TORONTO – Communications are key. From the worlds of politics, business and sports how leaders, business experts and sports heros talk with the media and with the audience determine their success.
From bombastic, carnal and F-bombing politicians to Franco-phobic footballers and cookie-wielding bureaucrats, there were plenty of lessons to be learned again this year from the best and worst communicators of 2010. This seventh annual ranking by Ketchum Public Relations Canada recognizes skillful, colourful and effective communication as well as the verbose, impenetrable and downright stupid.
Every year, Ketchum PR professionals track hundreds of newsmakers as they deal with potentially damaging issues in business, government, news, sports, and the arts. The results reveal trends in communication and identify valuable lessons.
Lesson #1: Have a simple, memorable, credible message
Few things are a more pure exercise in communication than an election, and this year’s mayoral race in Canada’s largest city had it all: the good, the bad and the lusty.
Toronto’s new Mayor Rob Ford demonstrated convincingly that he is a master communicator, on the campaign trail at least.
“We were as surprised as anybody that Rob Ford was so good at engaging Torontonians with his simple, powerful message,” said Geoffrey Rowan, Partner/Managing Director of Ketchum Public Relations Canada. “He has had his foot in his mouth so often that he has penny loafer breath, but that didn’t matter because people connected to his message – ‘No more gravy train at city hall.'”
Lesson #2: Do one thing at a time, especially when being interviewed by a journalist
Less than 24 hours after his victory, Mr. Ford also provided a lesson in terrible communication when he botched an interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens – while simultaneously trying to coach a high school football practice. The CBC’s Carol Off asked him what made his message so engaging.
Mr. Ford responded: “You know, I’m the only one that can go down there [Inaudible, then, yelling:] Just go get changed! Go! Out! And get changed! Don’t worry about the water right now. [Pause.] Sorry.”
Focus, Mr. Ford. Focus.
Lesson #3: Lots of people do stupid things. It’s usually cover up that gets you
Before Rob Ford became the story in the Toronto election, mayoral candidate and TTC Chair Adam Giambrone could have been a contender. But like many before him he let his libido get in the way. Then he lied when confronted by the evidence of his boorish behaviour. It all caught up to him in glorious, lascivious detail.
Lesson #4: Don’t be a jerk, and if you are then admit it and sincerely apologize.
There’s more than one every year in the sports category – the big-time athlete who acts like a jerk and then pretends to apologize while refusing to take responsibility for the action and blaming others. We offer two examples this year.
Toronto Argo’s offensive lineman Rob “Big Murph” Murphy posted some anti-French comments on Twitter. But it wasn’t his fault, says he. His comments were “blown out of proportion.” What he apparently meant was that he should be able to insult people without any culpability. And anyway, he was only “JOKING,” which means he wanted to insult people and have you find it funny.
The bar is pretty low in terms of our expectations on the communication ability of most professional athletes, especially CFL offensive linemen. But Big Murph isn’t big enough to reach even this low standard.
We saw even worse behaviour from Patrice Cormier, Team Canada’s captain at the World Junior Championships, whose near-assassination of Mikael Tam with a flying elbow left Tam convulsing on the ice.
“It was a reflex,” said Cormier in his non-apology. “I tried to check him. I had no idea I hit him in the head, but obviously I did. It was never my intention to cause any injuries.”
That’s strange because everyone else in the world knew it was a vicious head shot, including the Crown Prosecutor’s Office, which has taken the unusual action of charging Cormier with assault causing injury.
Lesson #5: Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em think, make ’em feel.
Great communicators connect to people on an emotional level. Soon-to-be Hall of Fame Hockey Coach Pat Burns died Nov. 19 after a long battle with cancer. Mr. Burns knew a thing or two about powerful communication. He was recognized as a great coach who motivated people with honesty, great passion and colourful language. Just about every news story on his life and death included a quote from his remarks in March at the announcement that the Pat Burns Arena would be built at Stanstead College. Speaking about his career, he paraphrased Dr. Seuss:
“You don’t cry because it’s over; you’re happy because it happened.”
We’re happy Pat Burns happened.
Lesson #6: Don’t set your “pants on fire!”
At the other end of the integrity spectrum, well, we’re not saying Netflix officials are liars, liars, pants on fire, but the video streaming service did hire a bunch of actors to attend its Canadian launch and pretend they were excited. The company instructed the extras “to look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada.”
“I was unaware that script was handed out to extras and that was not supposed to happen,” said a company spokesman. “Some people got carried away and it’s embarrassing to Netflix.”
Really Netflix? Because it seems more likely that the script was not supposed to make it into the hands of reporters. The credibility-straining stunt probably resulted in more coverage for the launch than it otherwise would have got but the company damaged its own reputation and undermined the credibility of all communications people.
Lesson #7: WTF! Use profanity sparingly
You can get away with it if you are an NHL coach. If you’re a senator, you might want to be more … senatorial.
“Shut the f— up on this issue,” Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told a group of international-development advocates who had gathered on Parliament Hill to protest Canada’s hard-right stand against abortion in foreign aid. “If you push it, there will be more backlash.”
The Senator’s F-bomb became the headline and gave the story visibility it otherwise wouldn’t have had. That may have been good for the protestors, but not for the Senator, or the Harper government.
Lesson #8: Don’t use weasel words.
We’re not always fans of Maclean’s sensationalistic covers but as the saying goes, we’ll defend to the death its right to do print them. Maclean’s parent company Rogers obviously feels differently. It issued a wishy-washy “statement of regret” about a controversial Quebec corruption cover story. In other words, business sensibilities trumped press freedom.
“On behalf of the company, we sincerely regret any offence that the cover may have caused,” Rogers Publishing president Brian Segal said, referring to a cover image of the mascot of Quebec Carnaval, Bonhomme, carrying a suitcase brimming with (presumably ill-gotten) cash.
“We value all of our customers and their perspective. Quebec is an important market for the company and we look forward to participating in the dynamic growth of the province and its citizen.”
As the journalists at Maclean’s might say: “Weasel drivel.”
When asked to explain what it meant by the statement, a Rogers spokesperson said: “The language of the statement is clear and the company has nothing more to add.”
So, they regret any offence the cover may have caused? But not the story? Was it wrong? Not a lot of clarity for a media and communications company.
Lesson #9: Get your priorities right; don’t be arrogant; don’t talk with your mouth full
“I’m still eating my cookie,” whinged Dr. Stephen Duckett, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, when asked about a meeting on overcrowding in emergency rooms. Wasn’t that a clever way for the bureaucrat responsible for spending $13-billion annually in taxpayer money to brush off those pesky reporters? No, it was just crumby, and it cost him his very high-paying job.
After watching the video, we completely understand the Rob Ford phenomenon. Dr. Duckett exhibited bad judgment, arrogance and rudeness. He became the Canadian equivalent of former BP CEO Tony Hayward, who famously lamented about the unprecedented Gulf oil spill: “I would like my life back.”
Dr. Duckett may now feel the same way because he seems likely to be forever known as Cookie Monster.
Lesson #10: Authenticity trumps just about everything
We hereby welcome Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams into the Ketchum Communicators Hall of Fame. Mr. Williams was already on our best list this year for his unapologetic response to criticism of his trip to the U.S. for heart surgery. He knew it would be controversial, but he concluded his personal health trumped any public fallout over the controversial decision. “This was my heart, my choice and my health,” said Mr. Williams. “I did not sign away my right to get the best possible health care for myself when I entered politics.”
But when he announced his retirement from politics, he again demonstrated why he has been so successful at forging a bond with “the extraordinary people of this unique and this proud and this bloody awesome province.”
In spite of the fact he was Oxford educated, a Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer, and has great personal wealth from the sale of a communications firm, he is the quintessential man of the people because he speaks candidly and with great passion. He is credible because he is authentic. Welcome to the Hall.
The Best and Worst of 2011
If you would like to get in on the fun for Canada’s Best and Worst Communicators of 2011, send nominations to @KetchumCanadaPR on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. Each nomination must contain the quote, its speaker, the date it was spoken and a verifiable reference to the media outlet where it was reported.