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When the Headline is You

October 25th, 2010 / 7:00 am

Every day I apply skills that I have acquired from the several mentors with whom I’ve been fortunate to associate during my career. When it comes to the art of media training – one of the core services of PR that I enjoy the most – over the years I have prepared several hundred leaders in North America and Asia for interview encounters with journalists. There’s no doubt that I would have never been able to develop this track record absent my proximity to the great Jeff Ansell, the legendary former news anchor from my home town of Toronto, Canada.

In the early 1990s, Jeff ran the media training practice at our old public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton Canada. During those formative years, I watched in awe as Jeff would mesmerize often petrified executives with his oratory and his on-camera prowess. While sometimes visibly shaken about what Jeff would do to them playing an aggressive journalist in interview simulations (and he sure played rough!), all of them left the room indelibly engraved with the mark of Jeff’s training excellence. As a young 20-something executive, I was fortunate to learn by osmosis from this master of the communications craft.

Fast-forward to 2008, when I was back in Canada re-connecting with friends and family after 14 years overseas. Jeff called to let me know he had written a book about media training, and asked me to read an early copy of When the Headline is You and provide opinions. At first when I flipped through the draft, I was concerned that Jeff – who would never share his training decks electronically lest their precious content fall into ‘the wrong hands’ – was releasing the ‘secret sauce’ of media relations. Sort of like KFC disclosing Colonel Sanders’ confidential recipe, or Coca-Cola revealing the ingredients of their proprietary formula. But as I plowed through the pages, I realized what a wonderful service Jeff would be providing a large community of readers by transparently sharing with them the same wisdom and experience from which I had so richly benefited over the years.

Jeff just launched the book, and I recommend it without reservation (especially for PR students and as a refresher for long-time media relations professionals looking for some original perspective). I can’t put it any better than I did on the back cover:

When the Headline is You is the world’s most sophisticated yet sensible guide to making the most of journalist interactions.”

Congratulations to my old friend on becoming a published author of a great PR book.

Categories: media relations
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Au revoir to Canada

February 28th, 2010 / 1:00 pm

In a few hours my family and I leave Canada to re-join the 2.8 million our our fellow citizens overseas. We do so with mixed feelings, the nature of which I would like to express in this blog post.

I couldn’t be prouder to be Canadian, especially right now with my country’s class-act performance as a host and as a contender in the Olympic Games. This video narrated by Tom Brokaw and broadcast by NBC heralds a lot of Canadian virtues that are famous here but unknown elsewhere. What brought a smile to my face was this article in The Wall Street Journal: Canada group makes medals its business. The idea that such a determined and dynamic group of Canadians should unite around a high-impact initiative centred on competing with the world and winning is a refreshing tonic to what can tend to be the lassitude of our national efforts against those of other countries in other fields of endeavour.

Look at the hollowing-out of multinational Canadian enterprise. How many famous Canadian companies are known and respected around the world? You can count them on one hand, and still have fingers left over. It is telling that a country so big and blessed with resources should punch so below its weight in global business. Contrast our experience to that of the South Koreans, who with a small territory and scant resources transformed one of the world’s poorest countries over 50 years into a global economic powerhouse with corporations such as Hyundai, Kia, LG, and Samsung proud international champions.

As a people, we travel well and there is a vast network of Canadians around the world in leading positions across diverse fields. But if Canadians are going overseas to work, it seems more often than not that it is for the companies of other countries. If we want to be complacent about the future and live an easy life off our natural bounty and leave the ownership of our economy to others, we seem to be on the right track.

People at home have a mixed reaction to the overseas Canadian. While there is a widespread  respect for Canadians who gain global experience, in some quarters there is a vague resentment for different reasons.

Yet if you ask people in my own public relations industry if they would want to gain international credentials, in my experience Canadians tend more than their American counterparts to answer in the affirmative. In general, we Canadians certainly don’t lack confidence in our global suitability, what with past tourism slogans such as “The world needs more Canada.”

One thing is for sure: Canada needs more of the world in terms of immigration to keep its population growing. If there’s an irony I’ve noticed, it’s how a country with such incredible multiculturalism and nearly one in five of its citizens foreign-born, overseas we don’t do nearly enough to leverage our human resources for Canadian interests (because, again, there are so few world-scale Canadian organizations).

In many ways, Canada is arguably the world’s first ‘post-modern’ nation and I am happy that the Olympics have helped to showcase our strengths. Perhaps with the boost to our national confidence of these games, more of the hard work, the valuing of education, the attitude of being the best we can be will infuse us with a greater ambition to succeed and the will to win.

Every day, I will miss the good humour, free spirit, considerable creativity and restless intelligence of the people of Canada. I will not miss the frequent failure to think big, the sense of entitlement to prosperity, the petty regional parochialism, and delusions about our place in the world which give us comfort but don’t help us secure our global interests (even though we have every ability to achieve them).

I love Canada more than ever having been abroad, maybe a bit like how the Apollo 8 astronauts came to appreciate the Earth’s fragility when they saw it from space for the first time.

I’m really going to miss my family and friends, but thank goodness for broadband penetration and the ubiquity of telecommunications networks. I just wish we could experience the fresh air and wide open spaces of Canada using Skype.

Categories: culture
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Co-founding Environics Communications Inc. (ECI)

November 2nd, 2009 / 5:00 pm

In early 1994, I thought I was doing just fine as a young Vice President of Hill & Knowlton in Toronto. I was running the Canadian firm’s largest client relationship with Microsoft, building its rising new advanced technology practice and often assigned to international opportunities, such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a nuclear energy project in Seoul, Korea, as well as European missions for client De Beers in Antwerp and London.

In reward for my efforts, I was given a whopping big office complete with a sofa, coffee table and credenza. I couldn’t conceive of working anywhere else and I found my salary of $78,000 Canadian dollars perfectly fine at the time.

So when Bruce MacLellan — more senior to me at the firm and my first PR mentor — approached me to co-found a new firm that summer (in partnership with fellow H&K alumnus Elizabeth Hoyle and Michael Adams of Environics Research fame), my initial reaction was reluctance. He was talking about things like entrepreneurship and freedom and equity…concepts which had yet to crystallize in the mind of this then-29 year old.

I first met Bruce in 1979 through youth politics in Canada, and I regarded him then — as I continue to today — as an exemplar of excellence in communications and as one of the most creative idea-driven thought leaders in the business. It didn’t take long for him to rally me to the cause of raising a new PR standard, one which we hoped would stand staunchly for consulting quality and building clients’ businesses through what we called ‘breakthrough communications solutions.’

After an anxious first few weeks waiting for the phone to ring, the new Environics Communications rose quickly in its first year of life. Our largest initial revenue source was the satellite television sector, then poised for explosive growth. One of those clients — the now-defunct AlphaStar Digital Television — was entering the U.S. DBS TV market. Our client wanted us to help them find a new American agency partner. When we asked them for their budget, they indicated that it would be $500,000 per year, which in those days was a considerable retainer.

Then it was Bruce’s idea to ask the client if Environics — by any measure a leader in satellite PR — could establish a new operation in the U.S. custom-designed around their more than ample level of foundation business. As the account leader, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they were a courageous and fearless lot and responded positively when we proposed the concept, a key element of which involved my moving to their New York-area headquarters in Connecticut and becoming their PR leader in America (while establishing the Environics office nearby in Stamford).

Thus the first Canadian owned PR firm in the United States market was born. Here’s a video showing some of the first publicity we helped secure for our original client:

It was one of the great highlights of my career to lead the firm’s American market entry, build its business from the ground up, and run its progressively prosperous operations. Here’s an article from Canada’s Marketing magazine that ran at the time:

Making it on Broadway | Marketing magazine

Today Environics continues its winning ways as a strong North American PR agency and I am fortunate to have so many fine friends working at the old firm.

Categories: work
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