We know there’s going to be a big protest in downtown Toronto tomorrow. What we don’t know is why. “Occupy Toronto” is the latest branch-plant protest spinning off of the month-long one that has seen activists decamped in a Manhattan park (“Occupy Wall Street”), and local organizers say they’re counting on the same long-term action here. But what they’re not saying is exactly what they’re upset about, and exactly what action they are calling for – fundamental aspects of any activist-based communications effort. They also say they don’t want any confrontation with police – yet have also asked participants to prepare to deal with the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, and have thus far refused to communicate with the cops about their intended marching route or any other actions. No clarity on the one hand, and outright contradiction on the other add up to a colossal communications Fumble.
The TTC has had its share of bad news days over the past year or so, everything from sleeping subway station collectors to drivers caught texting behind the wheel. These are the kinds of little cuts that can do serious reputational damage over time – and they’re the kind of thing that can’t be suddenly overcome with one very good news story. So it’s great PR indeed for the TTC to be undertaking the kind of customer service initiatives it has brought forward in the past while (station managers, the appointment of Customer Service Officer Chris Upfold), the latest of which was announced this week: plans to establish a Customer Liaison Panel populated by members of the public and TTC officials, plus regular quarterly town hall meetings. All of these measures send a strong signal: that the commission understands it needs to do a better job in customer service, and that it is making changes designed to achieve that goal. As TTC Chair Karen Stintz put it, “Fundamentally, what we’re talking about is a culture change.” Touchdown.
It’s ironic indeed that the two guys who revolutionized the way the world stays in touch were nowhere to be seen nor heard from when everything went bad for Research In Motion this week. What began as a service outage overseas quickly spiraled into a cascading failure that ultimately enveloped five continents and tens of millions of Blackberry users. iPhone nation gloated, Android users smirked, and furious Berry peeps ranted online that they were leaving and never coming back. And all the while, silence from RIM’s co-CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis . Instead, reporters were given a clumsily-arranged conference call with the company’s top-ranking tech official. Finally, on Thursday morning, Lazaridis appeared in an online video, expressing his deep regret over the situation and vowing that his team was working “day and night” to get it fixed. Eventually, the emails began flowing again, but the damage was done: they had waited too long to put the corner office into play. A major crisis requires the visible involvement of the top executive(s), to make clear that the problem is being taken extremely seriously and to send the message that everyone throughout the organization is working on a resolution. With the recent death of Steve Jobs (and the flood of affection for Apple and its competing products it inspired) plus the launch just today of the next generation iPhone, the timing couldn’t have been worse for RIM to suffer the body blow that was the service outage – and they certainly didn’t need to cap it with a self-inflicted black eye through their communications Fumble.
I went to high school with Mike Myers. Well, for a year or two, anyway – he forsook my alma mater, Sir John A. Macdonald C.I. for the neighbouring Stephen Leacock Collegiate midway through, because Leacock was on a semester system and Mike could graduate from there six months sooner, once he had amassed the credits necessary for his diploma. He went from there immediately to Second City, the first stop in a career that would lead to Saturday Night Live and movie stardom. So it’s fun to watch from afar as the success of a guy from the old neighbourhood plays out in the media – and it’s nice to see how well-managed Mike’s press seems to be. Unlike so many other showbiz types, when his marriage broke down and a new relationship blossomed into a new union, there was precious little about it in the tabloids or, for that matter, anywhere else. His second marriage became public through his own disclosure, well after the fact – a pattern repeated this week with news of the birth of his first child, a boy, already two weeks old now. Classy. Discrete. I dare say, downright Canadian. So for that – and for naming the boy something as cool as Spike! – a Touchdown to Mr. Myers. Bridlewood’s still proud of ya.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have oft been accused of not taking the threat of climate change seriously, so it was both shrewd politics and a handy communications vehicle they set in motion two years ago in the form of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. Its mission was to look into the potential ramifications of rising temperatures here in Canada over time, and to try and put a price tag on them in terms of economic impact. That mandate and process gave the Tories somewhere to point for two years, when questioned about the issue. This week, the panel reported back: we could be facing a $5 billion hit by 2020, ramping up to $21 billion to as high as $43 billion by 2050. Huge numbers all around, despite the absence of any sense of what stopping global warming might cost – but no worries, by doing its job, the NRT gave the Harper government a fresh platform upon which to stack the $58 million commitment toward climate change-related initiatives made in the spring budget. Is it enough? Who knows? Did the NRT exercise give the feds at least the appearance of taking the issue seriously – and seriously enough to allocate some budget toward fighting it? You bet.
It’s Friday and like many Ontarians, I’m feeling a bit politicked-out this week … so let’s talk about men in high heels shall we? That was the spectacle down at Yonge-Dundas Square, as some 500 guys strapped on the stilettos (and all other manner of feminine footwear) for an event dubbed “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes.” It was an awareness/fundraising event in support of the White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women – and it was a communications Touchdown. Annual events, especially one as well established as the White Ribbon Campaign (now 20 years old, having been established in the wake of the murders of 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1990) are often a PR challenge: how do you keep it fresh, different and interesting to media? Ask a bunch of guys to totter around in women’s shoes, that’s how. It got huge play and fresh attention for a worthy cause.
Statistics Canada crunches numbers for a living. It’s the organization’s mandate to measure and analyze all manner of minutiae, to better inform Canadians. So it’s another day at the office for them to try and get media attention for the latest thing they’re giving us data about – and some days are easier than others. This week, they scored a huge communications Touchdown for a report on sugar consumption by Canadians. They equated the average person’s intake from all sources to 26 spoonfuls of sugar. 26 spoonfuls. We can instantly picture it, relate to it, comprehend exactly what that means – and, as a result, it’s a message that resonates. Newspaper art departments had a field day creating images of heaping spoonfuls and stacks of sugar cubes, and one TV reporter filled a clear plastic sports water bottle with the equivalent amount, winning expressions of disbelief from people on the street. Putting what can be complex numbers or research results into familiar, tangible terms that connect directly and immediately with those hearing the message is Touchdown-worthy material
OK. So you’re the CEO of an investment bank that has just revealed a $2.3 billion loss from unauthorized trading. What is the LAST thing your board, your investors and your customers want to hear? No prizes for guessing: “Not much we can do about it.” But that’s pretty much precisely what UBS AG’s CEO, Oswald Gruebel, told a Swiss newspaper Der Sonntag on Sept. 18, mere days after it came to light that a rogue trader had cost his firm billions in unauthorized trading. Gruebel said that he had no plans to step down because of the scandal, and went on to add (according to Bloomberg) that when “someone acts with criminal intent, you can’t do anything.” That might well be true – in fact, the CEO could be the last person you’d expect to be able to keep track of everything each employee is doing – but it’s not exactly appropriate in a time of crisis for a leader to talk about his inability to do anything. To be fair, Gruebel followed up with a memo to employees assuring them he was taking every step possible and acknowledging that, ultimately, the buck stopped with him. But by failing to show that he “got it” right out of the gate, Gruebel made a major misstep, and now rumours are swirling that he is not long for the CEO’s job. Small wonder.
Public leaders always have a fine line to walk between being honest about the challenges we face, but not going so far as to be alarmist. So it has been interesting to watch the lead players in the federal government grapple with global economic instability over the past few years. This week, with markets again gyrating wildly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty ramped up their communications quite pointedly: Harper said “We’re now at a stage where the uncertainty in global markets is getting to extremely dangerous levels,” while Flaherty called for “decisive” action by European policy makers on their deficits. As noted, politicians never want to alarm the public, but at the same time, there comes a point where failing to call a crisis a crisis can do serious damage to your credibility. The feds are sounding the right notes on this score, and they’re able to – Canada’s economic record through the recent turmoil gives us the authority to be a lead voice in the world on this stuff, and they’re using that position to maximum communications benefit.