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2015’s Biggest PR Hits And Misses

Whoever said you that you can’t take brand equity to the bank never dealt with a knife to their reputation — a hemorrhage that would put them squarely in the public eye and expose them to the harsh judgment of the folks that count the most. Looking back over 2015, some notable stories stood out for being classic PR blunders, but there do exist a few situations that give us hope that doing right by doing good is still possible.

The year began badly for Halifax’s Dalhousie University when some dentistry students posted degrading comments about their female colleagues on Facebook. Later, a medical student facing expulsion told his psychiatrist about a plan to stab an associate dean and her daughter and shoot up to 20 people. And, as if things couldn’t get worse, a student about to start medical school was charged with murdering another student.

From a PR lens, one crisis was easily preventable because fostering a paternalistic culture in 2015 should have been detected and corrected before it was exposed on social media. Dalhousie came under harsh criticism on a number of levels, from failing to protect the physical and psychological well-being of their community, to paying more than $300,000 for outside communications counsel. Ironically, it’s been reported that student applications are at the same level as last year, but I question how they are doing on endowments.Jared Fogle

Subway’s longtime pitchman, Jared Fogle, was a striking example of what can go wrong when your brand is tied to a single individual. It wasn’t all that long ago that Lance Armstrong demonstrated how fast adulation can unravel. It’s a lesson marketers should have learned from.

Fogle’s weight-loss story made him a celebrity and Subway a lot of dough. But their relationship came crashing down after Fogle’s home was raided by the FBI looking for links to child pornography. Social media was quick to judge him with followers on Twitter practically begging for a response from Subway. When none was forthcoming, they formed their own opinions.

Part of my training as a PR professional is to gauge how an initiative can hurt as much as help. This negative thinking has been a valuable strategic imperative.

Subway eventually severed ties to Jared Fogle who was sentenced to many years behind bars. The lesson here is to be clear on your position of zero tolerance, understanding that customers are families who will make their decisions with their wallets. If Subway can retake ownership of their brand and define what they stand for, they should be able to repair the damage and move on.

As the owner of a Volkswagen, the company’s scheme to fool regulators and consumers hit particularly close to home.

The Volkswagen debacle is among the year’s worst corporate blunders, and no air bag on earth will cushion the blow to Volkswagen’s trustworthiness. When you mess up, you need to fess up and show how you are going to clean it up. VW never got the memo.

At the time the story broke, the company stayed silent. Despite the legal implications, I would have advised their CEO to display greater empathy to help soften the dents to their reputation. VW is not nearly as communicative or contrite as they need to be and it will hurt them. While other car manufacturers have climbed out of the abyss before, the road ahead for VW looks pretty bumpy.

Charlie Sheen’s disclosure that he is HIV positive reopened the conversation on HIV/AIDS and depending on you look at it, could provide Sheen a noble way to rehabilitate his bad-boy image.

While treatment of HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically, stigma and discrimination are still entrenched which might explain why he kept it a secret. Social media commentators were quick to say that the only upside of the announcement is to generate sympathy for Sheen, but I am optimistic. If Sheen can use his celebrity as a teaching moment he has the potential to shine a powerful spotlight on the burden of this disease — if that’s the case, he will be doing a great service to society.

You couldn’t buy a better story than that of our young, attractive #CDNFirstFamily.

It’s Canada’s version of Camelot or Trudeau: The Next Generation, and it’s a warm, engaging and human story that many are happy to soak up. And what is PR if not the building and nurturing of deep, trusted relationships between an organization and its diverse publics?

The Liberal government has hit all the high notes in terms of trying to regain public trust by positioning their leader as approachable, transparent and authentic. Justin Trudeau’s proclivity for taking selfies and posing for glam shots in Vogue seem to be working out just fine — no damage control needed.

What this revitalized image of our national government means in a practical sense here at home or on the world stage remains to be seen, but we can end the year knowing that at least the PMO knows a thing or two about good PR.

Carol Levine, APR, FCPRS, is CEO and Co-Founder of energi PR, a national public relations agency. She is Immediate Past Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms, the industry association that represents Canada’s leading PR agencies.

 

What It Takes

Written by Marlo Taylor, partner and general manager, energi PR

Dear aspiring PR practitioner,

Today, I received your application to be an intern at our firm. It was thorough and everything was spelled correctly. You are obviously bright and accomplished. It seems you have worked hard and done well. And your resume went straight over to the pile of folks I will likely never call. Harsh? Perhaps. But in an industry as ultra-competitive as ours, it’s a tough reality. Most resumes don’t get past my inbox.

intern

But what is it that differentiates one resume from another? How do we decide who to see? Who to hire? The most honest answer I can give you, other than a basic understanding of the role, is that I want to know that you want this job. I want to see that when you were learning about PR you were also looking for ways to try out that learning. I want to see that you volunteered to manage the media for a local fundraiser or found ways to publicize a friend’s play or spent time drafting brochures for a small charity. You would really stand out to me if you could provide a few well-articulated examples of attempts you made that didn’t work out as well – and what it taught you about succeeding as a communications professional. Be creative. Look around. Dig deep and figure out where there is a need and go answer it.

In my opinion, passion trumps skill every time. As senior PR people, we can – and are happy to – teach you the technical side of the business, but being hungry to learn and grow can only come from you.

We all hear the same song: jobs require experience but how can I get experience without a job? Frankly, I call BS on that one. There is no end of organizations that are starved for volunteer communications support. If you really want to be a PR practitioner, you will find those opportunities and turn them into the experience you need to set yourself apart.

What I’ve learned after 15 years in the industry is that success comes to those who work hard and have that fire in their bellies. I’ve also learned that sometimes the greatest success and learning comes when you’re prepared to jump into the deep end of the ocean, even if you don’t feel 100 per cent prepared, just because there is the inspiring and amazing chance that you will learn – and become – something new.  Often, it’s the first of many rungs on an exciting and highly gratifying ladder.

So, go for it. Seek those opportunities and eat up the lessons they throw at you. And, I look forward to seeing your resume in my inbox next time around.

Sincerely,

MT

 

 

 

What I’m taking with me

By Marieve Murphy, intern, energi PR.

It feels like just last week I was walking into the energi PR office, eager and a little nervous about my first day. Now, three months later, I’m wrapping up my internship and taking a moment to reflect on my time here.  No two days have been the same; it’s been an exciting journey with challenges and successes along the way.  I’ve been constantly amazed at how adaptable my colleagues are; observing how they handle numerous situations and approach their day to day workload has taught me so much about the industry. In my time here I know I’ve learnt things that can’t be taught in a classroom or studied in a textbook. There really is no replacement for hands-on experience, and I’d like to share what I’m taking away from my time at energi.

  1. It’s All in the Details: A lot goes on in the office on any given day, and some days it feels like my inbox is overflowing! But one of the most valuable things I learned is that the details really do matter. Taking the time to personalize an e-mail, or making a quick thank you call to someone who went out of their way for you can make all the difference.

 

  1. The Art of Prioritizing: It really amazes me how calm, cool and collected my colleagues remain even when work piles up quickly. I quickly learned that prioritizing your workload is not only effective, but it can seriously reduce stress. It may seem simple, but writing a prioritized list of your tasks and checking them off one by one brings a surprising amount of satisfaction.

 

  1. Asking for Help: For some reason, asking for help in the workplace can be seen as a sign of weakness, but asking for help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. I’ve learned that having a second pair of eyes or ears is invaluable. Most of our best or most innovative ideas have been a result of brainstorming as a whole team.

 

  1. Celebrating your successes: It’s been pretty cool to be a part of a team that takes the time to celebrate each other’s successes, and it’s taught me that recognizing each other and even your own achievements is important! It’s motivating for the whole team and I really think it paves the way for future successes.

 

Lastly, the friendships that I’ve made in my time here are the most important take away. I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming, supportive and fun group of colleagues to work with.  Along the way they offered a lot of guidance, some great advice and a ton of laughs.  As I’m leaving I want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone at energi for all that you’ve taught me in the past three months! I’m leaving with new skills, great friendships and fond memories. Thank you!

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Marieve Murphy

Marieve Murphy

Investing in the Future of PR: Here’s why you should care about the students of today

Written by Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist, energi PR.

I get it, working in PR is busy.  But we’re not the only ones juggling packed schedules. Between working, household errands and family obligations, maintaining a semblance of a social life can be a challenge. Now, on top of this, we’re often asked to meet with, and/or mentor, students and young professionals. It might seem like an unnecessary addition to an already full agenda, but I disagree. Here’s why:

1 – Pay it forward: Yes, I am referring to the movie with Helen Hunt and that little boy from the Sixth Sense. If you make the time, and we can all make time, to help, it’s likely that you’ll encourage the same giving behaviour in the person you’re meeting. So when they’re in your shoes, they’ll look back and listen to that little angel on their shoulder telling them to do a good thing.

2 – You were once them: Kinda like invasion of the body-snatchers, but not really. There was a time when you were fresh out of school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (I still don’t get that reference) and you needed advice on how to get started in your career. If you were fortunate, a kind soul took pity on you and taught you the ropes and, if not, well then you know how hard it can be.

3 – You never know where they’ll go: PR is a small industry and if you switch Kevin Bacon for yourself in the Six Degrees of Separation game, you’ll likely connect to everyone. That fresh-faced practitioner could end up working with your newest client and it would probably help to be on their good side. Also yet another helpful reminder as to why you should never burn a bridge.

So next time you get an email or LinkedIn message from a student asking to meet for coffee, say yes.  Volunteering your time is a great way to give back and if it leads to a new friendship or business connection that’s just an added bonus.

How tilting your pelvis can help your business

Written by Marlo Taylor, partner and general manager, energi PR.

Four or five months ago, I joined a new gym. It really is a wonderful place featuring two brilliant trainers. Let’s call them Brian and Francis, which makes sense, given that their names are Brian and Francis.

Brian and Francis are everything you’d hope for in a trainer: knowledgeable, kind, challenging. But they share a knack for summarily ruining every exercise I used to enjoy from single leg dead lifts to planks. The problem? The pelvic tilt.

It would seem that my pelvis is a lazy little rascal (seriously, who would have thought I’d ever type that sentence?). It would rather hang out and wait for my work out to be over than hold itself tilted and tight in proper form. Every single time it seems Brian or Francis have to remind me to pause and reset my pesky pelvis. The challenge is that it makes every exercise exponentially harder. Harder in a “I @#$^! hate this” sort of way.

Recently, as I was hip bridging my way through my warm up with the requisite pausing and resetting, I realized I was stronger. The movement was more fluid and I could tackle even the most challenging parts of my work out with greater ease. Could that tiny, consistent really account for the dawning of this new workout day?

As I was sharing this aha moment with Francis, it struck me that businesses could learn from this simple approach.

The business of public relations is made up of a number of tasks that, over time, risk being done somewhat by rote. Press releases, media monitoring and outreach, even writing and planning have the potential to become stale. There is a tendency to succumb to what is known, comfortable, and, often, even tried and true. This is where businesses can stagnate. Where they stop pushing to bigger and better things. Where creativity dies.

So, with my tilted pelvis a-blazing, I challenged my team to start 2015 with a commitment to that moment of extra thoughtfulness and purposeful movement in mind. It adds nothing to someone’s work load to pause, and think: Do I have everything I need to perform this task to the best of my ability? Is there anything else I can add to this process? Is there any change I should make before proceeding?

This pause also reinforces to young, dynamic and keen team members, that their thoughts and ideas are important. It opens doors to their input in strategic decisions and encourages them to suggest ways in which we can all do – and think – better. Small, incremental improvements mean we finish the task stronger and better than we were before. It might seem harder at first (see aforementioned dead lifts and planks) but the aha moment isn’t far away.

As we all know, businesses and clients thrive when we apply the best of what we know to each task and situation. But that is true even when the conversations are harder. Even when we’re tired and “good enough” might meet the expectation. Even when our clients are happy (isn’t that a kicker?). Even then there is room to ask ourselves: Do I have everything I need to perform this task? Is there anything else I can add to this process? Is there any change I should make before proceeding?

Sometimes, improving efficiency and effectiveness is complicated. And, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, you just need to reset, take a breath, and expect the best of your team and their ability to think and perform. So tilt away and if you ever run into Brian and Francis remember to say thanks.

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Marlo Taylor

Marlo Taylor

New Year, New De-Stressed You.

Post written by Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist, energi PR.

Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps in hope that the combined unity and benchmark of a new calendar year will help them stick. Unfortunately it’s a sad reality that most of these plans begin fizzling out come March (just look at gyms for an easy example).

If you work in public relations, chances are you’re familiar with stress. Last year, the industry ranked sixth in the annual CareerCast.com list of most stressful jobs alongside positions in the military, firefighters and airline pilots. Unfortunately for PR practitioners, this doesn’t come as a surprise, as public relations has been a fixture on these delightful lists.

Knowing that your mental health is just as important as your physical health, I wanted to share some tried and true tips for managing your stress levels in the office.

  1. Get up every hour: Whether it is to stretch or take a quick walk, a break from the screen can do wonders.
  2. Cut back on the coffee: I know it’s hard, but you won’t miss the jitters, believe me. If you suffer from anxiety, you know that it’s recommended to cut down the caffeine and there are many tasty and healthier alternatives from herbal teas to even decaf coffee if you can’t forgo the flavour.
  3. Stay hydrated: Coffee doesn’t count, so make a trip to office water cooler or kitchen (because I’ve not seen a cooler since the mid-2000s). Not only will it get you moving and away from your desk, it will prevent you from overeating and make your insides happy.
  4. Make friends: Work can be stressful and nothing beats having a support system when times get tough. Even if you’re not the most social person outside of work, having someone to vent to or bounce ideas off is invaluable. So consider eating in the lunchroom instead of your desk for once.
  5. Work-life balance: Try not to get in the habit of spending all your evenings at the office. Unless you’re on a hard deadline, leave at a reasonable time, or bring your work home. That way at least you can work in sweats on the couch, while watching the Kardashians… or, CBC. Definitely CBC.

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Lauren Wasley

Lauren Wasley

The Way We Were…and Should be Again

By Esther Buchsbaum,  co-founder, energi PR 

I was recently inspired by a colleague’s blog on his family business and the true meaning of “work ethic” and “customer service”.  It gave me a warm and welcoming feeling like the kind I get when I walk into my local bakery or grocery store or butcher.  There’s something inherently comforting knowing that I am being valued and appreciated and that the standard of product and service I will be receiving will be impeccable.  It makes me want to come back – again and again.

I am very loyal.  I had the same hairdresser for 30 years, I travel out of my way to visit the “cheese guy”  who I trust implicitly to design my après dinner delights, and I bow to my favourite sushi chef who I allow to tell me what I want for dinner as opposed to the other way around.  Why would I want to look elsewhere?

That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.  It’s all about the quick hit, short term gain, instant gratification; people don’t seem to want to take the time, nor expend the energy, they want it all and they want it now.  Well, relationships, the foundation upon which a solid public relations practice is built, cannot be forced nor can they be rushed.  Corporations who get “it” enjoy longevity, stability and brand loyalty through the generations.  And when they screw up, cause people inevitably do, then I have no problem giving them the benefit of the doubt and cutting them slack. Cause that’s what friends do.

Keep Peggy Olson’s ambition, but ditch the drab duds

Written by:Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist at energi PR, Toronto.

With Mad Men on its final run, it’s time to follow suit and modernize your workplace attire

We’re not accountants or corporate lawyers, but why do many PR agency professionals insist on dressing the part? This question plagues my mind at night as I toss and turn amidst bouts of insomnia, counting the tiny number of bumps in my popcorn ceiling.

Ok, that was mildly exaggerated, BUT it is a topic I often think about.

As a professional in a creative field, it makes sense to show a little bit of personality and style when dressing for the job. Now, I’m not saying wear flip flops and overalls to the office, because they’re never ok, but I do think it’s time to leave the 1960s rule book at home.  Yes, Don Draper is THE MAN, I get it, but restrictive suits, ties and (for women) nude pantyhose don’t need to be your every day.

Now there are times when it’s appropriate, of course. For example, your agency could be pitching a conservative client; attending a high level meeting or presenting at a global conference. All scenarios where you might want to find your Sunday best.

But what if you’re in a brainstorm for the latest energy drink? Or working with a fashion-forward new designer? As PR professionals we’re expected to be in-the-know and “on trend” and sometimes that ill-fitting tweed blazer with oversized shoulder pads isn’t the best demonstration of that.

Just like food, exercise and sleep, fashion trends should be used in moderation. Brightly painted nails, leather biker jackets, colourful socks and even (gasp!) jeans can be incorporated into your wardrobe if you’re properly prepared. Just leave a spare blazer and nice shoes in the office and you’ll be fancied up in no time. Seriously, Superman will have nothing on you.

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Lauren Wasley

Lauren Wasley

 

After July 1st, will you be King of the CASL? Or Just a Dirty Rascal?

If there is any doubt about whether I am frustrated, cynical or just plain grumpy over this CASL law, the answer is yes to all three. I might feel differently if I was a lawyer, or could have one permanently on staff, but that’s not the case.

As CEO of energi PR, a mid-sized, independently owned, Canadian public relations firm, I am trying to understand why Canada’s anti-spam law needed to be so complicated and costly to implement. The law applies to all individuals and businesses sending commercial electronic messages (CEMs) and so, ignorance or a lack of sophistication or resources will presumably not be an excuse to be deviant. And so the rational part of my brain says, wait a minute all you small and medium-sized business that form the cornerstone of the Canadian economy and are trying to do business, win business and stay in business, why would anyone want to penalize those Canadian businesses who do not send SPAM? Ours is the business of public relations. We tell stories. From important medical discoveries to the colour of a new lipstick – and everything in between. Those who take these stories and develop them for their audiences and communities generally want to hear from us and, even when they occasionally might become annoyed by a bit of persistence, they would hardly describe our email communications as SPAM.

Yes, we want to ENLARGE our client’s business and our own, but does this compare in any way with penis enlargement supplements, the latest weight loss scheme or an invitation to meet the woman or man of your dreams?

Make no mistake. energi PR is CASL compliant. We’ve distributed our consent requests, hired one of the country’s most knowledgeable internet law specialists, engaged our IT team, implemented a contact management system, ensured that our email signatures provide an unsubscribe function, trained our team, documented our procedures and anointed a Compliance Officer. Can you imagine any better use of our resources?

As I said at the start of this rant, I am tired and grumpy about all of the machinations and cost that CASL has imposed. But I am also sympathetic to those in PR and in other businesses who simply do not have the wherewithal to jump into the CASL action.. The Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms, an industry association that represents more than 25 of Canada’s leading PR firms, of which energi PR is a founding member, has further supported its members by obtaining its own legal opinion that focuses on our stock and trade, including communications with journalists. The Canadian Public Relations Society webinar explaining CASL is another valuable resource for our profession.

I agree that SPAM is annoying and efforts should be made to eliminate it. I also don’t think that the authors of CASL were intentionally mean-spirited. But sometimes even the very best of intentions come back to bite one on the butt. My sense is that CASL will have little impact on the email junk we’ve received to date and convinced that unnecessary obstacles have been put in place for honest, legitimate individuals and companies that want to be profitable and contribute to Canada’s economy and society. I would have much rather have made a charitable donation than pour thousands of dollars into CASL compliance.

As a final note. I started in business before fax machines were invented. Who knows, maybe making the Canadian commercial email message such a villain will force us back into personal business interaction, which wouldn’t be so bad.

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Carol Levine (@Carol_levine) is co-founder and Managing founder of energi PR, digital, communications, an award-winning independently owned Canadian PR consultancy established in 1990 with offices in Toronto and Montreal. energi PR is the Canadian affiliate of the Public Relations Global Network, providing expertise in consumer and healthcare public relations to national and multinational brands. Carol is the immediate past Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations firms and is a 2013 Inductee in the Canadian Healthcare Marketing Hall of Fame as well as a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

Feeling entitled? You won’t get a glass slipper working in PR.

Written by:Lauren Wasley, Creative Media & PR Strategist at energi PR, Toronto.

Maybe I’m getting old, but after almost seven years in the industry I’m beginning to feel a growing sense of disconnect between myself and many of the new graduates I’ve met lately. I grew up with parents who ingrained that hard work pays off ethic into me at an early age. My first job, at 14, was a paper route which I thoroughly despised (braving the elements with a cart full of newspapers is not my forte), and so as soon as I was able I get a “proper” job, I did. It was at a pharmacy and that job remained a constant fixture in my life for a good seven years as I went through numerous other part-time jobs and paid my way through school.

But I digress.

The root of this disconnect is this sense of entitlement that seems to exist in today’s young workforce. New PR school graduates may have the theory down, but doesn’t mean they are immediately capable of putting it into practice. A good PR practitioner has years of experience under their belt. Media monitoring and reporting, for example, is often viewed with disdain, but it’s actually an ideal task to ease new PR practitioners into their roles.  So what am I missing? Do they not realize the importance of this vital task? Securing and sharing editorial coverage is what we get paid for. Arguably, it is one of the most important tasks we do, alongside media relations.

The industry has also advanced a lot in the years since I was an intern. I remember having to come in earlier than my colleagues to read each newspaper and magazine. This was followed by ninja-like Google searches. Then I’d scan and format each clip one by one in a nicely formatted word document and evaluate MANUALLY to get a dollar value (ruler and calculator in hand).

Nowadays most agencies use programs like Cision which do all this for you – that’s right, all of it. See these new graduates are unlikely to ever experience a world where newspaper-stained fingers are a daily occurrence, or where sourcing event decor or product for a mailer meant running around Chinatown in the middle of a snowstorm in 4 inch heels. They can just go online.

I think what new graduates need to understand is that in every job, and at every level, there is some tedious (and maybe undesirable) work to be done. It’s inescapable. But, if you can check your ego at the door, you’ll be just fine, trust me.

Lauren Wasley

Lauren Wasley