Archive for the ‘marketing’ Category


Thursday, December 19th, 2013

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.


Saturday, July 13th, 2013

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.


Monday, October 22nd, 2012

While poring over Government of Canada online public service announcements for a presentation I was working on, I was reminded of one from the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA). This is one online ad government marketing communications shops would do well to look to for inspiration because it highlights that not all online content is created equal.

Legend, an anti drunk driving ad part of a larger road safety campaign originally developed for  New Zealand television, made its mark as a social media phenomenon. The ad, which went viral within days of its launch,  has since logged over 2.5 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.

But more than impressive online results, it appears that the ad has delivered where it matters most: changing young people’s attitudes toward drinking and driving.

While the ad was aimed primarily at young Maori males, a study released by the NZTA found more than 90 percent of people remembered the ad when prompted.  Most importantly, three quarters of those who remember the ad said it was likely to stop them from driving under the influence.  The ad is now being credited, at least in part, to the 50 percent drop in young people caught driving under the influence over the last five years.

What distinguishes Legend from the road safety ads we’ve all seen before is that it avoids shock and gore and uses humour instead. It also avoids a moralistic tone or preaching to its target audience. Rather, it  frames the problem – in the words of one of the characters – as requiring “internalising a complicated situation”.

Legend is a perfect example of cross-over content that not only survives the transition from paid TV advertising, but flourishes through social media. It is fresh, funny, and makes a deadly-serious point without being preachy, making it eminently sharable among its target audience of young males.

In trying to understand what content works and what doesn’t in social media, it’s instructive to compare Legend with the more traditional Donna Time, which was released by the NZAT last May. This ad has a more mature target audience and a focus on the family and family responsibility for making the right choices about drinking and driving.

While the message of both ads is virtually the same, the tone is markedly different, as are their online numbers: while Legend boasts over 2.5 million hits, Donna Time languishes in digital anonymity on the Agency YouTube channel with some six thousand views.

While the online numbers for Donna Time may be disappointing, its overall campaign may still be successful as it rests on a large media buy and also plays on a broad number of traditional channels, from television and radio to billboards.

The problems occur when organizations and their advertising agencies try to push content designed for  TV, a 1950’s medium, on 21st century social platforms. It’s like putting a CD on a stereo turntable–it doesn’t work.

This traditional advertising and marketing paradigm remains well-suited to large traditional media buys as ways to frame consumer perceptions, but not social engagement.  It works when you can buy eyeballs and multiple views. It fails miserably when your audience is your medium.


Because effective digital engagement requires content that is sharable. That means content that members of diverse online communities will feel comfortable sharing among their peers.  Anything else misses the point.

It doesn’t necessarily follow in all instances that content designed primarily for television will fail when migrated to the social web. Every year we see dozens of examples of memorable TV ads that become viral sensations. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Whether your target audience is made up of teen-aged males or middle class families, the question to ask when developing digital content is the same: Will my audience want to share this?

If the answer is yes, go crazy. Post it on your YouTube channel and Facebook page, Tweet about it to your followers. If the answer is no,  then there are two options:  back to the drawing board or digital irrelevance.


Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Call me old fashioned, but when I do business with someone, I like to know who they are. Online personas, avatars and other forms of identity cloaking are the stuff that online trolls and teenage bullies use, not professionals.  And isn’t social media supposed to be all about genuine engagement and transparency?

Yet, today, in another twist in the bizarre robocall saga, RackNine, the company that provided the automated calling service to the mysterious “Pierre Poutine” acknowledged that one of their employees uses an online pseudonym when dealing with clients.

The true identity of one Rick McKnight became an issue Monday when reporters, digging around the edges of the story, became intrigued by this person, who notwithstanding a massive online footprint, didn’t seem to cast a shadow.

RackNine decided to reveal the mystery man’s true identity and end media speculation. Rick McKnight–who has (had?) some 500 Facebook friends–is actually Rafael Martinez Minuesa, a Spaniard who works in web design and marketing for the firm.

In a statement, Mr. Minuesa said “Rick McKnight is a name I came up with to work with RackNine’s clients online and offline. I use this to discuss projects with clients, and online because it’s just convenient to have a persona for all the different social media sites.”

His boss, RackNine chief executive Matt Meier, says there’s nothing wrong with practice of using an alias when dealing with clients.

“We’re happy with people choosing whatever name they like. As a matter of fact, one of my tech support staff right now is named Timo.”

Now,  my name, like Mr. Minuesa’s, might not roll off the tongue as smoothly as say, Rick McKnight; and I may have to repeat and spell it from time to time, but it carries with it  the baggage–bad and good–of  five decades of personal and professional experiences and interactions.  Professionally and socially, one’s name should be their bond.

Creating an online persona to compartmentalize and cloak personal and professional experiences and social interactions is not only bad online form, but a terrible business practice.

Call me old fashioned, but whether they’re dialing our number, reading my blog or checking out  my LinkedIn account or our Facebook page I think our clients have a right to know that the “persona” they’re dealing with is the real McCoy.


Friday, November 18th, 2011

Too often initiatives are planned, products are  launched and campaigns kicked off without a clear story to support them, and the results, predictably, are forgettable.

The good news is that more and more, communications planners are developing storylines around events to provide some semblance of narrative grounding.  The bad news is that the storyline generally remains a poorly understood communications buzzword with the result that many of these are so focused on corporate spin that they read like works of fiction.

Developing the narrative around an event, product, or initiative should be much more than just a writing exercise—it should be an exercise in strategic communications.  And it should result in a communication product that is clear, crisp and most important, credible.

Our approach to storyline development revolves around working with our clients through a facilitated process to ensure that their narrative will resonate with all of their key audiences and support their strategic objectives. 

In order to convey purpose and direction clearly and credibly, a storyline must be grounded in the strategic considerations behind a particular initiative.  And while it should highlight the strengths and value of the initiative, it should also address any important challenges it faces. 

Sugarcoating or overlooking fundamental communication challenges when developing a storyline is like a doctor lying to their patient to spare their feelings–noble intentions perhaps, but with potentially catastrophic results.

We see our role much like that of a print reporter. In developing the storyline we work with our client to answer the five Ws of journalistic writing (Who, What, Where, When and Why) and tease out positive storyline elements as well as address potential problem areas head on.  

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–which may not necessarily be the one our client wants to tell–and then framing our client’s story in the most positive and newsworthy fashion.

The outcome we strive for is a one page CP-style story that frames the initiative clearly and succinctly while highlighting key messages and addressing concerns. 

This type of storyline can be readily adapted to produce core communications products such as 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 our approach to storyline development is that it helps organizations to clarify strategic and tactical priorities.

By taking what is often an abstract writing exercise and translating it into a hard news story, this approach helps reveal potential opportunities and challenges that might otherwise have been overlooked in the communication planning process.


Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the Government of Canada has issued a request for proposals inviting firms to bid for the opportunity to lead a “whole of government” re-branding of the federal government’s image in everything from newspaper ads to  its Facebook pages. The government is looking to refresh its brand to better compete ” in a crowded market of images and ideas”.

Good luck to the winning firm.

Anyone who has been involved in these exercises will tell you that effective branding needs to be more than skin deep and has to reflect an organization’s true culture and values. And when an organization’s struggles reflect an out-of-date culture and values, a sound branding exercise will create a forum for hashing out a new vision.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is covering up problems with a fresh coat of paint.

Unfortunately, in many cases that’s exactly what happens as changes to an organization’s visual and audio identity become a proxy for real change, and are often designed to resonate more around the boardroom table–where decisions are made–than among its audiences.

Given the complexity and scale of the organization involved and the multitude of audiences-domestic and international–it engages with daily,  it is difficult to see how the current project will come even close to creating a synergistic and truly fresh “whole of government” Canada brand.

That’s where the boardroom (cabinet) table comes in.

But while the exercise may result in understated changes more than radical re-engineering, it merits monitoring for the lessons it will provide.

Notably, it will be interesting to see how this re-branding exercise affects the federal government’s approach to social media,  which can now best be described as cautious. It will be particularly interesting to see if it affects how content is generated.

One strategy the government could take from the playbook of many of the world’s leading brands is encouraging community generated and inspired content.

These brands know that good social content is what brings people to your site; jump starts conversations and amplifies messages. And they know that effective social media engagement is a bottom up process that starts with listening to your community.

If the Government of Canada wants to truly revamp and make more relevant its online brand it has to take the lead from its communities and generate content that resonates with them, meets their needs, is fresh, and–dare I say it–even a little bit edgy.

Fundamentally, it will require a new take on social engagement–now that would be re-branding success.