did this week. General Walter Natynczyk had to reverse gears on previous statements about what did or didn’t happen to Afghan detainees handed over by Canada to Afghan forces. "After reviewing this new information I want to correct my statement ... (in fact) the individual who was beaten by the Afghan police was in fact in Canadian custody and then the ANP took control of him," he said. "The moment I saw this report this morning I realized that the information I provided yesterday was incorrect and I am responsible for that." Setting aside the ongoing semantical debate about definitions of “torture,” what the General has done is proactively update the media with new information and, in the process, has reinforced his credibility despite the on-the-surface contradictory nature of his statements. Tough spot; good call.


Yet another example this week of sometimes the best way to deal with an elephant in the room: by grabbing it firmly by the tusks. U.S. President Barack Obama went to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, the object of considerable controversy ever since it was announced. The irony of accepting the award on the heels of sending 30,000 more American troops to war in Afghanistan was not lost on the commander-in-chief, so he wisely (in my view) decided to make absolutely no bones about it. “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy your generous award has generated,” he said right off the top. And he went from there to expand upon – and position his current actions in the context of – the notion of the “just war,” and the idea that sometimes the use of military force is the only way to achieve and/or maintain peace. “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history,” Obama said. It was a dramatic repositioning of his view of the two wars he finds himself in charge of – to the point that the speech won kudos from conservative critics including the likes of Newt Gingrich. Grabbing the pachyderm by the probiscus can sometimes be the shortest route to credibility and strongest possible impact of one’s message.


It’s astonishing how little Carolyn Parrish “gets it” about being a public figure, since she’s a Mississauga city councillor and former MP. But clearly the finer points of communications are lost on her, as evidenced by the cringe-worthy aftermath of her bizarre stunt at a Port Credit restaurant last week. Parrish, her husband and two others had enjoyed a meal and were just about to leave, when she spied a poster in the front window in support of her arch-rival, Mississauga mayor/monarch Hazel McCallion. Parrish had been leading the charge for a formal inquiry into McCallion with respect to a land deal and the mayor’s son. Parrish tore the poster out of the window, then tore it to pieces, stomped on the remnants, and carried off into the night. Restaurateur Louis Macerola was stunned and outraged, and availed himself to reporters about it. Parrish originally went to ground, saying she was far too busy to return media calls on the matter. But by day two she was talking to the Toronto Star, going on the offensive against Macerola for disclosing details of her dinner tab ($288.47 including three bottles of wine) and saying she was the one owed an apology by him. Breathtaking. To be fair, she had previously responded apologetically to an email from Macerola, calling her behaviour “inexcusable” and “poor judgment” stemming from what began as “a bit of a dare and a prank.” She should have quit while she was ahead. By subsequently trying to position herself as the wronged party (over the bill disclosure), she was just deepening an already substantial hole. Worse, in her comments to the Star, she actually said “the evil Carolyn surfaced” when she saw the poster, the result of tremendous pressure she has faced in response to her calls the McCallion probe. Again, Parrish claims the victim role, and in doing so serves up a quote (“the evil Carolyn”) that will guaranteed come back to bite her in a future political campaign.

Friday, December 4, 2009


The punch-lines have all been written, and the back story well established, so let’s break down the communications plays around Tiger Woods’ week from hell, shall we? First and foremost, he blew it at the outset with the initial statement he put up on his website. Tactically, it was a good idea: get something out, fast and unfiltered, directly from him to the world. But the trouble lay in the fact that the statement itself raised more questions than it answered, in the aftermath of the car accident and amid the furiously swirling but (at the time) still unconfirmed rumours of infidelity on the golf master’s part. By obliquely talking about “this situation” being “all my fault,” “obviously embarrassing” and something that he would “certainly make sure … doesn’t happen again,” he merely stoked the fires of speculation even higher. Rather than taking the first opportunity to come clean, clearly admit his misconduct, express contrition and humbly ask for privacy, Woods ended up being dragged there when his alleged partners started surfacing in the media. Even then, his follow-up statement only got it half right. His rather petulant knocks against the media for their interest in what he deemed should be a purely private matter (“personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions”) changed what should have been a turning point in the story into yet another reason to criticize his behaviour. As any public figure needs to understand, there’s a quid pro quo for the velvet rope. The same public acceptance of your fame and special treatment when times are good carries with it an obligation to at least be up-front on the basics when things go bad. You don’t have to get into all the gory details, but you do have to confirm or deny the top-line, indicate whether you’re prepared to talk any further or not, and stay that course. The only thing Woods has done right since is to stay hidden, and I say that for two reasons: I personally don’t think he could handle the strain of making a live statement to the media without potentially going off the rails amid what would undoubtedly be a feeding frenzy; and second, he’s essentially radioactive right now. The story is just too hot, and any interaction with the media would reinforce the image of a fallen icon under fire and back on his heels, so there’s nothing to be gained and great potential of an even bigger downside. As ham-fistedly as it was done, he has fessed up, expressed regret and asked for space. The best thing he can do now is stay behind the gates of his exclusive community and let things cool – at least into the new year – before resurfacing, most likely in the context of a single one-on-one interview where he can say his piece, draw the line, and set the stage for his return to the tournament circuit.


Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t – that’s where U.S. President Barack Obama found himself this week on the issue of putting a timeframe around the new “surge” of American troops into Afghanistan. As the guy who campaigned on shifting priority from “the wrong war” (Iraq) to the origin of the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, he didn’t need to sell his intention so much as his vision for completion. And therein lay the rub – without a date it’s an open-ended quagmire; with any kind of timeframe it’s war with a deadline, and that only helps the enemy. So, purely from a communications standpoint, I think he did about all he could in his prime-time address to the nation this week, putting a target date of July, 2011 out there but referencing it in couched ways including when “our troops will begin to come home” and declaring that “just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition (to Afghan Army soldiers) responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” That gives him the wiggle room to respond to unforeseen events, if necessary, which is wise. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did her part back-stopping the boss as well, fielding questions at a Senate hearing by saying “I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving. It is intended to send a message about resolve and urgency.” Frustrating as that may be to critics and pundits, I think it passes the test of reasonable positioning with regard to a war that has been as unpredictable as it has been hard-fought to date.


There are a number of things which scare me, and snakes are high on the list. You couldn’t pay me enough to participate in a challenge where I’d be forced to face that fear. But it didn’t faze ‘Star Spider,’ a Toronto event planner who competed in National Fearless Day – an event put on by Virgin Mobile and hosted by its fearless leader, Sir Richard Branson. She willingly and calmly put her hands into containers filled with waxworms, was covered in snakes and walked a tightrope over a large crowd of people – all for a chance to win $5,000 and the title of Canada’s Most Fearless Person. None of that scared Ms. Spider, but she says what did frighten her was the way the snakes and worms were treated at the event. Offended, she left the competition without finishing the challenges. ‘Star Spider’ posted a video online outlining her disappointment with Branson and Virgin Mobile, stating that she believes "every creature is unique, beautiful, and worthy of respect." The video shows Branson throwing handfuls of worms into the crowd; worms, which she says, were trampled. Within two hours, Virgin Mobile’s head of PR, Chris Baines, contacted ‘Star Spider’ to apologize and listen to her concerns and the company has made a donation to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. ‘Star Spider’ posted a second video online to credit the company for its swift response, “We were thrilled to hear that our voices were heard and Virgin was taking positive action because of our efforts.” The lesson: when faced with a communications crisis, take accountability for your actions and steps to right a wrong, and do it FAST – now, that’s fearless.


This week's perspective from Ed Lee:
The $7,500 fines handed down by the NBA to centres Amare Stoudemire (Phoenix) and Tyson Chandler (Charlotte) are timely reminders for us that while social media may be ubiquitous, participants must be judicious in their use. Workers have long known not to post to social networks when they are taking a sick day or when they are on deadline, and we can now add during NBA games to that list. Following a "stern" warning from the NBA commissioner that use of social media during games was prohibited, Messrs Stoudemire and Chandler's activity was in clear violation of league rules. We're mixing our metaphors in awarding them both Fumbles for a lapse in judgement, and want to use this opportunity to remind our readers that your use of social media is always under scrutiny; even if you don't believe anyone is watching.