Why I’m penciling in March 21

I do a lot of content development. Mostly, this is for documents that are written and designed to be read online. But increasingly, it’s for web content.

When I first started out in corporate communications, I also did a lot of content development. But that was mostly for print and mostly directed to print and broadcast editors.

I won’t go on about how much things have changed in the world of communications. I’m really glad they have and I’m excited to be part of an industry that’s in such constant flux.

For all the good, however, I’ve also noticed an alarming trend: The number of words in the average corporate vocabulary seems to be shrinking. Same with the type of words. I learned early on in my career that some words were just too colourful for a corporate press release and that even dull words were preferable to images and metaphors. (The BBC did a wonderful send-up on this recently.)

But increasingly, I’m finding that clients seem more inclined to err on the side of bland and repetitive rather than accepting new ways to express a thought. Not jargon exactly but predictable nonetheless.

I look at it this way: Does a shrinking vocabulary limit the way we talk about brands? Does it censor new ideas or reduce a strategy to same-old? Does it change the way we brainstorm new ideas or develop a creative brief? I think it does.

In the struggle to meet plain language criteria and dodge the risk-mitigation hurdles of in-house counsel, I’m afraid that if we continue down this path, we’re doomed to cycle-recycle-repeat, with the occasional new word thrown in for effect.

But I do see signs of hope. In reaction to the new U.S. President’s unique choice of words and worldview, people are talking again. They’re speaking up. They’re agitating. They’re using interesting images (and wearing cool pink hats). Is it just me, or is heartfelt language making a comeback? In a weird way, could this be the best news ever for corporate communicators, speechwriters and content developers everywhere?

March 21st is WORLD POETRY DAY, and this year it can’t come soon enough. According to UNESCO, one of the main objectives of World Poetry Day is to “offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.”

I’m quite sure the Day wasn’t established in order to help broaden the way English speakers use their language in a business context. Probably not even close. But for that one day, I’d find it so rewarding if just one outlier word made it through the client approvals process. Just one. I’m circling the date now.


Share and share alike

We live in a share economy. And in the spirit of sharing, I’ve decided it’s time to start passing on some of what I’ve learned after almost 20 years as an indie corporate communications strategist.

In my world, every strategy, every post, every report starts with information. Research is one way to get that information. Talking with people is another. Last year, I probably interviewed 50-60 people for various projects. Some of them were in-person interviews. But most of them were phone interviews. I spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories, and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Record everything. You’ll need it as back-up. Some clients want the digital file after the interview, some want a transcript. Either way, it’s critical to have hard proof of what was said, in the event your subject claims she was misquoted. It’s also essential to have back-up for approvals, particularly for large clients where most corporate communications are vetted through a disclosure committee or legal team.
  • Listen carefully. If you’re a speechwriter, that digital recording will help you to remember the cadence of the person’s speech, any idiosyncrasies in their speech patterns and the tone you’ll want to emulate in writing for them. This is really important, especially if you need to work quickly and get inside someone’s head to deliver a quality first draft. And if you’re constantly juggling different projects for different clients, having a recording will help to keep things straight and can kick-start new ideas or a new take on a communications strategy.
  • Write it out. If you’re a content developer, I strongly recommend transcribing the recording and then summarizing the key points in a notebook, rather than just keeping the file in digital format. Even when I record a conversation, I always take long-hand notes throughout. And the research on this backs me up. A 2014 report claims that long-hand notes do a much better job at interpreting information as it’s being delivered, compared with simply typing information that we hear. Writing long-hand involves some degree of interpretation, whereas typing amounts to transcribing what you hear. Trust me, you want to remember your reaction to various facts in the moment, and long-hand notes help do that.
  • File it. Keep your notes organized. Put dates on your notebooks, and for each interview, record the date and contact information. I know it sounds old-fashioned. But earlier this year, a client asked me if there were any new angles I could find to update a story I had worked on last summer. Having everything dated, stored and classified made it easier to retrieve — and because the notes were handwritten, all my thoughts on the interview, as well as what was actually said, were all there. This made it more efficient for my client — no additional fees for re-interviewing — and efficient for me, as it put me right back in the headspace I was in when I did the interview.

Bottom-line: Be safe, not sorry. Don’t rely on your memory to keep track of the facts. You owe it to your clients to be accurate. And you owe it to your reputation to be as buttoned down as possible. Sometimes you only get one chance to interview people. Make it count.



Communications strategy 101

One of the best communications strategies I know, whether it’s in the business world or private life, is knowing when, and how, to say thank you.

I learned a long time ago that thanking a client’s receptionist or EA can be a life-saver.

Saying thanks to clients for work they send our way is also life-saving, but clearly for different reasons.

Remembering to thank partners and suppliers, people we interview, people who help track invoices, technology specialists who get us to deadline on time and with our equipment all still in one piece …. these are just a few of the people who I rely on everyday as an agency owner and business person and to whom I am forever grateful for their help.

This week, ML & CO celebrates 18 years in business. We’ve weathered at least three recessions, maybe more. But more importantly, we’ve done it thanks to those mentioned above, and also thanks to three incredible angel investors, without whose support and encouragement we would not be where we are today.

Very special thanks to three very special women — my mother and my aunt who generously provided seed money in 1997 for a business they didn’t really understand but who clearly understood the potential. And to my sister-in-law, who all these years later continues to provide financial coaching, business advice and a level head.

With gutsy people like this behind us, we’re totally psyched about the next 18 years!

Thanks again for entrusting us with your business.

Not all PR is good PR

The public relations profession has often been dissed for crossing the line between fact and fiction.

It’s called ‘spin’ and critics are quite right to call PR people to the carpet for embroidering the truth. Our reputations as strategic communications advisors — and the very sustainability of our profession — hinges on our ability to present the facts in a way that is credible, provable and transparent.

Contrary to what many people believe, not all PR is good PR. Sometimes what looks like a good story is just that — a story. Spin, pure and simple. And because it’s wishful thinking, rather than reality, it doesn’t do what good PR is supposed to do which is to help people trust what is being said. And by virtue of trusting what is being said, trusting also the person saying it.

McDonald’s Canada recently launched a new ad campaign to try and ‘humanize’ the brand by showing people engaging with it directly. Great idea. I’m all for putting a human face on things.

The part that I have trouble believing is the campaign’s focus on the farming families who help to produce some of the food that McDonald’s sells.I have no problem with farmers, and if you follow my work, you’ll know I’m a big fan of local food.

The issue I have is with the spin. The ads insinuate that because farmers are most likely trustworthy people, therefore McDonald’s food is healthy and natural, and McDonald’s brand is therefore also good.

It’s not only bad logic. It’s wishful thinking. And a clear case where some PR is actually pretty bad.

Food literacy anyone?

Spring may not be in the air yet, but literacy sure is.

Because it’s RSP season in Canada, I’m being swamped with information about saving for retirement and constantly reminded of the need to be more financially literate. I’m also reading a lot more about media literacy and a wonderful organization called MediaSmarts. And last week, it was all about ‘sexual literacy’, as Ontario announced a new sex ed curriculum for primary and high school students.

I applaud all these efforts to make us all smarter and our kids safer. It’s a complicated world out there, and the more informed we are — with credible information — the better able we are to make good decisions.

But there’s one initiative initiative in particular that I want to shout out. Not just because it’s unique and dove-tails with some really amazing research out of McMaster University earlier this month.

As a PR person, why didn’t I think of food literacy? I wish I’d been asked to design a campaign to raise awareness for the importance of knowing more about what we eat. So congratulations to the Durham School Board for introducing a new procurement strategy for 15 of its schools and introducing local food into school cafeterias. I think it’s a great way of teaching students where the food they eat comes from, helping them to think twice before putting stuff in their mouths, and what environmental and health benefits come from their food choices. The initiative also shows tremendous leadership because it demonstrates a commitment to local farmers and the local economy.

I recently spent a lot of time visiting a family member in hospital. One of the things I noticed was the quality of the food and how difficult it was for my sibling to actually tolerate the food because of the medications she was taking. With this in mind, I was interested to read about Health Care without Harm — a movement that I hope will gain momentum and encourage more local hospitals to prove they too are food literate. Patients deserve tasty, nutritious, chemical-free food in hospital, not only for their physical but also their emotional well-being.

There isn’t much popping out of the ground yet, but come planting season, a whole new crop of kids soon will be smarter about their food choices. It kind of makes a grey day in February less dull, doesn’t it?

Reputations live and die online

Reputation has been a hot topic in the world of Canadian journalism lately.

First, radio talk-show host Jian Ghomeshi is let go from the CBC. Then Leslie Roberts resigns as news anchor from Global as a result of an investigation into conflict of interest. And most recently, business editor Amanda Lang has come under scrutiny for conflict of interest, leading our national public network to change its policy on paid appearances by on-air journalists.

The knives are definitely out.

But although they’re handy — and highly visible — targets, it’s not just journalists whose reputations are being flogged in the court of public opinion. It’s all of us. Like it or not, we’re all visible and we’re all targets for scandal.

It’s the world we live in. Sadly, social media has become an ideal platform for finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and reputation-bashing.

According to Tony Wilson, a lawyer and SFU professor specializing in social media and reputation, it’s more important than ever to think long and hard about one’s reputation, and the risks to that reputation, before hitting the ‘send’ button. Here’s the link to a recent article on the subject.


Consider this: According to Business Insider, there were an estimated 4+ billion mobile phone users in 2012 globally, and the number is expected to increase to over 5 billion by 2017. That’s a lot of photos, a lot of videos, a lot of texts, a lot of opinions and a lot of potential for missteps.

Intimidating as it is, that’s not really the point. The point is that here we have a technology platform that increasingly is being used to ‘out’ people. We’re imperfect beings, and in some weird way, technology is conspiring against us to show us just how broken some of us are.

As a PR person, I’ve seen how personal and corporate reputations can be ruined on social media. I saw it before the advent of social media, at company get-togethers, corporate retreats, and off-site meetings. But with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, the risks have become magnified a thousand-fold.

On the positive side, I’ve also seen how reputations can be enhanced. And that’s really the point I want to emphasize, not the sleazy underside of human behaviour. Instead of tattle-telling on each other, it’s time to grow up and get the most out social. Leverage it for all it’s worth — to build community, improve customer experience, engage employees and strengthen relationships.

So make this the year we all get smarter, lead with our heads, and take the high road.



Apologize and build trust

One of the first rules in crisis communications is to know when and how to apologize, assuming, of course, that you’re in the wrong.

The sooner the apology is offered, the better it is for your reputation — to say nothing of the reputation that you and your organization have worked hard to build. It’s also best to offer the apology quickly, rather than waiting to be bullied into action on social media or as a result of consumer backlash.

Which leads me to ask why, for instance, have the dentistry students at Dalhousie University not come forward yet to apologize for the unacceptable comments made about their female classmates on Facebook? It seems to me their silence is having a negative impact not only on their reputations as professionals going forward, but also in the moment, on Dalhousie’s. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/dalhousie-dentistry-facebook-scandal-has-some-alums-pulling-funding-1.2882937

Whether out of fear of reprisal, fear of litigation, or simply shame, apologizing when you’re wrong should be part of what executives are taught at business school, if not later in their careers, by their executive coaches, their media consultants, their mentors and colleagues.

Some things are just plain wrong and require an apology. Imagine how differently we might feel as consumers, if someone way back in 2007 had spoken out about sub-prime mortgage lending and blew the whistle. An apology from financial regulators, or from a central bank somewhere, would have been nice. It may not have stopped the global recession we’ve lived with for the past 8 years, but it would have built more trust in the system (and that’s really the bottom-line) had there been more accountability and more mea culpas.

On the subject of natural capital, an interesting article appeared this week in Corporate Knights on global deforestation, including an analysis of why it’s happening, countries most at risk and the overall economic impacts. Here’s the link. http://www.corporateknights.com/channels/natural-capital/decline-of-forests-index

Ever the optimist, the article made me wonder, what a different world it would be if apologies were expected not only for bad personal or corporate behaviour, but also from whole industries or individual governments. In the case of deforestation, how amazing would it be to hear an apology?

Apologizing simply because it’s the right thing to do, especially in this litigious world, takes guts.That’s what I like about the way the CEO of AirAsia is handling communications in the aftermath of Flight 8501′s crash into the Java Sea.I find Tony Fernandez’s approach incredibly refreshing. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/aap/article-2907604/AirAsia-better-CEO-says.html

It leaves me hopeful that even in the face of incredible human tragedy, a new type of leadership might be emerging.






Is analog trending?

If you work on multiple social media platforms every day, as many of us in public relations and marketing communications do, you know how quickly stories can break and trend — and how tempting it can be to jump into the conversation.

This busy-ness can be both addictive and exhausting. Which isn’t to say  social media isn’t a wonderful tool. It is. It gives a voice to people who may otherwise never have been heard which, as a small boutique PR firm, I fully appreciate.

What I find really interesting, lately, is the emergence of ‘analog’ marketing. Digital and analog are starting to hang out side-by-side — like musical points and counter-points.

Here’s what I mean. Today, I read that Glenfiddich, a brand of single malt whiskey introduced to the U.S. in the 1960′s, had launched an integrated marketing/PR campaign that highlights the brand’s heritage attributes. Budweiser recently announced a similar campaign, marketing its iconic brand in old-fashioned wooden crates.

And it’s not just beverages. The growing ‘authenticity’ trend seems to be driving everything from Etsy’s online market for artisanal goods to the slow food movement. In a digital world that moves quickly, decides quickly, reacts quickly and moves on quickly, there is an equally strong appetite for going slow. Knowing where products come from, who makes them, what makes them unique and what the back-story is — for many people, this knowledge is hugely important and drives consumption.

Louise Fili, whose work I greatly admire and is featured above, is another example of the synthesis between digital and analog. I agree with her view that social media — at least as it is used most often today — allows us access to a lot of information but necessarily a tactile experience. We still need time, and distance, to process the data and figure out what it means, personally and emotionally. Digital may allow us to appropriate and mediate information, analog, I think, allows us to make sense of it on a human level.

I’m sure digital technology will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. And as it does, our experience with using it will no doubt mature. At some point, the busy-ness of it all will settle into a less frenetic, more measured, rhythm.

In the meantime, as PR and marketing professionals, I find the co-existence of analog and digital a cool development. Our job is still about drilling into the data to unearth that nugget of insight that helps clients to communicate credibly and authentically. It’s still about — and always will be about –  helping to build relationships and discovering better ways to engage our audience and customers.

Culturally, this is a time of peaceful co-existence. Even though the pace is frenetic, it’s up to us as practitioners to find the right balance. And to remember that digital’s role is to give analog voice. Analog’s role is to give digital soul.




Trick or treats in the digital world

A recent article in Forbes about the current state of the client-agency relationship is a good reminder of just how disruptive digital media is for those of us working in the communications profession. And while there will be tricks to adapting, long-term, the treats will be worth it.

According to Avidan Strategies, digital is not only blurring the lines between advertising and PR. It’s forcing advertising and PR agencies to rethink themselves, in terms of who does what. And perhaps more importantly, it’s pushing agencies to take a good look at how they deliver — and what they deliver — to their clients. http://www.forbes.com/sites/avidan/2014/09/29/what-cmos-are-saying-about-the-future-of-their-relationships-with-agencies/

The shift is seismic and it will continue. As it does, here are three related shifts that we see coming fast:

-Shift from information to news. Storytelling is an over-used word that’s been co-opted lately by everyone from presentation coaches to brand strategists. However, used it in the way professional journalists use it, a ‘story’ really comes down to an idea that has inherent newsworthiness.

Going forward, we believe it will be less about which agency does what, and more about working with practitioners who know how to research, find the nugget, shape a narrative and tell a story. Each step is important. And while today, there is a lot of emphasis on the ‘telling’ of the story, we see an increased need for people who can expertly sift through the data, analyze it, do the background checks, follow the money, understand the context and figure out the difference between a reliable source and public opinion.

In the digital world, we are all shaping content for each other, constantly. And so people who know how to unfold a story, inject it with purpose and curate it so it packs a punch will be highly sought-after, for both our news and our entertainment.

- Shift from generic to authentic. A new study out yesterday points to an upward trend in consumers’ desire for authenticity.  http://www.holmesreport.com/news-info/15575/PRSummit-Global-Consumers-Value-Authenticity-Over-Innovation.aspx

For some consumers, authenticity is about the alignment they see between a brand’s promise and the reputation of the company that produces and markets that brand. So if the stories that are circulating about a product contradict the brand promise — or the CEO’s conduct doesn’t jibe with the stated values of her company — an authenticity gap opens up, with the online world just waiting to fill the vacuum and undermine reputations. Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Reputation Officers, their in-house teams and their agencies will assume increasing accountability for authenticity and reputation/risk management going forward.

- Shift to greater efficiency. The silos between advertising and PR, and between marketing, corporate communications and public affairs are eroding. And hallelujah!

Digital is driving the change, and what’s coming is less of an emphasis on who does what, and more of a shift towards who does it efficiently.

Assuming the underlying goal is to communicate strategically with consumers, stakeholders, employees and investors, does it really matter if the great idea comes from the in-house team, from the advertising agency or the PR consultant, or a combination of the above? It shouldn’t. What’s more, if a strong strategic idea can be integrated across different platforms by fewer people, doesn’t that make work more efficient and life easier, in the end, for our clients?

This leveling of the playing field between big and small practitioners — and between practitioners themselves — will continue. In the end, it may not mean less money spent, but it will certainly result in a more efficient, rational and streamlined use of resources from strategic development, through approval, and all the way to final delivery.

These are just a few of the treats that await. We don’t see it as a scary time. Quite the opposite: It’s a thrilling time to be on the front lines of change.




Great PR depends on smart data

We’re big believers in the power of research to establish a sound foundation for PR campaigns, employee engagement strategies and brand building opportunities.

We loved Volkswagen’s recent awareness campaign about the dangers of texting and driving for that very reason.

The same goes for a Trillium Gift of Life campaign spot that in two short minutes makes the case for needing more people to register as organ donors. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECF_lyxkSIE

It’s pretty clear the people behind these campaigns have done their homework. They’ve researched the facts. They know the numbers. And the results of their research are compelling. We think this is a smart way to use data.

But while oftentimes numbers can spin a good story, they can also be used to grossly over-simply things. Take the announcement last week about an employee engagement strategy in which Apple and Facebook committed to paying for their female employees’ fertility treatments, ostensibly giving them the opportunity to delay having children if they chose to focus on their careers.http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/14/us-tech-fertility-idUSKCN0I32KQ20141014

Does this mean that Apple and Facebook actually polled their employees and found that a majority of childbearing-age women within their ranks wants children enough to deal with the roller coaster ride of IVF? Was this strategy the outcome of extensive research into work-life balance, or did they simply look at the average age of their female employees and make some assumptions about Millennials?

And speaking of the Millennial ‘demographic’, we note that today in Philadelphia, Forbes is hosting an Under 30 Summit, and that a new study released in AdWeek talks up the tremendous opportunities for financial institutions that target Millennials with content marketing campaigns. http://www.adweek.com/brandshare/finance-industry-marketers-are-missing-huge-opportunity-millennials-160794

Is this is what data mining comes down to? It sounds a bit like old-fashioned marketing segmentation. Are all people 18-25 really so similar that they can be grouped together under the Millennial moniker? And are all women so like-minded that they can be spoken to (‘targeted’) in the same way?

Has history taught us nothing? If you’re over 50, this kind of stereotyping is called age-ism. And if you’re out-of-touch enough to be making generalizations about women on the basis of their fertility and/or reproduction, it’s called paternalism or misogyny.

The point is, if we’re smart enough — and socially evolved enough — to be able to obtain big data in the first place, can we please be smart enough to use some discernment in the way we interpret and use that data? Let’s put it in a context that’s meaningful, thoughtful and respectful.

Numbers aren’t smart all by themselves. Our job as people, and as PR people, is to make the numbers make sense in an honest way.