What Were They Thinking?

Olympic FlagHere at AHA, we’re big Olympic watchers (well, Paul is and he updates us… a lot). A few days ago, he missed the live coverage of the Opening Ceremony so he watched it later in the day on CBC’s Olympic website. The CBC coverage of the ceremony was hosted by Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge. At one point, Paul came into my office and said that something was weird – it seemed like the hosts’ microphones were live during what would have been the commercial breaks on television.

A little bit later he came in and said, “I don’t think they know the mics are hot during the breaks.” That really caught my interest. As communicators, we have all heard the horror stories of people who said things they shouldn’t have when not realizing that the microphones were still on.

I immediately went to see what was happening. With the exception of a couple of mild comments about Russian President Putin not receiving much applause, there wasn’t much to report. But it did get us talking, in the AHA office, about hot mics – along with conversations that happen in public that are overheard – and similar challenges that we face in the world of public relations and corporate communications.

Sure enough, as Paul watched further, at one point Mr. MacLean appeared surprised when he was advised through his earpiece that the mics were live during the breaks. Mr. Mansbridge also sounded a little taken aback by this news and responded – sounding mildly concerned – that he wasn’t sure what he had said during the breaks.

The fact is, they didn’t say anything shocking or negative during the commercial breaks, but they could have and many would have. If not knowing that the mic is on – and carrying all your conversation – can happen to professional broadcasters who have decades of experience, it can happen to you. (We tried to link to this video, but the Opening Ceremony’s full video appears to have been removed from the CBC Olympic site.) Maybe a producer or someone else made a mistake and left the microphones on; maybe they just forgot to tell the hosts. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the hosts didn’t know and that could have been an issue. PR professionals have lots of horror stories about clients not realizing their mic was on and picking up their comments.

On the other side of people hearing things they shouldn’t, there have been times when I have overheard incredibly private or confidential conversations in restaurants, pubs and even on airplanes. These were conversations that should have been kept behind closed doors. I have to admit that I eavesdrop a little when in public, but it isn’t hard to overhear a lot of things that should be kept private, even if you aren’t trying. It’s important to remember to have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place. And whispering just makes me pay more attention. And I have great hearing, just saying.

We always speak to our clients about this – especially during an issue or crisis. You never know who is beside or behind you when you are in public. In this day and age of smartphones with video cameras, you don’t know if you are being recorded. It pays to be a little paranoid. If something is confidential, it should be fully treated as such. If you tell even one person outside of the core circle of individuals that should/need to know, you are risking a breech of confidentiality and it could cause you grief. We all know the story about author J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym (when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling) being disclosed by a friend of her lawyer’s wife.

When we remind clients about microphones at events, we also bring up the fact that if they are being interviewed on camera or on the radio, they should assume that they are being taped, even if they think the interview is over. Sometimes it happens that the microphone is left on and everything you say, even if the journalist has left the room, is being recorded.

It’s important to think about what you are sharing in public and, if you are “mic’d up,” to act like that microphone is on until you get into your car and leave the event or interview. Sometimes, the walls really do have ears.

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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800px-Carnival_SplendorThere is a direct link between generating results for your organization – whatever that means to you (sales, engagement, response, behaviour change, perception change etc.) – and living your brand promise.

I had an interesting experience over the weekend that so clearly showed the importance of customer service and how it supports PR and the brand promise, that I want to tell you about it. We are cruisers. While we might not meet the stereotype of a cruiser, we have taken quite a few cruises – in the Mediterranean, to Mexico, in the Caribbean.

Now, it’s pretty clear that the cruise industry has been challenged over recent years – the Costa Concordia tragedy, several ships having issues out at sea, dealing with norovirus, and other serious challenges. The industry is in desperate need of some good PR. Even as I wrote this blog post, there was more negative news coverage of the cruise industry.

This past weekend, I got a call from Chris, our “personal cruise consultant” from Carnival Cruise Lines – a cruise line we have sailed with in the past (the last time was probably five years ago). It was at the end of the day on Friday and I was a little bored, so I took the call. Chris was knowledgeable, engaging and professional and he came across as a nice guy who authentically wanted to help us find a cruise vacation that we would enjoy – at a good price. And his enthusiasm was contagious. I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes or so and he gave me some good options for a Caribbean cruise. We had no plans for any cruise at this point, but he engaged me – and he had some great promotional offers for us as past cruisers. By the time I hung up the phone, I was thinking about taking one of the cruises he had offered.

On the flip side of that, we have also cruised with Norwegian Cruise Lines and several other cruise lines (some five star, some budget, some in the middle). We book ships based on the ports they visit – so we have hopped around a bit between cruise lines.

I am planning a bucket list trip of the British Isles and likely Ireland and Scotland, for my dad and his wife. Once cruising was in my mind, I wondered if maybe Norwegian had some love for me, so I called them. In trying to find the right person to speak to, I was put on hold for 45 minutes. (I have to say, the first person who took the call was very good and tried to help.) I finally gave up. An hour later, I got a call from someone at Norwegian who said they had seen that I was on their website and they asked what could they do to help get me on that cruise I was looking at. They didn’t mention that I had called and had been put into “on hold hell” – with Norwegian audio ads cycling over and over – just that I was on their website. I explained my issue and the person did the surface “I am so sorry for your inconvenience” but they still couldn’t help me access whether I would qualify for the specific promotions I was asking about. It was not their department.

By now, we had received an e-mail from Chris at Carnival outlining what we would receive through the promotion, a link to the ship’s layout and some additional information on the cruise. A nice touch, especially on a cold, gloomy winter day in January when the thought of sun, surf and sand was quite appealing. It tipped us into deciding to take the Carnival cruise.

We booked with Carnival and it was because of the exceptional customer service and follow up by Chris. I know he is there to sell me a cruise, but he made it fun and easy and he hit all of the right notes with me (five amazing ports in a seven-day cruise). It helped that he had some nice promotions to offer. Good for Carnival for giving him the tools he needs to do his job well. I now have a sense of loyalty to him – and Carnival – because he made me feel like we were important past guests and he wanted to do whatever he could to bring us back to the Carnival family.

As for Norwegian, I called them again on Monday because I wanted to know how long it would really take to get someone to talk to me about the British Isles cruise (Carnival doesn’t have a British Isles itinerary). I finally got to the right person at the promotions desk and they told me that since it had been 18 months since I had taken a cruise with them, I was not eligible for any of the specific promotions I was asking about. My slate, so to speak, had been wiped clean. Interesting – it had been much longer than 18 months since I had been on a Carnival cruise, but they wanted me back and were offering some pretty sweet incentives to interest me in returning!

I thanked the person and hung up the phone a little surprised and disappointed. Clearly, Norwegian isn’t trying to woo me back as a past cruiser. Then – two hours later, I got a call AGAIN from another Norwegian “personal cruise representative” trying to get me on a cruise! I explained that I had already talked to someone and I got the “I am so sorry ma’am” talk and then the “that’s a different department” excuse. Not once did Chris from Carnival try to put me off to another department – so good on Carnival for giving their team the ability to be what I need from a cruise specialist. On Tuesday, Norwegian called again – another different “personal cruise representative” wanted to talk to me about my cruise interests. Obviously, no one at Norwegian puts any notes on a person’s file so that they will know who has called or what the feedback has been.

Carnival will need to keep up with delivering on their brand promise on the cruise – and I am interested to see what they will do in this area. However, I can say that in my experience this weekend with my interaction with Carnival, they walked the talk. All of the advertising, marketing or PR in the world won’t work unless the person who your customer, client or stakeholder connects with delivers on your brand promise. Every interaction – from what the president of the organization does when he or she is in line for their daily coffee, to how the customer feels they are being treated through the sales process, to the actual experience you have with what you have purchased or contracted for, has to reflect the brand promise. Chris from Carnival completely delivered on their brand promise – he made it fun, he made it easy, and by living the brand promise, he got us to book a cruise that wasn’t even in our minds before he called. He got results. He re-engaged us with the Carnival brand and he earned my loyalty.

I am now telling people that I think Carnival gets it right – without having been on a ship in about five years; I have re-engaged with their brand and have become an ambassador for them. In fact, I have put it out to several of my friends that they should come on this cruise with us. It’s that straightforward – if your employees bring your brand promise to life with each interaction with a customer or client, you get results.

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TorontoI was born and raised in downtown Toronto. As much as I love the West Coast (and I really do), Toronto will always be my hometown. I have been watching the saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford develop – or perhaps I should say unwind – for quite some time now. The most recent development added to the allegations of crack use is now rumours of one of the people in the video having been murdered. This sounds more like the plot of a made-for-TV movie than reality, but it’s real.

Not only has this issue (which I think has actually morphed into a full-blown crisis) created challenges for the people working at City Hall, but Toronto has now become the fodder for late night TV hosts – you can see Jimmy Kimmel’s take on it here. I have to admit, it’s pretty funny. However, from a communications standpoint, you never want to see your boss, client, organization or colleague mocked by the media. Keep in mind that it’s no longer just a few minutes of ridicule by Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and others – it now lives on forever online. And I would bet there are now several investigative reporters digging further into this story – and others concerning Ford – and we will start to see a lot more in the next few days.

From a communications perspective, I don’t think I have seen many better examples of how not to handle an issue or a crisis. Start with the fact that it took Ford a week to respond to allegations regarding the existence of a video that showed him smoking crack cocaine. A week. That left a great deal of time for people to speculate on whether or not it was true – and the fact is, it’s human nature to fill in the gaps. If you don’t provide accurate information, people will create theories, speculate and come up with their version of what could have happened – which, after a few times of talking it through, starts to feel like – in their minds – what really happened.

When Ford did respond, he said: “I do not use crack cocaine.” He declined to comment on the video, which he said he had “never seen” or “does not exist.” Hmmmm… rather than come out and clearly refute crack cocaine use (using words like, “I have never used crack cocaine and will never use crack cocaine.”), he skirted around words. As for the video, if it’s true, he could have said: “Since I have never used crack cocaine, there is no possibility that the alleged video could exist.” Of course, had Mayor Ford just taken a drug test, all of this would have been put to rest quickly. But he did none of the key things necessary to effectively manage an issue or a crisis.

He fired his Chief of Staff and, yesterday, word came out from City Hall that two more senior staff had resigned – both communications people. That sends a clear message. I don’t know these communications professionals at all – not even by name. But I can tell you, in my experience, when one communicator leaves in the middle of a crisis, you start to wonder what is going on behind closed doors. When two leave – well, it signals something pretty big. I know the only reason I would leave during an issue or a crisis is if: a) the client was not listening to me at all; or b) I felt that my ethics or integrity were being violated.

In my next blog post, I will talk about what you can do during an issue or a crisis.

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I have been thinking about how much I should share here about the issue that my stepmother is facing with H&R Block. And then I realized that this is a live case study of poor public relations by H&R Block; so let’s dive in.

I’ll start off with the fact that the person who did my stepmother’s tax return was inept and clearly not experienced or skilled enough for the job. While this professional incompetence has absolutely nothing to do with PR, it does lead right into the controversy that started because of an ad campaign by Intuit (parent company of TurboTax). The ads showcased how horrified people were when they realized that the person who prepared their tax return also worked as a plumber or a retail sales clerk. Check out the commercial accompanying this blog post. Here’s another.

H&R Block went to court and tried to “block” the ads. That failed. They then attempted a push back with a social media campaign with #IAMHRBLOCK that featured snapshots of its tax-preparing “professionals” holding up signs – many of which said what they did for a living… It’s quite the list: air traffic controller, Zumba instructor, a guy who owns a power washing company… not quite the kinds of people that you would expect to have the skills, education and experience necessary to understand the complex world of tax returns. (I’m not saying that some of them don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge; it’s just that when you hear the words “tax expert” – you don’t think of the guy who power washes your house.)

While there are some with day jobs that are more closely aligned with what we would expect from someone who calls themselves a “tax expert” – what I want to know is when a person like my stepmother sits down to have her taxes prepared at H&R Block, does that person disclose what their real job is? I love my Zumba instructor, but I wouldn’t want her to do my taxes.

Today, I am reaching out to Intuit President and CEO Brad Smith. Perhaps TurboTax will want to launch a new campaign, showcasing people like my stepmother who are the casualties here – the “regular” people that H&R Block swears it serves, but who are completely abandoned by H&R Block once they get their hands on their fees. I can see the hashtag now: #IAMHRBLOCKED.

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