Friday, May 28, 2004

Labour of love

I just read PR veteran Douglas Armour's column on why PR professionals would want to work in non-profit organizations. Typically, the pay is sub-standard, the hours can be very long and you never have a proper budget, but many of us can't see themselves working in any other environment.

"The potential for taking on a larger role, having a larger impact, and gaining or sharing experience motivates many communicators to consider NPOs as a viable career option at every level of career experience," Harbour writes. Very true, although sharing experiences can be difficult in outfits where one person handles all communication work, including writing correspondence and changing the water cooler bottles.

For me, the greatest joy of working for a small-to-medium NPO is the short reaction time. Acquaintances working in the public service (depressed, bitter guys and gals in good suits) look at us in envy when we tell them how we can get out a news release in one hour. In most cases, our messages hit the airwaves a full half-day before their news release gets on Canada News Wire.

Working for a small NPO can be rewarding and a lot of fun. And once in a while, you get to hit the bad guys in the balls.

Francophones don’t like Tory Leader’s poutine

Stephen Harper’s brand new Conservatives hit their first major snag of the campaign after just four days. The blow came not from the ruling Liberals, but from francophone groups, who are understandably suspicious of the Reform/Alliance past Mr. Harper and many of his close collaborators.

Harper’s troops swore they wouldn’t get pictured as French-hating bigots this time, so they adopted the tactic of coming out with a strong pro-bilingualism position (although a hollow one) right on the second day of the campaign. “French will be a national priority for me”, said Harper during a campaign event in Quebec.

There, it’s settled. On to something else, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong.

There were enough nuances about “fair” and “sensible” bilingualism in Harper’s statements to make out-of-Quebec francophone groups suspicious, so he kept getting questions about the issue. Cracks in Harper’s message started to appear after 24 hours. Then the party’s Official Languages Critic, Scott Reid (Lanark-Carleton), made the national news after he told a reporter bilingualism should be limited to some areas where francophones are the more numerous. About half a million francophones would stop receiving services in their language from the federal government.

The whole thing forced Harper to sack Reid as Official Languages Critic and to elaborate on his own views on bilingualism. It turns out he too would cut support to smaller francophone communities after all. His earlier statement to make bilingualism a national priority now looks less like a promise than a threat.

PR lessons from all this?

1. If you’re going to boldly face a controversial issue, make sure everyone on your side sticks to the message.

2. If you use a message to hide an ugly truth, absolutely avoid prolonged media exposure.

3. If you screw up, it’s nice to have a sacrificial lamb handy.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

It sucked, but everyone did a great job

New York Times Editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson sent a memo to their newsroom staff saying it's not the reporter's fault if their publication printed false information about the situation in Iraq before the war. They were all "misled on a number of stories by Iraqi informants dealing in misinformation."

Let's see if I get this straight... So they were fed blatantly false information about weapons of mass destruction by the Iraqi National Congress, an organization that's been trying to get the U.S. to invade Iraq for years. There was no way anyone could verify the information, so the CIA, the White House, the New York Times and CNN all assumed it was true.

Now that it's clear most of those WMD claims were entirely fabricated by the INC, everyone's whining: but they lied to us! Not very mature. How about saying some people didn't do their jobs properly?

I'm as anxious as anyone to see INC's mouthpiece Ahmed Chalabi arrested, but don't you think many people were way too complacent?

It's never too soon to say it's too late

Limiting policy options to just a few choices (or no choice at all) is a time-honoured public relations technique. When you get people to believe that “my policy may be bad, but the alternatives are worse”, you’re doing pretty well. The nuclear energy industry, President Bush in Iraq and most dictatorships are all asking people to endorse their products as being better than chronic brownouts, more terrorism or revolution. The trick is to obscure the debate by pushing aside all reasonable options.

A slightly different twist is telling people that it’s actually too late to choose.

George Bush: It’s too late to change our minds about Iraq. If we pull out now, there will be a horrible civil war. We have a moral obligation to stay the course.

Big Oil and their cronies: It’s too late to sign the Kyoto agreements now that most countries have rejected it.

Big Oil and their cronies 2: Scientists say it’s too late to reverse global warming anyway. So why get wreck the economy too?

Interesting to see how the same people who put us in trouble in the first place then say it’s too late to do anything about it. But after all, public relations are a lot about avoiding responsibility.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Clean campaing

Speaking of the Federal election campaing, I've got to say the Bloc Québécois' slogan is a PR gem.

"Un parti propre au Québec". For those of you whose French is less than perfect, the sentence can be understood as meaning that it's a "clean" party, or that it's only in Québec, the only province where the Bloc is running candidates. It taps directly into the government's "adscam" credibility problems and the nationalist feelings of many Quebecers. Beautiful.

The blood pressure of Liberal candidates in Quebec is going to go through the roof every time they see a Bloc sign. Memo to campaing managers: time to practice those reanimation techniques.

The Bloc is riding high in the polls, they've got a great slogan and E-day is four days after the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations. What can possibly go wrong?

Oh yes, they've got Gilles Duceppe as leader...

Reporters are losing faith

Have you complained about crappy media work lately? Well, reporters too think the media isn't doing too well.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press just released polling numbers showing 45% of American national journalists think reporting is increasingly sloppy and error-prone. That's up from 30% in 1995.

They also say the profit motive is hurting coverage more than before, but that's no surprise considering the media concentration that's been going on in the U.S. (and Canada for that matter), especially in television. They also have less faith in the public's ability to make the right choices. That may simply be because many reporters don't like George W. Bush, right? Not that I blame them for that… Still, there you go: from the journalists' own point of view, they produce sloppy news for a public that can't think straight.

I think it's a safe bet we'd get similar numbers for Canada, even though we don't have Fox News to remind us of how lazy reporters get when they're asked not to think critically. Something to think about on this second day of the Federal election campaing.

The good Dr. Ball gets another hit for the big boys

This morning, the opinion pages of the Ottawa Citizen were graced with yet another letter from Dr. Tim Ball. For several years now, Dr. Ball has been busy writing to newspapers to say how evil the Kyoto Agreement on climate change is. Using his title as Professor of Meteorology, the good doctor has been telling us again and again that global warming either doesn't exist or is a perfectly natural phenomenon. This morning, he wants the public to punish the Liberal governement for taking measures to curb our use greenhouse gasses.

In 1996, Dr. Ball left his job at the University of Winnipeg for the more lucrative pursuit of scientific gun-for-hire ("environmental consultant"). It looks like he found a home at the American National Center for Public Policy Research, a Conservative front group supporting whatever initiatives their financial backers want them to endorse. Since 1997, one of their principal mandates has been to fight the environment movement in general and in particular, shoot down any regulation to decrease the emission of greenhouse gasses.

The good doctor is now earning his pay by giving conferences saying all those researchers and heads of state who believe human activity has an impact on climate are dangerous idiots. One can also see his handiwork on the Centre's website. And he writes letters to newspapers.

Tim Ball seems to have traded his professional pride - not to mention ethics! - for easy money and an invitation to play with the big boys.

He's just one of many, of course… Public relations professional know there's more and more of those scientists for sale on the market, trying to escape jobs with no prospect of advancement or to get funding for their pet projects. The journal Nature, a strong reference in scientific circles, had to completely change its article review process after it discovered many of the texts it published were essentially propaganda pieces disguised as legitimate scientific work.

So Mr. Ball's performance as a mouthpiece for Big Oil and Conservative think-thanks is rather disappointing. A more talented employee would get five-page articles in Nature, not four-paragraph letters in the Ottawa Citizen.

If he were working for me, it would be time for a salary review.