PR in Canada 2011: The Best and the Worst

Advertising, Political Communication, PR Add comments

As I look back at 2011 in Canada, a number of public relations highs and lows come to mind. Among those, there was a clear winner of the best public relations effort of the year and, yes, one effort that clearly stood out as the worst. There are also, of course, a number of runners up who made 2011 an interesting year filled with PR lessons.

The Best of the Year

I considered a small number of runners-up for this category. In particular, I feel the global Occupy movement did a remarkable job of changing our collective conversation about equality, opportunity and wealth. A few weeks into the Wall Street occupations, media pundits and political leaders in Canada and around the world were echoing many of the movement’s messages and acknowledging the core issues at the heart of the protests. Together, these disparate groups and individuals showed what’s possible when a message resonates deeply with the audience. They also showed that protests can be massively successful without violence and destruction. In the end, though, the Occupy movement in Canada became more about the right to pitch tents than the life of the 99%. I suspect we’ll hear and see more on the core issues in 2012, perhaps this time from an organization with a clear leadership structure and credible spokespeople.

The other runner up I admire is the family of Luc Richardson and the courage they showed in being public about their daughter Daron’s suicide. Though the suicide and the public outpouring of support began in late 2010, the family and their community partners (notably the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health) mounted an impressive campaign to educate the public throughout 2011. The Do it for Daron campaign (or D.I.F.D.) is raising funds, raising awareness and helping bring yet another aspect of mental health into the open. It comes in the wake of other national and local efforts to change the way Canadians feel and talk about mental health. This campaign is an inspiring reminder of what is possible when a family decides to turn great pain and sorrow into a campaign to better the lives of others. The effort is lifted and sustained by the unrivalled credibility and integrity of its spokespeople, at a time when both credibility and integrity seem to be in such short supply.

In my mind, the very best public relations effort of the year belongs to Jack Layton and his New Democratic Party. After years of slowly building the party’s base of support, Layton and his team executed a near flawless election campaign that vaulted them to Official Opposition status for the first time in the party’s history. As I described in an earlier post, Layton’s performance was energetic, positive, often humourous and inspiring. In many ways, it was a perfect foil to the Conservative campaign and helped send both the Bloc Québecois and Liberal Party of Canada to dismal election results. The NDP made full use of social media, the web, media events and advertising. Their message was consistent and they spent the entire campaign on message, rarely having to deal with the issues that plagued the other parties. Most of all, the party leveraged the unparalleled communication skills of its leader. At events, in media interviews, in debates and in advertisements, Layton’s performance was by far the best of the bunch. The full impact of the campaign would be revealed later when Jack Layton lost his battle with cancer. The relationship he had forged with so many Canadians was evident and his final words confirmed his skills as a communicator. For the positive nature of their message, the consistency of their campaign and the unrivalled performance of their leader, the 2011 election campaign of the NDP gets my vote for the best Canadian PR effort of the year.


The Worst of the Year

It seems there were far more candidates for this category than for the Best Effort of the Year. Strong contenders for this dubious distinction include Don Cherry, Ron MacLean and the CBC. Cherry’s rant against a number of former NHL enforcers (his “kind of guys,” after all) who spoke out against fighting in hockey became a tangled mess that dragged everybody down. Cherry gets a nod for a ridiculous and personal attack that had to be designed in part to ensure a steady supply of gruesome video for his Rock ‘em Sock ‘em video franchise (a point wisely suggested by one of the hockey players he attacked). MacLean gets the nod for standing by idly and not challenging the rant. He was never more ineffective. The CBC gets the nod for lamely saying they disagree with the stance and not calling the whole affair into question. Cherry’s first effort at an apology was an insult to the intelligence of his audience (as if somehow the use of the work “puke” was the issue). His second effort at an apology was more fulsome but clearly motivated by the threatened legal action of the three players. Of note here, the three players who were attacked by Cherry stood by their message, were articulate and effectively turned the public discussion back to the real issue – Don Cherry’s lack of judgment.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford also gets consideration for the series of needless battles he waged against Margaret Atwood, Mary Walsh and the Toronto Star, and for his penchant for using a cell phone while driving. See my earlier post for more discussion on Ford’s woes. That his PR troubles continue at the very end of the year (with negative coverage of 9-1-1 calls from the Mayor’s home) suggests he may well figure again in my 2012 list. For making more enemies than friends and for eroding relations with the news media, Ford deserved serious consideration.

The runner-up for the worst PR effort of the year must go to Peter MacKay and his helicopter boondoggle. While he was supposed to be defending the government’s recent military decisions (including a very controversial procurement of stealth fighter jets), MacKay decided to call upon a navy helicopter to transport him from a remote fishing camp and save him the boat ride. MacKay’s first explanation did not sit well with members of the other parties so he later changed his story from one of convenience to a much-needed demonstration. In the face of email evidence that military officials questioned the wisdom of this use of search and rescue helicopters, the opposition increased its pressure and MacKay responded by threatening legal action. The inconsistency of the message, the refusal to admit even a small lapse in judgment and the use of legal threats to stifle debate are the reasons why MacKay deserved serious consideration for the worst PR effort of the year.

The distinction for 2011 in my mind goes to the Scouts Canada and their mishandling of allegations around sexual abuse first brought forward by the CBC’s Fifth Estate investigative news program in October. In particular, the program charged that the Scouts Canada failed to stop a known sexual predator in the ranks of its volunteer leaders. The allegation is explosive, of course, and comes after decades of similar allegations levelled at the Catholic Church in Canada and abroad. This fact alone should have propelled Scouts Canada to immediately communicate openly with the news media and the public. They needed to seize the initiative, explain their past actions, apologize sincerely and map out a credible plan to ensure the young people in their care were protected. They didn’t.

Instead, they issued a series of bureaucratic  statements to the show’s producers. They refused to face reporters and did little to directly reach out to parents and the wider public in Canada. Finally, on December 8th, the organization issued an apology of sorts. The six-minute video featured twice as much promotion of scouting as it did true apology. It was issued on YouTube (rather than a news conference) and featured an awkward presentation by Chief Commissioner Steve Kent in front of a white background and resplendent in his bright red uniform. It was, it seems to me, the wrong message, in the wrong setting, delivered the wrong way and at the wrong time. The organization, the community of Scouts past and present and the parents of those scouts all deserved better.

For waiting six weeks before issuing an apology, for failing to meet reporters and answer their questions, for issuing a sub-par apology on the heels of perhaps the greatest scandal Scouts Canada has ever faced, this gets my vote as the worst PR effort of the year.

I think scouting is an important movement that has served millions of Canadians very well in the past. Its focus on learning, collaboration and community service remains as relevant as ever. I can only hope valuable lessons have been learned and will be heeded in the future.






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