a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The summit that left a foul odor

Monday morning's papers were all over the map on whether the summit was a success or not, just as the police response to protesters was reported as either measured or over-aggressive depending on who was being quoted.

Chances are, if you believed international summit meetings productive, you probably continued to believe the same Monday morning. Conversely, anyone who questioned the usefulness of these events before the weekend likely hasn't changed their opinion either.

Canadians remain ambivalent about summits and media coverage reflects that.

Ironically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can rightly claim victory because the 20 developed nations agreed to his proposal of a commitment to cut their government deficits in half by 2013. This agreement is all the more remarkable since U.S. President Barack Obama was pushing for continued economic stimulus.

Harper's win was part of the weekend's media coverage. But it was over shadowed -- at least in Canada -- by protester violence, 900 arrests, and a $1-billion price tag for security. As The Toronto Star noted in a deadline: "Arrests, tear gas outweigh glory."

In contrast, Harper took top billing over Obama in Sunday's New York Times. The Times coverage, which only mentions the protests in passing, made it clear Harper was able to get the upper hand behind the scenes and Obama had to back track and go along with the deficit reduction plan.

This may be the first time in U.S. media that an American president was portrayed as a subordinate player to a Canadian prime minister.

Harper likely wishes today that the G20 summit had been held in an isolated location. The protesters have muddied the narrative the Tories were looking for in advance of an election. And unfortunately for Harper, the Tim Horton's crowd doesn't usually read The New York Times.

One thing not lost in the fray is the odious aftermath of summit security. No doubt there will be continued demands for an inquiry to find out why police arrested so many -- almost twice those held under the War Measures Act in 1970.

Joggers, bystanders and even tourists were scooped up in a giant police dragnet. There were also a disturbing number of reports of journalists being detained or even roughed up.

Toronto Mayor David Miller is fortunate he was already announced he will not seek re-election. Otherwise, his hast defence of police actions would likely come back to haunt him.

Even the Toronto police were smart enough Monday to acknowledge that innocent people may have been held by accident as officers worked to restore order and protect the city from further destruction.

In fairness, it shouldn't be surprising that people's rights suffered while police had to work frantically to put down a major riot. But it is reasonable to wonder if police weren't taking out their frustrations on the public after losing control on the streets on Saturday.

The images of what happened in Toronto this past weekend will likely be remembered by Canadians long after Harper's summit accomplishments are forgotten.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

PR industry takes a hit with BP disaster

The petroleum industry won't be the only sector to be worried about its credibility when the BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico finally ends.

Ten years ago BP spent $220 million U.S. on an award-winning image makeover. The campaign recast its brand as a leading socially-responsible and green company.

The "Beyond Petroleum" campaign was so effective that as recently as 2007, customer surveys ranked BP as the leading environmentally-friendly oil company.

No doubt BP's current troubles will lead people to conclude the campaign was just so much green washing by PR flacks. Corporate image makers should be just as worried about the aftermath as the overall energy sector.

In the PR industry's defence, it is the client's responsibility to live up to its brand. BP wasn't doing that, according to media reports in the two months since its deepwater well blew out.

Last year, for example, it cut investment in alternative energy by 28 per cent.

In addition, had the company been willing to spend an extra $550,000 on its deepwater rig for something called a remote control acoustic trigger, the Gulf of Mexico disaster might have been limited.

Such technology would have allowed company workers to close the well by remote signal after the rig was destroyed by explosion and fire on April 20.

American regulators considered making such technology mandatory early in the past decade. But BP and other oil companies lobbied against it because of cost. That $550,000 must now seem like chump change.

Of course, BP's current communications problems in the Gulf go well beyond a gaffe-prone CEO. Documents are now surfacing that show the company had been withholding material information about the extent of the catastrophe. BP will have far more trouble than a toxic brand to worry about for years to come.

As for professional image makers, the PR and ad industries will likely huddle soon to discuss how they can force clients to live up to the hype they created for them. Perhaps there should be some sort of liability code for spin doctors.

What remains is astonishing is this: why would any corporation risk an environmental disaster to save a few bucks? Have they forgotten lessons learned over the past 30 years -- Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl?

Perhaps simple human nature is also toxic.


There was much in the news last week about Quebecor's plans to set up a Fox News style infotainment channel in Canada. What didn't get much attention was how Quebecor's Sun Media trashed one of the best reporting bureaus on Parliament Hill because of a format change.

The Sun's predominately female bureau had been leading much of the parliamentary press gallery for months in breaking stories and asking tough questions about government spending. Reporter Elizabeth Thompson, for example, won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for revealing how heritage silver from Rideau Hall was accidentally sold.

Kathleen Harding as been replaced as bureau chief. Thompson and fellow reporters Christina Spencer and Peter Zimonjic have been simply dumped.

Quebecor is free to make whatever changes it wants. And those who follow Parliament Hill will be free to judge whether Sun Media's new predominately male bureau is an improvement or not.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mistake by the lake should tell us something

Think back to the summer of 2005 when Stephen Harper was still the leader of the Opposition.

Remember a particularly hideous photo that was taken at the Calgary Stampede in which Harper was wearing a leather vest that was too tight and a goofy looking hat?

He was between communications directors at the time. And the photo clearly demonstrated there was no one in his entourage with either the cachet or experience to say "Stephen, lose the look."

In the months following, Harper showed much more communications savvy in front of the cameras and became prime minister as a result.

The predicament Harper is now in over the costs of the G8 and G20 summits, in particular the supposed need for an artificial lake in the Toronto media centre, should also be telling us something about his government's communications ability, or lack of it.

When first reported, the cost was $1 million to put an artificial lake about four blocks north of the real thing. Subsequently, this was revised to $57,000 out of the total media centre budget of $1.9 million.

Even at $57,000, voters across the country may think the fake lake is a mistake. But it's interesting that the government's huge communications machine let several news cycles lapse while the price was being reported at seven figures.

This could point to several things going on behind the scenes. In the past 12 months leading up to the summits, the government has been keeping details of costs quiet. Is it possible their own communications people were not fully briefed?

Even the government's ministers seemed to be blindsided when the story broke. Did the summit expenditures get a full review at cabinet, or just inside the Prime Minister's Office?

In addition to the fake lake, the Tories have not been able to defend a whole raft of summit expenditures that smell like pre-election largesse in rural Ontario. G8 leaders are unlikely to venture outside a guarded compound.

Perhaps if the Tories had released details of summit spending gradually over several months they wouldn't now be facing a public backlash.

It has been mentioned in this blog before but it's worth repeating. For a government obsessed with controlling its messaging, it doesn't seem to communicate about is own affairs very well,
particularly when things don't go as planned.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

BP sunk before it started damage control

I have resisted commenting in this blog on BP's saga of disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because I didn't want to pass instant judgement on a horrendous environmental and public relations catastrophe.

It has been five weeks since the company's gushing well head began destroying the shores of Louisiana and who knows where else. So it is time for a report card on the company's crisis management.

The first thing PR pros will tell a company in crisis is to own up to its responsibility. BP did that -- sort of-- when its well head began spewing oil into the gulf. However, it equivocated by laying blame on a subcontractor.

This was probably a mistake because most people would infer the company was just trying to cover its butt. BP should have been unequivocal in accepting blame up front. There will be plenty of time later to parcel out blame and examine who did what.

Secondly, the company may have displayed some arrogance in the beginning that it will undoubtedly regret in years to come. Although the world has never seen an environmental disaster quite like this, BP acted like it could fix it and make everything right, no problem.

It even gave cute, snappy little names like Top Hat to its various attempts to stop up the flow. As a result, the media have been busy reporting a litany of failures.

It would have been better had the company owned up to the fact it would be a long arduous task to stop the leak, and said as little as possible while it searched for a solution.

As Susan Reisler, vice-president at Toronto PR firm Media Profile, noted to The Globe and Mail: "What would have helped them from the very beginning is for them to say, 'We're in uncharted waters.' Because they didn't do that, they created the expectation they knew how to fix it."

BP has far too much in retained profits in its treasury to be on the brink of bankruptcy. However, it is hard to imagine how BP can carry on business as usual in the U.S., which accounts for 40 per cent of the company's market. Watch for the company to be sold off in pieces.

Also BP CEO Tony Hayward will be lucky to survive the balance of the year in his current job. Aside from a wobbly start in his company's damage control efforts, Hayward has said some dumb things such as "I would like my life back" as thousands of people in Louisiana are likely wondering what they will be doing for a living when all this is over.

Still, Hayward inherited an ill-fated oil well from his predecessor, John Browne, and therefore doesn't deserve all the criticism. But a struggling multinational will want to make a dramatic statement that it is changing its ways. The quick way to do that is to get a new skipper.

It happened on Hayward's watch. So he wears it.

Overall, this disaster will likely have the same effect on the petroleum industry as the Three Mile Island disaster did on the nuclear sector in 1979. Policy makers will find applications for deep water drilling just as toxic as they did for new reactors for for almost three decades.

The Alberta tar sands must be looking awfully good to investors right now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy ending for Bryant leaves questions for the rest of us

A few months ago this blog dealt with how Michael Bryant was able to clear his reputation in the court of public opinion. Now that the former Ontario attorney general has been cleared in the court that counts most, let's have another look at this bizarre case because there are still questions that should be answered.

Prosecutor Richard Peck withdrew all charges against Bryant in connection with the death of a Toronto bike courier, Darcy Allan Sheppard, in a curbside altercation, saying there was no chance of conviction. Then he cited a litany of incidents involving the cyclist and other motorists, including an elderly woman.

Peck, a Vancouver lawyer brought in to avoid any appearances of special treatment, concluded by saying Bryant should never have been charged.

The prosecutor was very thorough in explaining why the charges -- criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death -- were being dropped - so much so that most people were satisfied justice has been served.

The defence made the unusual move of turning over its evidence to the Crown in advance of a preliminary hearing in the hopes the prosecution would see the folly in pursuing a guilty verdict and drop the whole thing. It worked.

As a result, the official victim has been cast in the public mind as the actual villain and the original villain has become the victim.

Case officially closed. However, a few questions come to mind.

Considering another recent high-profile court case, why couldn't the prosecution have been as forthcoming as Peck when most of the charges against former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer were dropped in an Orangeville court in March?

In that case, the Crown simply said there was little chance of conviction with charges of cocaine possession and impaired driving. As a result, Jaffer was able to plead guilty to careless driving and got off with a slap on the wrist. No other explanation was given and the prosecution left politicians in Ontario and Ottawa to deal with a hostile public.

Perhaps it was because Peck, a defence lawyer, didn't have the secretive mindset that most Crown Attorneys seem to have in Ontario. Clearly, the Ontario legal system could learn something about public accountability from the visiting counsel from B.C.

Back to Bryant: If the prosecution says he should never have been charged, then why did the police charge him so quickly within hours of the incident?

Sure there were witness statements the night of the incident that would seem to indicate Bryant was trying to flee the scene of the accident. But how reliable would any witness statement be of an incident that lasted 28 seconds?It was determined that Sheppard had a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit. He also had been in a police cruiser earlier that same evening after an alleged domestic dispute.

Did police canvass the area to determine if Sheppard had been involved in other altercations with motorists? Remember, most of the evidence Peck cited came from the defence's investigation.

The police certainly had an obligation to show that a former politician was not getting any special treatment But how thorough was the investigation?

Finally, the most disturbing question of all: What would have happened if a person of ordinary means without the sophistication of a former attorney general had been caught up in an incident like this and why was a very troubled Darcy Allan Sheppard not receiving mental health care?

There are questions we all should be thinking about.