In last Sunday’s Toronto Sun, Christina Blizzard had an advancer on the Royal visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in which she sought my advice for the Prince on how to update his image. I made a number of suggestions, including riding the subway to one of his scheduled events in Toronto. We love that man-of-the-people stuff from royalty and heads of state alike, even though we all know it’s a photo-op. Well, the Prince didn’t hop on the rocket, but he was photographed boarding a TTC bus during his time in Toronto. Sure, it was a private, special run for the Prince and his group, but still – coincidence? Christina and I prefer to think not! No charge, Your Highness.
Falling for the “What if?” question is among the most common mistakes people make during media interviews. In media training courses here at Veritas, we impress upon spokespeople that hypothetical questions should send up a big red flag emblazoned with the words “Do not enter.” Answering them can lead even the best-prepared speaker down avenues of uncertainty, and in many cases they are simply not questions you can answer with anything approaching authority or real knowledge. They are usually simple enough to block, as well – “I’m not going to engage in speculation” usually works, and the media move on. This week, a good example of an even more creative way of not answering hypotheticals came from the European Central Bank, specifically its executive board member Joerg Asmussen. Addressing the economic debate du jour – whether Greece should stay in the Eurozone or strike out on its own – Asmussen said the ECB favours the former. “That’s the Plan A, that’s what we’re working on,” he explained. Now, I’m not crazy about his using the term “Plan A,” since that implies there’s a Plan B. And sure enough, a reporter asked him whether such a Plan B existed. But Asmussen had a neat reply. “There’s already been criticism that there is none, but as soon as you start talking about Plan B or Plan C, then Plan A is automatically thrown out the window.” In other words, Plan A is the plan, and we’re committed to it, so we’re not going to talk about other plans. It’s a good answer because it isn’t just evasive, but also communicates focus, commitment, and a realization of how hypothetical considerations can be distracting and counterproductive. Touchdown.
It has been quite the spirited debate around newly-announced changes to the rules around Employment Insurance. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty kick-started it last week with his comment that “There is no bad job. The only bad job is not having a job.” Of course there are bad jobs – but Flaherty knew the remark would draw out critics of the plan and make them have to defend the status quo, which is precisely what happened and, I’m sure, precisely what he expected. So in communications terms, that one was a Touchdown. In stark contrast, however, is the comment from his colleague Diane Finley, Federal Minister of Human Resources, after passage of the changes yesterday: “What we want to do is make sure that the McDonald’s of the world aren’t having to bring in temporary foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians who are on EI have the skills to do.” While it may have been a valid point, using McDonald’s as an example was a Fumble. The term “McJobs” has been a pejorative description for many years now, and by invoking the golden arches, Finley immediately armed her critics to suggest that the Minister wants to see everyone including C-level executives flipping burgers if they suffer the slightest bit of careerus interruptus rather than going on the dole even temporarily. Communicators must choose their illustrations carefully or risk losing the point they’re trying to make altogether.
“We’ll build it in Mississauga or somewhere else first,” Ontario Lottery and Gaming chair Paul Godfrey told the Toronto Sun, if this city can’t decide whether it wants to be considered for hosting OLG’s planned GTA casino. Godfrey minced few words while pouring cold water on suggestions that the decision should wait until 2014 and a referendum question on the next municipal ballot. The media veteran knew exactly how to play this one, and by doing so before the editorial board of the Sun, he knew he could make headlines while also having a lengthy and detailed conversation with the writers and editors who will follow the debate closely over the coming months. “We’re not talking about building a casino, we’re talking about building an iconic entertainment centre” Godfrey said, referencing hundreds of retail shops, a couple of theatres and “some of the best restaurants in the world.” The timing was also perfect, coming on the eve of scheduled casino-related discussions at city hall and shortly ahead of the official request for information from OLG to prospective host municipalities. Touchdown – or is that Blackjack?
One test of an effective communicator is the ability to seize the moment and make the most of it. Now, Prince Charles has had his share of very public issues to deal with over his lifetime as heir to the British throne. But there is no debating that he pulled off a winner this week with his ex tempore stint as a weatherman for the BBC in Glasgow, which quickly became a traditional and social media sensation. The Beeb’s Reporting Scotland team had prepared a script and some graphics in preparation for the visit by the Prince and his wife Camilla, in case the royal duo wanted a demonstration. But when they arrived, Reporting Scotland anchor Sally Magnusson invited Charles to take a turn in front of the camera – and he accepted with enthusiasm. Reading from the prompter, Charles did a decent job of delivering the weather outlook (surprise, surprise – it was going to rain). And there were a couple of nice touches. For instance, when he came to the part in the prepped lines (which he hadn’t seen beforehand) that had him reporting the weather over Balmoral Castle, Charles quipped: “Who the hell wrote this script?” We’ll forgive him the mild cussing, because the important thing here wasn’t the performance – it was the jumping-in and taking part in a nightly ritual for hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. By seizing the opportunity to display the common touch, and pulling it off with panache, Charles scored a TD.
It must have felt sooooo good when he hit “send.” Andrew MacDougall, Director of Communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, got a troll-type Tweet from someone known only as @oxy28 asking “How does it feel to work for the biggest a**hole in Canada?” Now, the by-the-book way to deal with this kind of stuff is to not even dignify it with a response. @PMO_MacDougall, however, opted to zing back a one-liner: “I wouldn’t know. I don’t work for you.” Usually, this kind of thing leads to an uproar, calls for an apology and – given the nature of the office MacDougall represents – possibly even comment from the Prime Minister. Somehow, despite the story making news as far away as the U.S. and Australia, neither MacDougall nor Harper had to address it. Stranger still, MacDougall won kudos on Twitter for the comeback from National Post Parliamentary columnist John Ivison (“Love (his) response to heckler. Civility is dead on Twitter, so bring it on”) and Ottawa Citizen managing editor Andrew Potter (“I don’t know much, but I know what I like. And I like this @PMO_MacDougall guy.”) Perhaps since MacDougall didn’t use the profanity, and the initial comment was clearly from an anonymous agitator – or maybe because it was undeniably funny and something any of us who has ever taken some online abuses wishes we could do – he got a bye. But I bet he thinks twice next time.
Seeking to spark some fresh interest in their now ten-days-and-counting series of nightly protest marches, students in Montreal protesting the Quebec government’s tuition policy decided to make the trek nearly naked this week. Stripped down to their civvies or covered with strategically placed socks, the tactic had the desired effect of putting what was otherwise old news back up high in the media lineup. But at what cost? Here at TD&F we have often noted that if your tactic trumps your message, you’re doing it wrong. The real problem the students have is that they thought it was a good idea to drive their message by using the same tactic (the march) day after day after day. Things stop becoming news if they become daily or nightly occurrences. And the disconnect between parading around almost a buffo and the serious message they’re trying to advance further undermined the cause. As my friend Jaimie Vernon – who is not a PR practitioner, but a sharp knife and a fine writer nonetheless – put it, “when your platform is reduced to ridiculous caricature stunting, you will be laughed at … your message is overshadowed by your clown car.”
We’re crazy for social media here at Veritas, and we spend a lot of time talking about what wonderful tools Facebook, Twitter and the like can be for engaging your chosen constituencies in new and creative ways. It’s cool stuff, but it’s worth acknowledging, too, that there are often very basic and unsexy reasons to embrace social media. For an example, we turn to the birthplace of democracy, Greece, which with 40 percent Internet penetration can hardly be considered a digital dynamo. But a neat little piece by AFP reporter John Hadoulis this week explains why Greek politicians are getting on the social bus in the run-up to elections this Sunday. This is something new. In the past, Hadoulis notes, would-be Greek leaders avoided social media but spent like nuts elsewhere, including TV spots, mass rallies, huge public kiosks with video, Internet access – you name it. They liked all that stuff so much that Greek parties owe an estimated $320 million to European banks; in other words, they’re broke. As a result, they are now jumping into social media because it’s cheaper than ads, and certainly cheaper than shipping in thousands of supporters from the countryside to attend a mega-rally. But there’s another factor at work here, too. Greek voters, who’ve been inflicted with salary and pension cuts because of their country’s crushing debt, are mad as Hades at politicians – some of whom say they can no longer show their faces in public. So Facebook and Twitter have become safer alternatives to public appearances, even if they open candidates up to online bashing – better that than face an angry mob. It might not be the sexiest reason to use social media, but it’s true nevertheless: given a choice, most of us would prefer to get flamed on Facebook than pelted with rotten tomatoes.
Brand Coach Ted Matthews subtitled his book “Brand: It Ain’t The Logo” with his trademarked phrase “It’s what people think of you,” which is as simple and clear a description as you’re likely to find. Rob Ford’s ongoing war with the Toronto Star, combined with previous responses to media incursions around his Etobicoke home, hit a new peak this week after he chased off a Star scribe whom he found lurking around his backyard fence. Threatening legal action and to now ban Star reporters even from city hall media scrums, “what people think” of the Toronto Mayor is fast sliding towards “an unpredictable hot-head at war with the newspaper.” I would like to see some quantifiable data on this, but my sense is that Ford is becoming increasingly viewed along those lines, and increasingly less as the derailer of the “gravy train” who successfully negotiated some groundbreaking new labour contracts with city workers and just this past week delivered a multi-hundred-million dollar surplus to the city’s coffers. Rather than doing a day-long series of interviews on his sidewalk with every other outlet in town, had he handled the Star fracas more discretely, it would not have been the dominant municipal issue of the past week – and his brand would be tracking at least somewhat more in the preferred direction.