Canadian PR Year in Review: Lessons in Strategy

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This was a remarkable year in Canadian public relations, filled with big disappointments and a few surprises. Most importantly, we had important lessons in strategic public relations that all of us could glean. Here, then, are the key lessons that I took away and the people and stories that brought them to us.

Reputation is built over a lifetime
There was a widely shared sense in the hockey world and across Canada as a whole that we had lost a valued ambassador and leader when Jean Béliveau passed away at the age of 83.  Béliveau’s sterling reputation was carefully built over decades of great plays, on-ice leadership and statesman-like performance as the ambassador to his beloved Canadiens. He was the picture of consistency, understatement and eloquence in everything he did. The line of high-profile and credible individuals who stood up to offer praise said more about the man and the goodwill he had amassed than any statistic ever will.


Reputation can be undone in a moment
Before Jian Ghomeshi’s infamous Facebook post was issued on October 30th of this year, he was a bona fide Canadian celebrity – a tastemaker and darling of CBC Radio One. By admitting to some unusual sexual preferences and getting out in front of the media storm, Ghomeshi’s Facebook post chipped away at the image but did so carefully, revealing only a few details of a scandal that was about to emerge. Ghomeshi’s statement was plausible and the timing put him seemingly in control of the story. In the days and weeks to follow, the small chips became immense cracks and Ghomeshi’s image would be battered beyond recognition.

Suddenly, the story of one man and one disgruntled girlfriend grew to become a story of one man and several girlfriends, colleagues and acquaintances. Admiration for a PR strategy that was rapid and focused grew to horror at the alleged scale of the offenses. Ghomeshi unwittingly offered up an important lesson on the need to be truthful when you retain a PR agency. His case also offered up a valuable reminder on the limits of going first and getting ahead of the story. When the story that follows is this salacious, no amount of a head start can withstand the critique. Of course, Ghomeshi has yet to be tried and the effort to restore his reputation may well figure in next year’s review.

Strategic messages start with strategic intelligence
Canadian PR was also rocked by a number of important provincial and municipal elections in 2015, including contests in Canada’s two largest provinces. The lessons offered up by both pointed to the importance of strategic messages and the risk of basing your strategy on false intelligence.

Tim Hudak had every reason to expect victory in the Ontario election. After all, the Liberals were mired in controversy and appeared to be a spent force after ten years years in office. Hudak ran a tightly focused campaign promising to create 1 million private sector jobs while cutting 100,000 public service jobs. The numbers were a little too nicely rounded and a little too tempting for critics. Soon, economists and pundits were pointing out mathematical errors in the plan’s calculations, and the whole thing started to unravel.

The other error here was more cultural than mathematical. After years of economic decline, many in the province were in no mood to see the axe fall on 100,000 fellow Ontarians. The positive message was increasingly seen as lacking credibility while the negative message was increasingly seen as mean-spirited. The result was a Liberal majority win. The likely cause was intelligence on the mood of the electorate that was off, perhaps owing to the fact that a US-based group with ties to the Tea Party had crafted the campaign strategy.


Strategic messages require planning and discipline
Meanwhile, the Quebec provincial election pointed to the importance of message control in public relations. The then leader of the Parti Québecois, Pauline Marois, was pleased to introduce voters to her star candidate: Pierre Karl Péladeau, leader of the Quebecor media conglomerate founded by his father. Though the election was not at all intended to be about sovereignty for the province, Péladeau stepped right up to the microphone and threw the entire script out the window by exclaiming to the cameras and microphones there assembled, “On veut un pays” (We want a country). For want of briefing, training and discipline, the PQ spent much of the remaining campaign in the defensive mode and the Liberals went on to form a majority government in this province as well.

Strong messages must be built on strong arguments
Target Canada spent much of the year in damage control as the chain of stores missed their revenue projections and customer lamented the lack of inventory. Their PR during this difficult year was reactive and no clear and compelling message or spokesperson emerged to re-energize the brand. More importantly, their clever ad campaign never quite gave us a clear reason to shop there rather than at other stores. The message seemed to be “we have a lot of stuff and we are clever;” it didn’t stick with consumers. The change in both the president of Canadian operations and the store’s CEO added to the challenge. Time will tell if the new talent can turn the PR effort around in time for next year’s list.

Strong messages are amplified by strong spokespeople
Target Canada would have done well to take a page from the BlackBerry (ahem) playbook. Though they have yet to return to profitability, the performance of CEO John Chen and the consistency of their messaging about a renewed focus on enterprise customers rather than individual consumers are making a difference to the company’s image and share price. BlackBerry capitalized on events around the world that highlighted growing concerns over online security, further deepening their positioning as a leader in this area. It was a strong year for a company that needed one, and it sets the stage for the all-important return to profitability in 2015.

Leverage your allies and capitalize on new technology
No discussion of PR in 2014 would be complete without mention of the Ice Bucket Challenge that propelled ALS to become one of the highest-profile causes in North America. Though started by two Americans living with ALS, the campaign took flight in this country when celebrities (notably Sidney Crosby and PK Suban) joined in, with much media attention. The campaign was custom-made for a population that increasingly keeps in touch and shares video using social media channels. Thanks to the momentum created by early adopters and the exponential power of social media, the campaign helped boost the fundraising results of ALS Canada by 285%. Though some complained the campaign was too visible and participation seemed easier than donation, the massive change in revenues for the charity and visibility for ALS is impossible to ignore.



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