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Ketchum Public Relations: Canada’s Best and Worst Communicators Of 2011

What a year it has been, here in Canada we have had our share of surprising, funny, and “what the bleep” headlines.  For the 8th year in a row, Ketchum Public Relations has complied their list of “skillful, colourful and effective communication as well as the verbose, impenetrable and downright stupid.”  Well here it is, drum role please…

1. Appeal to our better selves, with feeling

When NDP leader Jack Layton had every right to be thinking about himself, just two days before his death, he was writing an encouraging farewell letter to Canadians. His final words touched our hearts because they showed that he knew the end was imminent for him but his thoughts were with those who would carry on. His was a simple, genuine message – part instruction manual, part poetry – delivered with grace and eloquence.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

2. Don’t be arrogant unless you’re the only game in town, forever

A lot of lessons from former tech darling RIM this year. First is that you shouldn’t bank on your status as “tech darling.” The media and the world love to bring down darlings.

Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis found himself in hot water after the BBC posted a short video of him abruptly ending an interview because he didn’t like the questions — about government interference in India and the Middle East with RIM’s BlackBerry network security. “Not fair,” he complained. But when you take the public’s money by issuing stock, you don’t get to pick the questions reporters ask you.

Then the co-CEOs seemed to sleep through a reputation-crushing service outage. The good news was that a lot of people rely on Blackberries to conduct their daily business. The bad news is that the bigger the gap between what you promise and what you deliver, the madder your customers get. But that only becomes a problem for RIM if there’s ever some other smart phone alternative, and what’s the likelihood of that iHappening? It’s enough to drive employees to drink too much on airplanes.

3. Good gravy, Mr. Mayor.

Last year we acknowledged Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for using a simple, clear, credible message to connect with the Toronto electorate. “No more gravy train.” A year later, Mayor Ford’s battle with the gravy train has left him a hot mess.

There’s too much bad communication by Mayor Ford and his brother Doug to single out one issue. By all reports, when he’s not directing rude digital (middle-digit) communication at fellow motorists, he’s directing vulgar verbal torrents at fellow city employees after being confronted by fictional TV characters, or petulantly picking a fight with the Toronto Star. Governments should not play favourites when it comes to sharing information. Publicly-funded. Public information. For a big, tough politician sometimes he seems pretty delicate.

Also, see above: minimize the difference between what you say you’re going to do (no service cuts, no layoffs) and what you actually do to preserve credibility.

4. Occupy huh?

The Occupy Wall Street movement successfully communicated the ideas that the world isn’t fair and that some people are unhappy about that. Unless it transforms itself into something other than a forum for whinging, it is doomed to irrelevancy. After visiting the camps, reading the signs, watching countless hours of live, streaming video, poring over main stream media coverage and blogosphere journaling, we have been able to distill the essence of the OWS discussion:

“You suck! No you suck! Well, you’re stupid. Am not. You’re stupid! Drum break!”

Communication failures include: lack of focus, lack of anything new to say, lack of credibility, excess of irony (being photographed, Starbucks cup in hand, screaming at police about the evils of globalization), lack of direction, and in many cases lack of connection to the real world.

5. We’re sorry you suck

Small wonder the OWS movement vilifies the business community when they see stories like this. A group of Montreal business school students painted themselves in black face and acted out insulting stereotypes of Jamaicans. A student of Jamaican descent found the performances degrading and offensive, given the history of insulting and degrading black-face performances by whites, and the fact that it was in fact insulting and degrading.

The response from this institution of higher learning?
“We spoke to the students and they found the reaction regrettable and are sorry.”

Really? They found the reaction to their incredibly offensive behaviour regrettable? They regret that people were offended by their offensiveness?

6. In the thick of it, communicate well and often

Mining is a dirty business on a large scale that often takes place in remote, undeveloped areas and often involves enormously complex human, environmental, economic and political issues. Unless we decide we don’t want the products that mining enables, we have to accept its necessity and do our best to ensure miners behave responsibly.

Barrick Gold made front-page news when the world’s largest gold miner was involved in a scandal where allegations of sexual assault at its mines in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea came to light.

“The allegations were highly disturbing and will be fully investigated and publicly reported,” the company vowed. It pledged to fire any employee involved in human-rights violations, or who knows of human-rights abuses and fails to report them.

“These deplorable crimes, if confirmed, are neither acceptable nor excusable. They send a clear message to us that we have not met the promises we have made to the community, and to ourselves, to pursue responsible mining in every location where our affiliates and we operate. We can, and will, do more.”

Barrick is involved in some of the world’s most difficult mining environments, facing problems that defy simple answers. But it is consistently open about these difficulties, takes responsibility for finding solutions, and keeps the channels of communication open. That doesn’t mean it is beyond reproach, but it’s the best way to protect your reputation in an industry as big and dangerous as mining.

7. Don’t wing it, or even chopper it

Even the most experienced communicator can’t afford to helicopter … errr phone it in. Defence Minister Peter MacKay, suffering lately from a bit of changing-story-itis over his use of a Canadian Forces helicopter to pick him up from a fishing trip, had another embarrassing gaffe this year. In an on-camera meeting with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. MacKay observed that British Columbia and California share a border. If Arnold, or Sarah Palin, or some other American politician had displayed such geographic ignorance, Canada might have recalled its ambassador. Mr. Mackay got off easy, and has probably learned not to fish out any old statement without researching it.

8. Don’t take yourself too seriously

It’s one of life’s enduring mysteries. How have Alberta’s three-chord rockers Nickelback managed to sell more than 50 million albums and regularly fill arenas around the world when no one on the planet will admit to liking their music. (We don’t, really.)

One of their biggest anti-fans, on learning the band would play the halftime show during the Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving game, launched a no-Nickelback online petition. Some 54,000 people signed it, hoping to get the appearance cancelled.

Rather than cursing out a 911 operator, or taking over a park and beating a drum until all meanness is removed from the Internet, front man Chad Kroeger and the band sat down on camera with their (faux) record label boss to address some of the roots of the “crisis.”

“We make love to goats,” corrected Kroeger, when asked about a particular nasty rumour making the rounds on the Internet. After brainstorming a bunch of ideas to appease fans in Detroit— such as playing Motown music as The Four Nickels — the band dressed up as different people and characters from Detroit, including RoboCop and Alice Cooper.

We liked it, we really liked it. (Now about that music …)

9. Know what century you’re in. Hell, know what planet you are on.

We have three winners in the out-of-touch-old-guy category this year. Unfortunately one is the bright, young hope of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau. Trudeau said he was “uncomfortable” calling honour killings “barbaric.”

Eventually he apologized for his remarks, “if they’ve been interpreted by any one as dismissing or diminishing the serious and appalling nature of honour killings and other gender-based violence.”

So, it’s our fault that when you dismissed the heinous nature of honour killings that we “interpreted it” as … dismissing the heinous nature of honour killings? Oops. We’re sorry, Justin.

Cut to the Toronto cop who advised staff and students at Osgoode Hall law school “not to dress like sluts” if they want to avoid sexual assault.

The officer eventually “apologized,” saying he was “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”

Our bad. Sorry for the discomfort you experience by being embarrassed. The good news is that Slut Walks have been held around the world to remind people not to blame the victim.

In contrast, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair stepped up right away, taking responsibility. “If that type of, frankly, archaic thinking still exists among any of my officers, it highlights for me the need to continue to train my officers and sensitize them to the reality of victimization.”

Then there’s hockey icon Don Cherry, who lambasted some former enforcers as “pukes,” “hypocrites,” and “turncoats” when they spoke out against fighting.

Being an icon affords one some leeway. But Don cut it pretty close with this one. Ultimately, he pulled it out in sudden death overtime with an apology just like the man. It pulled no punches.

“I’ve got to admit I was wrong on a lot of things,” Cherry said. “I put down three enforcers, tough guys, my type of guys, I threw them under the bus. I’m sorry about it, I really am.”

10. Learn from Nickelback and react appropriately

Yes, take any complaints of wrong-doing seriously. Assess the threat. Is it core to what you are, like an accounting firm getting caught cooking the books? Is it credible? Does it have legs?

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos caused himself more trouble than he needed by calling a press conference to deny rumours that the Jays were stealing signs (cheating.) The Jays were a mediocre (but exciting) team. The story would have died quickly but Anthopolous gave it legs by holding an emotional news conference. Something that few people heard about was spread to many people. A year from now all they’ll remember is something about the Blue Jays cheating.