The issue wasn’t International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda attending a London conference last year and spending money on a hotel, it was the fact that she opted not to stay at the hardly-shabby-to-begin-with conference hotel but to move instead to the legendary Savoy. That, plus a car and driver and the infamous $16 orange juice (VERY freshly squeezed, I would hope) and the other above-and-beyond costs she incurred and originally had the government pay for were the details that made the whole story a scandal in the House of Commons this week. No one begrudges a minister with an internationally-focused portfolio traveling overseas and staying in appropriate-level accommodations, but this was beyond the pale. Oda ultimately apologized and agreed to pay the extra costs herself, but the damage was already done to the brand that the Harper Conservatives have invested so much time and effort into trying to own: that of the most trustworthy stewards of the public purse. Brands and core values are built carefully over time and by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Oda’s violations – and the communications impact thereof – have set back the Conservatives’ efforts considerably. A colossal Fumble.
Gaffes of the week came from the camp of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose campaign has been riddled with verbal missteps that make him seem like a rich guy who just doesn’t get it (e.g. “I’m not concerned about the very poor” and “Ann [his wife] drives a couple of Cadillacs”). This time, his advisers – foreign policy experts enlisted to portray President Barack Obama’s administration as wrong on just about everything – got in on the game. In a briefing with journalists, Romney advisers John Lehman and Pierre Prosper tried to portray Obama as being weak on the international stage, but ended up making themselves look weak on history. Among his jabs at Obama, Lehman charged that Obama had ceded control of the Arctic to “the Soviets.” (Romney went on to repeat the gaffe just hours later.) Prosper, meanwhile, alleged that the United States under Obama had “abandoned Czechoslovakia” – which must have come as something of a surprise to the Czechs and the Slovaks, who amicably parted ways in 1993 and now live in separate countries. Granted, everyone makes mistakes, but there’s no excuse for careless ones like these. In the political arena, the detail work on foreign policy is one of those things you have to get right – just ask Sarah “I-can-see-Russia-from-my-house-in-Wasilla” Palin. So Lesson 1 is obvious: get your facts straight. Lesson 2 is simple, but vital: reduce the risk of mistakes by practicing what you’re actually going to say. For a campaign already rattled by criticism that it’s out of touch with the people and the times, lazy missteps can be downright fatal. Fumble.
Embattled News Corp. Chair and CEO Rupert Murdoch spent much of this week testifying at the British inquiry into the conduct of his tabloid newspaper empire, specifically phone hacking and other violations of decency and/or law. He raised eyebrows by denying detailed knowledge or involvement in his newsrooms’ operations (a suggestion that runs counter to his years of personally directing headlines and editorials), but things really went sideways when he declared himself “under duress” because of the hordes of “journalists and paparazzi and microphones” following him. “I mean, I was being harassed,” he said of the tabloid reporters who have followed him this week. “I had another 20 or so outside my apartment this morning.” The result was headlines around the world saying “Murdoch plays victim.” Even if it’s true, even if you’re frustrated, if you’re the figure under fire for the trespasses of your organization, the last thing you can ever do is cry “woe is me” or attempt to, on any level, equate your plight with those of the true victims. For reference, see “Hayward, Tony” – the former CEO of BP who, in the midst of the Gulf of Mexico disaster caused by his company said “I’d like my life back.”
A diet is a hard thing to stick to – I should know, I re-start my own commitment to eating healthier almost daily. For this reason, I sympathized with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford when, in a moment of weakness, he decided to get takeout at a KFC. Unfortunately for Ford, his bad eating choices were videotaped by laughing onlookers who stated the obvious: He’s supposed to be losing weight! After the Toronto Star posted the video on its website, the public’s reaction was anything but savoury. Readers and other media outlets called into question the news value of a story about a public official eating chicken and chalked it up to undue mockery of someone who apparently can’t resist the call of the occasional deep fried drumstick (who can, really?!). Under any other circumstance, this may be valid criticism, but this is a mayor who has invited media and the public to follow his weekly weigh-ins for months. This story isn’t about whether it is right to ridicule Ford as much as it is about ensuring leaders remain accountable to the issues they champion, particularly in the era of citizen journalism – when everyone is watching, or in this case videotaping. So as unfair as it may seem, the lesson here is if you’re going to put an issue in play in the media, you had better be prepared to live with that issue, especially if you’ve made a direct connection between it and what would otherwise be your own private business. Otherwise, get ready to fly the coop when you’re caught holding the bird.
Companies and organizations of any size have often struggled with how to get employees to engage with customers, influencers and stakeholder via social media. Well, it appears that the Republican leadership in the U.S House of Representatives has figured out a way to entice their congressional colleagues to take a more active roll in the social space. Enter the “New Media Challenge” from the House Republican Conference, a unique March Madness-style tournament. The Challenge pits the 242 Republican members against one another to see who can increase their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels during the three-week competition with the top eight moving on to the knockout stage. Last year’s competition garnered over 300,000 actions (Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube views) for the GOP, with Rep John Fleming of Louisiana’s 4th congressional district winning for the second year in a row after increasing his Facebook likes by 6.1%. Using “gamification” to encourage consumer behaviour has become a go-to tactic for digital marketers, but has been overlooked as an internal communications tactic. Appealing to peoples’ ego and desire to win can be two of the most motivating factors in influencing behaviour both internally and externally because after all, who doesn’t love to win?
It’s a horrible story. In March, passengers aboard a cruise ship dubbed the Star Princess were bird-watching on deck, when they spotted three men adrift in a small fishing boat, desperately signaling for help from the passing liner. The passengers alerted crew members, but the ship kept going. It would be two more weeks before the fishing boat was found, but by then only one man was still alive. When news of the story broke this week, Carnival Corporation – which owns not only the Star Princess but also the ill-fated Costa Concordia which ran aground and sank off Italy, and a sister ship which spent several days adrift in the Indian Ocean after a fire – issued a statement. “At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation.” It went on to say that the company was “very saddened” to learn that two lives were lost, and that thoughts and prayers were with the families involved. It also stressed that the company is “dedicated to the highest standards of seamanship wherever our ships sail, and it is our duty to assist any vessel in distress.” That’s about all the company could say, and I thought the initial statement sounded the right notes of awareness, action, empathy and commitment. Within 48 hours, the company had an update, releasing a statement saying that “preliminary results of our investigation have shown that there appeared to be a breakdown in communication in relaying the passengers’ concern,” noting that the captain was never notified and that he is “devastated that he is being accused of knowingly turning his back on people in distress.” It was a failure, but not a willful abandonment. The quick update was a good communications move, clarifying the sequence of events. What Carnival needs to demonstrate now is that it is making changes to its communications protocols and/or staff training, to ensure that such a tragedy can’t happen again. It’s an all-too-real example of critical incident communications in action.
It’s one heck of a mouthful, but I Never Thought I’d Vote PC – an online and social media movement launched this week in Alberta – has certainly created a stir. The main asset of the campaign, which organizers claim is not affiliated with any political group, is an online video showing GenYers urging Albertans to vote for anyone but the surging Wildrose party in the upcoming provincial elections, even if that “anyone” is a Progressive Conservative. “I never thought I’d say this,” drawls one of the kids, before going on to say he’s going to vote PC to stop the “homophobic” Wildrosers from winning. A spokesman for the Alberta Conservatives quickly disavowed any link to the video, pointing out (rightly) that it’s not exactly “on message” in depicting the PCs as the lesser of two evils. Wildrose supporters, meanwhile, cried foul over the video’s tone, which is vernacular at best, profane at worst. (One of the speakers drops the f-bomb more than once.) And many others have criticized its endorsement of strategic voting as unethical, and perhaps in contravention of provincial laws governing third-party electoral advertising. (A spokesperson for I Never Thought I’d Vote PC issued a statement saying the group never meant to offend anybody.) Those reactions are predictable, but they didn’t stop the video from becoming something of a phenomenon, garnering 60,000-plus views on YouTube in two days and sparking thousands of comments both on the video-sharing site and on news comment pages. Sure, the message is sometimes muddled, the language is questionable and the acting is over-the-top. But I Never Thought I’d Vote PC did what it set out to do – spark a conversation. And that makes it an example of social media savvy. Touchdown.
One of the lasting political narratives from the 2008 Democratic primary was the contrasting images of the stiff and stoic Hillary Clinton versus the hip and edgy Barak Obama. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Clinton took a sledgehammer to that perception when she sent the following text: “sup adam. nice selfie Stace ” Adam Smith and Stacey Lambe were the creators of the meme/Tumblr blog “Texts from Hillary” which featured photos of a calm looking, sunglass-clad Secretary Clinton responding with patronizing wit to texts from the likes of President Obama, Mark Zuckerburg and GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. After the meme went viral, Adam and Stacey were contacted by members of Clinton’s staff and were offered the chance to meet with the Secretary at her office in Washington. The result? One of the most popular Texts from Hilary posts. The world of internet memes is basically the wild west: there is no law, no order and no way to control the outcome. Whether or not Clinton decides run for President in 2016, her willingness to take the risk and fully embrace the Text from Hilary meme proves that there might just be second acts in American political life.
The rule of thumb when dealing with media is, never speculate. “What if?” questions should get the spidey-senses tingling, because that’s usually when people get themselves into trouble, musing aloud to a reporter about “maybes” which can quickly turn up in news stories as “could bes” or “maybe soons.” The exception to this rule, however, is deliberate, strategic speculation – and we saw a clear example of it this week from the union representing Canada Border Servcies Agency employees. Reacting to announced cutbacks in federal funding, Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said the resulting staff and operational reductions will mean “More child pornography entering the country, more weapons, illegal drugs, will pass through our borders, not to mention terrorists and sexual predators and hardened criminals.” Yikes! A scary picture indeed, painted deliberately to try and generate sufficient political pressure to get the move reversed. Under specific circumstances, a colourful doomsday scenario can be one of the most effective ways of driving a message, and this one certainly was.
I can’t ever recall an edition of TD&F with back-to-back Hail Mary calls, but desperate times call for … Defense Minister Peter MacKay is having a tough go of it over the F-35 thing. As always, we will set aside here the politics and policy aspects of the issue, and look solely at the communications – and in particular, MacKay’s use of an extremely effective tool in getting a message across, especially when the water at play is rather muddy. Like most Canadians, I have no idea what is involved in costing out the purchase of a fleet of state of the art jet fighters – but I have bought a car or two, and, like anyone who has, I understand the factors one weighs in determining what makes a fair price and, ultimately, what makes the thing affordable for me or not. Mackay, referring to the Auditor-General’s criticism of what was left out of the government’s official price tally, put it this way: “The $10 billion that he has described as not being disclosed was what you pay our current pilots, the gas that you put in the current fleet of CF-18s … if you went out and bought a new mini-van and it was going to cost you $20,000 you wouldn’t calculate the gas, the washer fluid, the oil and give yourself a salary to drive it for the next 15 to 20 years.” By using that analogy, he made a complex bit of business suddenly very clear. Again, whether you agree with his premise or not, his point was unmistakable, and purely as a communications play, it deserves points.