For the ninth year in a row, Ketchum Public Relations Canada has published their “Best and Worst Communicators of the Year” list which recognizes skillful, colourful and effective communication as well as the verbose, impenetrable and downright stupid. Each year they take a look back at the news stories that made us think, laugh and cry over the year. Drum roll please…
This year there was one public figure who made us want to run through walls to see her succeed. She told her story. She engaged us. She inspired us. Hélène Campbell made us glad to be alive and glad she is alive.
Lesson 1: We love hope, progress and overcoming adversity
The 20-year-old Ottawa woman was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that hardens the lungs and can only be treated with a transplant. In January Hélène made a personal plea on Twitter to inspire more potential organ donors. A few days later, Justin Bieber responded, retweeting her message to his 16 million followers. (Honourable mention to the Biebs for using his celebrity so effectively.) Overnight, Hélène became a celebrity. Thousands signed organ donor cards.
Facing a life-threatening disease, she had a stronger sense of priorities than most. Fame didn’t shake her from her message. This doesn’t mean I get my transplant any sooner than where I am on the list, she said, but it raises awareness for organ donation and that helps everyone who is waiting and wondering if they will get a new organ before they die.
Then she had her transplant, and while recovering used her celebrity to inspire others and to continue to promote organ donation.
“I’m fortunate that lungs were there in time for me … but there are people who wait up to two years, or some people don’t get that gift. And I’m so thankful to my donor and their family … In such a critical time when they’re mourning the loss of their loved one, they’re able to consider someone else,” she said.
We signed our donor cards, wiped our eyes and rejoiced to see her dancing with Ellen.
Lesson 2: Silence is usually a stupid strategy, XL Foods
Not always, but usually.
In a crisis, you want to be the best source of information for stories about you. When human health and possibly lives are at stake, you want to show a little humanity. XL Foods failed on all counts.
As its tainted food crisis worsened over weeks, the company issued a few statements, quoting no one. Its top management was nowhere to be seen for several weeks. We were not comforted that they were doing all they could to fix the problem. We ate a lot more chicken.
Lesson 3: We don’t have high expectations for politicians, but really …
From the sublime to the ridiculous. While Hélène Campbell proves you can have great effect promoting a cause selflessly, Safety Minister Vic Toews demonstrates no approach is too low for some politicians. Toews took the “fer-us-or-agin-us” dichotomy to a whole new, smelly place. Arguing for his own plan for increased online monitoring, he said that you either sided with the government “or with the child pornographers.”
Lesson 4: Don’t Make it Worse When You Get Caught Screwing Up
Rule number one in crisis communications is that bad stuff will happen, guaranteed. In most cases, you are more harshly judged by what you did after the bad thing happened than by the bad thing itself. Even when it happens to journalists. When the high-profile US journalist Fareed Zakaria was nailed for writings very similar to a Jill Lepore New Yorker essay, he tore the Band-Aid off quickly.
“I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.” Done and done.
But when Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente made a similar mistake, both she and the Globe dragged a one-day story out over a couple of weeks. First the Globe tried to sweep it under the rug with a dismissive comment from an editor. Then Wente tried to explain it away by casting herself as victim.
“I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.”
Four sentences, every one of them true, but both the Globe and Wente could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and a lot of piling on if they just did what Zakaria did.
Lesson 5: The Don’t-Shoot-Yourself Rule — If the Communication Plan is Working, Stick With It
He’s not a Canadian so he doesn’t really qualify, but because he lives in Canada we were all ready to give Conrad Black the 2012 Most Improved Player Award for resuscitating a reputation so moribund we thought he’d need rehabilitation just to be credible as a Three-Card Monte dealer. Starting with his release from prison, homecoming to Toronto, and step-by-step re-entry into the company of the non-convicted, he played it just right, and it was working.
Then he agreed to an interview with BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman, and took issue with being called a convicted criminal, which he is. As the interview got hotter, Black said he was proud of “being able to endure a discussion like this without getting up and smashing your face in.” He also called Paxman “a priggish, gullible British fool.” (Point of order: Takes one to know one.)
There was a point in Tom Cruise’s career when he dropped his reliable PR advisor. Soon thereafter he was bouncing up and down on Oprah’s couch. Black has met his Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah’s-Couch moment.
Lesson 6: Keep Foot Out of Mouth If You Can Manage It
Remember a few years ago when we lauded Rob Ford for having a simple, engaging message that he could deliver with credibility? As the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” We have changed our minds.
Toronto Mayor-for-the moment Rob Ford wreaks havoc on responsible leadership communication, and reeks of non-credibility. He verbally ducks, bobs, weaves and staggers like a sloppy, punch-drunk pugilist.
Elected as a man of the people, he acts like the rules of the people don’t apply to him. “I’m busy,” says he.
Or claims not to know the rules. Or assigns meanings of convenience to words, such as corruption. To him, calling someone corrupt means that person did not follow proper procedure, not that the person acted dishonestly in return for money or personal gain.
He also said he gained nothing from the unethical fundraising he conducted for his football charity, hitting up lobbyists for donations on city stationary. But he did gain something of value. As a politician, his reputation is his primary asset. His charitable activities, as laudable as they may be, benefit his reputation. Lobbyists paying to buff Ford’s reputation is akin to lobbyists paying to buy him votes.
Lesson 7: Don’t ask a PR person for legal advice, don’t ask a lawyer for PR advice
In Canada’s gold-standard case on crisis management, Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain said this about seeking help when his cold cuts were killing people: “Going through the crisis there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants.”
Fast forward to 2012 and it doesn’t seem that Labatt Breweries was paying attention.
The trouble started when the Montreal Gazette posted a picture of Luka Magnotta, the porn actor/model accused of killing and dismembering a student in Montreal, and mailing his severed limbs to various Canadian political parties and elementary schools. In the photo on the Gazette website, Magnotta was holding a bottle of Labatt Blue. Not the kind of publicity you want for your product.
Labatt set its lawyers on the Gazette, who threatened legal action if the picture wasn’t removed.
Any first-year PR professional could have predicted what would happen, and we are willing to bet a free media training session versus a single case of Blue that Labatt’s PR professionals did predict what would happen. But for whatever reason, legal counsel carried the day. The legal threat was made.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of more interesting pictures of Magnotta were floating around but the Blue picture immediately became big news, igniting a viral social media storm that played out for days. It was the threat that launched a thousand tasteless jokes and gruesome Labatt blue slogans.
Labatt took a non-event, gave it huge visibility, and made itself look priggish – exactly the opposite of its desired brand personality – in the process.
Lesson 8: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Man up, Yunel!
The scouting report on former Toronto Blue Jay shortstop Yunel Escobar: quick-footed, soft hands, strong arm, fertilizer for brains. Escobar wrote an anti-gay slur on the anti-glare black patches he wears under his eyes on the field. That was bad.
The Toronto Blue Jays respond quickly and decisively, slapping him with a three-day suspension and making a strong, unambiguous statement about inclusion in Major League Baseball. The Jays also announced support for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and for the anti-homophobia group You Can Play. That was good.
Then Escobar apologized. That was ugly:
- He did not take responsibility. (“I’m sorry for what happened.”) It didn’t “happen.” You did something. Strike one.
- He did not acknowledge the hurt he caused. (“It’s just something I put on my face as a joke. It was nothing intentionally offensive. I have nothing against homosexuals.”) Strike two.
- And blamed the victims of his slur for feeling insulted. (“I didn’t mean for this to be misinterpreted by the gay community.”) Struck him out!
Tu eres estupido.
Lesson 9: Wherever you are, remember, there you are. Think before you tweet
In today’s highly mobile, globally connected, ready-to feel-slighted world it’s easy to offend. Jan Arden and Robe Lowe found that out this year.
Arden was put off a Via Rail train with her small dog. No dogs allowed, says Via. In a fit of pique, she tweeted unkindly about Via staff, who dropped her in “the middle of nowhere.” The good people of Oshawa don’t consider their hometown “the middle of nowhere” and a brouhaha erupted. We are big Arden fans. She apologized with her characteristic grace, charm and humour. All was forgiven.
Same for Rob Lowe, in Winnipeg to shoot the movie Imperfect Justice. Irked that his local bar wasn’t showing the NBA finals, he tweeted: “The local affiliate is interrupting the 4th quarter of the #NBAFinals to show city council election results!!! #TrappedInAHellHole.”
His tweet became a tempest in a #hellhole. Lowe then said nice things about Winnipeg and claimed he was talking about the bar, not the city, when he made the reference. We agree that any bar not showing the sporting event you want to be watching can legitimately be called a hellhole. All was forgiven.
Lesson 10: Be Yourself or Risk Losing Yourself
Somali-born musician K’naan writes in the New York Times about an elegant fox who coveted the walking style of a prophet. The fox tried to mimic the prophet’s walk but couldn’t. Then he found he had lost his own style. It was a parable about the musician’s attempt to create more commercial music.
“What I am is a fox who wanted to walk like a prophet and now is trying to rediscover its own stride,” the Canadian-Somali artist wrote. “I may never find my old walk again, but I hope someday to see beauty in the graceless limp back toward it.”
There is art and honesty in K’naan’s story. We’ll buy his next album just to see more of that.