Being the new boss at Ornge is a tough gig, with the image of the air ambulance service having been shredded through an extensive Toronto Star investigation and resulting political fallout at Queen’s Park. But Ron McKerlie does have the advantage of not being his predecessor – he can turn the page and has been, unloading a number of senior management players in the wake of the scandal. So it was a fine bit of PR for McKerlie to ride along with an Ornge crew who were transferring a patient from Orillia to Toronto. “Interim Ornge CEO goes on helicopter ride-along” was the boffo headline in the Globe & Mail. The story did, however, go a bit sideways, focusing on reported delays and problems with the mission at hand – but even amid some problems, the over-riding image is that of the new boss doing some hands-on work to better understand the realities of the Ornge operation. Touchdown.
Earlier this week, beleaguered Research in Motion released a software update to its PlayBook tablet device, which has been struggling for a foothold against Apple’s iPad ever since its release less than a year ago. The update to PlayBook 2.0 was generally greeted with nods of approval from pundits, largely because it gave the device access to native email, calendar and contact apps – the very things that RIM’s core BlackBerry user finds most valuable, but which were glaringly omitted from the original PlayBook. So that’s good. Even better, though, is a new marketing initiative supporting PlayBook 2.0: an innovative partnership between RIM and the NHL Players Association. RIM gave new PlayBooks to five NHL players, who are using the devices’ built-in HD cameras to record moments from their everyday lives and then posting the up-close-and-personal scenes online at playbook.nhlpa.com. (Nice URL.) Fans can ask the players (Bobby Ryan, Joffrey Lupul, Martin Biron, Michael Grabner and Scott Hartnell) questions through the site or by posting a comment on YouTube, and can vote for a weekly fan’s choice video. The NHLPA’s Colin Campbell says the initiative – called “NHL Players PlayBook” appropriately enough – is “an opportunity to show a different side of professional hockey players.” And for RIM, it’s a chance to show the capabilities of its product and get some high-profile (and very Canuck-ish) brand association, not to mention media coverage in the Financial Post and The Globe and Mail, among other outlets. RIM’s road to recovery is bound to be a long one, but this is precisely the kind of smart brand play the company is going to need if it’s ever going to get there.
After a brutal couple of weeks in the communications department over the TTC, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seems to have put his football coach hat on and remembered that sometimes the best defence is a good offence. To wit: a double volley of communications plays, penning an op-ed for the Globe and Mail and announcing that he and councillor/brother Doug Ford will take over hosting duties of the weekly municipal issues talk show “The City” on NewsTalk 1010 starting this Sunday afternoon. The op-ed reframed Ford’s argument for subway construction over LRT lines and – for the first time – suggested he would be open to looking at new surcharges on parking in the city to help pay for it. This is a major new message for the mayor, and by putting it out in a newspaper column, he put it into play in the public record in a focused, controlled and deliberate way (and prevented any possibility of the change in stance being interpreted as being “blurted out” in a scrum or otherwise “pulled out of the air”). The radio show is also a gutsy move. I can tell the mayor from first-hand experience that hosting an open-line show is a high-wire act for anyone, let alone a polarizing public official. He’ll need to keep his cool and be extra cautious in any comments he makes in the back-and-forth with callers – but as a vehicle for taking his message directly to the people (and to every reporter who will be listening), it’s unparalleled.
That’s how Justin Trudeau was dubbed in a Montreal Gazette headline, for his comment in a French radio interview last weekend in which he suggested that the Harper government’s policies could conceivably drive him to side with the Quebec separatists: “I always say that if, sometime, I believed that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper, and if it was going against abortion and it was going against same-sex marriage, and that it was moving backward in 10,000 different ways, maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.” Ka-boom. The comment spread like wildfire, and Trudeau rightly found himself in the hot-seat, forced to later declare his “love for Canada” while trying desperately to back-spin that the real question is why so many Quebecers feel alienated from Canada (suggesting it’s all Harper’s fault). Trudeau, better than most, should know better than to touch the third rail of Canadian politics, given his late father’s struggles with Quebec nationalism over the years. It’s one of those buttons that, when pushed, overwhelms the message.
The proper name of the federal legislation is the “Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other acts” – but the short title is the much more sensational “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.” Either way, it has certainly become a controversial bit of business – as evidenced by the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself decided to take the unusual step of sending it off to committee for review and, no doubt, amendment, before it even went to Second Reading. But the most notorious communications play around the bill was that by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews who, in response to a question from his Liberal counterpart, Francis Scarpaleggia, declared that “He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Now, a strong rhetorical line in the sand (to borrow another political chestnut) can often be a very strong driver of a message, but in this case, Toews took it way too far. By painting anyone who dares question the legislation (which would, among other things, allow police to get information from internet service providers about their customers’ activity without a warrant) as on the side of the perverts, Toews actually undermined his own credibility – and once you’ve lost that, you’ve lost your ability to communicate effectively. Ironically, before the dust settled this week, many of Toews’ own caucus colleagues were expressing their concerns about the scope of the original draft.
A detailed analysis of the province’s dismal fiscal situation and hundreds of recommendations on what do about it sure sounds like heavy stuff – and was, as evidenced by the collapse of a table bearing the tomes at a Queen’s Park news conference on Wednesday. So some clear messaging was going to be required in order to get the crux of the thing through to John and Jane Q. Ontarian – and I think Don Drummond delivered. The economist, hand-picked by the Premier to go through the books and prescribe the remedy, pulled no punches (against any political party) when he said “Our message will strike many as profoundly gloomy. It is one that Ontarians have not heard, certainly not in the recent election campaign, but one this Commission believes it must deliver.” Like Buckley’s cough syrup, it tastes bad, but it works. And I think Drummond’s best line came in the following analogy – always one of the best ways to give life to your messaging: “This is not a smorgasbord from which the government can choose only the tastiest morsels and ignore the less palatable.”
The Loblaw folks were forced into damage control mode this week, after Chair Galen Weston got a little too provocative in his remarks to a Toronto food conference. “Farmers’ markets are great … one day they’re going to kill some people, though.” Weston quickly added “I’m just saying that to be dramatic,” but the damage was done. Many growers and the executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario were among the 600 or so in the audience, and they reacted with disappointment and outrage. A Loblaw spokesperson responded to reporters’ enquiries later in the day, saying “(Weston) does not believe nor did he imply that farmers’ markets are less safe than any other forms of food distribution, including grocery stores,” adding that “his point was that, as the food system evolves, food safety approaches must keep pace through appropriate resources devoted to inspections and certifications throughout the system. His points were made to underscore that food safety is a serious issue and plays an important in the food system.” Well, if that’s what Weston meant, that’s what he should have said. By being too cheeky by half with his choice of words, he created a firestorm involving the very farmers his company buys from – something he could have lived without, I’m sure. And, as one story noted, there have been incidents in the past where Loblaw customers have fallen ill from food products bought in their stores. Fumble.
I know it was a long day and evening of debate for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford on Wednesday, but methinks the mayor’s frustration at seeing his desire for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line to be put completely underground from Black Creek Drive all the way to the Kennedy subway station got the better of him. Ford’s now infamous response to reporters after the votes were counted was “technically speaking, that whole meeting was irrelevant,” referencing the fact that the new line would be provincially funded and clinging to his belief that the McGuinty government was fully behind Ford’s all-underground vision. Premier Dalton McGuinty and Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli were both quick to declare that the province will act based on the council vote. By declaring the proceedings “irrelevant,” Ford has now set the stage for that descriptor to be thrown back at him at some point in the future, should there be a divergence of views between City Hall and Queen’s Park on a joint project – a circumstance which is far from unprecedented. The lesson: public figures need to choose their words carefully lest they come back to haunt them down the road, as I suspect will be the case with this one.