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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Burger King and Jeep got screwed in social media... and how MTV took advantage.

It's been a rough week in social media for some major American corporations.

On Monday, hackers broke into Burger King's official Twitter account and proceeded to tweet out inappropriate messages to the company's thousands of followers. Among other things, "Burger King" claimed to have sold to McDonald's. Mass confusion, and hilarity, ensued.

Picture from

The account was eventually suspended, and when it was restored a short time later, things were back to normal.

Not too long after, a similar situation befell the official Jeep Twitter account, saying they were "sold to Cadillac." Perhaps learning from the Burger King debacle, the account was restored relatively quickly.

Picture from

And since these things tend to occur in threes, the official MTV account appeared to be hacked shortly thereafter. However, it was later revealved that the MTV hack was just a promotional tactic to advertise a new MTV program, titled, appropriately enough, "What the Hack." MTV used a potentially disastrous scenario to promote their programming, in a tongue-in-cheek method that's consistent with their tone and messaging. Well played, MTV.

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Some are saying the three hacks were connected from the start as part of an elaborate ruse to promote MTV. Judging by some of the racier tweets from Burger King, however, I wouldn't be so sure.

So, what do you think?

Do the advantages of social media outweigh the potential disasters? Did these hacks damage the Burger King and Jeep brands? And was the faux-MTV hack clever marketing, or a risky move with little pay-off?

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Super Bowl, Ugly Beyonce, and Propagandhi.

Well, it's that time of year.

The time of year when assignments pile up, deadlines approach menacingly, and students everywhere start losing their collective minds.

I, of course, am no exception to this rule. And while it's a shameful excuse for neglecting my blogly duties, I must say that maintaining a weekly blog has unfortunately fallen to the bottom of my priority list. For shame, Laina Hughes! For shame indeed.

And what has happened in the world of PR over the past few weeks? Enough to make any PR maven's head spin (get it? Spin? Har har).

Here's a small smattering of the excitement:

The Super Bowl was blacked out.

Beyonce was ugly.

Applebee's fired an employee because she (gasp!) went against policy, and the Internet got enraged.

And my boy Lance Armstrong continues to do what he do.

In personal news, I'm in the process of self-publishing my very first book, promoting it, and planning a launch party. Find out more about where most of my blood, sweat, and tears have been going these past few months at and the event listing at McNally Robinson.

It's a tricky part of human nature that seems to make the brain (or at least my brain) shut down and lose motivation right when things get hectic and it's most needed. It doesn't help we're in the depths of winter here in Winnipeg and it's cold and gloomy outside. I've found one foolproof method of combating this, and while I've only used it a few times, it's always worked like a charm.

When in doubt, I listen to Propagandhi's Failed States and drink a pot of coffee. It's a definite departure from my usual mellow acoustic guitar jams and green tea, but it always equals instant energy and motivation.

It works for me, but what works for you? Tell me your secrets, readers! What do you do to stay motivated while stressed?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

...I still like Lance Armstrong.

I don't know why I care so much about Lance Armstrong.

It's not like I have much invested in all this. I'm not a competitive cyclist. I'm not a cancer survivor, nor have I ever had a close relationship with one. I've never donated money to the Livestrong foundation. I've barely even watched the Tour de France, even though my dad insisted on it when I was growing up and would often force us all to gather round to absorb it for hours on end.

I ride a bike. I think I appreciated the fact that this guy came along - a somewhat average-looking, normal kind of guy - and made a traditionally dweeby sport somewhat less dweeby for a short time.

But that's not it, really.

What it is, is I love a story. I love a really great, sink-your-teeth-into-it story. And that is exactly what Lance Armstrong was.

Lance Armstrong was the American Dream. He came from nothing growing up. He was diagnosed with a terrible, life-ruining disease, and he beat it.

Lance Armstrong beat cancer and went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. The world's longest, toughest bike race, won by an American guy with a hard life and the world cheering him on.

I'm not even American, but I guess I'm close enough to it that this sort of stuff really gets to me. But then - it's not even a traditional American dream story. Lance Armstrong wasn't a quarterback, or a point guard. He was a skinny guy who rode a bike (something I have a bit of a soft spot for).

And then, alas. We know the rest.

I can't condone what he did. I know he raised millions of dollars for cancer research, but I know he stepped on several peoples' backs to do it. He was a bully. He was, in his own words, "an arrogant prick."

All I can say is, at least he finally admitted it. In a venue, I think, appropriate for his story - an interview with Miss America herself, Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is a sympathetic, no-nonsense sort of interviewer  - which is why I think he went to her instead of the Wolf Blitzers, Anderson Coopers, or various sports journalist pundit-types of the world.

In that interview, I appreciated his straightforward answers. I appreciated that he didn't throw anyone under the bus, and the only person he insulted was himself. I appreciated how nervous he looked, how small he seemed hunched over in his chair, while Oprah sat tall and regal.

And yes, I appreciate that he probably went through hours of media training to get that combination of remorse and self-disgust just right. I fell for it, so sue me.

To be honest, though, I didn't watch the whole thing. I felt like I got the gist of it after half an hour. So if I missed something vital/juicy, please let me know.

I can't say I'm not disappointed, or a little embarrassed for falling for the story for so long. But I also can't say that I hate him, and maybe that makes me silly and naive.

I still like Lance Armstrong. Maybe not for long, but for now. As the story continues to unfold - and indeed, it seems everyday there's some new development - it's inevitable my feelings will change. But for now, I just can't hate him.

Back in September, at the beginning of the school year, I told my PR instructor I wanted to do a presentation on Lance and how he'd dealt with having his titles stripped. I wondered if the topic was still relevant enough, and my instructor told me that she thought it would be topical for a good, long time. How right she was!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Is there a place for opinion in traditional media?

I recently wrote a decidedly snarky article for the University of Winnipeg's weekly newspaper, the Uniter. My editor gave me free reign to do with it as I pleased, and so I wrote it with what I thought was a goofy, fun tone. It was for the Culture section of the paper, which can consist of lighter, opinion-based pieces with a focus on the writer's voice, rather than the hard leads of the News section or the stats and scores of Sports.

The Uniter Volume 67, Number 13.

The thing is, not everyone gets my sense of humor. And that's okay! I figured the label of the 'culture' header would alert those who read it not to take it seriously - it's just me trying (probably too hard) to be funny.

That's not how human nature works, though. When we read something that strikes us, we don't step back and contextualize it. And why would we? If we take offense to something, it's hard to forgive it based on its context.

Given that a lot of people consume their news these days online, article by article, instead of sitting down and reading a paper from front to back, is it still worth it to separate 'news' and 'opinion'? Are we setting ourselves up for disaster and mixed messages if someone reads a a column or opinion piece - without seeing it within the context of its section - and interprets it as news?

Even then, though - if someone interprets something the way it's meant to be interpreted they have every right to be offended. Just because we might rub someone the wrong way, should we still censor ourselves? As long as we're not spouting hate speech, can we say whatever we want and run the risk of hurting peoples' feelings?

Anyway. What do you think? Is there a place for columns and opinion pieces in traditional media, or should people like me keep snarkiness for the safety of our own personal social media sites (or just keep it to ourselves)?

"I'm just second hand news I'M JUST SECOND HANDS NEEWWWSS!" (I'll take any excuse to post some Fleetwood Mac)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sephora versus Lush: the Battle of Target Audiences

Last week, one of my very good friends was in town and I was lucky enough to have her stay with me for a few days.
Looks just like us! Picture from

Because she lives in a small town, my friend always likes to hit up the mall when she's in town to soak up the excitement of the big city life (and the glorious shopping that simply does not exist in the Gillam Co-op store).

We hit the second floor of the local mall where two of our favourite stores are located. Lush for me, and Sephora for her.

Although the two stores specialize in beauty products, their target audiences could not be more different. True, they both appeal to women, but one sells high-end make-up for those who know what they're doing with it, and the other specializes in organic bath products for those looking to pamper themselves without feeling too guilty.

Each brand knows itself and its audiences very well. When we walked into Sephora, I'm not sure I even registered on the staff's radar, yet they made a beeline for my friend. Despite the fact I didn't plan on buying anything, I felt a little snubbed.

We walked next door to Lush, and the tables turned. The salespeople swarmed me like bees to honey (which, coincidentally, is a main ingredient in many of their products), urging me to try this new product and that new shampoo, and telling me about the latest sales. My friend quietly perused the products, left in the dust.

When we got home later that day, we talked about how left out we each felt in the other's store of choice. I remembered what I'd learned about marketing and target audiences - how it's better to appeal to one specific audience rather than saying "there's something for everyone."

But is that bad customer service? What do you think?

Friday, November 9, 2012

News conferences for newbies

Yesterday, I helped put on my very first news conference. And it was great.

It was a fictional scenario for a school project, but we treated it like the real deal. My group and I put together a stellar media kit, came up with a concept for the conference itself, and timed everything out perfectly.

Is this thing on? [Picture from]

It went amazingly well, and when it was all said and done, all the blood, sweat, and tears we'd put into it were worthwhile.

It was also a great learning experience. Here are the top four lessons I've taken away from putting on a news conference:

1. The media's primary concern is getting a story.
For the purposes of this project, the media covering our story were the journalism and media production students from my school program. When they came into the studio to start setting up for the conference, it was very clear they were there for one thing and one thing only: getting a story, and getting it quick.

Journalists are busy people, and it's great if you've created a beautiful set-up complete with refreshments and decorations, but their primary objective is setting up their camera equipment then getting out of there as soon as possible to write and edit their stories.

2. Technical difficulties happen to the best of us.
I believe that technology is inherently evil and out to destroy mankind. That's why microphones don't work when we need them to, or the video cuts out at the prime moment. It's not our fault, it's the robot revolution taking over. And we can't blame ourselves if these things go down during a news conference, and it's certainly not going to make the news if your mike didn't work. The media are there to get a story, and a faulty mike is hardly a scoop.

3. There's no I in team.
I love cliches. This one speaks for itself, really - this was a major group project and couldn't have happened without everyone getting along. I was lucky to have been put in a wonderful group where everyone got along and contributed. Some people take the lead, and others follow directions. As long as everyone knows their role and is open to suggestions and directions, everything will be a breeze.

My lovely team of PR superstars. Photo courtesy of Amy Tuckett.

And last but certainly not least...

4. Know your key messages!
After your announcement is over, it's the media's turn to grill you for answers. You have to know your key messages like the back of your hand before they have a chance to stump you. And they will always, always ask you something you didn't prepare for - but you can always, always answer in a way that communicates the positivity of your announcement. Whenever I was stumped, I would take a short pause, address the journalist's question, but tie it up in a way that reiterated my key messages. I hope I pulled it off okay...!

And there you have it. A year ago, I wouldn't have thought I had it in me to take part in something like this. It's a testament to the Creative Communications program, my instructors, and my classmates that I was able to accomplish something I never expected to be capable of.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Be first, be right, be credible: Major Mike Lagace and crisis communications

Earlier this week, my friend Amy Tuckett and I headed down to a CPRS (Canadian Public Relations Society) luncheon and workshop between classes. We had the opportunity to listen to Major Mike Lagace, public affairs officer for the Canadian Armed Forces, speak about his experiences in crisis communications.

Major Lagace has extensive experience working both for the Winnipeg Police Service and the armed forces, so to say he's had his fair share of crises to deal with would be an understatement.

He was there when J.J. Harper was killed. He was there for the flood of '97.

The flood of '97 hits the Red River Valley. Picture from

While we've covered crisis communications pretty extensively in school, it was great to hear to a PR veteran share some of his personal stories and advice.

His main message was: Be first. Be right. Be credible.

If your organization has been hit with a crisis, you need to respond immediately to the media and your audiences. Even if you don't have the exact details of the situation, any comment will help.

And the more empathetic you are, the better. 

Major Lagace emphasized that messages of empathy should come before messages of sympathy. In other words, it's better to say "We've all been affected by this flood and we will get through it together," than "I feel sorry for the people who've been affected by the flood."

And, obviously, you should be genuine in what you're saying.

While it's important to be first, that still means you have to be credible. Major Lagace showed us a video clip of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, discussing his first reactions to September 11. Giuliani said the media wouldn't quit until he gave an exact number of those who died that morning, which of course, no one knew quite yet.

Giuliani's response was, "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately."

Rudy Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001. Picture from

 Giuliani was simultaneously first, right, credible, empathetic, and genuine.

If you don't know all the facts of a crisis, give facts in increments. Communicate your messages as you know them. But remember that the first message you communicate is the one your audiences will remember most. That's why you always want to be right.

If, in your first interview with the media, you say, "We think around a million people died in this flood," but during your next interview you say, "You know what, I was wrong. Only a thousand people died," guess which quote will stick in peoples' minds?

Major Lagace also told us that statistics carry more weight than anecdotes. You'll be more convincing if you include statistics in your key messages.

Above all, Major Lagace told us that, during times of crisis, we should allow people the right to feel fear. Don't be patronizing or dismissive. We can empower our audiences and promote action - let them know what they can do to feel safe, while letting them know it's natural to feel afraid.

 Explosions in the Sky - It's Natural to Be Afraid

While I hope I never have to deal with crises on the same scale as those Major Lagace has handled, I now feel a bit more prepared.

What do you think? Do these ideas make sense, or is this all a bunch of PR spin-doctor mumbo-jumbo? Let me know!