a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tiger's 13 minutes of contrition won't be enough to buy him peace

Last Friday's statement of contrition by Tiger Woods is too bizarre to pass up. So please permit me a few observations and then I will declare this blog a Tiger-Free zone for at least a couple of months. Promise.

Tiger likely did his public image some good in his 13 minutes of contrition. But I couldn't help wondering what might have been had he owned up and apologized within a couple of days of when his ordeal began. He probably would have saved himself, his family, his sponsors and all of us a lot of grief.

The Tiger Woods affair(s) will likely be used for many years as a case study of what not to do in crisis communications. In contrast, David Letterman's up-front handling of a similarly sordid mea culpa will be remembered as an outstanding example of crisis communications and damage control.

This is because Letterman positioned himself in front of the story and therefore retained maximum control over what could have been a ruinous tale of sex and blackmail.

The Letterman story only lasted a few news cycles and it was soon business as usual on his late-night show.

Even though Wood finally came clean, he still managed to screw up a couple of things. He showed anger for a brief instance at the media for speculating on what happened. The media may have its faults but Tiger is hardly in a position to criticize.

Media, like nature, abhor a vacuum. This is why it is better to fill in the details quickly rather than goading the media into hunting for them.

But Woods doesn't appear to have learned this. Media weren't allowed to ask questions after he gave his statement. This is why the golf writers association boycotted his so-called press conference, and quite rightly.

Woods could have cleared up some lingering questions such as when he will be playing competitive golf again by taking a few questions from the media. The media will continue to pursue the Tiger Woods story.


If the Harper government iws counting on the Olympics for a bounce upward in the polls, it may be disappointed.

Media coverage of these Olympics, both internationally and domestically, has been less than flattering. Voters whose patriotic pride has been hurt tend to take out their frustrations on the government of the day.

This has been an accident and gaff-prone Olympics. Canada's rallying slogan of Own The Podium likely belongs in the hall of fame of dumb marketing slogans.

Own The Podium was the slogan for a program that plowed $117 million -- $65 million of it from you and me -- into athletes' training with the aim of winning more medals than any other country in the 2010 Olympics.

Those who drafted this initiative's mission statement likely wish they had left themselves some wiggle room. When Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, announced Monday what everybody already knew -- that Canada would not own the podium at these Olympics -- the media was quick to frame Canada's athletic program as a failure.

In reality, Canada's showing in this Olympics so far is quite respectable and may yet be among our best ever despite being branded as a colossal failure.

What would have been wrong with simply qualifying Own The Podium with a time frame of say eight years instead of just one Olympiad? We would have been making progress.

Managing expectations is a big part of the communications process. Sadly, many of our athletes likely would have done better if it hadn't been for a program with a boastful name and foolish mandate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The tainted Olympics

Nobody wants to interfere with Canada's pride at finally breaking the curse of not winning an Olympic gold medal on Canadian soil. But there is a major communications problem brewing with the Vancouver Olympics. We are being savaged by the international media.

Sports columnist Martin Samuel of Britain's Daily Mail has called us cheaters and claimed Canada's so-called "Own The Podium" agenda is a perversion of the Olympic ideal.

He also claims Canada's determination to win medal or Own The Podium had something to do with the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of the Republic of Georgia just hours before Friday's opening ceremonies.

How is this for nasty commentary?

"Canada wanted to Own The Podium at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. This morning they can put their maple leaf stamp on something more instantly tangible: the nondescript little box carrying the lifeless body of Nodar Kumaritashvili back to his home in Bakuriani , Georgia.

"Made in Canada, it should say. Made by the perversion of the Olympic movement for national gain; made by a culture of worthless aggrandisement and pride."

In his column, Samuel says the slide track at Whistler is unsafe for any competitor and that Canadian athletes have had far more practice time on it than international competitors. He is not clear how the imbalance in practice time was responsible for the death of the young and inexperienced Georgian luger.

Canadian athletes likely would have been aware of the track's faster curves if they began doing practice runs on it months ago instead of just weeks ago. However, Samuel doesn't make the connection very well.

But he may have a point about safety. Kumaritashvili was killed after striking a metal pole after leaving the track in excess of 140 kilometres an hour. As Samuel notes, any luge course that allows a contestant to lose control and go flying off it is by design unsafe.

An Australian athlete complained competitors on the track were being used as "crash test dummies." Even the New York Times has concluded "safety took a back seat to patriotism".

On the day of the fatal crash and the day before, there were three crashes in practice runs by athletes. A Romanian competitor was knocked unconscious. Yet Vancouver Olympic organizers (VANOC) were quick to attribute the fatal accident to athlete error.

This incident will likely haunt Canada for some time.

Other British media, such as the Guardian, criticize Canada for limiting international competitors' access to facilities during practice. Others find Canada'a new obsession with winning just plain irritating.

In the British Times, sports writer Simon Barnes defended Canada from blame for the tragedy. But he had issues with Own The Podium.

" Their highly unpleasant Own The Podium program, in which they seek to exploit home advantage to the last nanosecond, has alienated the world they are supposed to play host to,"
he wrote.

"Home athletes always have an advantage: getting ugly about it is neither necessary nor appropriate."

When complaints first surfaced that Canada was limiting international competitors' access to facilities for practice time, VANOC was dismissive but gradually admitted that maybe Canadian athletes did have a home court advantage just as Chinese athletes did with practice facilities before the Peking Olympics.

Certainly, some frankness and commitment for minimum access for all countries a few months ago likely would have saved a lot of grief for the Vancouver organizers and Canada now and in the future.

As for Friday's tragedy, VANOC has taken some precautions such as starting the men's luge competition from the women's starting point. But Canada and VANOC likely will take blame for building a track that was likely designed to be too fast.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Possible successor to PM has emerged

This might be a surprise to a lot of people, but there is one Tory in Ottawa who appears to be rising in popularity: Stockwell Day. Yes the same Stockwell Day who ran such a disastrous campaign in the 2000 election as the leader of the old Alliance party.

Day, who was highly regarded as finance minister in Alberta, has handled three portfolios in the Harper government without controversy or any noticeable mistakes as a minister. Hence, the promotion in the latest cabinet shuffle to President of the Treasury Board.

It is widely expected that Day will be the government's lead minister in preparing the public for the budget cuts that will be necessary to cut the federal deficit. And anyone who has seen Day give a speech knows why. He may be the best communicator in the cabinet.

In addition, he has very polished people skills. Next to the prime minister, he must look like Mr. Sunshine, which is probably why he is being praised by the two major civil service unions as a breath of fresh air in Ottawa's rigid class system.

Day, who likes to send folksy e-mails to departmental staff, did something quite unheard of in Ottawa after taking over as Treasury Board president. He called the heads of both unions to introduce himself and suggest getting together.

It will be interesting to see if the system will close in on him since he is very obviously an outsider. Another question is how long he can be a rising star in a government in which there is only one marquis player.

Two years back another Albertan minister, Jim Prentice, was thought to be Stephen Harper's successor before he got shunted from the high-profile Industry Canada portfolio to Environment, which in this government is about as good a job as being general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

And of course, there is also the question of whether Day is up to being a party leader after striking out once already. Recent political history is littered with perfectly good ministers who couldn't quite cut it as party leader.
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The Superbowl -- at least the football portion -- may be over. But discussion of the ads continues.

One of those ads, placed by the social conservative group Focus on the Family has the distinction of being talked about before and after the Superbowl. This ad, featuring Heinzman Trophy winner Tim Lebow and his mother, didn't contain the strident anti-abortion message many were expecting. Instead, the message -- that abortion is big mistake -- was very subtle in contrast to the Focus on the Family website.

Because of this subtlety, the ad will probably usher in a new era of politically-motivated advertising. That raises questions. What happens when a television network decides the ad from one side of an issue is too strident while a spot from the other side is within broadcast standards of good taste?

What happens to democratic debate and thought when one side of an issue has the money for advertising its ideas like a consumer product while the other doesn't?

Advocacy advertising may not be new. But up until this time it has not been prime time fare. Advocacy advertising at prime time has critical implications for democracy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Toyota plays catchup after disastrous start

Some weeks it is hard to come up with a topic for this blog. Other times it is hard to choose from a variety of rich topics. This week is one of the latter. So let’s look at several.

In the better-late-than-never category, Toyota this week stopped imitating a deer staring into the headlights and aggressively started shoring up the damage to its reputation for quality cars.

Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Sales USA, started this week with an appearance on NBC’s Today show to demonstrate suitable contrition and concern for the millions of Toyota owners around the planet. Lentz was the flag bearer in a media blitz yesterday on both sides of the border.

That appearance was validated by Toyota finally announcing a plan to fix the faulty accelerator that landed the car maker in a crisis of consumer confidence less than 14 days ago.

Contrast this decisive action with the Toyota’s fumbling last week. Last Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda hurriedly apologized to customers after being pursued by a Japanese television crew. Then he drove off in an Audi, according to ABC News. Fleeing executives make for bad optics no matter what business you’re in.

Up until the end of last week, Toyota’s web site had very little to say to consumers beyond its risk-adverse (and not very informative) news releases. Then at week’s end, somebody sprouted the good idea to tell customers how the hell they can stop their vehicles should they suddenly discover they have one of those faulty accelerator pedals.

Perhaps that represented the point where the company sought outside help to develop a real crisis plan. In a just a week Toyota has gone from the disastrous model of the Exxon Valdiz to the highly successful modus operandi of Maple Leaf Foods.

They appear to have learned that building a highly successful brand is one thing. Managing and protecting a reputation are quite another.


For all the attributes heaped on Steve Jobs of Apple, it would be interesting to read how he is able to play the media like a violin.

We saw another example of this last week when Jobs introduced the world to the much-hyped iPad. Although there has some even-handed and critical evaluations in the tech media, the general media for the most part was absolutely ga-ga. One commentator on the normally authoritative CBC bubbled that she absolutely had to have an iPad.

You would have to look very hard to find any mention of some of Apple’s past marketing failures, of which there have been many. Remember the Newton PDA? How about Apple Cyberdog, which was supposed to knock out Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Macintosh TV? Apple Lisa? Puck Mouse? And so on.

This is no criticism of Jobs. There is no crime in being a master of gaining earned media.

But too often the modern media on both sides of the border won’t let truth get in the way of the narrative of least resistance.


And finally, by now we are all familiar with the government’s talking points about the need to appoint five new Tory senators to stop the dastardly Liberals from abusing their strength in the upper chamber to obstruct and gut law-and-order legislation needed to keep Canada safe for decent folk.

The Conservatives have repeated this narrative often enough for thousands of Canadians to actually believe it.

But as Canadian Press reports, actual records don’t support the government’s claims.

In the last session of Parliament, the Tories put forward 19 criminal justice bills. Eleven of these were still being dealt with in the Commons when Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended the session with prorogation and thereby killed them on the order paper.

Of the eight law and order bills that made it to the Senate, four were passed without controversy by what was then a Liberal-dominated chamber.

Two more bills were still being studied at Senate committees when Harper pulled the plug.

Another bill to scrap the long-gun registry originated in the Senate but was deliberately held back by the government in favour of a private member’s bill that would have done the same thing.

The final bill that made it to the upper chamber was actually passed by the Senate. This bill would have imposed minimum mandatory sentences on people running marijuana grow-ops.

The Liberals added some amendments that would have given some judicial discretion in cases involving less than 200 plants and the government claims those changes gutted the bill in an impasse that was unresolved at the time of prorogation.

Maybe the Liberals are soft on crime, as the Tories insist. But this would show the Tories are soft on the truth when it comes to crime and the Senate.