In the wake of a disaster, leaders need to communicate quickly, effectively and empathetically in order to avoid a communications-based calamity of their own making. George W. Bush post Hurricane Katrina, anyone? At the opposite end of the scale this week was Premier Dalton McGuinty, because he simply did everything right. The day after Sunday’s devastating tornado, there he was, on the ground in Goderich, surveying the damage first-hand, thanking the first responders and other volunteers, and offering reassurance to the people of the town and municipal leaders. “You’re not alone,” was his message. The sentiment, coupled with $5 million in immediate emergency relief and an open door to more if need be (“We’ll see where that gets us and we’ll take it from there,” he said) sounded all the right notes. All Ontarians felt for the people of “Ontario’s prettiest town” – and the man whose responsibility it is for speaking on our collective behalf at such a time did so especially well.
Before the inevitable online debate had even begun; before any public calls for it came; and, most importantly, before he found himself in a position of responding rather than leading, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had already decided to offer Olivia Chow the honour of a state funeral for her late husband. And thus, the wheels were set in motion for Jack Layton to lie in state in the rotunda of the House of Commons, with a state funeral to follow tomorrow in Toronto. We’ll set aside any discussion of the policy decision. But anticipating developments and how the resulting media coverage might play out, well, that’s issue management and media strategy. And, although I’m speculating wildly here, I do remain convinced that someone in the PMO – likely including Harper himself – saw the outpouring in the wake of Layton’s death and quickly realized that calls for a state funeral would be inevitable. It’s always best to be leading a major story than responding to one, and with such a large emotional layer to this one, it was a good communications play to get out in front of all of it by making (and announcing) the offer, rather than being put in the position of having to consider and then respond to the inevitable calls for it. I don’t at all doubt Harper’s sincerity in also wanting to pay respects to his “friend and colleague” as he described Layton, as well.
We were all shocked on Monday morning when news broke of the death of federal NDP Leader Jack Layton. We knew just from seeing him on TV only a month before, when he announced he was going to take some time to deal with a new form of cancer, that things didn’t look good – but the speed with which the end came was staggering. Throughout his time in public life, and especially at the federal level, various writers here at TD&F – myself included – have often praised Layton’s communications and media savvy. So it wasn’t surprising that one of the last acts of his life was to prepare a final message to Canadians, to be made public immediately in the wake of his death. Sure, he worked with a few close confidantes on it, but so does every political leader on every missive. The letter, dubbed by many media outlets as Layton’s “love letter to Canada,” was as quotable as it was poignant – with messages of hope, optimism and positivity directed at quarters from young Canadians to Quebecers to his own party members to people dealing with cancer just as he was. Excerpts began immediately popping up on Facebook and Twitter in the form of status updates and newly-minted avatars – and suddenly, reporters didn’t have to go searching back through an unfathomable mountain of Layton quotes from over the years in order to sum up his thoughts, hopes and aspirations for the country he left behind: the fresh copy was right there. Well played, Jack, right to the last. We’ll miss you for many reasons, but one of the big ones will be the communications lessons we all learned from just watching you in action.
Leadership transitions for any company, of any size, can be very delicate situations, but they are doubly so for a company like Apple Inc. After all, the popularity of its product line – and of its shares on the stock market – are intrinsically linked to the cult of personality around one man: co-founder Steve Jobs. So when Jobs announced this week that he was stepping down from his job as CEO (for which he earns $1 a year – a salary that only adds to his corporate mystique), it was a moment fraught with risk for Apple in the eyes of customers, investors, media and employees. But Jobs & Co. pulled it off by managing the announcement in a way appropriate to both the man and the company. First, it was made by Jobs himself, through a letter to the board and the Apple community. Second, he addressed the succession question head-on, “strongly” recommending to the board “that we execute our succession plan and name [COO] Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.” Good wording, communicating advance planning, continuity and, most importantly, no surprises. Almost in the same breath, the Apple board issued a statement announcing Cook as CEO and expressing absolute confidence in his abilities. By being prepared with their messaging and showing themselves to be all on the same page, Jobs and the board appeared in full control of the situation – which is probably the most vital message you can send in a time of flux. The upshot: the media for the most part was busy writing panegyrics to Jobs but wasted little ink fretting over Apple’s future, and the stock went down merely 2% the next day amid an overall market decline 1.5%. To me, Apple just wrote a case study in how to manage a leadership transition. Touchdown. (And good luck, Mr. Jobs.)
Few things tug at the heartstrings more strongly than an adorable little puppy in a pet store looking for a home. We know this instinctively, and it’s also borne out in sales figures for PJ’s Pets stores, which says even though they only sell puppies in 15 per cent of their stores across Canada, the little pooches nonetheless make up seven per cent of total sales chain-wide. So it’s an especially powerful – and credible – message that PJ’s is sending, by announcing an end to all puppy sales by the end of the month in order to help promote adoption from animal shelters and humane societies. “There is a great need for pets to be adopted, but it’s a conflict of interest because you can’t sell and adopt out at the same time,” said marketing director Stacey Halliday. Here’s a company being a responsible corporate citizen: doing the right thing for a noble purpose, never mind the impact on revenue that will result. The message is clear, entirely credible, and it’s being hailed by third parties like humane societies and animal advocates across the country. Touchdown.
As a politician on the stump in the American South, you could certainly do far worse than pipe yourself in to the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley. So Republican candidate Michele Bachmann (she of the “where’s the camera?” fame during her unintentionally hilarious Tea Party State of the Union address last winter) must surely have thought she had hit upon populist gold when she opened an August 16th speech in Spartanburg, S.C., with Elvis Presley’s “Promised Land” playing in the background. Gamely, she prefaced her remarks by referring to the Presley tune (a cover of a Chuck Berry original, but never mind) and encouraging the crowd to wish The King a happy birthday. Just one problem: August 16th wasn’t Elvis’s birthday – it’s the day he died. Granted, “Happy death-day, Elvis,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But Bachmann should have been a little more careful. After all, she is facing stiff competition from other far-right candidates in getting press for media missteps. Rick Perry, for instance, recently put his foot in it when he suggested that any move by Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke to increase the U.S. money supply would be “almost treacherous or treasonous.” Perry’s remarks prompted fellow Republican Ron Paul to quip that Perry “makes me look like a moderate” – and Paul is the guy who’s been calling for the abolition of the Reserve altogether. In the race to lock up the far-right vote, Bachmann clearly needs to differentiate herself from the herd. One sure fire way might also be the most simple: get your facts straight.
Talk about a ‘situation.’ Abercrombie & Fitch was the talk of the town this week, after the clothing company publicly asked the cast of Jersey Shore – and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino in particular – to cease and desist from sporting its togs on the show, offering any and all who comply a “substantial” (though unspecified) amount of money. During its time on the air, Jersey Shore has notoriously lowered the TV trash bar several notches by highlighting its crew of reality show characters’ penchants for heavy drinking, casual sex and a long, long list of other political incorrectness, and A&F says “We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino’s association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.” Now, publicly highlighting an association that you would allegedly like to see go away might appear to be a whopper of a Fumble – which it would be, if that’s really what A&F was doing. I, however, will assume they are way smarter than that; in fact, I think this play was downright brilliant. By suggesting they’d be willing to pay the Jersey boys & girls big time money not to wear their duds, A&F has instead breathed fresh life into Jersey Shore’s notoriety, and has leveraged the “controversy” to the point that everyone is talking about the company’s clothes as a result. Surely they doth protest too much – and in this case, it worked like a charm.
He’s not wrong. Ultimately, corporations ARE people: employees, management, directors, investors – and those human beings feel the effects when the corporation they are part of pays higher taxes. But for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney this week, being technically right didn’t matter. In the midst of some strident heckling during a summer fair speaking opportunity, Romney responded to calls for corporate tax increases to help fund social programs by saying “Corporations are people” – and in one sound bite, handed his opponents a bumper-sticker of a line that will live on throughout his entire bid for the White House. It’s hard to do when under fire, but it’s imperative that communicators consider the potential repercussions of every statement they make BEFORE it crosses their lips. Case in point: before I had even heard Romney’s remark, a trending hash-tag game on Twitter was #ReplacePeopleWithCorporations – prompting such re-written classics as “Corporations … who need corporations … are the luckiest corporations in the world.” If your comment goes instantly viral in a negative way, that’s a Fumble.
As if to prove the above point, 22-year-old Sam Pepper created a Facebook page that effectively captured and communicated his fellow Englanders’ hopes for stability in the wake of the riots. On Tuesday, Pepper launched “Operation Cup of Tea,” which through Facebook and Twitter urged Brits to “harness the power of tea by staying home and having a brew, every night until [the rioting] stops,” and to show solidarity by sharing photos of themselves enjoying a cuppa. By that night, the Facebook page had attracted more than 100,000 “likes”; by end of week, it had more than 300,000. Then Pepper launched OperationCupofTea.com, where supporters could pay £6.50 for a bag of ethically grown loose-leaf tea, with the proceeds going towards helping victims of the riots rebuild their homes and businesses. Smart kid – and proof of the power of social media to make positive change.
Quite often in communications, the question of WHO is delivering the message can be equally as important as the message itself. Alex Anthopoulos is the General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, but despite his corner-office role, he is not usually front and centre in terms of speaking for the organization. He picks his spots, being the lead voice as appropriate on matters like trades, call-ups and other things that are directly his bailiwick, but we don’t see him in front of the media as a matter of course. So when ESPN reported bombshell allegations being made by some un-named players on another team that the Jays had a spotter in the stands who was stealing signals at the Rogers Centre, it was a bit of a surprise to see Anthopoulos lead the counter-attack. And it made the message even stronger as a result. “Let’s find four players on some other team claiming they saw the guy in the white shirt and they saw the UFO flying across the sky … I can guarantee you there must be one disgruntled Blue Jay out there to have spoken to. And to not have been able to do it, shocks me.” His point – that if the story were true, it would be dead easy for ESPN to have found a former Toronto player with an axe to grind who would be more than happy to spill the beans – was an instant head-nodder. That, combined with Anthopoulos’ visible anger (also out of character) helped quickly put the story into the “balloon boy” league in the minds of most observers. It’s not often that a baseball team scores a Touchdown, but the Blue Jays certainly did this week.