The Many Facets of Public Relations

As the end of the Public Relations and Marketing Management program draws near, I was recently asked about what aspect of Public Relations interested me the most. A simple enough question, right? So why have I spent the last few days perplexed about the answer?

I am sometimes a creature of habit. I have the same thing for breakfast every morning. Based on that behavior, you’d think I’d have a firm opinion of what I like best. But, that’s not always the case. As I have been pondering the question, poet William Cowper’s famous quote keeps popping in my head: “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”

I love the fact that public relations has so much variety to it. We certainly witnessed this while examining countless case studies, awareness campaigns, PSA’s, and PR strategies. As a public relations professional you might be tasked with building awareness, maintaining reputation, changing perception, shifting opinion, inspiring change, or even managing a crisis about a company, brand, or issue. Each case will be different as you research the situation in order to get a better understanding of the issues to illuminate the needs and interests of your audience. Only after gaining that, can you start to develop the rest of the strategy of how you are going to achieve your goals.

During my courses, I have enjoyed the challenge of developing strategies in favor of issues or companies that were in opposition to my own personal opinion and values. I have been inspired by the many campaigns that either touched my heart, made me laugh, or forced me to think differently. We discussed and dissected events, issues, campaigns, and strategies to understand the mechanisms of good and bad PR.

Underlying it all, is the ability to communicate stories uniquely and effectively – in a way that engages either the heart, or the mind. This is the lesson I will carry forward professionally. Variety will keep it interesting and challenging, while the heart is in the storytelling.




The Unravelling of the Pink Ribbon



Great PR campaigns are inspiring and uplifting. Some of them leave you in awe thinking, “Wow, how creative”. Conversely, other public relations communications leave you shaking your head thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe they did that”. Both types provide a rich source of learning.

One major PR misstep can, unfortunately, unravel and damage the long, hard built reputation of an organization overnight. This was the case for Susan G. Komen for the Cure® when, in late 2011, the organization decided to cut its $650,000 funding to Planned Parenthood, whom they had been supporting since 2005. Planned Parenthood had been using this funding for cancer screenings and education.

Susan G. Komen, founded in 1982, is the best funded and most widely recognized breast cancer organization in the United States. They were the first to use the pink ribbon, which has become an iconic symbol for breast cancer awareness. They have raised and invested almost $2 billion in breast cancer research, community outreach, advocacy and programs. Simply put, they are huge.

The decision to cut the funding to Planned Parenthood was based on a newly implemented policy stating they would not fund organizations under federal investigation. Once the story broke in 2012, many criticized the move as politically motivated and bowing to the pressures of anti-abortion groups. Komen provided funds to 2,000 organizations, yet Planned Parenthood is the only one they broke ties with even though others, like Penn State University and Parkland Memorial Hospital, were also under congressional investigation. The decision appears to have been made shortly after Karen Handel, a former Republican candidate and prominent anti-abortion critic, became the organization’s senior vice president for public policy.

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen, denied the allegations of political pressure and said that their position has been “mischaracterized”.

In the meantime, Planned Parenthood sent out a request to supporters to help raise money to replace the lost funds. Social media sites, like Facebook ,Twitter and YouTube, go crazy with pro-Planned Parenthood and anti-Susan G. Komen messages, making the story go viral . Within 24 hours the lost funding is replaced and three days later it reaches $3 million. In the 24 hours after the story first hit in January 2012, Komen was ominously silent except to remove negative postings from their Facebook page.

Susan G. Komen later reversed its decision in February, but by then the damage had been done. Not only did they receive a ton of negative press, staff and board members started leaving the organization, they began to lose financial support, and their reputation was greatly diminished.

I find this case so interesting because it shows how quickly things can fall apart. An organization can be doing all the right things for a long time when one major blunder cuts deeply to undue all that hard work. This case demonstrates the importance of transparency, responding quickly and honestly in times of crisis and the need for forethought into how your actions might affect your loyal supporters.


Similar to the one-hit wonders and forgotten celebrities that inspired VH1 to ask ” Where Are They Now?“, many are asking that same question of Occupy Wall Street (OWS).  Beyond any political views of the movement and the ideology behind it, more curious is the management of the Occupy movement from a public relations perspective. An article by Patrick Coffee in PRNewser asks the question: “Was Occupy Wall Street a PR Failure?” They did so many things right. What went wrong?

How it began

 It all started with a simple blog post on July 13, 2011 in which Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist organization, proposed 20,000 people gather together in lower Manhattan for a peaceful demonstration against greed and corruption in the spirit of the demonstrations in Spain and Egypt. From there, the movement began to take on a life of its own. What began as a grass roots campaign, quickly spread to hundreds of cities in over 80 countries. Social Media, like Facebook and Twitter, helped the movement go viral. It was getting world attention from the media and support from unions, celebrities, and politicians. In America, it inspired people to discuss the issues of income inequality, greed, and corruption. They even had a catchy phrase: “We are the 99%”. All good, right? So how did it fade in prominence and support as quickly as it sprang up?

What went wrong?

Many critics refer to internal strife and the fear of being co-opted as part of the organization’s downfall. The fear of being seen as a sell-out led many OWS activists to criticize and question the support they were receiving from celebrities and politicians (people in the 1%). They didn’t want to be seen as hypocrites. However, if your goal is to garner support and encourage change, you can’t start alienating your supporters, especially if any of those supporters have political power that you can harness to further your cause. Even the manner in which they have conducted their protests is alienating to the general public. You can’t just sit in a park with your fellow activists. You need to engage with the public in a more meaningful way, and that also requires putting a human face to the movement. They have no clear spokespeople and when you visit the website, there is no indication as to who is behind the movement. It’s almost as mysterious and cold as the large corporations they are opposing.

The internal strife highlights the biggest issues for OWS: leadership and direction. On its website, OWS defines itself as “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions”. Their call to action has not been updated since 2011, and even as such, it isn’t very clear on what they want people to do. Because of this lack of leadership, the movement has no clear goals, objectives, direction, message, or call to action. If people don’t know what they are supporting or how they should be supporting it to make real change, there is no sustainability.

What’s next?

For the Occupy movement to continue and succeed, they need to change how they operate. They need to address the leadership issue and develop a REAL strategic plan, complete with clear measurable goals, direction, and call to action. In order to move beyond their core group of activists and further their agenda, they will need to partner with other progressive groups that have similar values. All the while, they will need to evaluate their progress in achieving their goals, making adjustments to their plan, if needed, as they go.

The Power of Influence & Persuasion

We all have opinions about the things we see, read, and hear in our daily lives. These opinions and perceptions are influenced by a combination of factors: belief systems, morals, values, upbringing, attitudes, intellectual judgement, and emotional sentiment. Like many things in life, opinions aren’t static; they continue to evolve as we accumulate more information and learn.

Long-held opinions about a person, issue, or topic can be turned on a dime by a new piece of information or argument. Sometimes it takes more proof and persuasive reasoning for it to sway, especially if there is sentiment involved. In some instances the opinion changes positively, others not.

When opinion changes

For many years, doping rumours swirled around Lance Armstrong. I didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true. I idolized him as a Cycling God who overcame illness and adversity to achieve a record 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. Eventually, the proof was just too irrefutable, followed by his admission. I was extremely disappointed and my opinion of him changed dramatically. Naturally, I was dismayed to learn that he was guilty of doping, but what bothered me more was the length of time he spent denying and laying blame elsewhere combined with the meager apology once he came clean. He didn’t seem contrite at all. I might have forgiven him his sins if he had come clean years ago and showed true remorse.

From this example I learned, that sometimes, it’s not what someone does that changes your opinion, but rather, how they handle themselves afterwards.

Influence and persuasion come in many forms. We can be influenced by those closest to us, by leaders in society, and by the media. These influences often not only change our opinions, but also our behaviour in the decisions we make.



When behaviour changes

Morgan Spurlock‘s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me“, where he examines the fast food industry by subjecting himself to a month long diet of solely McDonald’s food, blew me away. It was surprising, shocking, and at times, just plain disgusting. I had been a fan of McDonalds when I was a kid (who wasn’t?), but after watching the movie and seeing the effect it had on his health, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking into a McDonald’s and ordering a meal. Nine  years later, I still won’t eat their hamburgers and fries. That movie changed my behaviour.

Influence and persuasion may not always change your behavior and actions, it might simply open your eyes to a different way of thinking about an issue.

When thoughts change

I used to think the sport of hunting was barbaric and senseless, until I dated a hunter. He explained to me that hunting was a regulated activity where you were required to complete a hunter education course and firearm safety training. There were also conservation limits on what and where you could hunt. And most importantly, in my eyes, was the fact that many hunters consume what they hunt; it isn’t just a kill sport. My opinion of hunting hasn’t 100% changed, but my eyes have been opened to another way of thinking about it.

As we walk through life, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on where our perceptions and opinions originate, be conscious of the influences that may change them, and be open to new ways of thinking. In doing so, we can make better informed decisions.

As a PR professional, it’s equally important to understand the underlying factors that form and shift public opinion, for those opinions and perceptions will have an impact on your company or brand.

The Knowledge Tree Grows


Source: Sylvie van Hulle

My Public Relations Fundamentals class has come to an end today. It culminated with a strategic plan presentation to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Our class was divided into 5 “agencies” that had to pitch their ideas to representatives of the Museum. It was an exciting opportunity within the class framework to present a real life scenario to an organization; that doesn’t happen very often. It was even more exciting to see all the creative ideas generated from the groups. Inspiring.

Working on this project and being in this class has taught me some very important lessons that I will carry forward into my professional career.

Hit the pavement

When researching, the internet and libraries are typically important, reliable, and let’s face it, somewhat easy resources of information. What happens if the information you find is several years old? It may no longer be relevant to your situation. It’s crucial that you find other ways to get the information you are looking for. That may mean getting out on the streets, talking to people to learn about public opinion that is current. Surveys, if you ask the proper questions, can provide a wealth of information quickly. When working on our project, I was surprised to see how many people were willing to help us out in our research. Don’t be afraid to get out there and ASK.

Let go of the ego

Working in groups on a project, brainstorming together to come up with, what you hope will be, the BEST IDEA EVER, can be challenging. Not all your ideas will be considered viable and that’s ok – the end goal is to come up with what’s best for the situation. Think it ends there? Not necessarily. Just when you think your group has come up with the perfect plan, you might get feedback from your client or your boss (in our case, instructor) that it’s not suitable. It doesn’t have the right tone, the right fit, the right message, the right whatever – it’s just not quite right.  So, it’s back to the drawing board. Don’t get discouraged, don’t take it personally. It may hurt for a moment, but it can spur you on to achieving something even greater.

Details, Details, Details

Developing a strategic plan is not just about having a great tactic or a great key message or using the right media platforms. It’s about making sure all the elements in your plan fit tightly together. It’s like putting together a puzzle. You might have all the pieces you need: research analysis, objectives, a target audience, a strategy, key messages, tactics, a budget, a timetable, and evaluation metrics. BUT… Do they fit together? Do they make sense? Is your key message suitable for your audience? Does your budget reflect your plan? Will your tactics help you achieve your strategy? Will your evaluation metrics measure the success of your objectives? And so on. Just like putting together a puzzle, sometimes when you are too close or focused too much on one part,  it’s hard to see the whole picture. It’s important to take a step back and look at the overall work. Ask someone else to review it with fresh eyes if you want a second opinion. It’s always good to do a final edit (or two) to ensure you’ve considered all the details that will make your plan cohesive

Play nicely with others

My final key takeaway from this class is the importance of being a team player. We were taught this at a young age when our parents told us to play nicely with others, and yet as adults, it doesn’t always happen when working in groups. It never fails to surprise me. Thankfully, I was working with a great group of women who were very supportive. We didn’t always agree on ideas, but we were always respectful. Other groups didn’t fare so well. In life, we can’t always work alone, in fact that rarely happens. We need other people to get stuff done. In order to work well with others, RESPECT is required. Be respectful of people’s feelings, ideas, working styles, communication styles, time, and deadlines. Appreciate your differences. Everyone brings a different skill set to the table and it’s important to recognize and harness it. Those differences make your team richer.

One last thought. LAUGH. Always try to have fun.

Have a crazy idea? Go for it!

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

Have you ever had an idea for a public relations campaign where everyone around you was saying: “You’re nuts, it won’t work”? Well, your crazy idea might just turn out to be a pivotal moment for your company, product, or brand.

Recently over coffee, I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend Clare MacKay, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for The Forks North Portage, who shared with me her crazy idea for a public relations campaign that, as she says, “changed people’s perception of winter in Winnipeg”.

Many people consider The Forks to be a great summer destination because of  the riverwalk, shops, restaurants, and attractions. How do you make this hip summer place the hot spot to visit in the dead cold of winter? Even more challenging, how do you do it on a shoestring budget?

Answer: Get listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

One day, it dawned on Clare that they could apply to have The Forks river skating trail declared the longest ice skating trail in the world. She recognized that this would be an effective PR tool to “maximize exposure of the trail while spending very little money”. In fact, the total cost to get the trail assessed and approved was $6000.

Normally, the Guinness World Record process, from start to finish, can take several months to a year. With hard work, Clare and her team were able to fast track it so they could have a media event surrounding the measurement of the trail and then three weeks later hold a press conference surrounding the certification of the record in early 2008.

The city of Ottawa, a long-time rival claiming to have the largest ice skating trail, soon got wind of this certification resulting in national exposure by many media outlets. In addition to local media, the campaign has been featured in the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, Canadian Living, Air Canada’s EnRoute, and WestJet’s Up!.

Every winter since 2008, The Forks continues to get media attention due to the rivalry with Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. The total earned media from all this is estimated at $1.1 million. The Forks is now a cool place to go in the winter, with many people taking pride in being able to say they skated the whole 8.54 km trail. In 2012, 45,000 pairs of skates were rented at The Forks.

Not bad for a crazy idea and a small budget.

As a soon-to-graduate PR student, I asked Clare for her top tips in approaching campaigns. These are her recommendations:

  1. Try everything once.
  2. Plan, but be flexible and adaptable to changes.
  3. Learn how to pitch to the sponsors who can help provide funding.
  4. Use PR every step of the way during a campaign. Don’t wait until the end to celebrate and promote what you achieve.
  5. The idea doesn’t have to be big to be good.

After listening to her story, I have one of my own to add: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and inspiring me, Clare.

Don’t forget the “R” in the RACE to develop your campaign

I think it’s human nature to want to get to where you’re going in a hurry, especially if you are excited about the end result. This couldn’t be more evident the other day in class when, in groups, we were discussing our public relations campaign assignment. In our enthusiasm for the project, we naturally jumped to discussing ideas for tactics in how we would carry out the campaign.

Whoa! Back up the bus.

In our race to get to the finish line (or at least to the good stuff), we forgot the most important first step in the RACE formula: RESEARCH. Of course it’s fun to start thinking of tactics because that’s where your creativity can shine, but jumping to tactics is like a doctor prescribing medication without examining the patient first. If you want your campaign to be successful, you need to understand the situation. In order to do that, you need to start with research.

Research will provide insight to what’s happening at that particular point in time: what people think and feel about the issue, what challenges you face, and what else is happening in the environment that may affect your campaign. Research will help you identify your audience, illuminate your strengths and weaknesses, and highlight your opportunities and threats. By examining what was done in the past, you can determine what wasn’t successful and make improvements. Research guides the development of your objectives, strategies, and tactics. Essentially, research provides the foundation for everything that comes after. It may be time consuming and not very exciting (unless you are a research/analytical type of person), but research is crucial to your campaign’s success.



I’m sure there are times when you see a campaign and wonder: “What were they thinking?” Well, a lot of people were doing just that when American Apparel launched their Hurricane Sandy Sale in 2012. The sale was targeted by email to customers in the affected states notifying them of the event with the caption: “In case you’re bored during the storm.” Bored? Really? It didn’t take long for the backlash to start with people tweeting about the company’s insensitivity and swearing to boycott the stores. The company failed to take a pulse on public opinion before coming up with their promotion. This is just one example of when failing to do research can not only hinder your campaign, but also harm your reputation.

A poorly planned campaign can affect a company under normal, everyday circumstances. What happens when a company is in the midst of a public relations crisis with their reputation already under fire? Getting it right has never been more important.



In 2010 British Petroleum (BP) was under fire after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. How they handled the situation is a defining  example of what not to do. It all started with CEO Tony Hayward’s regrettable statement to the press where he makes the tragedy all about him: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”[i] Apparently, this is not his only public gaffe.

In the 4 months following the spill, the company spent over $93 million dollars in local and national TV, radio, and newspaper advertising. This amount is 3 times the budget spent during the same time period the previous year. The company claimed the advertising was to inform the public about the clean-up efforts; however many critics viewed the ads simply as a means for the company to polish its image. Over $93 million spent on ads while affected business owners, fisherman, and others struggled for their livelihood due to the damage caused by the spill. I’m sure the ads were a great comfort to them. The money could have been better spent on the clean-up effort and supporting those affected.

Among the numerous mistakes the company made, they chose the wrong person to be their spokesperson and they failed to find out what the public needed from them in order to regain trust. Research could have helped prevent the mistakes they made. Of course, this is simply looking at the issue from the perspective of the public relations campaign at that particular point in time. The company, as later uncovered, was plagued with many other ethical issues as well. That topic would require its own blog post.

As tempting as it may be to jump to the tactics, ensure the necessary research is done first to get your campaign off to a good start.