Public Affairs – GR 101 v1.1

I’ve spent as much time in my career doing government relations as I have public relations.  In theory and practice – it’s about relationships. It’s ALWAYS about relationships. Media. Public. Government. Stakeholders. All Relationships. All take time (and resources) to cultivate, nurture and build value from but most importantly – maintain.

More so than in other disciplines however, I believe that public affairs – call it government relations, lobbying or advocacy, the challenge is maximizing relationships in the shortest period of time so that you there is an authentic and sincere relationship. You don’t have to be best friends with your key political stakeholders, but be aware of what drives them, and in turn, ensure they know what drives you.

I had lunch with a colleague recently and he described how he was working to help  an organization leverage federal money for a program they were hoping to develop. I asked how often they were engaging the minister, his staff and the officials in the specific government department. He’s response was – that they “had a conversation with the a senior staffer in the minister’s office about two years ago.” I was stunned. Maybe it’s because I work in the space, but it’s not really that hard to figure out. If you don’t maintain an engaged relationship with key influencer’s, decisions-makers and those who hold the power and resources to help you be successful, how can you expect they will keep you top of mind?

Keeping in mind that the political circles in Canada can be very closed and protective.  Cracking those inner circles is like navigating a labyrinth of frustration. This is where the persistence and determination of some organizations lead to stronger results than other organizations. If you need a primer or a kick-start – hire a firm that specializes in public affairs.

It’s amazing to me how often I meet people or talk with companies or organizations who just don’t know where to begin. So, for the novice I will outline some positive things you can do to improve the success of your public affairs strategy.

Some Advice:

Have an answer to your problem. Going to a staffer, parliamentarian or senior official with a problem without an answer to your challenge will diminish their interest in helping you and your credibility.

Your answer should be negotiable. Extreme or hardline positions will not win you friends. ‘Your’ solution may not be ‘their’ solution – so the better you understand the motivations of the government as a whole and the objectives of the department/ministry you’re dealing with the better off you will be. Work together to solve the problems.

Government Officials will listen. More often than not have a mandate to engage with stakeholders. So find the right ones and meet with them. This takes time and effort but it can be very useful. I once had a meeting with officials who were using data that was nearly 2 years old as they planned for the year ahead. Providing counsel and good data is supremely helpful.

Government Officials will be protective. Canada is blessed with some incredibly bright bureaucrats be it in Ottawa or the provinces.  Senior staff are proud and often will be defensive of their own programs and initiatives because it’s what they know.  That is to say, new things you may want to bring into the mix will require a tremendous amount of energy. Even the best ideas take time to bring to life.

Political Staff are vitally important. And fiercely guarded, highly political (obviously) and almost always younger than you would expect. Do not discount their influence and role. If you are not a known commodity to them, you will have a difficult time accessing them and their elected leadership. So get out there. Be present.

Engage and be responsive. If you are asked to present at parliamentary committee – do it. If the government makes a positive or supportive announcement – send out a press release. If they ask you to attend a roundtable, go.  This is part of building that relationship and frankly, is pretty simple stuff.

So, while many believe that they should go straight to the top with their issue. Yes, by all means, send the PM a letter outlining your concerns. No doubt, the Prime Minister is deeply concerned about your issue… but really hasn’t the capacity to manage it. That is where your key cabinet minister’s come in to play.

In 2014, our organization was privileged to host Prime Minister Harper at an event where among many other things, he opened up about the stresses and pressures of the job. He noted that the demands of the role likely couldn’t be fulfilled by 6-7 simultaneous prime ministers. (44:00 minute mark below)  Its good advice and good reason to devise a strategy that includes all the right people at the right time.

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A new twist on a classic tale

I love creative execution. I’ve blogged about it before. The past few years have seen measurable leaps forward in design execution and certainly things look better as a whole. But the next evolution in advertising in my mind, remains the unexpected.  We have seen that shift in our TV programming and movies, mystery and suspense is the new thing but when combined in advertising with a different take, an unexpected twist if you will, on an old thing – it really works.

A great example is this – the Porsche Panamaera.  Billed by the car manufacture as “the only luxury sedan that combines an executive tailored interior with the performance of a sports car, it is possibly the worlds most thrilling contradiction.” The word I really like here is contradiction.  We live in a complex world full of nuance and subtlety but this advert from Porsche takes the vehicle from the elite, (stodgy even) realm of sedans into a new market of edgy, progressive and  hard lines of performance vehicles aided by an unconventional alley. A heavy metal band and a symphony orchestra.

It opens predictably with a classical intro, warm up as it profiles the limousine quality of the interior. The luxurious cabin of the Panamera is as intense as it is exquisite.  The break finds the unique roar of the finely tuned and unmistakable Porsche engine cutting the classical music into a beautiful version of Iron Maiden’s The Trooper. Maybe its because I’m a fan of both the vehicle and the band, but this really works. Re-interpretation of original works is a risky business but in this instance, and when done right it can have a thrilling, unexpected twist.

Think different. Be different. Your customers will thank you.

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Watch this amazing safety video?

I believe that even the most boring, inane content can be given life enough to be interesting, understood and even enjoyed.

As a communications professional, I’ve come to appreciate that it is exceptionally rare that you ever have a captive audience. One where the consumer can’t easily escape your message.  This somehow led me to think about some seat-back advertising and really how effective it is/can be.

When I fly, one thing that strikes me is how no one ever pays attention to the safety videos. Airlines actually force-feed you these videos; broadcasting them across the entire airplane from the comfort of your seat-back TV screen and the audio throughout the cabin. Still, people refuse to pay attention for 4 minutes as they get that final email or text out before flight attendants politely ask you to shut off your mobile devices.  This is what we’re used to…


In spite of what Bruce Willis or Wesley Snipes might have you believe, the average passenger has zero influence over the outcome of an emergency situation, except whatever we are given in the four minutes of  tedious video instruction.  Those boring corporate safety videos have always been terrible. Until now.  Thankfully some creative genius has linked the elements of pop culture and the most important (but boring) thing we can fathom while traveling.  Enter Peter Jackson and Air New Zealand.

The video’s origins date back a few years but together they have leveraged the popularity of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise with some monotonously boring content – and it works, beautifully.  As you step aboard a Boeing 777 and fly across the world you may not be able to shape the outcome of that 660,000 lb payload but you can do what you can to be safe in a 25o’ long beer can.  Watch the video – enjoy, think about how you position your content. Think differently, and you can be rewarded.

12 million people have actively chosen to view a safety video YouTube – think about that!

The lesson here – is that anything can be interesting and generate eyeballs if you are giving it some creativity and thoughtful execution. Think as much about what you want to communicate as you do about who, and how  your audience wants to receive that message. And, hey, if you don’t know? Ask them.

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Instagram

How much do I like Instragram? I’m not sure. I’m curiously interested in its potential. I have an account – you’re welcome to follow me. I post a lot of nonsense and follow a variety of brands. I’m interested in it as a means to build a  brand, but im also cognizant of its potential (like so many others) as a disastrous waste of time. Without strategy, how can you measure manage and grow?  What’s your take? Are you pro Instagram in terms of building your brand? Do you have any good examples of where it has worked for you? What frustrates you about it?

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Instagram

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Breaking Bad Vol 1

So, I’m on the slate for an exciting line up of speakers to discuss public sector marketing.  I attended this conference last year and have now ended up on the roster as a speaker.  I have sat through sessions at conferences before and rarely do they resonate with me as a professional more than ‘this is the ultimate goal’ where do i actually start. I felt I’d share some of my own experiences in trying to help the organizations I’ve worked for recover from disastrous situations.

Over the weeks ahead I’m going to tease out the presentation here to help shape my ideas and thoughts but if you have anything you think might be of value – please do feel free to share your ideas with me.  session titled – Non-Profit Disaster Communications Recovery: the real Breaking Bad. That is my attempt at contemporary relevance. Yeah, I get it. the show is over, but its not ‘that’ over.
breakingbadAnd it works for me. This idea of ‘breaking bad’ – habits, people, processes, whatever the case is. If you’ve entered into some bad communications situations, and I know you have, the first thing you have to do is stop the madness (all credit to Susan Powter)

 

I’ve had a few interesting positions that have helped me focus on the task at hand.  I was hired into a situation once where within about 20 mins on the job I knew I had to fire the only employee I had.  Another situation found me with a self-professed megalomaniac narcissist president who demanded to be on the front page every day. I was the 6th Director of Communications at that organization in a 6 year span.

I went into a situation where the CEO (to whom I reported) on my first day on the job told me he expected me to ‘raise the bar’ – but never defined for me in the 2 years I worked there what the ‘bar’ looked like, where it was kept or how I’d know it if I found it.  I’ve walked into organizations with no budgets, no staff, no processes and in my time, come out on the other side pretty well.  It takes a lot of courage, persistence, vision and sometimes a methlab. (see, there’s the Breaking Bad reference coming at ya…)

The reality is that we find ourselves in these situations from time to time, but in my experience in the public sector has found me in some pretty deep messes. The most difficult thing is to rebuild a department while meeting the expectations of your new employer to ‘exceed’ expectations.

 

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I’ve had the luxury and punishment of working on a few major rebranding projects throughout my career.  My most recent project with a massive international industry association brand has gone over very well and previous to that, rebranding a globally recognized Art & Design university went equally as well.  With all that said, there is a lot of effort that designers put into developing a brand and visual identity that is often subtle and hidden from the consumer. I found this video which I believe provides a very interesting insight into the development of brands/workmarks and identities.

What I have come to appreciate is that there are a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands. Search through YouTube and you’ll undoubtedly find conspiracy theorists and a volume of random design critics who like to pollute the ‘sphere with their musings. What this tends to teach me about design and branding is this – keep it simple. Don’t get too cute, and above all, understand who your audience is and what/how you want to communicate. Be yourself, but be bold. Present yourself as best you can and make sure its something you can be proud of in 5-10 years.

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Resolutions

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My failure to post with any regularity is no reflection on my lack of interest, more of a challenge with time management and workload at my place of employment and a new addition to the family. My New Year’s resolution remains to post at least weekly. We’ll see how that goes. I think it’s an important part of my own development to be able to put my own thoughts and ideas down so I do solemnly swear to do my utmost to post with increased frequency.  For now, enjoy the new fella – Benji who has assumed his post as Chairman of the Board at my house.

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If you drink enough coffee does it all taste the same?

I drink a fair bit of coffee. I like coffee. It tastes good and the suggestion that the caffeine will improve performance, alertness and improve my IQ – I’m in. 3 cups a day. I used to drink closer to 10-12 cups a day. When I was in university, a day without 2 carafes was nothing short of a sleepy Monday.

Canadians drink a lot of coffee. StatsCan data (2008) suggests that it is the second most popular beverage amongst adults after water.  A 2011 survey indicates that not only do 64% of adults in this country drink coffee every single day, and the average consumption is 2.7 cups per day. I guess that puts me slightly above average.

I have had my share of crappy coffee, for sure. Most of it comes from branded styrofoam cups. I often wonder if we put bad coffee in a Starbucks cup, would anyone notice? To that end, I found this advert, and the elements of storytelling compelling enough to share. Tim Horton’s, a coffee brand which I have a terrible history with, has taken the challenge of taking on their biggest competitors on in an arena they aren’t typically known for: quality. It would seem that ‘Timmy’s’ is trying to move assertively away from its donut shop roots to an upscale quality purveyor of the delicious dark beverage. To do this, they enlisted a brilliant creative team from Toronto and produced a fun little coffee art video.

 

The ‘making of’ video above certainly demonstrates an interesting vision into the creative process and what they are trying to achieve. The bigger question is does this get them there? Trying to compete with Starbucks (my preferred brand in case you’re thinking of gift ideas) and other premium brands is a monumental task. The brand shift is a huge undertaking, but starting with your primary product is a good start, but only a portion of the overall battle. Tim Horton’s has a lot of competition in the market place but are they doing their primary consumers a disservice by repositioning their brand or are they coffee-fueled geniuses for moving along the quality line. So can Tim’s compete in a premium space by firing off an artsy yet inspiring movie? I think not. Stick to your knitting Timmy’s.

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Big Mac Attack

Our Food. Your QuestionsIncreasingly, the ideals of Corporate Social Responsiblity (CSR) have penetrated workplace in some pretty unexpected ways. After 40 years in the business world, the acronym typical suggests that organizations have some level of social consciousness. Born in the 1960’s an 70’s, the movements towards globalization found counter balance in stakeholder theory, by providing a measure of local accountability. Certainly no expert in this regard, there is a tremendous amount of literature online and in print for the interested observer.

Where I find the CSR effort intensely interesting, is in the corporate response to transparency and accountability. McDonald’s has assembled an interesting, and I think revolutionary platform for accountability that I’ve yet to see attempted by any other organization, let alone in the fast food industry. Their launch of ‘our food, your questions’ http://yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca/ is an unparalleled example of authenticity and genuine belief that their customers deserve to know the full story.

the level of public accountability and transparency in this site is unprecedented in my experience.  What do you think of this level of leadership in corporate communications? Is it a genuine and sustainable effort? Is this a PR exercise or does it have true merit?

Posted in Branding, Corporate Communications, customer service, Employee Engagement, Leadership, Public Relations, youth marketing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Media Relations 101

 

Media relations has always been a challenge for PR practitioners, in particular those who don’t specialize in the art. They simple key to media relations, is in my view – the ability to craft viable relationships with media as part of a long-term strategy. It takes commitment and deep understanding of the newsroom, reporters deadlines and the requirements of the press and then match/align those with your own goals. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But, for everyone who has ever had a c-suite exec ask why something hasn’t been picked up by the Times, the Post or other major’s you have to wonder do they know what the game is and how it’s played? In your downtime, it may be helpful to help educate your colleagues and your executive team about media relations and how the game is played, what resources are required and the differences between proactive and reactive media relations.

If that doesn’t work, I encourage you to share this video with them about how journalists can sometimes make something out of nothing. Thanks to The Onion for this gem.

Breaking Story So New Reporter Literally Has No Information

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