Once again, this year, I spent the last week of December reflecting on the year that was in public relations, persuasion and politics. I’ve compiled a very subjective list of what I feel were the best PR practices of 2012 and the worst. I’ve also tried to keep a Canadian focus on the companies and people I profile, if for no other reason than to narrow down the very long list of examples of very good and very bad PR practices.
Best and Worst in Political PR:
The Best: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence wins the nod for best political PR practices in 2012. She twice captured the attention of the national media and federal politicians (not an easy task when your agenda in no way aligns with the federal government’s agenda). Her media events to call attention to the housing crisis in her community and, more recently, her hunger strike leading to the Idle No More movement served to criticize the federal government much more effectively than any of the four opposition parties did all year long. Canada has suffered from a lack of effective opposition, which makes Spence’s work all the more important. Some may not like the hunger strike as a PR tactic but, in the right circumstances, it can focus attention and make your message more poignant.
Honourable mention goes to the student protestors in Quebec who took to the streets to protest planned tuition fee increases, garnered international attention and showed the door to their province’s then-Premier Charest. They showed what effective use of social media, a simple visual symbol and creative events can do to change attitudes and behaviours.
The Worst: There were so many to consider here, even when limiting the scope to Canada. The worst PR practices, in my mind, were demonstrated by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who in 2012 was able to destroy his own political legacy (remember “the education premier?”), lose a critical by-election, throw Ontario’s education system into total disarray, and erode democracy — all at the same time. In a show of right-leaning bravura that he hoped would help the Liberals win the by-election in Waterloo (a seat long held by the Progressive Conservatives), McGuinty adopted a “take it or leave it” approach to negotiating with the teachers’ unions and passed a draconian law that eliminated collective bargaining rights. It back-fired, the NDP won the seat. Since then, McGuinty has been largely silent – quite the opposite of PR – as students, teachers and administrators in our schools are left to pick up the pieces.
Dishonourable mention must go to the Minister of Defense and Prime Minister Harper for their opaque and obstinate handling of the F35 file. They loved the plane too much and their usual approach of destroying the reputation of any critics backfired when credible critics continued to line up. I suspect we haven’t yet heard the end of this story.
Best and Worst in Sports & Entertainment PR
The Best: I give the nod this year to TSN and the Canadian Football League. Together, they turned the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup into a year-long event, culminating in a week of high profile activities that captured the attention of Toronto – easily the hardest market in Canada to capture. The organizations, their events and the play of the Toronto Argonauts made football matter again to Torontonians and to Canadians as a whole. In other words, with far fewer resources, they managed to do quite the opposite of what the NHL and the CBC managed to do for hockey.
Honourable mention must go to Justin Bieber, who managed to extend his career another year, catapult Carly Ray Jepsen to international stardom, and give a powerful boost to Hélène Campbell’s campaign to encourage people to register as organ donors (see below). He might have even been the winner were it not for the deplorable way he chose to dress for a meeting with the Prime Minister to receive a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal of Honour.
The Worst: This was by far the easiest choice. Together, the NHL and the players’ union (NHLPA) massively eroded the goodwill of professional hockey and rendered themselves less relevant than they have been in years. There is no public sympathy for either side and the debate was most often characterized as millionaires fighting against billionaires. In a year that has seen too many layoffs and public spending restraint, the sight of grown men unable to amicably share the spoils of playing a game was hard to swallow. Instead of focusing on the useless and repetitive debate, fans and sponsors turned to other levels of competitive hockey and other sports. The impact on the league will, I believe, be long-lasting this time.
Best and Worst in Business PR
The Best: Mark Carney has become a global champion of banking. He has done this thanks in no small part to an understated speaking style, impeccable grooming and attire, and the PR gift of letting others talk favourably about him, rather than doing the talking himself. Even before being appointed as Governor of the Bank of England, his smarts and style earn him high praise from Canadian politicians, an influential role in the G20’s Financial Stability Board, and even some fans on Facebook. True, he benefitted greatly from sound banking policy in Canada, smart decisions by governments and banks and the relatively weak performance of banks and governments in many, many other countries. This was his opportunity and he was able to capitalize on it with each speaking engagement, media interview and meeting.
The Worst: Next to the NHL, XL Foods emerged as the clear loser in Canadian public relations. Their inept handling of the E. coli food poisoning from meat processed at their plant demonstrated precisely how not to handle a crisis. Their case was not helped, of course, by the many comparisons that were made between their silence and inability to express empathy or a solid plan on the one hand, and the deft handling of a similar crisis by Maple Leaf Foods a few short years ago. Putting both these cases side by side will, I suspect, be standard practice for educating future PRT students on crisis communication.
Best and Worst in Individual PR:
The Best: I will close on a positive note. As a single individual in need of a lung transplant, Hélène Campbell had little in the way of budget or communication vehicles. Yet, she was able to mount an impressive PR campaign that dramatically increased awareness of the importance of organ donation and increased the number of registered donors. She made – and continues to make – masterful use of Twitter, including an appeal to Justin Bieber who re-tweeted her plea for individuals to register as organ donors. The result was immediate and powerful. She then deftly handled all manner of interview requests and kept people across North America focused on the importance or organ donation. She demonstrated that having a good story to tell and keeping people focused on that message is still the best strategy.