Search This Blog

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 ipkitten.blogspot.com.

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 mcmurraymusings.com]


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 manitoba.ca.


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 nytimes.com

 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!
 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Don't be a jerk online - you could get fired

Earlier today, a friend of mine tweeted about an Ontario man who got fired from his retail job after his employers read something he posted online.

This CBC article tells of the London-area man who got fired for posting negative comments about the death of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide after being bullied online.

Amanda Todd. Picture from Wikipedia.   




The CEO of his company said their firm and swift action was appropriate, but this case highlights the growing grey area between our online and professional lives.

Surely whatever the man said was inappropriate, but did it really affect his work as a salesman at Mr. Big and Tall?

In my opinion, making negative comments about an unequivocally tragic story is tasteless and a definite comment on your character. I understand why he was fired - his actions are a direct reflection on his employer. Would you really want an unpleasant person working for you and representing your company?

But - what if he was an incredible employee? What if he was bringing in sales like nobody's business, and was singlehandedly responsible for the company's success - should he still be fired?

Oh snap. Picture from blog.jeroenhoekman.com.

What do you think? Is it fair to lose your job over something you said on the Internet - especially if it had nothing to do with your job? Were the folks at Mr. Big and Tall out of line for firing him, or right on the money? Let me know!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lance Armstrong: SAY IT AIN'T SO

Well, I'm afraid I must add an unfortunate addendum to my previous post on Lance Armstrong and the ethics of PR.

But at least it gives me an excuse to post my favourite Weezer song (for the second time in this blog's history):


The USADA has just come out with a whopper of a list of evidence against old Lance. Say it ain't so, Lance. Your drug is a heartbreaker, indeed.

I really was on his side, but now the evidence is more than just circumstantial.

To top things off, Lance refuses to respond to any of the charges, and is even considering taking a lie detector test to prove his innocence.

Picture from theglobeandmail.com


While all this goes on, Lance continues to promote his cancer charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. If you take a look at his Twitter feed, he has yet to acknowledge the scandal in tweet-form.

His key message remains the same: "I am a family man, I am a cancer survivor, and I am an advocate for finding a cure."

Given that he's helped raised millions of dollars for cancer research, does it really matter if he cheated? I know it's morally wrong, but some good came out if it, right?

What do you think?

Friday, October 5, 2012

KitchenAid: a lesson in issues management

Well, up until a few days ago, I didn't even know KitchenAid had a Twitter account. Though I suppose it makes sense - they're a well-known brand with an established target audience that is currently one of the biggest users of social media.

According to research from the Nielsen Company, women between 35 and 54 are most likely to do social networking on their mobile devices.

What else are women between 35 and 54 more likely to do? Use KitchenAid products.

It's safe to say the KitchenAid brand works hard to project a sort of down-home, motherly image. When you think KitchenAid, visions of freshly baked cookies and Sunday mornings in the kitchen with ma come to mind.

Ahh, the good old days! Picture from joecorbi.com.


Offensive slurs about the president and his dead grandmother? Not so much.

But that's exactly what went down during Wednesday night's presidential debate. Obama had mentioned his grandmother, who died three days before he was elected president. Moments later, @KitchenAidUSA tweeted the following message to its 25,000+ following:

"Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president'."

Yikes.

Given the language of the tweet and its inconsistency with the tone of the KitchenAid brand, it's pretty clear it was sent out by a member of the company's social media squad who forgot to switch over to their personal account before sending the message.

It's a common error, but it shouldn't have happened. KitchenAid responded quickly and efficiently to the faux-pas.

The tweet was quickly removed, but as we all know from first-year PR, once something's been put out there, it's out there for good. Luckily, KitchenAid CEO Cynthia Soledad (or her PR people) had the smarts to take matters into her own hands. She posted the following message on the company Facebook page:

"Hello, everyone. My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I am the head of the KitchenAid brand. I would like to personally apologize to President Barack Obama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier. It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I take full responsibility for my team. Thank you for hearing me out."

Picture from radaronline.com


She also responded directly to media and other followers on Twitter, and made herself available for interviews and to address any questions and complaints anyone had.

I'd say Soledad was extremely successful in handling an unfortunate situation. She was honest, transparent, and readily available for questioning. She didn't pass it off with a shrug and a "Everyone makes mistakes!". She took full responsibility for what happened.

But could she have prevented it from happening in the first place?

Whoever it was that sent out the offensive tweet probably has their own excuses for why they did it. They were drunk, angry, whatever. But could KitchenAid have prevented this whole debacle by not hiring this person to begin with? Did they do any background checks on the person before they were hired - including scouring their personal social media sites for inappropriate language and behaviour?

It may seem like invasion of privacy, but these days when you're applying for jobs in the communications field, you gotta make sure you're presenting yourself professionally at all times. Even online.

Except, maybe, if you're applying at KitchenAid.

 "Bad Communication" by Sufjan Stevens.

What do you think? Did KitchenAid handle this well? Will this affect their sales and bottom line? Will everyone forget about it a few days? Let me know!

Friday, September 28, 2012

How much is too much information?

When you're going through a tough time, it can be very, very hard not to bare it all on social media.

We've all seen it happen - a friend goes through a breakup, and suddenly every Facebook update, blog post, and tweet goes waaayyy too much in detail about how broken-hearted they are.

It's uncomfortable to read, and it makes you feel sorry for them. And probably not in the way they'd hoped.

Roy Lichtenstein's Crying Girl. From leninimports.com.


But, can such moves be helpful?

Last week, Susan Hurrell of Winnipeg web design company Modern Earth Designs gave an interesting presentation on search engine optimization to my marketing class. She mentioned the importance of keeping connected with your clients and building relationships.

She told us the story of a social media manager for an organization who was perusing her Twitter feed one Saturday evening. She read a tweet from the personal account from one of her company's major clients. The tweet said something like this, "Stood up again. Alone on Saturday night."

She quickly sent him a sympathetic tweet, and then on Monday morning had a bouquet of flowers and box of chocolates delivered to his office, with a note that said something like, "You're a great guy and deserve to feel special!" The whole stunt went viral, and garnered unprecedented coverage for her organization.

I Googled "sad tweet" and this came up. From laurenceborel.com.


Now, the cynic in me wants to think this was a move that took advantage of an individual's vulnerability in order to gain attention for a corporation.

But on other hand, the guy did post it on Twitter. Obviously he wanted some attention.

Posting such personal messages on Facebook and Twitter can also let your followers know why you haven't been performing up to par lately. Posting a sad tweet or status update informs your friends, instructors, and possibly employers on what's going on in your life, without having to have an awkward face-to-face talk about it.

In an age where it's becoming more and more socially acceptable to let it all hang out online, such moves are almost expected.

In my opinion, it's okay to post a couple cryptic updates here and there, but discretion is still key. As tempting as it may be, try not to rely too much on Facebook in times of trouble. There's nothing wrong with the old-fashioned way of dealing with pain - blasting Adele as you lie in bed with a tub of raw cookie dough (hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it).



What do you think? Has the Internet desensitized us to human emotion? Should we just keep our problems to ourselves, or is it okay to post them online? Let me know!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Winnipeg Free Press fires its best and brightest

Earlier this week, my local newspaper the Winnipeg Free Press laid off seven of its employees. Five reporters, an online editor, and a copy editor all got the ol' heave-ho from the paper, which is arguably the city's most-trusted and most-read print news source.

A Free Press cover from 1941. Photo from maritimequest.com


The cuts were based on seniority. The people fired were the ones who'd worked there the shortest time. They were also some of the youngest staffers, and the most well-versed and active on social media.

Truthfully, they were the only reporters I read, and could relate to.

In an industry that's constantly changing and trying desperately to remain relevant and attract a younger audience, you would think these reporters would be the paper's most valuable assets. But no. Alas.

It's funny how things work out sometimes.

While the Freep's layoffs surprised and disappointed me, I think what shocked me the most was the paper's own silence on the subject. Many other local media outlets covered it. It was all over Twitter. It was certainly not a secret, and yet there was nothing reported in the Free Press.

I understand this can be a conflict of interest, but I was expecting at least an official statement posted on the website. Something sincere and regretful from a senior editor, expressing disappointment in the reality that this is the way the business rolls, and wishing the best of luck to those let go. But not a word.

As a long-time Free Press reader and fan of the reporters who were let go, I would have appreciated some communication from those in charge.

Luckily a couple of the reporters who were let go let us in on the secret. Melissa Martin wrote a stunning blog post on the subject, as did Adam Wazny.

What do you think, readers? Did I miss something - did the Free Press comment on this after all, and I didn't see it? Was this a smart move by Free Press management, or just the way the cookie crumbles in this industry? Let me know!


EDIT: Long-time Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr. addressed the situation today in this piece. It appeared on the front page of the City & Business section.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Lance Armstrong and the ethics of PR

Lately I've been spending more time than usual thinking about Lance Armstrong.

Picture from Guardian.co.uk.

I'm sure we all know the story by now - Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, beat it, won seven Tour de Frances, started an insansly successful cancer charity, and was constantly accused of doping. He recently surrendered to the doping charges - without admitting he was guilty. He said he was tired of fighting and wanted to focus more on his family and his work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

A couple days ago in school, I did a presentation on Lance Armstrong from a public relations perspective. As a class, we discussed how well Armstrong had dealt with the controversies surrounding him. Under great pressure and with much evidence against him, he always came across as the bigger person. And with such a strong brand under his belt, it's not hard to see why.



The discussion veered towards ethics in PR. We wondered how we would act, if we were Lance's PR reps, if he were to admit to doping. Would our morals allow us to continue to represent a fraud? Or would we just keep doing it, because, well, that's our job?

It's a tough question. I'd like to think my morals would stand in the way of representing someone I disagree with, but it's hard to say. I've never been in that situation, and hopefully I never will.

I brought up the point that defense lawyers defend criminals everyday as part of their job. My instructor pointed out that lawyers are an entirely different profession - they have to take an oath before they can start practicing law. Public relations professionals strive to uphold a code of ethics, but really, you can practice PR if you want to.

There is currently no licensing in place for public relations pros. But should there be?

Edit: Ha! I just realised my PR instructor Melanie Lee Lockhart recently blogged about the same thing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

True Crime on Twitter

Earlier this week, the Quebec provincial election was soured by a tragic shooting. While Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois was in the middle of her victory speech, a man dressed in a bathrobe and ski mask opened fire, killing one man and injuring another.

Pauline Marois is escorted from the stage during her speech. Picture from lfpress.com.

I'm not here to lament the tragedy of what happened. It was unarguably sad, senseless, and shameful.

I'm here to talk about the response to what went on. Like most currents events, I first learned of this shooting on Twitter. As I scrolled through my feed throughout the election, the tweets ranged from the skeptical and jubilant ("Quebec's first female premier!" "The PQ won?! What does that mean for Canada?") to gradual horror and shock, as the first tweets reporting on the shooting started to roll in.

What caught my attention were the tweets from the official Twitter account of the Montreal police (or Police Montréal), retweeted by some Winnipeg journalists I follow. As Tuesday evening's events were unfolding, the Montreal police sent out a steady stream of tweets informing their followers of what was going on.

Display picture for Police Montreal (@SVPM).


I didn't follow the Montreal police on Twitter before Tuesday evening. I didn't know they had a Twitter account. I didn't even know police forces were allowed to have Twitter accounts, given the tight-lipped nature of the force in my own city, Winnipeg.

I can't pretend I understand the laws that state what the police and cannot say during times of crisis. But I remember this past June when a young woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment, the official statement from the police was that she died under suspicious circumstances. Witnesses said she was stabbed. The media said she was stabbed. But the police kept mum. Why? When everyone already knows what's going on, why did it take them so long to say anything?

A quick search on Twitter reveals that there are two Twitter accounts for the Winnipeg police, but neither of them are official, and one of them hasn't been updated in over two years. For a city that's repeatedly cited as the most dangerous in Canada, isn't it about time our law enforcers start communicating with us?

Please, if I'm totally ignorant about this, let me know. This is something I'm trying to understand, and I am in no way trying to slam or put down our police officers.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Are you there, chair? It's me, Clint.

Hello! First off, I'd like to briefly introduce my new blog format. In an attempt to be more professional and less whiny about my personal life, I will now (try to) limit myself to writing about my observations on the world at large. Who did what? Why did they do that? What does it mean for their career? What does it mean for... THE WORLD?

Now that that's out of the way, I want to talk about a fellow who, up until recently, I had an inappropriate May-December crush on. Clint Eastwood.

What a stud. [Picture from henrysheehan.com]



Clint Eastwood is Hollywood royalty. I mean, Dirty Harry, right? The Good the Bad and the Ugly? The Bridges of Madison County?? But recently, Clinty's taken to starring in car commercials and making his political beliefs very well-known.

Which is cool. I mean, that's what celebrities do, and I honestly have no beef with that - even when the political views don't align with my own. If you have access to a platform on which to appropriately share your political opinions, why not? From a PR perspective, it could be a pretty clever career move.

But... when you start talking to chairs... that's a different story.

Last night, Mr. Eastwood made a speech at the Republican National Convention in Florida. During the speech, he stood behind a podium next to an empty chair he repeatedly referred to as Barack Obama.

Even if the president was sitting there, you think they could've gotten him a comfier chair. [Picture from motherjones.com]


To be perfectly frank, I didn't watch the speech. I don't know what Clint said. The only reason I even know this happened is because of Twitter. And it's safe to say many people are in the same boat.

According to CNN: "Comedic takes on Eastwood's speech went viral and all of a sudden, what might have been for some younger viewers a ho-hum speech by an octogenarian actor became both a national joke and a means to engage in the political process."

Indeed, mere hours after the speech, a parody Twitter account called "Invisible Obama" had been created. At the very moment I'm writing this post, it has nearly 50,000 followers. The hashtag #eastwooding took off like a house on fire.

So, my question is this: in the age of Twitter and instant information, are moves like this even worth it? With the thousands of people making fun of Clint and his stunt, was it still worthwhile? Clint took a risk, and yeah, it got people talking. But it got more people laughing. And they were laughing at Clint, not with him.

It also opened the door for the Obama campaign to respond with clever moves like this:

"This seat's taken." - @BarackObama
 

There's a pretty sizable generation gap going on between Clint Eastwood and most Twitter users. If the GOP were really trying to reach out to younger generations, shouldn't they have considered the very real possibility that this stunt would go viral, and not in a favourable way?

Or am I misinterpreting everything - was this a brilliant way to get younger people engaged in the political process?

Let me know what you think.



Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sultans of Swing

File this one under Music my parents listened when I was growing up, that I hated at the time but now love with all my heart.

Photo from seventiesmusic.wordpress.com

Dire Straits. Just look at them! How could any self-respecting pre-teen think such a band was cool? No wonder I groaned to the high heavens and rolled my eyes whenever my dad put Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits on the CD player.

Without me realising it, this album came to signify a sense of safety and belonging that went along with sitting down with my family to eat a meal. Gradually, our parents gave my brother and I the freedom to select our 'dining music' - the music that would accompany our frantic feeding times. Time and again, we would bashfully choose this CD - Dire Straits, whom we'd once so derided, had somehow become our favourite band.

Now that I'm living on my own, an apparent 'grown-up' who's but a week away from that quarter-of-a-century milestone, I'll freely admit that Dire Straits blasts out of my laptop speakers more often than not these days. When I'm stressed or feeling sad, listening to the dulcet tones of Mark Knopfler and friends brings me right back to those family dinners on rainy Sunday evenings, surrounded by the most important people in the world.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sleeping with Nick Drake

Watching a loved one suffer is no one's idea of a perfect summer vacation.

But you make do with what you've got.

You re-shift our focus and find a new daily routine. Work, hospital, home. Home, hospital, work. If you don't think about it too much, it seems almost natural. You find a new rhythm and adjust to it, but you never give up hope. You never lose sight of normalcy - it will return one day, and soon.

You remain thankful for what you have, and constantly remind yourself of the good stuff. Good friends, reliable family, and the fact that in the grand scheme of things, we could be doing much worse. You remind yourself that your loved one is where they're supposed to be, and while it sometimes seems like an endless stream of doctors/nurses/specialists float in and out of our lives with little interest in the problem, you know they're invested, and they're on your side.

You take comfort in small things. The familiarity of your neighbourhood. The smell of wet grass. A nice shower and a warm cat.

And music that helps you sleep at night.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dionysus in Stony Mountain

Last Saturday, I decided to reward myself after a tough week by sleeping in, getting a massage, going for a nice dinner, and taking in a play.

The play was Dionysus in Stony Mountain, written by Steven Ratzlaff and presented by Theatre Projects Manitoba. It was shown at the Rachel Browne Theatre, a cozy little spot on the second floor of one of the historic buildings of Winnipeg's Exchange District.

Given the relaxed feel of my day, I was not ready to be challenged. I was not ready to think. Dionysus forced me to take notice, to activate those atrophied brain muscles that hadn't been in use since I took Critical Theory in second-year university.

This was not a bad things, by any means.

The two-actor, two-act, two-hour play covered everything from religion, philosophy, and the nature of crime and the justice system. An impressive feat to be covered in only two hours, but even more impressive were the two actors who carried the show.

Photo from CBC.ca, by Leif Norman.

Ross McMillan played two roles: James Hiebert, a manic prisoner of Stony Mountain in the first act, and Eric, a nihilistic, wealthy uncle in act two. McMillan was captivating, particularly in the first half, which consisted almost entirely of Hiebert's Nietzschian diatribes against society and our notions of good and bad.

Equally captivating was Sarah Constible's Heidi Prober, a prison psychiatrist assigned to get Hiebert back on his meds in order to be eligible for parole. Prober had scarcely any lines in the first half, only piping up now and then to prompt Hiebert, yet her calm, controlled presence was just as powerful as Hiebert's frantic mania.

The second act took place in Prober's ramshackle West End house. When her uncle Eric comes to visit, it becomes clear she's quit her job at the prison and is rebuilding herself as a person while she renovates her Maryland Street house. Gone is the self-assured psychiatrist from act one; Prober is now agitated and angry, yet still recognizable as the intellectual therapist from the prison (a testament to Constible's great skill).

Dionysus in Stony Mountain wasn't easy to watch. But it was important. In two hours, it tackled topics many Winnipeggers will never think about in a lifetime. While its themes were universal, it felt especially localized. Walking home after the show, I was greeted by a fleet of cop cars in my backlane, sirens blaring. The newspaper the next day said a dead body had been found. I couldn't help but think - what will Stony Mountain make of this?

Smog - Justice Aversion

Thursday, March 29, 2012

My reactions to "Journey for Justice"

My program at school often forces me to step outside my comfort zone, and that's one of the reasons I like it so much. Whether I'm interviewing random people on the street, attending sporting events, or staying up until 3 a.m. finishing an assignment, it's all helped me to grow as a person and a potential player in Winnipeg's media scene.

Recently, however, my class was assigned to read a non-fiction book about a notorious crime that happened in Winnipeg almost 30 years ago, that was only recently solved. The book was Journey for Justice: How 'Project Angel' Cracked the Candace Derksen Case, by Winnipeg Free Press justice reporter Mike McIntyre.

Photo from BarnesAndNoble.com


One of the reasons I avoid non-fiction books is I know how it's going to end. I remember seeing Titanic when I was 10 years old, and when the boat hit the iceberg I was all, It's okay, someone will come rescue them! and then I was all, No they won't, you fool. This is a true story.

I had the same reaction during the first few pages of Journey for Justice. It's the story of Candace Derksen, a 13-year-old Winnipeg girl who didn't come home from school one day. Her body was found, bound and frozen in a storage shed a couple months later. The book describes her family's search for Candace and how they dealt with her death. McIntyre balances the family's struggle with in-depth descriptions of the court proceedings that convicted Candace's killer, Mark Grant, and discussion of the forensic evidence that led to his arrest.

Reading about when Candace didn't come home from school that November afternoon in 1984, I kept telling myself everything would be fine. It would all work out. As Candace's mother Wilma was gripped with fear, I was too. When Wilma told herself everything would be okay, Candace would walk through the door any minute now, I believed her.

And then I remembered, no. This wasn't a made-up story, or a movie, or anything with a happy ending. This was a real-life, true story, that ended tragically.

It's a testament to McIntyre's skills as a writer that I didn't just ditch the book right then and there. While I already knew how the book would end, I wanted to read more. I wanted to know what happened to Candace, what happened to her parents Wilma and Cliff, and how their strong, supportive community rallied around them when they needed them so much.

I tend to avoid non-fiction because it lacks the narrative structure of novels. I like something with a beginning, middle, and end, and a whole whack of rising action and denouement and all that stuff packed in the middle somewhere. Journey for Justice kept me interested largely because it followed this structure - well, the first half of it anyway. While the second half was important, it didn't maintain my interest as much as the first part - mostly because it consisted of court proceedings and psychiatric assessments of Candace's convicted killer. All important stuff, no question, but it felt as though McIntyre abondoned his authorly habits and put his reporter hat back on. Nothing wrong with that, but 100+ pages of journalistic writing can get a tad dry.

I haven't read any of McIntyre's books but I follow him on Twitter and read his articles in the Free Press on a pretty regular basis. I think he's a great reporter - he sticks to the facts without being melodramatic. He writes about some gritty, horrifying stuff, yet he maintains a level of humanity that makes his work easy to read. In Journey for Justice, it sometimes felt like he was trying too hard to be an author - he often gave into melodrama, when a story like Candace's doesn't need it.

McIntyre and Wilma Derksen spoke to my class last week about Journey for Justice and Candace's case. McIntyre offered invaluable advice to a roomful of budding journalists, and what stuck with me those most was the notion of trust. Mike wanted to write Candace's story, but instead of playing the part of the stereotypical story-hungry reporter, he built a relationship with the Derksens. He showed them an incredible amount of respect and compassion, and treated them like human beings. To him, they were more than just a great story.

They were people, and he wanted to do them justice.

Now, the theme of my blog is music. I hate to stray from my theme, but I also hate to trivialize this story with a lame video of some song I like. Journey for Justice repeatedly mentions Candace's favourite song, "Friends are Friends Forever" by Michael W. Smith. Here it is, for Candace.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ain't no party like a SUSHI party

This is it. What I've been working on for the past few months. The source of recent stress, frustration, joy, and satisfaction. Presenting...

  
UMAMI magazine!

As part of my program at school, myself along with four of my classmates created a brand-new, completely original magazine all about the exciting world of sushi.

We wrote the articles. Produced the ads. Took the pictures, did the layout, and even wrote out a complete publicity proposal plan. Pretty fancy!

To witness the fruits of our labour in person, please, please, please head down to our official launch - 

The Magazine Trade Fair
Friday, March 30 from 12 - 4 PM at Red River College's Exchange District Campus - 160 Princess Street.

There will be free sushi, giveaways, and a chance to win a gift card to one of Winnipeg's finest sushi joints.

But wait, there's more!

The trade fair will feature a veritable plethora of magazines, all presenting their premier issues! It's gonna be pretty nutty, people. In a good way.

It would be lovely to see you all there. I'm pretty proud of this bad boy, and it will be a hoot to share it with my millions of blog followers.

To celebrate all the hard work that's been put into these magazines, here it is - the ultimate party song. Enjoy!


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Here Comes Your Man

Spring has sprung! Clichés abound! I feel like tiptoeing through the tulips, and all that.

For some reason, spring always makes me think of the Pixies. Maybe because the name 'Pixies' makes me picture sprite-like nymphs darting through freshly sprung flowers. More likely, it's because I saw the Pixies play in Winnipeg last spring, and for the next two months after I saw them, I listened to Doolittle every single day.

Sometimes when I go to a great show, it inspires me to listen to the band on my stereo as soon as I get home. And subsequently, everyday on my headphones for the foreseeable future. Other times, I'll see a mind-blowing show and that will be enough. I'll scarcely listen to the band again.

Like I said, the Pixies fall into the former category. They were never my favourite band, but when I heard they were coming to town to play my favourite album of theirs in its entirety, it was a musical opportunity I could not miss. And lucky me, it was just about the best show I'd seen all year.

Here's my favourite song off Doolittle, the very springy "Here Comes Your Man":  

Monday, March 12, 2012

If I Make it Through This Winter

If the past couple days are any indication, winter is a thing of the past in my fair town.

Nevertheless, this song has been playing in my head these past few days.

 Not the best video, but a nice song.


I remember listening to the Paperbacks on my discman as I walked home from high school. I specifically remember stressing myself out beyond belief over an upcoming pre-cal exam. That test seemed like it would determine my entire future. Considering how terrible I am at math, you can imagine my horror.

Fast-forward 10 years: that exam didn't mean a darn thing. I passed, barely, but that has nothing to do with where I am today.

If I make it through the rest of this winter, I'll have to remember - what I'm so stressed about today might mean next to nothing in 10 years.

Picture by me, this past weekend.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Still Ill

Well, I'm going to try to spare you from the nitty gritty details, but let's just say I spent the majority of my weekend getting reacquainted with the inner workings of my toilet.

I don't know what it was that set me off, but my stomach was in a fit of rage from Friday evening until relatively recently.

Sorry, you probably didn't need to know that.

Anyway, as I lay on the bathroom floor, writhing in a fit of pain and self-pity, I took small comfort in the fact that no matter how miserable I was feeling in that moment, I knew there was at least one other person in the world who has felt more misery than I...

Picture from kovideo.net
Steven Patrick Morrissey.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness this afternoon, I played Hatful of Hollow on repeat on my nearby computer. Whether this helped me feel better or perpetuated the fever, I'll never know. I only know that when Moz belted out the chorus to "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" I thought, Yes. You understand me, Morrissey. And felt mildly better.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bonny Bear

I've liked Bon Iver since he self-released his first album For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007. Yes, that's five years ago, yet he recently won a Grammy for Best New Artist.

I don't mean to be all "well I liked him before he was famous," but... I did! I'm such a jerk!

Anyway, it's a weird feeling. I feel like Bon Iver was my special little friend. I would listen to him after I dropped my friends off from a night on the town, and his gentle, yearning falsetto echoed through my parents' station wagon as I took the long way home winding down Wellington Crescent, just to hear the whole album.



I liked Bon Iver back when only the snobbiest of music snobs knew who he was. I knew he was great, yet I was reluctant for him to catch on. I wanted him all to myself.

This past weekend, Justin Timberlake did a (pretty dead-on) impression of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on Saturday Night Live. I laughed, but I also felt kind of... offended? It was like they were making fun of my best friend. I wanted to yell at the TV "But you don't know him like I do! DON'T MAKE FUN OF HIM."

I'm kind of crazy, yes.

I was kind of glum that he was famous enough to be made fun of in SNL. He's hit the big times.

While part of me is glad Bon Iver is getting such well-earned praise, another part of me is a little bit sad that he's not all mine anymore (and yes, I knew he was never 'all mine' - he's had an army of dedicated fans since day one, not just me). And another part of me is offended that thousands of people didn't even know who he was on Grammy night, even though, technically, that should make me happy, as I don't want anyone else to know who he is...

I'm so complex!

From VolumeOne.org
Now that he's hit the big leagues, I only want the best for Justin Vernon. I just hope he stays true to himself, and that he never fixes his hair.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mistaken for Strangers by your old friends

Ever since I started listening to them about four years ago, I've always thought the National provide the perfect background music for growing up, abandoning your youthful ideals, and becoming part of the 9-5 rat race of the so-called 'real world'. If you've ever read Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, you'll know what I mean.

It's good music, I swear. A little depressing, but so honest and so beautiful.


As I contemplate a career in the advertising industry, I can't help but think of this song. I don't mean to insult or put down my education in any way, but sometimes I stop and think of what I'm being trained for. In university I took classes that taught me to be critical of the media, to be aware of when I'm being advertised to and to take everything I saw on TV with a grain of salt.

In college, I'm learning how to market to people and how to draw on basic human instincts in order to sell a product or brand. Granted, there's nothing shifty about what I'm learning. My instructors are some of the most intelligent people I know, and they are in no way teaching my classmates and I to be evil, sneaky money-makers. Along with the principles of advertising, we learn about honesty, transparency, and the utmost importance of telling the truth.

Still, though. It's weird to think about sometimes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Waves at Night

Gosh, I swear - one of these days I'm going to post a cheery song.

But for now - a sad man!


Phosphorescent, the pen-name of Alabaman singer/songwriter Matthew Houck, has been releasing dreamy, folk-y, pretty music for over 10 years. This song never fails to calm me down when I'm in the middle of a wild, self-inflicted storm of stress.

So sit back, give it a listen, and maybe cry in your beer/beard for awhile. Works for me!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

'When we're killed or cured/And barely heard'

I discovered my favourite musician totally by chance.

It wasn't at a concert, nor from a glowing recommendation from a friend. Natalie Portman didn't hand me a pair of headphones in a waiting room and tell me this song will change my life.

Nope, I first heard him in a commercial. For the Volkswagen Touareg. During the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Every summer for the past 10 years or so, my family has rented a cottage on Red Rock Lake for a couple weeks. Aside from being just down the road from a bible camp, the cottage is in a quiet, secluded spot on a pretty little lake. It's a small, rustic cottage - though not too rustic. It comes fully equipped with a modern washroom, washer and dryer, and big-screen TV, complete with 200+ channels.

The lake.


My family scoffs at this TV every summer. "What's the point?" "We're in the middle of nature, we don't need television to entertain us!" "Etc etc etc"

This one summer, eight years ago, my parents took off on a hike one early evening and left me to my own devices at the cottage. My plan had been to indulge in writing some of the angstier poetry of my teenage career, but I remember thinking I'm all alone... Why not watch some TV? No one needs to know...

So, I clicked it on, surfed the channels for awhile, and finally settled on taking in some sort of sporting event. Maybe I was feeling isolated out in the woods and wanted to feel part of a larger consciousness by watching something I knew millions of other people were watching at the same time. Or maybe there was just nothing else on.

I was half-paying attention, kind of tuning in and out, when this one commercial came on. It featured a young, hip-looking couple, driving their VW Touareg through picturesque, sunny scenery. A pretty standard commercial, but for one thing: the song playing in the background.

Cue the melodrama:

My young ears had never heard such poignant, raw, heartbreaking music. Or if they had, it had never registered quite like this before. It was a man's voice, deep and pained, accompanied only by a sparse acoustic guitar. It was at once hopeful and lost. It was beautiful.

Who was this guy?

This was before the days of instant technology, so I couldn't just whip out my iPhone, type in "Touareg commercial song" and have the answer. So I waited out the rest of our stay at the lake, feeling slightly antsy, until we got home and I rushed to the computer to look it up. After a couple days of searching, I found him:

Richard Buckner.

Who?

I'd never heard of him. But I promptly borrowed my mom's credit card and ordered his album, Since, off the Internet. I waited eagerly for it to arrive, and when it did, I was so pleased that the rest of the album was as good as the song from the commercial. So I bought the rest of his albums. And they were even better.

It's funny to think that at the height of my music snobbery, I turned my nose up at bands who lent their music to commercials. Sell outs, I dismissed. It's not about the money, maaaan, and all that.

But if Richard Buckner hadn't 'sold out', I never would have heard of him. And having his song in that commercial probably meant that he was able to, I don't know, eat. And pay rent. And make more music. Which is all pretty darn important.

 Ariel Ramirez. The song from the commercial.

Anyway.

I got the thrill of my life this past summer when I saw Richard Buckner play in San Francisco. The concert was the night we arrived and I remember feeling exhausted, gross from the flight, and slightly ill, but it didn't matter when Richard took the stage.



He seemed about seven feet tall, and was wearing faded, baggy pink pants and a stained grey t-shirt. His matted black hair was chest-length, and his face looked tired.

For a man who exuded misery, he was surprisingly upbeat between songs. He apologized for playing mostly new songs, and when an audience member shouted "The new album rules!" he replied, "Well, thank you so much! You are so nice." And he was genuine about it.

Not the best picture, but you get the idea.



After the show, I stood in line to buy the new record. There, at the merch table, was Richard himself. He was talking and laughing with a fan, and I thought, Hey, I could talk to him. He's right there! I should just tell him thanks, and that he's changed my life.

But I didn't. It didn't feel right, and I don't regret it. Instead I took that record back to my hotel room, clutched it on my lap on the plane ride home a week later, and played it as soon as I got safely back to West Broadway.

And I guess that's that.

Friday, January 20, 2012

'Except Rap and Country'

I know this is a really lame thing to say, especially for someone who writes a music blog, but 
I hate when people ask me what kind of music I listen to.

I know! I'm a jerk.

I think it just feels like such a personal question to me. And I can never seem to come up with suitable answers to personal questions on the spot.

Also, I don't even really know what kind of music I like. I can name specific bands or artists, or albums, or songs. Even then - I may like one album from a certain band, but think the rest of their work stinks. So even calling myself a fan of that band wouldn't be true.

But narrowing it down to one genre? Can't do it.

Maybe I'm just over-analysing things.

Anyway, when I'm feeling particularly pressed, I'll just spout off the standard line that's featured on so many Facebook profiles:

"I like everything... Except rap and country."

But even that's not true! While I've never voluntarily listened to commercial country radio, some of my favourite music-makers fall comfortably into the country genre.

Just this week, my treks to and from school have been scored by Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans.

It doesn't get much more country than this guy.


Just try to be in a bad mood while you listen to this song:




So there you have it. My love of country is out there. I must admit my knowledge of rap is lacking, though this video does help to bridge the gap:





Friday, January 13, 2012

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

A few years ago, I fell in love. It was an unconventional relationship from the start, as my mate of choice was actually comprised of five different people. These five people alternately loved and hated each other, but while all them emotions were flying high, they created some of the greatest pop music of the 20th century.

I'm talking, of course, about Fleetwood Mac.

Aren't they adorable?

For me, Fleetwood Mac can be filed under '"music I used to think was my lame because my parents liked it, but I grew to like it too once I wisened up."

I even passed on my love of Fleetwood Mac to some friends of mine - friends who generally thought my musical tastes were too "out there" to be any good. We used to cruise down Pembina in my parents' sweet-ass station wagon, blasting Rumours and thinking we were the coolest folks in town.

We spent one summer weekend at my friend's cottage near Victoria Beach. No parents, no boys, just the three best girlfriends that anyone could have. Naturally, Fleetwood Mac was the soundtrack to our debauchery.

One evening, my friend's aunt (whose cottage was just down the road) stopped by to say hello. "Go Your Own Way" was playing on the boom box. We were having a wild time.

"What's wrong with you guys?" said the aunt. "This is old person music. This is my music. You're not supposed to like this!"


How could we not?