It’s always a tall order, but we have made a list, checked it twice, and are pleased to present the Top 10 Touchdowns & Fumbles of 2011! In almost no particular order, here are the finalists and the Number Ones:
FUMBLE – CHARLIE LOSES HIS SHEEN
The pop culture communications play of the year was more of a saga than any individual moment, but Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdown, seen on interview talk shows, stream-of-consciousness Twitter posts and, of course, his “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option” traveling road show was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Sure, his core message of unhappiness with his Two And A Half Men powers that be was pretty clear, but it was wrapped up in so much wack-job nuttiness that it was more pathetic than anything else. He already had the Hollywood bad-boy brand locked up – his antics cost him his gig and, despite his self-deprecating turns on late night shows and at his own roast, we wouldn’t bet the farm on his new show or his chances of getting any serious work in the future.
TOUCHDOWN – GERVAIS STANDS BY HIS ACT
Ricky Gervais’ performance as host of the Golden Globes Awards in January was analyzed and dissected more than the average high school biology class frog. Did he go too far? Was he mean/nasty/offensive? There were numerous calls from some corners for him to apologize for, well, being Ricky Gervais. His entire career has been built on edgy, pointed, cringe-inducing comedy … and that’s what they got at the Globes. Gervais spoke at length about it with Piers Morgan on CNN: “They hired me. Like I’m going to go out there and not talk about the issues in their industry? Don’t forget, I’ve got to be an outsider, there. I mustn’t come out there and schmooze them as everyone’s mate – that’s nauseating. I’ve got to roast them.” Gervais was entirely true to his brand, and standing by his performance is the right communications play in the aftermath – as evidenced by the fact that he’ll be hosting the 2012 edition in a few weeks.
TOUCHDOWN – CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS CO-ORDINATION SURROUNDS EMAIL DATA BREACH
Hey, remember the big ta-doo involving email data belonging to customers of Air Miles and Best Buy back in April? Probably not. Even though the data breach was described by some as “the biggest of its kind in U.S. history,” it didn’t exactly seem to cause cyber-panic in the streets. And I submit that a lot of that had to do with some solid crisis communications by three of the firms involved – the aforementioned Air Miles and Best Buy, along with Dallas-based database manager Epsilon, where the actual hack attack took place. All three companies moved quickly to disclose the situation to media, and to issue statements reassuring clients that only their first and last names and email addresses may have been accessed – but absolutely no other personal information. Swift and reassuring – all good. Plus, the two consumer-facing businesses reminded their members that they never send emails asking for personal information, and that anyone receiving such an approach should either delete it, report it, or both. The speed, co-ordination and consistency of the messages from all three parties went a long way toward keeping the temperature and scope of the media stories down – and that’s what effective crisis communications is all about.
FUMBLE – OCCUPY TORONTO WANTS … UH …
The Occupy Toronto encampment in St James Park got tons of media coverage, no question. But we don’t believe that any publicity is good publicity. Media mileage only really counts if your target audience hears and acts upon or reacts to your message, and despite weeks of coverage, we still came away from the whole thing with no clear sense of whom they were trying to speak to and what they were trying to say. With too many voices and too many disorganized messages, the occupiers’ communications were as big a mess as the park was when they were finally cleared out. Speaking of which, we award a huge Touchdown to the folks from Landscape Ontario who donated the sod, soil and volunteer manpower that left St James Park looking better than ever thanks to their whirlwind post-protest makeover.
TOUCHDOWN – OBAMA ON BIN LADEN
U.S. President Barack Obama was able to score in a couple of ways with respect to his comments about the killing of Osama bin Laden. First, with an election year looming and leading a wounded party that has been traditionally painted as weaker on terror than the Republicans, he may have been tempted to take a victory lap. Obama did, appropriately, address the nation to confirm the news. But, as he told 60 Minutes in a subsequent interview, “there’s no need to spike the football” by releasing grisly photos of bin Laden’s body. And Obama walked his talk at ground zero in New York, making no public speech, only quietly laying a wreath after meeting privately with 9/11 families, firefighters and other heroes from that awful day. Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that speaks loudest. And then just recently, when criticized by Republican opponents about his approach to foreign policy, Obama invoked bin Laden’s name in a well-played counter-punch: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever’s left out there about that.”
FUMBLE – SANDUSKY VS. COSTAS
His lawyer thought it was a good idea. I disagree. Having Jerry Sandusky – the now infamous Penn State football coach, charged with multiple counts of sexual assaults on children – take questions from veteran NBC interviewer Bob Costas went as bad as it possibly could. Costas rightly asked what everyone wanted to know: what do you say to your accusers? Are you a pedophile? Are you sexually attracted to young boys? If you are innocent as you claim, why would these people come forward with the claims they have made? The only good answer Sandusky offered was “no” to the “are you a pedophile” question. Other than that, he was unsteady, convoluted and rambling …at one point attempting to rationalize what he considers appropriate touching of the young boys he admits to showering with. The hole he was digging got deeper with every word. The broader point here is about people accused or charged with criminal acts – and especially ones as reprehensible as those laid against Sandusky – starting their defense in the media prior to the courtroom process. In general, it’s a better strategy to let your lawyer do the talking. If you’re going to proclaim your innocence directly, you had better be absolutely resolute and seamless in your pronouncements, and ready to defend against any and all tough questions – something Sandusky certainly was not.
FUMBLE – WEINER GRILLED
American Congressman Anthony Weiner fessed up far too late that yep, not only did he tweet a boxer-shot of his privates out to the world, it was actually a sneak peek into the kind of online cavorting he had been doing with half a dozen women for several years now. We’ve seen this kind of thing before – with, for some reason, shocking frequency involving New York State officials – and so it was surprising indeed to see Weiner deviate from the standard mea culpa news conference. The first part was pro forma: a statement of admission and apology, with appropriate levels of emotion, concern for impact on family and full acceptance of responsibility. It was when he took questions afterward that the “you’ve got to be kidding!” comments started around our offices. At first, Weiner actually looked pretty good: he made no excuses, and was actually quite pointed in saying he was absolutely in no way blaming anyone or anything besides his own foibles and bad judgment for the pickle he was in. He apologized without reservation to every reporter and other individual to whom he had lied. He was obviously ready to make these kinds of statements and admissions. But then about half-way through, inevitably, the reporters started probing into details he wasn’t prepared to have to deal with: did he have phone sex with these women? And how did he know, given the anonymity of the internet, that they really were adults and not possibly underage girls? “She’s young enough to be your daughter!” one female reporter exclaimed, in reference to one identified as being 21 years old. Weiner was left reeling, forced to acknowledge that one can never know for sure exactly with whom one is communicating online … but that he was nonetheless sure they were all adults. Yeesh. As if the whole bald-faced series of lies wasn’t enough, Weiner took a nightmare crisis communications situation and made it even worse that it already was.
TOUCHDOWN – WILL & KATE’S EXCELLENT CANADIAN ADVENTURES
I’m a communications professional. I develop strategies, plan photo ops, and I can see through the veneer of any PR strategy. I know there’s a proverbial man behind the curtain. So let’s just call a spade a spade and cut to the chase with respect to the royal visit: I LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT!! I found myself lingering by TV monitors and poring through the newspaper photos, enjoying the spectacle, charm and warmth surrounding every step of the journey across Canada by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Prince William and Kate never set a foot wrong, from their grace and genuine enthusiasm at events and walkabouts, to the terrific photo ops (William piloting the Sea King helicopter, Kate dragon-boating, the missed shot on goal in Yellowknife, and on and on it went) to even a downright warm reception in Quebec where the Duke spoke entirely (and wisely) en francais. This was a brilliant branding exercise, and an entirely successful shakedown cruise for monarchy 3.0 – sparking interest and genuine affection for the House of Windsor from an entirely new generation of Canadians. Now, if we can only figure out how to get Charles out of the way …
FUMBLE OF THE YEAR: BLACKBERRY MAKERS ALL THUMBS IN CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS
No other organization received more communications Fumbles from TD&F this year than Research in Motion. Their performance in the media was as weak as their share values and, as a result, both liabilities fed off each other. The most telling misstep came in the wake of the massive service disruption RIM had to deal with back in October. 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. 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 death of Steve Jobs (and the flood of affection for Apple and its competing products it inspired) plus the launch 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.
TOUCHDOWN OF THE YEAR: LAYTON’S FINAL MESSAGE
We were all shocked 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.
To all of our TD&F readers, everyone here at Veritas Communications wishes you all the best for the holidays and nothing but communications Touchdowns in 2012.
At first I wasn’t even going to touch this one – politician blows cool in Question Period, uses profanity in the heat of the moment, apologizes promptly and withdraws the offending remark. Big deal. But the story has had such legs that we would be remiss in not commenting on MP Justin Trudeau’s s-bomb during a testy day in Parliament this week. Now, we’ll never know if Trudeau deliberately went blue when he equated Environment Minister Peter Kent with a bodily waste product, but he has been extremely deliberate in leveraging the controversy to drive his message about the issue at the heart of the whole matter – that the Conservatives prevented opposition members from attending the recent climate change conference in South Africa. In subsequent interviews (and even as part of his official mea culpa in the House) Trudeau hasn’t missed an opportunity to go deep on WHY he said what he said, so whether inadvertent or not at the outset, it’s a Touchdown in the end. As for the facial hair he’s sporting these days, well, that’s entirely another matter.
We’re always talking about the need for authenticity when talking to the press, and this week four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, who still holds the world record in the 400-m sprint more than a decade after he set it, gave a master class in class. The subject was Oscar Pistorius, a South African 400-m runner with two prosthetic legs, who is trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympics amid substantial controversy over whether he should be allowed to compete. Pistorius had originally been disqualified from the Olympics in 2008 by the IAAF, which decided that his carbon fibre blade legs might give him an unfair advantage over fully-limbed competitors. But that decision has since been reversed on appeal. Now, with the London Games approaching and Pistorius running well, the debate has resurfaced. Asked about what he thought of Pistorius potentially competing in the Olympics, Johnson – a friend of the South African’s – played his hand nicely. “I think – and Oscar and I have discussed this – that I would not have made the decision” to let Pistorius compete, but he added that now that the decision has been made, “I’m very supportive of him and I want to see him do the best he can possibly do.” What we like about this response is the interjection “and Oscar and I have discussed this”. Often, it’s the small but telling touches that make the difference between a successful interview and a missed opportunity, and here the fact that the two runners have talked about a sensitive issue is a real proof point of Johnson’s authenticity.
Normally I just read their catalogue for the sparkling copy, so it was a surprise to see Victoria’s Secret the focus of a Bloomberg News story making headlines all over the world. The story found that, despite the company’s practice of buying only certified organic and fair trade cotton, much of the fibre that Victoria’s Secret buys from the impoverished African country of Burkina Faso is produced using child labour. It’s a PR nightmare for an outfit that prides itself on being a socially responsible corporate citizen, and Victoria’s Secret parent company Limited Brands Inc. was quick to issue a statement in response to Bloomberg’s enquiry. That’s a good move. But here’s what the statement from VP of external communications Tammy Roberts Myers said: “They describe behaviour contrary to our company’s values and the code of labour and sourcing standards we require all of our suppliers to meet. We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.” Excuse me? “Vigorously engaging with stakeholders?” Who talks like that? Answer: no one. Just like a camel is a horse designed by a committee, you can bet that piece of corporate-speak had numerous hands behind it. And it’s terrible. This is a very human story – the Bloomberg piece follows the horrific day-to-day life of a young girl forced to work in the cotton fields under the blazing African sun. To respond to it in a way that is so cold, clinical and devoid of any humanity is a major Fumble – and it’s a cautionary tale for all who work in corporate communications.
After almost two months camping in Olympic Park, Occupy Calgary protesters were finally issued an order by bylaw officers to vacate the premises by this Friday at 2 p.m. Faced with eviction, the protesters (whose numbers had dwindled to a handful of diehards) packed up and left on Thursday night, but then seven of them returned on Friday morning for a scheduled news conference – during which they refused to speak. Instead, they handed reporters a statement addressed to city officials that began: “We have been a living crucible where every imaginable emotion, endeavour and dream of humanity has been confronted and thrust upon us, every day.” If you have no idea what that means, neither do we – and it kind of gets more confusing from there. The protesters also left behind an eight-foot metal spire called “The Heart of the Beast,” which the statement says they had erected as a “physical monument… to all the human suffering in the world, past and present, and to our desire to overcome.” (City officials said they would impound the thing for 30 days, and then figure out what to do with it.) In their defence, the Cowtown protesters’ response has been completely consistent with the bigger Occupy Movement’s general confusion and ideological gobbledygook in trying to communicate exactly what they’re on about. But if the goal is to win over the hearts and minds of Calgarians, then oddly worded statements and cryptic art leavings are not the way to go about it. We’re no lawyers, so it’s not for us to judge whether mounting sit-ins in public spaces is an inalienable right. But nobody should get a pass for making an incoherent mess of their messaging. Fumble.
Team Huddle: Kathy Barnett, Rick Byun, Melissa Prince
Both the blessing and curse of social media is the flexibility of its boundaries. As such, those of us who operate in the space understand that unwritten rules are rules all the same. PR firms, above all, need to know and practice this approach.
This week, U.K. PR firm Bell Pottinger was in the social media hot seat when an investigative exposé by The Independent uncovered the firm’s dubious practices. The agency was accused of manipulating Wikipedia postings related to their clients and going to great lengths in so doing – including multiple Wikipedia accounts that masked their identity.Into the fray stepped Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales to lambaste the PR firm for what he called “ethical blindness.” In response to the co-father of online encyclopedia’s charged words, Bell Pottinger opted to take the low road in hiding behind legalities – stressing that no legal line had been crossed.Really?
Any PR practitioner worth his or her salt knows full well that transparency, authenticity and just plain honesty are paramount in any media, certainly social media. Furthermore, when reputations re at risk, the best course of action – as we advise our own clients – is to cut your losses, come clean and move on. By going with the letter of, rather than the spirit of the unwritten law of social media and life, this U.K. PR firm has soiled not only its own reputation, but more importantly, that of its valued clients. When in doubt, tell the veritas.
We like Patrick Chan. Sweetheart of a guy. Good figure skater. But dissing your home country is typically not a wise communications move for a national sports hero. Yet that appeared to be exactly what Chan did when a Reuters story quoted him this week as saying that he sometimes felt more appreciated in China than in his native Canada, where hockey gets the spotlight. Cue media uproar. So Chan issued a statement clarifying his comments, which he said were taken out of context. “I never intended to suggest any negative feelings toward Canada, nor our country’s proud figure skating tradition,” the statement read. But that was just a warm-up. In an interview with The Toronto Star’s Randy Starkman, Chan went for the crisis communications equivalent of the triple Axel: the full-on apology. “When I was in high school, I remember when I would get in trouble I would feel awful for the rest of the day. That’s exactly how I feel now… I’m extremely deeply sorry for what I said and I never meant to offend anyone.” And in case anyone doubted his patriotism, he had the permanent evidence to prove them wrong: a leg tattoo of a Maple Leaf with the Olympic rings and flame. “I’m branded for life,” Chan said. Now, we TD+Fers are no big fans of the “my words were taken out of context” defence. But we think we know a believable mea culpa when we read one, and Chan pulled it off. Nice recovery.
Research In Motion can’t seem to catch a break. Just as the Waterloo tech giant was finally getting a couple of positive stories, two of its staffers drink themselves into trouble on a Beijing-bound Air Canada flight. The plane landed in Vancouver, the two were arrested, and Air Canada had to put the entire passenger load up of around 300 people in a hotel for the night before being able to continue on their journey the following day. The airline is seeking restitution to the tune of about $36,000. The broader point here is that, besides the obvious Fumble for their misconduct, the RIM employees caused their employer a nationally-carried run of bad press. Just like anyone who naively says their Twitter comments are purely their own and do not reflect on their employer in any way, trust me, they will if you say something outrageous, offensive or otherwise problematic. RIM was the name in the headlines, not George Campbell and Paul Wilson. Got it, boys?
There are few things I would less like to hear explicit details about than a brief, lurid sexual encounter between a 62-year-old Frenchman and a New York City hotel maid. Of course, others are free to disagree, and among those who apparently do are Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his recent biographer, Michel Taubmann. As you’ll recall, former International Monetary Fund chief Strauss-Kahn’s career imploded over accusations from New York Sofitel maid Nafissatou Diallo that he sexually assaulted her after emerging from the shower of his hotel suite on May 14. Now, in a one-sided tome entitled The DSK Affairs: the Counter Investigation, Taubmann tells Strauss-Kahn’s side of the story. In the book, released this week, DSK recounts that he emerged from the bathroom naked to find Diallo in his suite, she took a good long look at him and didn’t exactly run away, and then one thing led to another, and, well, you know, these things happen…. (I’m paraphrasing so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of our TD&F readers.) “Consensual, but stupid,” is how DSK describes the encounter in the book, which then goes on to note his confessed “liberated sex life” and frequent participation in orgies – all for which he “never paid a centime” (as if that makes it much better). After the book’s release, Strauss-Kahn issued a statement in which he fuzzily tried to distance himself from the tell-all: “I cannot be held either to the writings or to the declarations or testimony of whoever, which are often inaccurate.” That’s hardly a denial he talked to Taubmann, who claims to have met with DSK many times since May. If that’s true, then it was an incredibly bad move on Strauss-Kahn’s part. Although criminal charges have been dropped, he still faces a civil lawsuit from Diallo, and may be subject to an investigation in France over recent allegations that he participated in a prostitution ring in a five-star hotel in Lille. (He is also suing five French publications for invading his privacy, which seems rather ironic, all things considered.) Facing that legal heat, what could he possibly hope to achieve by fessing up to his predilections? As this sordid saga continues, it’s hard not to conclude that Strauss-Kahn’s indiscretions go far beyond sex.
This isn’t going well for the mayor. Setting aside (as we do here at TD&F) the merits of the arguments being fired back and forth by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the Toronto Star in their ongoing dispute, I say Ford’s coming out on the losing end of this thing, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the move by the Star to ask for the city’s Integrity Commissioner to weigh in on the treatment of the Star by the Mayor’s office (not to mention a front-page column by Torstar chair John Honderich ) has given fresh legs to exactly the thing that has Ford so steamed to begin with: the Star story dating back to 2010 which claimed he was dismissed from coaching a Toronto football team after getting into a set-to with one of the players. Most of us have forgotten all about it, but by keeping the feud going and saying only a front-page apology will put it to rest, Ford is simply helping to keep the offending item in play. Second, the issue which is actually at hand – namely Ford’s edict that the Toronto Star not receive any news releases, media advisories or any other material disseminated to all the other media outlets – makes him look heavy-handed and lacking in respect for the role of the media in reporting on his municipal government. It is entirely Ford’s prerogative – as even the Star itself acknowledges – never to grant its reporters or columnists an interview, but refusing to even email official communiqués to one of the country’s oldest and most prominent newspapers is simply bad optics all the way around.