Peak Communicators
December 4, 2019

Why the image makeover for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou?

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

November 15, 2019

The Firing of Legendary Sports Broadcaster Don Cherry Didn’t Need to Happen

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.

Crisis communications consultants live by two rules:

  1. When you mess up, you fess up and then you dress up.
  2. 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.

Crisis communications expert Alyn Edwards comments on the firing of Don Cherry for CTV News Vancouver
Peak’s Alyn Edwards comments on the recent firing of Don Cherry for CTV News Vancouver

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March 7, 2018

Shawn Hall

Specialties

Communications strategy; reputation and trust management; issues, crisis and change; training; media relations; social media management and governance; content development.

Sector experience

Newspaper reporter and editor; corporate communications, most recently national Director of Social and Media Relations for TELUS; PR consulting in sectors including real estate, aquaculture and food production, mining and resource development, biotech, technology and health care.

Education

BA in journalism.

Farthest flung city you’ve been to

Charlottetown, PEI, for the 1989 Scouts Canada Jamboree.

Favourite part of Peak life:

Collaborating with great clients.

Career highlight:

Taking on a New York hedge fund trying to disrupt TELUS’s merger of voting and non-voting shares into a single class in order to profit from short trades.

Favourite B.C. pastime:

Skiing, backpacking, camping with my Scout troop.

Favourite social media site:

LinkedIn.

Random fact:

I won third place in the Agassiz Fall Fair celebrity goat milking contest when I was editor of the local newspaper. The mayor and MLA beat me to the gold.

May 10, 2017

Did a hashtag cost the BC Liberals a majority government?

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.

April 12, 2017

Navigating through the social media storm

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:

  1. Plan ahead.

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.

  1. Listen.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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February 10, 2017

Want to reach everyone at once? Call a news conference

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.

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February 10, 2017

Want to reach everyone at once? Call a news conference

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.

November 25, 2016

How to Spot Fake Online News

As the world’s knowledge grows exponentially, the challenge to sort through the information clutter gets more difficult. We have been bombarded with fake online news stories that are sometimes difficult to differentiate from legitimate news.  A proliferation of fake online stories during the recent USA presidential election made decision making even more difficult for American voters, as they tried finding out the truth about who to vote for. Recently USA Today College posted a story on seven ways to spot fake news stories. It’s an important list that all online news consumers should remember.

Some of the seven ways are obvious but worth repeating. For example, check the date of the news story to make sure that it has not been repackaged or reposted, which is usually an attempt to generate new “clicks” and start the story trending. The original news story may in fact be true and accurate, but repackaged it may be taken out of context and turned into misinformation. Take a look at the publication date as soon as you load the story.

Check the source of the story and find out what other articles they have posted. Does it seem legitimate with a history of good posts or do most of their articles read like a checkout counter tabloid.  After that, do a quick Google search and see if any other legitimate news sources are running similar stories. If you can find it on www.cbc.ca or www.cnn.com  it’s probably real news. Another simple way to determine if a news story is fake is to do some fact checking and find out the source of any accompanying images. Websites like Snopes, Factcheck.org, and TinEye allow you to compare the information to the facts or determine where images, that often add great credibility to a story, come from.

Finally, don’t get trapped by Clickbait – headlines, stories, articles and images that are so funny, so scary or so frustrating that you feel compelled to read or even re-post. After a minute of reflection, ask yourself if this story is too funny or too scary to really be true.

There are other tools available to check news story sources, but it’s also important to use good common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism about anything you read from an online news source, at least until you are certain it is real and credible.

October 26, 2016

Timothy Cuffe

Sector experience

Investment banking, finance and private equity, technology, real estate, telecommunications, mining and natural resources, corporate and retail.

Career background

Prior to moving home to Vancouver and joining Peak, I spent 15 years in Asia, most recently as Head of Corporate Communications for Barclays, Asia Pacific. I started my career initially as a financial correspondent, before moving into banking, first on the trading desk at HSBC, and then joining what was then Barclays Capital in 2008.

Education

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Political Science and Government from Simon Fraser University

Career highlight

Joining Barclays only weeks after its purchase of Lehman Bros at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, and working to promote the firm as it was expanding its footprint of the business across Asia.

Favourite part of Peak life

The diversity. After 15 years working in finance it’s fantastic to work with such a wide array of clients from such different industries.

Favourite social media site

Twitter. The democratization of information has fundamentally changed the nature of how the world understands and views itself.

Furthest flung place you’ve lived? 

Tai Kok Tsui, Hong Kong

Random fact 

Was recognized in PR Week’s 2015 Power Book, which names that publication’s list of the most influential PR professionals around the world.

September 28, 2016

Skittles’ Tasteful Response

Every brand both dreams of it and dreads it. It’s the moment the company you represent goes viral and either ‘breaks the Internet’ or just breaks down. Two weeks ago, Skittles was put in this very situation as a result of Donald Trump Junior’s tweet comparing Skittles to Syrian refugees.

Skittles 2nd pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a Monday and 4:41 P.M. Enter stage right the on-duty social media coordinator for Skittles. Within a matter of hours, Mars’ colourful candy had become the top trending topic on Twitter. All eyes were on Skittles – my own included. What would they do, how long would it take to put together a response, get it approved internally and post it error-free under the pressure. Tweets of support flooded in as PR and social media professionals (and just generally nice people) empathized with the on-duty Skittle social media person, but the clock was ticking…

Skittles 3

 

 

 

 

Skittles had to make a decision – and quickly.

Skittles said what?

Instead of capitalizing on the situation, Skittles smartly stepped back from the situation. Hours later, the brand’s parent company responded from their global handle with:

Skittles 4

 

 

 

 

The response was short, simple, but perfect. It showed that Skittles was totally on top of taking charge of unexpected issues without turning them into reputational crises. While it can be tempting for brands to take full advantage from awkward viral situations, thinking of the bigger picture and how the story will play out is fundamental – especially when it involves politics, religion, disasters or emotive topics.

So what can brands and communicators takeaway from this?

  1. “Keep responses short, sweet and to the point”, Brian Bell manager brand PR, branded entertainment, and talent at Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
  2. Don’t overthink and complicate responses
  3. Avoid getting sucked into providing further commentary once you’ve released your statement
  4. Don’t self-promote or appear to capitalize on sensitive situations
  5. Emotion. Mars’ response demonstrated that they were human and not just a faceless corporate brand

Nice work Mars and social media Skittleperson!