Quoth the Raven
Some ramblings on my experiences with public relations

Jun
03

Because of my communications internship with YWCA Toronto, I got the opportunity to volunteer at the 2008 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Awards at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The event went off without a hitch, and it was amazing to see – especially since the attendance list included 1700 PEOPLE.

I wasn’t involved in the planning of the actual event; my role focused on generating media for this year’s recipients, which was an experience in itself. But seeing an event of that magnitude come together so flawlessly was incredible, and really made me realize the enormous amount of details that need to be addressed. Whether it’s media sign-in sheets or a mid-afternoon snack for the volunteers, no detail is too small, and thinking of the things most people wouldn’t even think of is YWCA Toronto’s specialty.

I really have something to aspire to as an event planner now. Though hopefully I can start with less than a thousand people…

May
09

Timbits

These days, a whole lot more than 16 cents.

Tim Hortons made headlines yesterday – in the worst way possible – when they fired an employee for giving away a Timbit. Apparently, after giving the Timbit to a young child, she neglected to put the required dime, nickel and penny into the register; once her manager found out, she was dismissed from her position at the restaurant. Tim Hortons often gives away Timbits to pets, but they’re usually a day old and recycled.

The articles about the incident can’t help but pull on your heartstrings – the one appearing in the Toronto Star describes the Timbit as a “16-cent blob of fried dough”, putting the ridiculousness of the whole incident into perspective. But you can’t help but think that the whole incident could have been avoided with better communication. I’m not sure whether head office has a policy regarding terminations with their franchises that wasn’t enforced, or whether tempers were flaring – there is speculation that there had previously been friction between the employee and her manager – but giving head office a heads up about this particular incident could have spared Tim Hortons a LOT of bad PR.

I wish I could say I wasn’t going to go there for coffee anymore…

Apr
02

First, watch this really important video that will really change your ideas about the Internet.

Then, scroll down.

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You’ve just been rickrolled!

For those who aren’t familiar with his flash-in-the-pan career, Rick Astley was a two-hit wonder from the 80s who disappeared from the radar shortly after the release of the song you just heard. I’m a huge 80s music fanatic, a taste I acquired from my father. (A blessing or a curse? You decide. ) He’s been playing Rick in the house since I was little, so when someone explained this phenomenon to me, I thought it was both hilarious and exceedingly bizarre.

Why Rick Astley? I’m really not sure. But according to Wikipedia, the fad of rickrolling is a variant of “duckrolling”, in which a link to a popular news items, often one involving celebrity, instead links to a picture of a duck with wheels. But when you rickroll someone, you give them a link that seems relevant to the topic at hand, but instead leads them to Astley’s video. There are differing accounts of how it started, but the most common one I’ve heard is that it started on 4chan, when someone claimed to have a link to a long-awaited videogame preview. Scientology has also been a particular target of potential rickrollers.

Apparently the rickrolling phenomenon has been going on for awhile now, but has just recently started to hit the mainsteam. It almost certainly did today, when Youtube hyperlinked every one of the day’s featured videos to Astley’s video as an April Fool’s Joke. Responses ranged from “Ugh, rickrolled… AGAIN” to “I wanted to see the bunny eating the banana!”

Since rickrolling started last May, one version of the song on Youtube has been viewed almost 6 million times, and I’m betting a significant number of those were today (and that very few were intentional). Now even my dad knows what a rickroll is – all because of a little April Fool’s joke.

And how does Astley feel about this? According to Wikipedia, he’s somewhat tickled:

In a March 2008 interview, Astley said that he found the rickrolling of Scientology to be “hilarious”; he also said that he will not try to capitalize on the rickroll phenomenon with a new recording or remix of his own, but that he’d be happy to have other artists remix it. Overall, Astley is fine with the phenomenon, although he finds it a little “bizarre” and only hopes that his daughter receives no embarrassment over it.

Dance on, Rick. Dance on.

Rick Astley

Mar
19

Madonna and Guy Ritchie

Whenever I log into Hotmail, “MSN Today” sees fit to update me on the latest celebrity news. Today’s big headline was one that caught my eye: “Splitsville for Madonna and Guy?”

Being a sometime sucker for status updates on celebrity couples, I investigated. The rumour circulating is that Madonna and her husband of eight years, Guy Ritchie, will be separating next year. For some bizarre reason, they will be “keeping up appearances” for the next eighteen months, timing that coincidentally coincides with the conclusion of Madonna’s latest album launch and world tour.

Though it’s a somewhat strange story, the part of the article that really caught my eye was the dismissal of the statements from Madonna’s representative; it states, “Madonna’s rep denies her client is either single or ready to mingle, but it seems like a breakup is inevitable.” The author, Ryan Porter, also pokes fun at her publicist’s official statement:

Madonna’s publicist, Liz “Munchies” Rosenberg, worked long and hard on this statement, so we have to conceed she’s really serious: “I am delighted to confirm that Mr. and Mrs. Guy Ritchie remain happily married. Though they were in different countries recently–Madonna in the U.S. doing promotion for her upcoming album Hard Candy and Guy finishing up post production on his new film RocknRolla as well as completing a Nike commercial and working on several scripts in England–the family are joyfully back together at home in London. All is well and wonderful in the Ritchie household.”

The statement may be a little overly sugary, but it struck me that Porter put absolutely no stock in what Rosenberg said, concluding that she was simply covering for her client. It seems that this is almost always the case with celebrity publicists; they issue statements whenever their clients end up in the public eye, but these statements are immediately dismissed by journalists and the general public alike as bold-faced lies.

In an industry where you’re instantly presumed to be withholding the truth before you even open your mouth, how do you have any credibility as a PR professional? Should statements such as Rosenberg’s address more of the negative aspects of the rumour, as well as the positive? Should publicists refrain from making such statements at all, and use another approach instead? What are your thoughts?

Feb
19

 

Last Thursday, Maggie Fox, an entrepreneur who started the extremely successful Social Media Group (an agency dedicated to helping businesses understand Web 2.0), came in to speak to our class. She’s a really engaging speaker, and she taught some valuable lessons regarding using social media; however, the most interesting part of her talk came when she told us about some of the projects she’s done for her clients.

One of Maggie’s biggest clients is Ford, a contract which her agency landed recently. She’s working on many different projects with them, but one of her main focuses is blogger relations – finding the influential bloggers in the automotive industry and starting a continuous two-way conversation with them.

Recently, Ford hosted a big drive-test event, to which all mainstream automotive journalists were invited. Usually, Fox explained, it’s the same group at all of these events, and they tend to find things a little boring. But for this event, Social Media Group extended the invitation to another influential group: automotive bloggers.

These bloggers, it turns out, were thrilled to be thought of by Ford, and thrilled to attend the event. Their presence had two main outcomes for the company: 1) the bloggers, with thousands of readers between them, were likely to convey a positive opinion of the drive test, given their appreciation for the invitation; and 2) their excitement was contagious. The automotive journalists, seeing how enthused the bloggers were, began to take more notice of the event than they might have otherwise, landing Ford positive coverage in both traditional and non-traditional media.

Fox’s company isn’t the only one getting into the act. Oracle, the world’s largest enterprise software company, is also trying to get bloggers involved, inviting them to their Oracle Openworld conference last year for the first time. The conference is run by the Oracle AppsLab, a “think tank” dedicated to applying Web 2.0 across Oracle’s businesses and products. Bloggers can meet the members of the AppsLab and participate in discussions about social networks and other Web 2.0 trends.

This is a great move. Getting bloggers onside is a really effective way of communicating your message to a target market that you may not be able to reach any other way – and making the effort to include them in the conversation means they’re very likely to have only positive things to say about your organization in the future.

The $1.4 Trillion Question

Companies aren’t the only people listening to the bloggers. In an article in The Atlantic magazine I was reading this weekend, I learned that even the Chinese government is taking notice of them. The article investigates the heavy investment of Chinese funds in America, and the growing awareness among Chinese citizens that this money is not being used to make improvements in their own country. Basically, according to the article:

“The Chinese public is beginning to be aware that its government is sitting on a lot of money—money not being spent to help China directly, money not doing so well in Blackstone-style foreign investments, money invested in the ever-falling U.S. dollar. Chinese bloggers and press commentators have begun making a connection between the billions of dollars the country is sending away and the domestic needs the country has not addressed. There is more and more pressure to show that the return on foreign investments is worth China’s sacrifice—and more and more potential backlash against bets that don’t pay off. (While the Chinese government need not stand for popular election, it generally tries to reduce sources of popular discontent when it can.) The public is beginning to behave like the demanding client of an investment adviser: it wants better returns, with fewer risks.”

What surprised me about this was that bloggers were listed before press commentators as prominent critics of the government. Mainstream media is important, but if that symphony of online voices can’t be kept happy, there might be real trouble.

This points to the importance of listening: even if you’re not actively getting bloggers involved, companies are missing a valuable opportunity if they’re not tuned in to the blogosphere. CK says it best on the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog:

…the true value proposition of social media for companies is that it gives them the ability to identify new markets, new opportunities, potential risks and needed improvements. And it gives them this ability on a silver platter–all of this rich information actively and freely circulating just waiting for smart marketers to do what they do best: turning rich market information into actionable marketing intelligence.

Among other things, she suggests monitoring online conversation, watching the online space for new bloggers and influential players, and assessing when it’s necessary to include yourself in the conversation. She also points out that, whether a company is listening or not, bloggers are out there holding you accountable for your actions – and failing to take their opinions into account can be devastating.

This really drives home the influence of the blogger, and reminds me of something Maggie said. She explained that, in the days before blogging, the worst a company could expect from an irate customer is an angry letter. This is bad, but it can be contained. But now that all someone has to do is write an entry in their blog, public opinion carries a lot more weight, and can’t be ignored.

What do you do if you’re dissatisfied (or satisfied, for that matter) with a company? Do you still pick up a pen and paper, or are you more inclined to write a blog post about your feelings?

Feb
13

One of my favourite websites to visit is Plime.com, a forum where members can post interesting or amusing links for visitors to look at. Though there are some silly ones – like the story of a 26-year-old woman who wants to date 300 men this Valentine’s Day – but many of them refer to cutting-edge or controversial issues.

When I checked the site yesterday morning, one link immediately caught my eye: a post entitled 90 Day Jane. The link went to a blog written by an anonymous 24-year-old woman, going by the name of Jane, who claims she will kill herself 90 days from her first posting.

I was immediately shocked by what I was reading. Her reason for ending her life, and blogging about it in a public forum, is as follows:

“This blog is not a cry for help or even to get attention. It’s simply a public record of my last 90 days in existence. I’m not depressed and nothing extremely horrible has lead me to this decision. But, does it really have to? I mean, as an atheist I feel life has no greater purpose. My generation has had no great depression, no great war and our biggest obstacle is beating Halo 3. So, if I feel like saying “game over”, why can’t I? Anyway, I hope you enjoy my thoughts as the clock runs out.”

Jane’s blog has come under fire from many different sources; besides widespread speculation that the blog is a hoax, an article in the New York Daily News claims that she has sparked fears of a suicide contagion. Dr. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, says “she is suggesting that suicide is a reasonable method for those questioning life’s meaning, which is just absurd.”

Jane’s blog has already been removed by Blogger after only seven days of being online. However, she already has it up and running in a new location, and is committed to keeping her “personal art piece” going. Although she claims the blog is only for self-fulfillment and to create a dialogue with those who stumble upon it, and not to gain attention – she continues to maintain her anonymity and has turned down offers for television deals – this assertion is a little hard to take. Blogging about such a controversial issue seems like a recipe for more than enough attention for one person to handle.

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks of this. It it a hoax? How will what she’s writing affect readers? And most of all, do you think she’s just trying to express herself, or is she looking for attention?

*Note: Jane has recently posted that the entire blog was an art piece, and now that she has received such an outpouring from commenters who really empathized with her, she will be taking the “project” down in a few days. She explained that her aim to was to get in touch with the darkest part of herself and see what happened. What do you think of her explanation? Do you think her project is worth the many negative consequences it could lead to?

Feb
06

Victory!

After years of fruitless seasons, my New York Giants have won the Superbowl – and in spectacular fashion. By ending the New England Patriots’ potentially perfect season and engineering one of the biggest upsets of all time, they have carved themselves a place in football history.

Though the entire team played an amazing game, the win was largely attributable to this man:

Eli Manning

Eli Manning came to the Giants as a result of a trade in 2004, replacing a string of not-so-successful quarterbacks in the years previous. He had been the number one draft pick in that year, and was expected to reach a skill level similar to his very succesful older brother, the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning.

But here’s the catch: he SUCKED.

I’ve been a Giants fan since I was a little girl – my dad cheered for them growing up, and I always watched the games with him on Sunday. And he, and every other fan I’ve talked to over the last few years, agreed that Manning was woeful. He couldn’t withstand pressure, he couldn’t make smart passes, and he couldn’t step into the leadership role that a quarterback is expected to take.

There were rare glimpses of brilliance, though, and maybe that’s why the franchise continued to demonstrate such unwavering faith in him. At every news conference and in every public statement, the message was clear: Eli Manning is, and will remain, our quarterback for the forseeable future.

This didn’t stop fans from questioning the Giants’ judgment. Michael Eisen, a writer and editor for the team’s official website, giants.com , answers fan mail on a weekly basis, and the questions often concern the young quarterback. At the end of 2007, Eisen received the following query:

“In my opinion Eli Manning is not the QB of the future for the Giants. With that said do we trade for a QB next year or for a higher draft pick to acquire another rookie QB? Or do we go with Jared Lorenzon and see what his big arm can bring us? – Richard”

Eisen did not mince words in his response:

“Dear Richard,

Neither. Eli Manning is the quarterback today and for the foreseeable tomorrow. He is not going anywhere. Deal with it.”

The Giants organization couldn’t ensure that Manning would deliver on his raw potential, or that the gamble of hanging on to him would pay off in the end. However, that was their belief, and they always maintained a strong, united front on the issue, even if it meant becoming increasingly firm in their public statements.

In December, it paid off.

In their last regular-season game, against the New England Patriots, Manning got confident. He began completing passes, remaining unflappable in the face of pressure, and taking ownership of the team. All of a sudden, he became the player everyone had expected him to be all along, and ultimately the player that lead his team to Superbowl victory by making plays like this:

And now, the Giants look like geniuses.

It would have been easy to give up on Eli Manning, especially since the fans so clearly wanted him gone, and no sports franchise can exist without people buying tickets. But the Giants emphasized that, though they greatly valued fan input and support, the decision to keep Manning would pay off in the end. Now, with the Superbowl’s Most Valuable Player on their hand, the Giants’ staff (and their communications team) have been vindicated.

Let’s see someone ask for him to be traded now.

Jan
29

There’s a new gym in town, and they’re selling what scads of couch potatoes and fitness buffs alike have been searching for: the same results in less time.

H.I.T. Fit, with two Toronto locations (the TD Centre and Yonge St and Eglinton Ave), promises to deliver a workout equivalent to 45 minutes of resistance training, 30 minutes of running and 20 minutes of stretching – all in four minutes. The club relies on a somewhat bizarre-looking contraption called the ROM – The 4-Minute CrossTrainer, which is based on the concept of High Intensity Training. By working your whole body for a short but intense period, H.I.T. Fit claims, you can be in and out of the gym in record time while still getting the results you want; their motto is “Gone to work out. Back in 5 minutes!”

I first learned of the gym in a Toronto Star article I read a couple of days ago. I was immediately sceptical, as I’ve always been taught there’s no “quick fix” when you’re trying to get in shape, but I was soon beginning to buy into the idea that this High Intensity Training thing could work.

The article contained many elements of a convincing news story:

  • human interest (one woman testified that she lost 35 pounds and four pant sizes within a year);
  • expert testimony (a McMaster University professor indicated that his research supports the efficiency of high-intensity workouts);
  • local appeal (the gyms are just downtown!); and
  • timeliness (the Yonge and Eglinton location just opened and a third is in the works).

Basically, the article made me want to sign up then and there. If the journalist, Dana Flavelle, picked up this idea from a news release, definite kudos should go out to Aerial Communications Group – they did their job, and did it really well. It would have sold me 100 per cent except for one, tiny little word: “declined.”

Flavelle interviewed the club’s president, Morry Patoka, for the article. There weren’t many quotes from him included, which led me to believe that he didn’t give her much to work with in the first place; however, there where two paragraphs that gave me pause:

“Patoka describes the fees at the high end of the mid-range. He declined to say whether the concept is turning a profit yet.”

And, in speaking about the club’s attendance:

“‘A certain percentage don’t come out, but our percentage is a lot smaller than the industry average,’ he said, declining to be more specific.”

I’ve had some bad experiences with gyms – most recently, I tried to cancel a membership with Extreme Fitness a few days after I joined and met with resistance, and I still haven’t received my initial deposit back. I’ve heard similar stories from many other people, and have read several articles claiming that gyms can be horrible to deal with. My perception of fitness facilities is that they are shifty. And in this article, Patoka sounds REALLY shifty.

It’s possible that he didn’t have the numbers in front of him, or that his PR agency told him not to reveal this information – or that he needs media training. But no matter the cause, the result is the same: I’m not sure I trust this gym 100 per cent anymore. Even though the statistics he’s hiding probably would not affect my gym experience, I don’t like to think that people I’m giving money to are in the habit of not being up front.

Maybe I’m being overly critical, and H.I.T. Fit will be different than other gyms. But I’m not joining until I get my money from Extreme back.

Jan
25

Everyone who knows me knows that I carry around a behemoth of a bag. It’s a laptop backpack, so it’s already bigger than normal, but it has so much padding and so many pockets that it often feels somewhat akin to giving a small child a piggyback ride all day.

I visit a chiropractor regularly, often going right from school. Yesterday, I pulled open the door of the clinic, shoulders hunching under the weight of my computer and my book, and gratefully swung the bag from my back and lay down on the table.

My chiropractor came over and began his adjustment. He was silent for a moment, and then said “Did you know that you’re not supposed to be carrying more than 15 per cent of your body weight on your back?”

He often comes out with interesting tidbits like this – last week he brought up a really interesting article on what families around the world spend on groceries – so I wasn’t fazed; I just relaxed back on the table and waited for the adjustment to continue. However, he then pointed to the giant backpack sitting next to me. “That,” he said, “is more than 15 per cent.”

I was shocked at the scolding. I know that the backpack is WAY too heavy for me to carry on a daily basis, but I thought it was no one’s problem but mine. But my chiropractor pointed out that I was wrong, and insisted that, if I was going to carry my whole life around with me, he would at least try to get me a backpack with more padding and support from one of his suppliers. While he was concerned for my well-being, he also had another very valid concern: “I won’t have someone working with me carrying around a bag that isn’t ergonomically and neurologically sound.”

I was a walking, talking case of horrible PR.

This got me thinking of how working in PR is a two-way street. Your clients depend on you to uphold and enhance their reputation in the public eye, but what happens if your client does something that compromises the values your company stands for? As practitioners, how do we keep this from happening, and what to we do if it does?

Any thoughts?

Jan
21

When reading the Toronto Star this weekend, I came across an article on what is quite possibly the most adorable piece of technology ever: the XO laptop.

XO Laptop

While I was immediately enthralled with the little guy (and astonished by the fact that he’s only $188), I discovered that the computer is manufactured by One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, an organization founded by social entrepreneur Nicholas Negroponte. OLPC’s mission is to put an XO computer into the hands of as many children in developing countries as possible, giving them the same chance to develop their knowledge and creativity that other children get. In keeping with this goal, OLPC recently ran a “Give One, Get One” program in which people in the industrialized world could purchase the laptop, paying $400 to buy one for themselves and one for a child.

To me, this seems like the greatest idea of all time – the company is making a great product, and the sole reason for their existence is to bring technology to kids in need. It seems a concept like this would have no trouble getting media coverage, and what negative publicity could they possibly get?

Contrary to expectations, OLPC’s PR agency, Racepoint Group, has had to do a lot of legwork to get people to focus on the educational aspect of the project as well as the technological side of the equation. A recent Globe and Mail article mentions OLPC fears lots of people don’t seem to be getting the point:

“The group does worry that people might compare the XO with $1,000 Windows or Mac laptops. They might blog about their disappointment, thereby imperilling OLPCs continuing talks with Third World governments.

It’s easy to see how that might happen. There’s no CD/DVD drive at all, no hard drive and only a 7.5-inch screen. The Linux operating system doesn’t run Microsoft Office, Photoshop or any other standard Mac or Windows programs. The membrane-sealed, spillproof keyboard is too small for touch-typing by an adult.

And then there’s the look of this thing. It’s made of shiny green and white plastic, like a Fisher-Price toy, complete with a handle. With its two earlike antennas raised, it could be Shrek’s little robot friend.

And sure enough, the bloggers and the ignorant have already begun to spit on the XO laptop. “Dude, for $400, I can buy a real Windows laptop,” they say.

Clearly, the XO’s mission has sailed over these people’s heads like a 747.”

To combat this perception, Racepoint Group has put a lot of their time and effort into highlighting the moral purpose and educational aims of the program, and has concentrated on digital media in doing so; their OLPC case study boasts that their campaign has generated 5,000 stories in traditional print media, but 20,000 blog postings (although they don’t indicate what proportion of these were positive). They have also made the main source of new information about the XO OLPC’s wiki, making it easily accessible to heavy web users.

While the case of the XO highlights the rapidly growing influence of the blogosphere, it also demonstrated to me that no idea is so good that it doesn’t need PR. Even with an organization like One Laptop Per Child, people can always get the wrong impression. But hopefully, with Racepoint’s continued efforts, dissenters will realize what Nicholas Negroponte has been saying all along:

“This is an education project, not just a laptop project. If you take any world problem – peace, the environment, poverty – the solution to that problem certainly includes education. And if you have a solution that doesn’t include education, then it’s not a real solution at all.”