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.
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.
Predominantly in retail, music, ticketing and technology
I have spent much of my career working in communications agencies in London, account managing fully integrated campaigns and media pitching for five to 10 clients at any one point. Hallmark clients include Nokia/Microsoft Mobile, Canada Goose, Puma, Casio G-SHOCK, Amazon and Patagonia.
Leeds Metropolitan University – BA Hons (2:1) Marketing and Public Relations
Working annually at fundraising events for Medical Detection Dogs (UK). A charity that trains dogs to detect changes in an individual’s personal odor triggered by their disease (Cancer, Diabetes and others).
If you were going to write an autobiography, what would it be called?
There and back again: An intrepid look into the soul of an English fella.
Landing a national primetime broadcast slot for my client by hijacking the viral sensation of the blue or gold dress debate.
Favourite part of Peak life
Bouncing ideas off my colleagues and seeing if it sticks or what comes back.
Favourite social media site
Instagram – it is experiencing such growth in the retail and brand sphere currently and also evolving influencer roles in the marketing mix.
Furthest flung place you’ve lived?
Favourite B.C. pastime
Skiing, climbing and enjoying the great outdoors.
Flipping and catching beer mats in one movement – my record is 27.
As a toddler I went wondering from a restaurant table in Spain – my parents found me sitting on Steffi Graf’s knee.
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.
Investment banking, finance and private equity, technology, real estate, telecommunications, mining and natural resources, corporate and retail.
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.
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Political Science and Government from Simon Fraser University
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
Was recognized in PR Week’s 2015 Power Book, which names that publication’s list of the most influential PR professionals around the world.
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.
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 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:
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?