North Americans have grown so jaded about protest movements (Occupy Insertcityhere, anyone?) that it’s easy to forget that sometimes these things really can work – if the object is clear, the messaging is strong, and the execution is sharp. Witness the campaign by Wikipedia, along with other online entities large and small, against two pieces of legislation in U.S. Congress. The would-be laws, SOPA and PIPA, would have placed harsher restrictions on content-sharing over the Internet – anathema to Wikipedia and other organizations (like Google ) that rely on user-contributed material. In protest, Wikipedia shut itself down for the entire day on Jan. 18. That not only showed how much the world has come to depend on it for finding factoids and settling bets; it also showed how much political power could be mustered by a simple boycott. Wikipedia’s campaign was well-reasoned and well-explained, as exemplified in an open letter from Sue Gardner, Canadian-born executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. “Although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral,” she wrote, “its existence is not.” True, Wikipedia risked a lot with the shutdown, but the proof of the soundness of the strategy is in the result. Within days, several of the congressmen who’d sponsored the bills abandoned them, and finally the legislation was halted altogether. A “wiktory” for the Internet…
“If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down (sic) like it did. There would have been a lot of blood in that first class cabin and then me saying, ‘OK, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.” And with that, the first celebrity Fumble of 2012 was born, courtesy of actor Mark Wahlberg, who thought talking himself up like some kind of superhero who could have given 9/11 a happy ending was a good idea. However, the relatives of those killed on the 9/11 airliners had a very different view, condemning Wahlberg for being disrespectful of their dead loved ones. Wahlberg at least got the message quickly, issuing an apology in which he described his speculation about how he would have handled things as “ridiculous to begin with,” adding that his comments were “irresponsible” and “insensitive.” Good recovery, but a Fumble that need never have been committed in the first place.
How to “humanize” politicians is a constant challenge for many political communicators. Leaders often get branded in the public mind based on their ideological positions, key policy matters or incidents that come along during their tenure. That’s hard stuff to try and overcome, especially if the politician involved is a polarizing figure. So this week’s “Cut The Waist” initiative launch, including a very public weigh-in by Mayor Rob Ford (330 pounds) and his brother, Councilor Doug Ford (275) was a great bit of alternative PR in action. The fact that the Ford brothers could stand to drop a few pounds is self-evident – and something that applies equally well to so many of us (hey, what’re you looking at?). So to take that reality and channel it into a public health initiative (the Fords are encouraging everyone to live healthier) puts a much warmer, softer face on two of Toronto’s hardest-nosed politicians. Touchdown.
FUMBLE – JUSTICE STAFFERS SHOULD HAVE ESCALATED SAME-SEX ISSUE FUMBLE – JUSTICE STAFFERS SHOULD HAVE ESCALATED SAME-SEX ISSUE BEFOREHAND
I’m still confused by this whole same-sex marriage/divorce thing that has blown up in the last 24 hours or so – and, based on media columns, blog posts and social media chatter, so are most of us. So there’s clearly a communications problem at play, despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to reassure people that there’s no plan to re-open the same-sex marriage issue. So I call a Fumble on the Justice department staffers who failed to recognize that, when their counsel was going to take a controversial stand on the matter as part of a court case now underway, they had a ticking time-bomb of a major media and political issue on their hands. This should have been flagged to senior issues and communications advisors in the minister’s office and the PMO, so that they could have had a communications and message plan in place before the thing blew up in the media. If there was such a plan, I can’t see any evidence of it. Harper and Nicholson are saying the right things, but they’re doing it now in the wake of screaming headlines like “Government nullifies thousands of gay marriages” and with the social media sphere on fire about what it all means – or doesn’t.
Quite the bombshell CUPE Local 416 President Mark Ferguson dropped at a news conference this morning: an offer of what he presented as a three-year wage freeze for city workers, saying they are willing to do their part to help save city services threatened by the Ford administration’s budget. “My advice to Mayor (Rob) Ford and the administration is to recognize this goodwill gesture for what it is,” Ferguson said. “Look for labour stability over the next two or three years and sign a deal with us tomorrow that respects public services and continues great services for residents.” All laudable language, and the “three-year wage freeze” positioning has been the dominant headline and sound bite all day. Now, in answering reporters’ questions, Ferguson admitted that they are in fact seeking a rollover of the entire existing contract – including all job security and other non-wage provisions – which entails much, much more than a simple wage freeze. But no bother: suddenly the man who had been dubbed “Dr. No” was offering something which most will likely view as a substantial concession from a man who seems to be doing everything he can to try and reach a settlement. Touchdown.
A couple of years ago, a guy in Illinois said he cracked a can of Mountain Dew and had a healthy slug, only to discover a dead mouse inside. He’s suing for damages in a case which beverage-maker PepsiCo says is bogus. To prove it, they brought in a “veterinary pathologist” who testified that if a mouse had actually be entombed in a can of the Dew for the established timeline of 74 days, the chemical processes at play would have reduced it to “a jelly-like substance” with “no calcium in its bones and bony structures.” This is compelling scientific testimony. PepsiCo’s lawyers must be very proud of themselves. Their PR staff, however, must be going nuts, as the sensational testimony got the story tremendous media play and people everywhere now equate their beverage to greenish-yellow, mouse-melting battery acid. Way to win the legal battle but lose the public relations war.
Dalton McGuinty has a dilemma. The Ontario Premier got re-elected last fall by campaigning against across-the-board spending cuts and wresting major concessions out of the all aspects of the public sector. But then this week, Don Drummond, the respected economist hand-picked by McGuinty to go top to bottom through the province’s books and to make recommendations on how to deal with the $16 billion deficit, said that’s precisely what’s going to be required to get the job done. What to do? McGuinty kept his response appropriately vague – Drummond’s report isn’t even complete yet – and vowed to “do everything we can” to protect priority services. Dancing with the girl that brung him to the dance, McGuinty said “What I can assure Ontarians is that their values will be our government’s values,” setting the stage for taking at least some of Drummond’s advice but without following it to the letter – squaring the communications circle he was put in by the economist’s comments vis a vis his campaign.
It’s not often I give a Touchdown to someone who breaks one of our Veritas Media Coaching rules, but hey, it’s a brand new year – and every rule is meant to be broken, if the circumstances are right. Case in point: Toronto Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, who has been the communications point this week on the combative state of contract negotiations between City Hall and its employees, and who broke the general rule on speculating about hypothetical scenarios. The rule is, “don’t do it” – but the exception is, “unless it is being done deliberately and strategically.” Ninety-plus per cent of the time, communicators get in trouble if they spontaneously blue-sky about things that may or may not happen, decisions which may or may not be made, or actions which may or may not be taken depending on what happens. But Holyday didn’t do that. Whenever he was asked this week about the potential for a strike or lockout, his first response was to stress that he and the rest of council want to see a negotiated settlement. But his second message essentially said that, if there is to be a labour disruption, he’d much rather see it happen this winter than in the summer months. That’s not blue-skying, that’s deliberately scene-setting for a distinctly possible outcome – and through his messaging, he’s trying to get the public both used to the idea of a coming service disruption AND to support the city’s preferred strategy of going through it in the cold weather rather than the garbage-simmering summer months we all had to endure last time around.