April 3, 2014 by Massimo Bergamini

 InterChange Public Affairs president  Massimo Bergamini is Executive Director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Noted American economist Paul Romer once remarked that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste.

By that he meant that every once in a while an event comes along that shakes up the existing order and brings situations into enough focus for fresh consideration.

The recent decision by the Copenhagen Zoo to euthanize a healthy young giraffe and conduct a public necropsy of the animal before feeding its remains to their lions might not have constituted a crisis in the classic sense of the word for the global zoo community, but it certainly served to bring the role and practices of modern zoos into focus.

That event – and the subsequent culling of four healthy lions by the same zoo — caused a media firestorm in parts of Europe and in North America where accredited zoos have a different philosophical and scientific perspective on captive breeding and collection management.

Predictably, this was also grist for the mill of those ideologically opposed to the very existence of zoos.

But although isolated events such as these can foster extreme views on zoos and aquariums, they also create an important teachable moment for the accredited zoo community.

And seizing an opportunity to engage in a conversation on the role and place of the modern zoo in society may never have been more important than it is now.

When the Toronto zoo opened in 1974, the planet was losing one or two species a year. Today the world loses two to three species each day.

And what is most frightening is that this dramatic and accelerating loss of biodiversity hardly seems to make a ripple in the public consciousness.

What does it say about our society and our values as consumers of information that when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced last November that the Western Black Rhino – last seen in 2006 – was officially extinct, other than for a few online and specialized media outlets the story got no play?

Perhaps this is a result of growing urbanization and the loss of familial connections to nature. Perhaps it is a reflection of a society more and more attuned to digital connections and interactions as proxies for personal relations.

And perhaps that is what explains the growing belief among many in the anti-zoo community that zoos and aquariums are outdated artifacts and that today animals should tell their stories through digital technologies.

As if digital interactions can ever replace being able to see, smell, hear and touch an animal — what a frightening, alienating and dangerous vision of the natural world!

This is a  vision of the world that, while ostensibly grounded in conservationist and environmental principles,  is dangerously disconnected from reality.

The proponents of a world without zoos protest well and often but offer little in terms of concrete strategies and on the ground action to counter the reality of the growing human encroachment on natural habitats and accelerating loss of biodiversity.

Today, accredited zoos and aquariums on the other hand, are institutions devoted to applied conservation and education.

Canadian zoos and aquariums are part of a global community behind some of the most remarkable conservation success stories, bringing species such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Vancouver Island Marmot back from the brink of extinction.

Accredited zoos are also a community of deeply committed professionals who work on the ground supporting in-situ projects on everything from species reintroduction to local community economic development to habitat remediation.

But perhaps most importantly, zoos are portals to nature; unique bridges between a rapidly urbanizing society and natural habitats degraded by unsustainable human activities.

In the 19th century and even the early part of the 20th century, zoos were reflections of a now vanished world where wild animals were still common and ecologically robust.

Many thought of zoos as museums, their animals as parts of dioramas, with little consideration that they could one day become extinct. Zoos were seen as animal owners, not stewards of biodiversity.

That was then.

Now, zoos are reinventing themselves as new kinds zoological institutions, not just better versions of the old ones.  And their educational mission is no longer just to represent the natural world, but to help heal it and change it.

Worldwide, zoos and aquariums attract over 700 million visitors a year. That is 10 percent of the world’s total population. That percentage is even higher in Canada where our accredited institutions attract close to nine million visitors every year.

It is that remarkable reach that zoos and aquariums are leveraging every day, fashioning emotional connections between their visitors and the wondrous animals in their care, recruiting a new generation of conservationists and helping fashion a future more sustainable than the present.


March 16, 2014 by Massimo Bergamini

When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.

Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”

Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.

To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.

Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.

For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.

With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.

And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.

Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.

The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.

Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa.  But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.

Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.

The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.

It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.

The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of  stimulus spending.  But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.

With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up.  If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.



December 19, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

Sometimes really smart people say really dumb things. We got a perfect  example yesterday courtesy of Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra.

Appearing before the Commons Transport Committee to explain the corporation’s decision to eliminate home delivery, the head of Canada Post made a comment about seniors that showcased about the same tonal acuity as Marie-Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”.

Asked to explain how the cancellation of home mail delivery would affect seniors, Chopra replied that seniors had told the corporation that they wanted more fresh air and exercise in their lives. In other words, opined the Canada Post supremo, this was good news.

Any reporter covering the committee who had been wondering what the story from the daylong proceedings would be, had their answer when Chopra finished suggesting that seniors welcomed the end of home delivery because of the healthier lifestyle choices that would follow in its wake.

In addition to painting the corporation as woefully out of touch, Chopra’s unfortunate framing had the effect of burying Canada Post’s overall narrative and the business rationale for its decision at the bottom of the story.

But what became an embarrassing soundbite and headline for Canada Post and Chopra, could easily have been avoided–and that’s the takeaway–with a little preparation and a little humility.

It’s likely that having an emergency Transport committee hearing called after the House had risen caught the corporation a little flat-footed and contributed to a less-than-stellar public relations effort. But questions about the impact of the elimination of home delivery on seniors and people with disabilities were totally predictable and the Corporation’s public affairs staff should have prepared an appropriate Qs & As strategy as part of the CEO’s briefing.

There’s no doubt that “how will seniors get their mail”, is a tough question for a PR team to nail, particularly when you’re on the hot seat and your organization has yet to work out a credible answer.   But the better part of valour truly is discretion, and in this case it should have meant avoiding disingenuous answers.

In prepping Mr. Chopra for his committee appearance,  the Canada Post PR team should have done two things. First, they should have tried to put some bedrock under their answers by leveraging the long transition period before home delivery is abolished as the foundation for their messaging. Second, they should have advised their CEO that his demeanour had to balance decisiveness and humility;  that he would have to acknowledge that Canada Post had no ready-made answer to that particular question, and tell the Committee that the lengthy transition would allow for the fine-tuning of the corporate plan, and that he was committed to finding a solution.

Such an answer might not have made opposition politicians (or the boss) happy, but sometimes when you’re in corporate communications and are called in at the last minute to put a golden sheen on whatever the C-suite has hatched,  you just need to buy some time for yourself and for the organization. In those circumstances, it’s less about being a hero and  more about surviving to fight another day.

Had the Canada Post brass adopted that approach to their committee appearance yesterday, Mr. Chopra might not be seen today as the man with all the answers, but neither would he be the poster boy for monopolistic arrogance.


December 8, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.

For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.

Let’s look at why.

Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.

While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.

In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.

Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.

The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations.  Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.

Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.

This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.

For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.

In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.


July 13, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

Every day, in organizations of all types and sizes,  programs are designed, products launched and campaigns kicked-off without a clear story to support them–and predictably, the results are often forgettable.

The good news is that more and more communications and marketing departments are developing storylines to provide some narrative grounding to key corporate activities.

The bad news is not only that the storyline remains a poorly understood communications concept with the result that many of these are so focused on corporate spin that they read like works of fiction, but that organizations will often mistake their own PR for reality.

Developing the narrative around an event, product, or initiative is more than a writing exercise—it should be seen as an exercise not just in strategic communications, but in strategic planning.

At InterChange Public Affairs, our approach to storyline development revolves around working through a facilitated process to ensure that our clients’ narrative will not only resonate with all of their key audiences, but that their project will meet their strategic goals.

Our approach to storyline development is part SWOT  (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, part journalism and part PR.

In all instances–but most importantly in the case of public events–we start by getting to and understanding the real story behind an initiative, and then framing our client’s narrative in the most objective and newsworthy fashion.

Depending on the complexity of the project, we typically develop two or more storylines. The first version–what we call the inside story–is rarely seen outside the boardroom.

When working on the inside story, we see our role much like that of a hard-nosed print reporter. We work with our client to answer the five Ws of journalistic writing (Who, What, Where, When and Why) to tease out positive storyline elements, and ask the tough questions to get at the problem areas. Our goal is to give our clients an advance look at how their story is going to read in the morning paper.

While this can make for uncomfortable conversations with the client,  it also results in a better appreciation of the communications and other challenges that may exist with their project and provides them with an opportunity to make the tactical and strategic adjustments needed for a successful announcement or campaign launch.

For a final product, we strive for a one page journalistic-style story that highlights the newsworthy and fresh, while framing in the most positive light any issues that could not be worked out through the earlier process.

This type of storyline can be readily adapted to produce core communications products such as news releases, key messages and media lines, while providing the outline and narrative structure for everything from op-eds, to speaking notes and speech modules.

In addition to generating a compelling external narrative, an additional benefit of this approach to storyline development is that it helps organizations clarify and address strategic and tactical problems and priorities.

We have had cases where clients decided to re-think and re-design a campaign because they realized that it just wasn’t ready for prime time. Or conversely, what had been seen as a negative corporate  announcement morphed into a good news story after working through its various (and sometimes subtle) storyline elements.

By taking what is most often viewed as an abstract writing exercise and translating it into a strategic communications effort, this approach to storyline development helps reveal potential opportunities and challenges that might otherwise have been overlooked in the initial planning process.


June 26, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

Remember the oil filter commercial from the 1980s — the one where the mechanic suggested paying a bit more up front for a better oil filter to avoid expensive repairs later?

That was good advice — policy wonks would call it following the precautionary principle.  It applies as much to regular maintenance on cars as to climate change mitigation—measures to reduce greenhouse gases–and adaptation—policies designed to harden and adapt infrastructure to extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the latter, it seems the federal government decided some time ago its policy engine didn’t need an oil filter.

But if any doubt still lingered in Canada about the critical importance of hardening our infrastructure against extreme weather, it should be put to rest by the disaster that struck southern Alberta this week.

In addition to its immediate and terrifying impact on people and property, the effects of extreme weather linger much longer as their economic shock waves are felt long after the crisis has passed.

According to a report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce the damage from the Alberta floods could strip a full percentage point from Canada’s economic growth this year.

Then there’s the cost of cleaning up the mess–which will include not only residential reconstruction but also major repairs to highway and other public infrastructure—that’s expected to top $6 billion.

That means any hopes the Alberta government had of balancing its budget in the short term are shot. And at a minimum, the post-flood clean up raises questions about the federal government’s own plans for near-term fiscal balance as Ottawa will no doubt be called in to help in the reconstruction of key economic infrastructure.

With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible national and international organizations forecasting that extreme weather occurrences will increase in number and scope, one would think that mitigating their impact would be a priority for all governments.

Unfortunately, as the tortuous path followed by climate change negotiations will attest, that’s not been the case.

The economic dislocation that some fear would follow the adoption of stringent carbon reduction measures may help explain the lack of meaningful progress in the area of climate change mitigation. But there is no economic cover for inaction on adaptation, especially when the government of Canada spends billions each year on unrelated infrastructure projects.

The best explanation for the absence of a federal infrastructure adaptation strategy probably comes from a report examining the federal-municipal relationship, released three weeks ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM report describes a relationship built around short-term considerations more likely to produce photo-ops than lasting structural fixes.

The report doesn’t assess blame on the current government, but says the mess stems form an outdated and broken federal system that blurs accountabilities–often leaving the provinces out of the loop—and encourages boutique federal programs that fail to get at the root of the problem.

Many in the municipal sector hoped that Transport minister Denis Lebel’s six-month consultations last year on a long-term infrastructure plan might provide the platform for such a strategy.

FCM and a number of other organizations including the Insurance Bureau of Canada used the consultations to call for a long-term infrastructure plan that would facilitate extreme weather adaptation in cities.

But when the federal government announced its $ 53 billion 10-year infrastructure program in the last Budget, it was silent on the question of adaptation.

The devastation that flood waters visited on communities in southern Alberta was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities have become to extreme weather events.  Seeing the economic capital of Alberta battered and paralyzed by the murky waters of the Saskatchewan River was sobering.

The federal government is now measuring options available to it as it considers its response to this latest weather-related disaster.

The question now is whether the scenes of devastation that played out in southern Alberta will be enough to create the political room for a fundamental re-think of the federal role in extreme weather adaptation.

In keeping with the Harper government’s focus on the bottom line, it may be time for advocates to start framing climate change adaptation as preventive maintenance for Canada’s economic engine.  With extreme weather events on the rise, we can pay now, or we can pay the piper later.


June 11, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

A little exercise for you: Next time you open your paper or surf the news online, count the number of times that stories concerning the Harper government carry e-mailed comments attributed to government or party spokespersons. Then count the number of times that such comments do not come with the e-mail qualifier.

I counted at least half a dozen news stories last week alone where a government spokesperson provided comment by way of e-mailed media lines. If you add Twitter to the mix, the majority of official replies to direct queries or emerging stories now come in digital format.

Live, on the record (or even on background) conversations between a reporter and a media relations officer or spokesperson are now the exception. E-mailing replies to media queries has become the standard operating procedure in federal media relations shops across the country.

Much has been said about the current government’s centralized message-control that would spur this robotic approach to media relations. What’s worrisome is that the practice is becoming more prevalent in other organizations, private and nonprofit alike.

Whenever an organization is now pressed by a reporter on a fast-breaking story with problematic undertones, the default response is to e-mail talking points that more often than not have only a vague familial connection to the questions being asked or the issue.

This is one of the subtle unintended consequences of the rise of digital communications: the convergence of enabling technology (digital messaging), long-standing suspicion (and fear) of the media, and dwindling resources and growing time-pressures in traditional newsrooms–call it media relations 2.0.

So, what does media relations 2.0 mean for corporate communications?

Deflecting or bridging are well known media relations techniques, and there was a time when media lines were crafted to help spokespeople deflect and bridge their way to a particular corporate take on an issue.

The difference is that in the past, these lines were used as part of the two-way dynamic of interviews and question and answer sessions that tested their validity and often overtook them. In media relations 2.0, talking points have become take-it-or-leave propositions.

But just because organizations are getting away with this, and everybody seems to be doing it, doesn’t make it a good communication practice.

For one thing, this new approach to media relations only contributes to suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the hack and flack divide.

It is a sign of an organization that can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees when talking points grudgingly inserted by reporters like non-sequiturs in news stories are viewed as more valuable than developing relations of trust with those same journalists.

Basically, in the media relations 2.0 paradigm, marking each and every story with unadulterated corporate DNA is more important than ensuring you have the reputational capital to carry the day when an e-mailed or Tweeted reply just won’t be enough.

Media relations 2.0 is also fundamentally unimaginative and reactive.

At its core is a mistrust of the mainstream media and a lack of understanding of its role and importance in framing public perceptions, and more fundamentally, of how it works.

As a result, great corporate stories remain untold or are poorly told, or are told by someone else.

The upside is that unlike the old-fashioned media relations I engaged in as a government flack in the late 90s, media relations 2.0 is safe–there’s no danger of being misquoted or losing control of an interview.  The problem is, it’s like the safety of standing on the sidelines during your high school formal: no one turned you down, but neither did you dance.


June 3, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

Federal politicians attending the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver last weekend might be forgiven for feeling a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

For years the FCM conference had been the place where prime ministers and wannabe prime ministers came to lavish mayors and their cities, towns and villages with promises of federal programs and federal dollars.

It was also the place for the heaping of praise and gratitude on prime and other ministers for delivering on said promises.

On rare occasions, like Paul Martin’s 2002 New Deal speech, some of them spoke of fixing a broken system that was keeping Canadian cities at the back of the global pack. But the expectation seemed to be that the really good applause line would always be about the money.

Political handlers and speechwriters in Ottawa must have been scrambling when they received advance copies last week of an FCM report that emphatically states that it’s really not about the money.

In fact, the FCM report, titled The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013suggests that Ottawa’s chequebook fixation is really what’s wrong with the system.

The report says that until the federal government owns up to this and starts measuring success not by how many dollars it spends but by how many problems it fixes, Canada’s cities—and by extension the country–will continue to struggle.

Coming from an organization and a sector that over the last decade has arguably been the most successful in advocating for more federal spending this can seem a little odd if not downright ungrateful.

It’s actually gutsy, smart and important.  Let’s look at why.

It’s important because FCM’s report forces us to look behind the curtain and take the full measure of the Great Oz that is how Ottawa decides.

While the report pulls its punches somewhat and avoids detailed critiques of federal programs aimed at cities, it does paint a picture of a system built around short-term considerations and lubricated by political expediency.

And this should matter to all Canadians, particularly those who care how their tax dollars are spent.

It’s also smart.

FCM is careful—and rightly so–not to point fingers at any one government or political party.

At the root of the problem is not pandemic venality but a 21st century political relationship governed by a 19th century Constitution.

Under our Constitution, the federal government has no direct role vis-à-vis local governments, but this has not kept it from using its spending power to intervene in municipal affairs, particularly in the area of infrastructure funding.

It’s not surprising. After all investing in roads, bridges, wastewater systems and even bocce courts gives even the most fiscally conservative MP something tangible to write about in their householder.

It’s great to talk about trade deals and fighter jets and tough on crime policies, but when you want to explain to your constituents what it is exactly you do for them, it’s nice to be able to point to something with three dimensions from time to time.

Let’s not kid ourselves, therein lies the political appeal of the federal-municipal relationship.

But while the announcement of a 10-year funding program in the last federal budget will keep MPs well stocked with ribbons to cut and signs to post for at least two election cycles, it would put FCM’s advocacy caravan on blocks for a decade. Unless, that is, FCM opened another front in the federal-municipal relationship—which its report does.

But most of all, the report is gutsy.

It would have been easy for FCM to sugar coat its analysis to spare federal sensitivities. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth in more than a few federal offices,  but the gentler, kinder version federal officials would have preferred would  also have missed the mark.

The report names the problem: An outdated system that gives governments cover for short-term, politically motivated policies and inaction in the face of growing cross-jurisdictional policy challenges

Worse, the report says the current system helps create the illusion of action through the proliferation of boutique federal programs that provide visibility but little in the form of accountability.

So what’s the answer?

Rightly, FCM rejects any talk of opening up the constitution. It tried that in the early 90’s and it was a dead end.

Instead, it calls for a clear federal policy and accountability framework to govern federal programs in this area.

In practical terms, it would mean that federal policies would come with a clear expression of the federal interest, measurable outcomes and an incentive to design programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do.

It sounds simple, but achieving it won’t be.

Judging by the speeches delivered by federal politicians at the FCM conference, it will take time for them to digest what the cities’ new agenda means for them and their respective narratives.

FCM invited us to peek behind the curtain. It’s challenge is now keeping it open.


April 3, 2013 by John Burrett

We are bombarded, constantly flooded, with information. There is more information, data, now than ever before and its availability and presence in our lives is growing exponentially.  

Many see this as a bad thing, an overwhelming din and a burden.  But others think otherwise.  David McCandless, a former journalist and now author on the subject of data and visualization, said in his TED Talk two years ago that, rather than agreeing with the axiom that “data is the new oil”, “data is the new soil, because for me, it feels like a fertile, creative medium.” I like that way of looking at it.  So if we till the soil with more purpose, perhaps we can grow things that we have not yet envisioned.

 If we grow amazing new things, we want to communicate them; share them.  And to do that, in the midst of the din, we need clarity.  So what does “clarity” mean in this context and how can we achieve it?

I believe that design is central and fundamental to answering this question. 

 We hear lots about “design”: just look in publications like Wired and Fast Company, or in your weekend newspaper.  But what’s “design” got to do with this?  What does it mean, for instance, for research, business intelligence, and communications?

I work a lot in evaluation and performance measurement: what does this mean for these fields?  Well, I think spending a million dollars on a program evaluation and communicating poorly at the end is nothing but a waste of time if your audience fails to grasp the full meaning of the findings. Worse, it can result in uninformed decisions that can hurt the organization’s brand, its clients and its bottom line.

 Learning to clearly and effectively communicate critical facts, findings and ideas offers the single greatest return on investment that many organizations, public and private, could earn.  I’ll explain.

 The computer was perhaps the most important new tool of the last millennium, but now we need to take back the ground and make computers work for us. Stephen Few, a leader in the visual business intelligence field, writes: “Despite great technical progress in data acquisition, the business intelligence industry has largely ignored the fact that intelligence in human beings resides in human beings, and that information only becomes available when it is understood, not just when it is made available.”  

So now we need to work with how we, not the computers, are built.  But how are we built and how does it matter? 

 A good way to illustrate this is an example used by David McCandless in the TED Talk mentioned earlier.  In this example, he presents the data of a Danish physicist who converted the bandwidth of our senses into computer terms.  

We are “visual animals”, where the vast majority of the information that we take in comes in through our eyes.  We also see how little of the information coming at us at all times is consciously perceived.   This strongly suggests the need to communicate visually and effectively if you want your information to even register, let alone achieve clarity and persuasiveness.  

To McCandless, this suggests that there is a “language of the eye and of the mind”.  I think this is true, and so I think it is important to communicate messages in that language, using that huge visual bandwidth.

 We now know much about how we have evolved relying on the sensitivity of our eyes to patterns, shapes and (to most), colours.  We know that the effective use of data graphics makes use of the way our short term memory captures information to ensure that the point is transmitted clearly and instantly. 

We have also evolved such that we tell each other things by use of stories.  Here is another place where I believe the adoption of “design” into our thinking in the communication of facts, figures and ideas will be a powerful new tool. 

 Verbal-visual communications, like PowerPoint presentations, can capture and engage the audience if they are purposefully and well designed. That means incorporating structure, story, tension and release, just as in music (another kind of story telling) and using strong supporting visuals.

It’s all about ensuring that your message gets across clearly and with impact: visual and structural design gives you clarity.

Virtually none of us were taught these things as researchers and policy makers in training and even professional communicators may not have seen much of this thinking and technique. 

 But in today’s environment we must all become professionals in communication and we need to know this: we must learn the language of the eyes and mind  to harness the full power of our story.

InterChange contributor John Burrett, is Principal Consultant at Capacity Research and Resonance an Ottawa-based firm providing performance-measurement and evaluation as well as data analysis, optimal data display and design of effective verbal-visual presentations.


March 30, 2013 by Massimo Bergamini
Hey all you smokers! Has anyone ever told you that your nasty habit is about as attractive as picking your ear wax, nibbling other people’s food, or breaking wind on a dance floor? Well it is, at least according to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care smoking cessation campaign called  Quit the Denial.
The online campaign, and its humorous videos depicting smoking as a socially repulsive addiction, had been flying under the radar until the recent release of a video equating public flatulence with social smoking. That’s when mainstream media took notice.
While the other similarly-themed videos in the series had muted online success and garnered no mainstream media interest, the Social Farter as the video is calledhas gone viral, proving whoopee cushion humor still works.

But while the campaign is a good example of the kind of gutsy, out-of-the-boardroom thinking organizations need in order to take full advantage of social media amplification, it does raise an important question about how far one can go in the search of the Holy Grail of digital marketing without sacrificing message effectiveness.

As witnessed by the number of April Fools’Day prank videos many brands want to be associated with wildly viral videos regardless of content or tone because of the value of residual recognition. In the case of advocacy or public service advertising where it’s the message that matters, if the audience is only there for the yuks, the campaign risks missing the mark, and the audience the point.

Let’s compare Quit the Denial’s use of humor to an anti-drunk driving campaign by the New Zealand Transport Agency that also made effective use of humour to target its young demographic with a deadly-serious message.

Legend, an anti drunk driving ad part of a larger road safety campaign originally developed for  New Zealand television in 2011, made its mark as a social media phenomenon. The ad, which went viral within days of its launch,  has since logged over 2.4 million views on the Agency’s YouTube channel alone.  Its online success was such that its spun off fan Facebook pages and tribute music videos, and the term “ghost chips” – used in a scene from the ad – became an Internet meme that has since entered the country’s vernacular.

According to an evaluation study done by the New Zealand Transport Agency, more than its impressive online results,  the ad delivered where it matters most: changing young people’s attitudes toward drinking and driving.

Unlike in the Social Farter, Legend’s humour never overwhelms its core message.  This is one public health video that doesn’t talk down or preach to its key audience but instead frames the sometime heart-wrenching choices young people have to make in a language and manner that resonates with them.

To take advantage of social amplification, digital content has to be fresh and edgy. And humor is always a big seller.  But for organizations looking at developing digital campaigns the trick is finding the elusive sweet spot between cerebral and aloof and silly and forgettable.

With over 800 K YouTube views, the Social Farter is an online success. The question is whether the online amplification it has achieved is translating into conversations about smoking addiction or just a few laughs.

While we’ll have to wait for the formal evaluation to pass definitive judgement, from my perch, Ontario’s Quit the Denial campaign has yet to find its sweet spot. At this point, its serious anti-smoking message may just be getting lost in the laugh track.