On December 2nd I had the opportunity to provide input for CTV Vancouver’s televised news story of Meng Wanzhou’s open letter on her one year anniversary of house arrest. While Peak Communicators specializes in spokesperson training and crisis communications management, we have no association with Huawei or Ms. Wanzhou.
From afar it is apparent to me that she has started working with a communications firm to help make Meng more sympathetic and gain public support for her. Here is what I see:
During the first half of 2019, any time Ms. Wanzhou was on her way to and from the courthouse, she was following her lawyer’s advice. She wore conservative clothing; muted colours (grey and/or black). She kept her head down, eyes to the ground and did not engage with anyone. She showed no emotion.
Before and after – Meng Wangzhou’s makeover
This fall 2019 there was a dramatic adjustment. Ms. Wanzhou was stepping out in colourful dresses and often sparkly stilettos. Was she going to a party? No, same court appearances with her lawyers, but now she looked neighbors and the media in the eyes. She laughed in conversation, smiled and thanked onlookers for their support. She was looking like a happy Vancouverite, open and accessible.
In late September 2019, a British tabloid (the Daily Mail) suggested Ms. Wanzhou was wearing sparkling $675 Jimmy Choo shoes. No doubt to draw attention to the unsightly ankle monitor on her left leg.
Meng Wanzhou’s sparkly shoes and her unflattering ankle monitor
This past weekend, Ms. Wangzhou posted an open letter to Canadians. She had help with it.
“Every time I appear in court, a crowd waits outside. Your passion and support have always warmed my heart . . . My dear friends, your warmth is a beacon that lights my way forward, and I appreciate it more than words can say.”
So why the image makeover? It is all about the court of public opinion. The USA – China politics are messy. By showing Meng as a likeable, well-dressed Vancouverite who is warm and approachable, she is no longer a villain or a sullen victim. She now presents as a positive, more likeable person.
Much easier to feel sorry for her – much like Canadians feel upset with the detained Canadian pawns Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Canada has been a supportive neighbor to the USA by holding Ms. Wangzhou for the past year. But this is starting to get tiresome.
While Liberal deputy John Manley suggested a prisoner exchange with China – it is unlikely to happen. Interesting to see how this plays out in the new year.
Ross Sullivan comments on Meng Wanzhou’s open letter and image for CTV News Vancouver
The opportunity to provide input for CTV Vancouver’s televised news coverage of Sportsnet firing long-time Hockey Night in Canada Coach’s Corner commentator Don Cherry brings to mind my first career as a news broadcaster followed by a career in public relations specializing in spokesperson training and crisis communications management.
Peak on CTV: Alyn Edwards comments Don Cherry’s firing
You have to watch what you say – particularly in this era of instant internet communication.
Don Cherry did himself in – twice.
His ‘you people’ comment aimed at immigrants who don’t purchase poppies to honour Canada’s soldiers, including those who made the supreme sacrifice, was grounds for termination.
But his refusal to apologize was the double whammy. He had to go.
When you mess up, you fess up and then you dress up.
And those who are first out with the information control the message.
Don Cherry did neither.
The day after his dismissal, which took place on Remembrance Day, Cherry seemed unsure of what he had said and took the long way around to say possibly he could have rephrased his rant.
The opportunity to fess up and dress up had clearly passed. The axe had fallen.
Co-host of Coach’s Corner Don Maclean wasted no time in doing the full faceplant mea culpa apology. He needed to do that because he appeared to be nodding in agreement with Cherry’s rant and gave a big thumb’s up when the diatribe ended.
People make mistakes, sometimes say things they don’t mean or phrase things poorly leading to huge misunderstandings.
It’s what they do about it that is remembered.
People won’t forgive and forget without an apology.
Don Cherry made his second mistake when he refused to do that… and the rest is history.
When Langley Memorial Hospital opened in 1948, it was, essentially, a country hospital.
Langley was a small town, dwarfed by Vancouver and its neighbouring communities.
No one could have seen its exploding population coming.
Seventy years later, the hospital announced that it would build a new emergency department. The Langley Memorial Hospital Foundation launched a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign in May, and enlisted Peak’s help.
It’s been an outstanding project. The new emerg is needed, badly. The current facility is too small, too cramped, awkwardly designed and, as you can imagine, isn’t capable of handing the new Langley. We were able to draw attention to this critical undertaking, and felt we served a small but important role in the campaign launch.
At the initial news event, two big donors were announced. One family gave $2 million, and then a $5-million donor was unveiled. The assembled guests were wowed. Even the usually skeptical media was impressed – and we were able to attract media that wouldn’t normally be interested in a regional hospital.
Six weeks after the launch, we were at it again. The foundation was set to name its latest donor – the Langley Memorial Hospital Auxiliary. What could we do with that?
This is where effort needs to fight perception. After all, at a glance, we had a vision of what a hospital auxiliary is. They’re those blue-haired ladies, right? The ones who give you directions when you arrive at a hospital, who run the gift shop that has all the stuffies and balloons. Don’t they wear frocks? I think they wear frocks.
What sort of story is this?
Turns out, one heck of a story. Over the course of a quarter-century, Langley’s auxiliary has given about $10 million to the hospital. They have a wildly successful thrift store in town, and they’re a beast of an organization, with more than 200 volunteers and a highly committed base whose roots go back at least a century, to volunteer organizations that preceded the hospital.
At first, we didn’t think a $1.5-million donation would grab much attention when we’d already announced $7 million in one fell swoop. We certainly didn’t think media would be very interested in telling the story of the auxiliary.
Like I said, it turned to be a heck of a story. We met Diane Thornton, the longtime past-president. And Thelma Boileau, the current president. Thelma and Diane. Thelma and Diane. Hmmmm, sounds almost familiar. A couple of driven, independent women.
And when I spoke to Diane, this was the first thing she told me: “We have changed. We’re no longer a bunch of little old ladies knitting toilet roll covers. We’ve come a long way.”
That sure made the pitch a whole lot easier. This isn’t the auxiliary you’ve got in your head, we said. This is a serious kick-ass bunch, who know what they want and get it. Who wouldn’t want to tell that story?
That’s exactly what happened. CBC and CKNW. The Province. Pretty much every TV station in town. All telling the story about this powerful, motivated, altruistic group.
And so, the simplest of reminders: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or, uh, its toilet roll cover.
You’re a fundraising organization and you’d like to draw attention to the events you’ve organized.
This won’t be easy.
If anything makes media yawn, it’s another charity doing another walk to raise money.
Whether that makes sense or is simply callous, it’s a fact. It’s exactly what happens in a newsroom – they get pitched pretty much every day about those sorts of initiatives, and are often invited to write about the event based on, frankly, uninspiring hooks.
There are so many of them, it’s understandable so many get deleted. It’s hard to tell one from another. And the excuse for not biting is an easy one: “We get these pitches every single day. If we’re going to say yes to one, we’re going to have to say yes to all of them.”
Look, you and I both know that’s not true. Media doesn’t have to say yes to all of them. But they’ll say yes if — and here’s the big if — there are compelling stories to tell.
So when our longtime client, the Alzheimer Society of B.C., asked us to pitch the 2018 Investors Group Walk for Alzheimer’s – 23 fundraising walks around the province on May 6 – we couldn’t help but feel challenged. The society planned to honour longtime volunteers, or others who’ve been impacted by Alzheimer’s, at each site. If you think charity events are a tough thing to pitch, how about volunteerism? In both cases, absolutely worthy. In both cases, media usually shrugs.
How, then, did we do it? By investing time. Effort. Delving into the subject. Getting to know people. And becoming emotionally involved with our client’s story.
The society wanted us to pitch Michele Buchignani and her parents, Reg and Sally. They were, no doubt, keen and experienced volunteers. Reg’s mother had had Alzheimer’s. Reg came to the society for help, for guidance. And 30 years later, he’s still giving his time. So is Michele, who’s had her boots on the ground as a volunteer as well as being the past chair of the board of directors.
We knew we needed more than the volunteer angle. So we invited Michele to Peak’s offices one Friday afternoon. We sat her down and said: “Tell us about your grandma. Take us back to when she was healthy. What was she like?” And just like that, Michele brought her grandma back to life. It was really something: funny in places, sad in others. Mary Buchignani was a strong woman of tremendous character and personality – and then she wasn’t. Michele learned a lot, watching her grandma’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s. It led to her getting involved, becoming an advocate.
After an hour in our boardroom, we knew we had at least one great story. We had someone with lived experience who had the personal story, but also could deliver the key messages – the walks, the fundraising, the need for increased awareness about and support for people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones – in succinct and effective ways. Listening to Michele, we knew she would make a compelling TV or radio talk show guest.
From there, our task was simple: Sell Michele. And determine what the other best stories were. We had a planner from the City of New Westminster who’s not only been working on New West becoming B.C.’s first dementia-friendly community but also has a father who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; a couple who’ve had a long life together, filled with affection and love, and the disease won’t steal those things from them; and a 69-year-old woman, several years into her diagnosis, who decided she wanted to go skydiving. Fantastic stories of different types. All meaningful. All human.
We went into this project knowing it would be a challenge. But when we take on a project, we always find a way to get media results. It’s where Peak has earned its reputation. So we landed the major media, from the Vancouver Sun to Global TV to CBC Radio and CKNW. And the regional media, who told those powerful stories about people who live in their area. We had a client in the Alzheimer Society of B.C. that was passionate and communicative and positive, and we were able to help successfully convey their chief messages time and time again.
When it was all over, the event was behind us and we all knew so much more about Alzheimer’s, we were able to say to the client: We can keep getting you, and the work you’re doing, attention. And we don’t need the walk to do it.
Having a clear direction or end goal to your social media plan is key to determining your strategy and how you measure your return on investment (ROI). To set this up, you need to understand your company’s overall business goals, as well as their marketing / PR objectives. Ideally, a social media plan plays a part in achieving your company’s overall business goals (eg. increasing ticket sales, generating online transactions on an e-commerce website, or breaking into a new market).
Create a content calendar
Keeping your social media accounts active with relevant and quality content is key to being noticed in densely populated platforms. More than 60 million businesses worldwide now have a Facebook page, and each and every one of them are aiming to grow their following. A social media content calendar is an easy way to organize your content strategy and ensure that your company is publishing new (and relevant) ideas regularly.
To judge how well your social strategy is working, monitor the activity around your accounts and listen to how audiences are engaging with you. Firstly though, make sure you know what you know what you want to listen for. There are approximately 6,000 tweets sent in the twitter world every second, so understanding the language around an issue will make it quicker and easier to find the relevant ones.
Using social media listening tools helps you understand what is being said about your business, your brand, and popular topics within your industry. You can even listen in on what your competitors are saying, how they are engaging with their followers, who their followers are, and how their followers are responding to their content.
Now that you’re listening and monitoring your conversations, don’t forget the most important part of social media — engagement. Social media is a powerful communications tool and has revolutionized the way business and brands reach their customers / stakeholders. Engaging with your followers or audience goes towards boosting your brand and reputation in the social sphere.
Analytics and Reporting
Arguably, the most important part of any social media plan is the analytics and reporting. The only way to show value in your social media plan is to demonstrate ROI. For example, if your social media goal is to drive traffic to your website, keep track of these numbers using Google Analytics. Try your best to track absolutely everything based on what your ROI would look like. Report on what social users like and don’t like. Generating reports periodically will help you evaluate your social strategy on an ongoing basis, and guide you to tweaking it so you can achieve your social goals.
It was a brief encounter, only a few seconds, typical of an election campaign when a busy leader meets a non-supporter at a public event and brushes them aside. Liberal leader Christy Clark abruptly terminated a conversation with a retiree named Linda as Clark walked though the Lonsdale Quay. It was captured by media following the election. #IamLinda was born.
An error by zealous Liberal party members to try to make it look like Linda was an NDP plant resulted in a backlash and #IamLinda went viral. As the campaign wore on, while it was considered an embarrassing moment, few pundits thought it would have much impact when there were other larger issues for the electorate to consider. On election night, the Liberal incumbent in the North Van Lonsdale was soundly defeated and the BC Liberals came up one seat short of a majority.
There is a risk in giving too much credit to a single event, even one which goes viral however there are PR lessons in this that go beyond politics.
Everyone is watching and they have the evidence. The safest assumption for a politician, a company or an individual is that everything you do is being observed and recorded. Incidents take on global implications when captured on a cell phone camera. Airlines forcibly removing passengers may have resulted in a letter to the editor 20 years ago. Now everyone sees the evidence and the damage is ongoing.
Small events become big ones if you miss handle them. #IamLinda shows how a very minor incident can be made much worse if it is mishandled. These types of encounters happen every time a politician from any party goes out in the public and it almost never gets reported. But when unfounded accusations are made against a citizen expressing an opinion it becomes social media news even if Linda doesn’t want it to go that far.
Swift corrective action is necessary. It took six days for BC Liberals to admit their allegations were wrong. That is nearly one-quarter of the election campaign. Finding a picture on the internet of Linda and an NDP politician is not evidence of anything more than a citizen who is interested in politics. Jumping to a wrong conclusion and not correcting it immediately made matters many times worse.
When things go viral – an apology is the best course of treatment. Social media spreads information like a virus and it spreads negative information faster and farther. United Airlines problems became a global pandemic. In an election campaign you can’t be sure about the damage until the votes are counted. For a business you don’t know until you start adding up your sales. Time is not your friend. The old adage time heals is now only true if you put the apology Band-Aid on the wound.
Information is permanent and access is democratic (for the most part). This is a lesson which we will see played out in the coming weeks. Normally after an election the platform, the policies of a party are soon forgotten only to be resurrected in election attack ads four years later. A minority government keeps those principles front and centre. A minority government is by its nature is one of compromise. Principles often move aside in favour of doing something “for the good of the province.” This presents a danger to the Greens who doubled their vote, and tripled their seat count. They have momentum but on the big visible issues they are not in alignment with either major party. This is what makes the coming weeks so fascinating. The Greens principles and vision is there for all to see and any compromise, even for the good of the province can easily be misunderstood. The hashtags are probably already being written.
Most of the world now knows about the “United Airlines incident” after a video of a 69-year-old passenger being forcibly removed from his seat went viral earlier this week.
The video, shot from another passenger’s phone, showed clearly the screaming man being dragged down the aisle, leaving him bloodied and terrified – along with the over- booked flight of witnesses.
Within hours of the video being captured, #United was the leading hashtag worldwide on Twitter. Even in China, where Twitter and Facebook don’t exist, more than 97,000 comments had been recorded on one Weibo post by the end of the day, along with a new hashtag #Chineselivesmatter.
Following the Twitter (and Weibo) eruption of the United Airlines incident, we’re reminded us just how vital a solid social media communications strategy is to any business, particularly in the event of a crisis.
When a crisis does hit a business, social media excels as a way to spread news in a quick and efficient manner. Bad news will always travel fast, and these days it’s likely to gain traction on social platforms before the traditional media get to it. It’s important to have steps in place to manage reaction in the midst of a social media storm and how monitoring early warning alerts of any change in volume or sentiment around your brand will give your team a chance to prepare for what’s coming.
When tackling a social media crisis, I believe there are 5 essential steps that need to be included in any PR plan:
Even if you can’t predict what might set off a social media meltdown, the steps you will need to take are the same: Respond, reassure, research, respond again, and react. Your plan needs to state how you will do this within the tight time demands of social media. Who gets notifications? Who can access the Twitter account? How slow is your approval process? Who has final sign off? Contact details for spokespeople? Have pre-approved statements available, this will make the reaction process far more manageable.
Every business should have social and media monitoring set up to capture what is being said about its brand so that if there’s a spike in negativity, or an emerging issue, you can react instantly. Frankly, a Google alert isn’t really sufficient. For effective monitoring, you need to pin point what it is you want to listen for. There are 6000 tweets sent every second, so understanding the language around an issue will make it quicker and easier to find the relevant ones. Successful monitoring should include daily reporting, early warning alerts if there is a change in volume or sentiment, or mentions from highly influential critics.
Prepare your posts.
When something happens, you need to be out, publicly, with a response in about 10 minutes. Have a holding tweet at the ready, or a post that acknowledges that something has happened – even if you can’t give out specifics, being the first to acknowledge a situation can go a long way. Even a post that says “We understand an incident has occurred. We are finding out more information and will update in 10 minutes” is better than nothing.
Pick your platform.
Twitter is the place for breaking news. Facebook is the place for connecting and seeking feedback. Instagram should not be used anywhere near a corporate crisis. Understanding the difference of your social media platforms and having sufficient followers to ensure you can engage when needed is important.
Respond swiftly and carefully.
It is essential that in any situation involving your business, you are the first person to weigh in and that you have the right information on hand. If you do something wrong admit, apologize, and accept responsibility. The sooner you do, the less likely that your original stuff up will spiral out of control. It’s important to not add fuel to the fire. Understand how your situation is being reacted to on social media and plan your responses accordingly. Even if you do believe your actions are justified, pause to think about how they are perceived.
Chances are, your business is not in the habit of dragging people out of plane seats while being filmed on a smartphone, but there are lessons in United’s response for everyone.
At its core, public relations are about storytelling and now more than ever brands need to have a powerful and compelling story to engage and mobilize their audiences.
The trouble is, storytelling has its limitations. In today’s saturated communications marketplace, where information is digested in smaller sizes and competing against more channels, the ability for a story to engage and retain an audience is becoming increasingly difficult. Furthermore, technology has expanded the ability of audiences to digest information, so brands must find a more meaningful means to deliver a coherent and credible message.
Moving beyond storytelling
Brands today must move beyond segmented campaigns and episodic storytelling and develop a narrative, an central thematic that is the basis of the brand’s identity and strategy. A foundational idea that encompasses and forms all areas of a brand’s engagement across its myriad of channels and stakeholders, be it employees; consumers, traditional media, social influencers, policy makers, etc. A company’s narrative should tell everyone what it stands for and offers an idea for those stakeholders to connect with and align behind.
Today, public relations, corporate relations, publicists and marketers are all competing to engage the same audiences through more integrated means – paid, earned, social and owned – meaning that messaging needs to be not only engaging but also consistent across the various streams, and most important of all, in real time.
Brands must lead conversations
Digital and social media platforms have changed the way brands engage with their audiences. Communication no longer flows in a single direction; audiences are now feeding back to companies on a constant basis. Brands must now lead “conversations”, interacting with their audiences in real time, which has quantifiable impact on their reputation.
Proactively driving engagement is now an absolute. While engaging with audiences across these various channels, brands need to utilize a coherent narrative, one that provides clarity and consistency of that engagement. The ability to communicate a compelling, inclusive and consistent narrative has the power to inspire, energize and mobilize an audience in ways our industry never thought possible.
How to develop a strong narrative
Have a real understanding of the brand’s purpose and its values. Consumers today are more value driven than ever before. How a company is trying to achieve its objective, is as important as what it is trying to achieve. Ensure your narrative seeks to explain what the brand stands for and what is it is seeking to achieve.
The narrative must be relatable and easy to explain. To maintain the attention of audiences, a narrative cannot be bogged down in jargon. A strong narrative is based on fact and is not only persuasive but also easily repeatable.
Be inclusive and insightful. Narratives need to evoke an emotional connection and invite participation. It presents an idea for an audience to believe in, support, and ultimately recommend.
In our hyper-completive, over-saturated communications environment, being able to portray a potent and authentic narrative has the power to genuinely connect with an audience, inspire them to action, and lead them on a journey.
Take the case of the Sunshine Coast Health Centre, a well-respected addiction treatment centre in Powell River where 20-year-old Brandon Jansen died of a fentanyl overdose last March. The centre was getting a lot of bad publicity with family members saying it was easy for Brandon to get contraband drugs within three days of entering treatment.
But investigations by both the RCMP and the regulator – Vancouver Coastal Health’s Community Care Facilities Licensing authority – determined there were no contraventions of rules and regulations.
In fact, the facility had consistently maintained a low risk rating with no other critical incidents or any drug-related incidents reported since the facility was first licensed in 2004. Yet, the centre’s reputation was taking a beating.
CEO Melanie Jordan has much to say about what treatment is – and what it isn’t. Addiction treatment centres are not prisons or lockup. Clients have rights and freedom.
Accredited staff members treat people for many types of addictions including alcoholism and prescription drugs abuse. Root causes of addiction are addressed including mental health and physical issues. Melanie Jordan wanted to speak publicly about the tragic death in her facility and have a voice in the search for solutions to stop the unprecedented number of deaths caused by fentanyl.
She enthusiastically embraced the concept of being front and centre at a news conference to be held November 14th. A Media Advisory was sent out inviting reporters and videographers to attend.
As the news conference got underway, news cameras quickly swung to the doorway where three visitors had appeared: Brandon Jansen’s mother Michelle, her son Nicholas and her lawyer.
They politely listened as the news conference went forward with Melanie Jordan providing reporters with the written investigation reports that found her centre was operating within the regulations.
But her most important message was aimed at the government and the medical profession.
Staff at the centre had not been permitted to administer the opiate antidote naloxone and it was possible that could have saved Brandon’s life.
Since Brandon’s death, the centre has received permission to train staff to administer naloxone and the staff physician can treat clients with Suboxone that takes away the craving for opiates.
With more than a dozen news organizations present at the news conference, this important information was received by the public across Canada. The record was set straight. The way forward was articulated. The news went out – all at once.
And the voice of Brandon Jansen’s family was also heard. They held their own media briefing following the news conference so as much information as possible surrounding this tragic death would be in the public forum.
Melanie Jordan and the Sunshine Coast Health Centre have standing at an inquest into Brandon Jansen’s death scheduled for January. This will be another forum where voices will be heard.
As we usher in 2017, the impact of digital and social media is only going to continue to grow. As digital news is more instant, searchable and accessible, more and more people are gravitating to the online world and using social channels to find content specific to their interests. Newsrooms also shrank in 2016, allowing for less specialized journalists and the rise of influencers. So what do we foresee coming ahead for 2017? Below is a list of what to look for and how to prepare for it.
Finding authentic advocates who already connect with your followers, and who are within your brand’s target audience, will increasingly become the best option for earned media. How do we prepare for this? Start doing some research into which influencers reach your target audience, and reach out to them. Figure out what they like and what they post, and tailor pitches to meet their needs.
Contributor marketing and thought leadership will grow
As audiences trust influencers more and more, it will be integral to build thought leadership for your brand, positioning yourself as an influencer in your field. If the audience feels that your brand/spokesperson is a subject matter expert in the product/service you are offering, you will remain top of mind.
Further, as newsrooms continue to shrink, a trend we have seen for the past few years, more content will be created by contributors who are thought leaders in their field. With less staff to conduct research and dedicate time to individual stories, many news teams are also looking for expert advice in their pieces. Positioning yourself as a thought leader will not only allow for earned media coverage and brand recognition, it will allow you to influence how the story is told.
Visuals will become a necessity
Over the past year we saw a rise not only in social media, but in live video. Snapchat (or Snap Inc. as it’s now referred to) became a force to be reckoned with and Facebook Live and Instagram Stories were born. As live video exploded in 2016, we can only see it continuing to dominate conversations this year as more news moves to the Internet. In an era of information overload, brands will have to provide content that is simple to grasp, personable and compelling enough to capture the short attention span of the audience today. That can be done most efficiently through strong visuals and live video. Videos and visuals are also easily shared through social media, allowing for a wider reach.
Facts and case studies are a must
If there was one lesson learned in 2016, it was that fake news will not be tolerated. With the many fake news scandals this past year, news outlets are going to be much more diligent about the information they put out. News stories are going to now be backed up by industry specialists, and articles are going to be written by contributors with knowledge in the specific area. Additionally, pitch notes are going to have to be supported by solid facts, and new products accompanied by user reviews and well researched case studies.
In 2017, news and online content will only become further curated for individual audiences. As a result, influencers will be the gatekeepers for brands, and content must be engaging and factual. Our advice? Brush up those social profiles, build strong relationships with influencers, establish a thought leadership program and create engaging, thoughtful and compelling content.