Getting public service messages right

October 17, 2008

Our team has been releasing “public service messages” on various supports over the last few months. Nothing like prime-time TVs, but some good little videos for the Web and stakeholders groups. It’s satisfying to see your stuff getting picked up by the people you want to influence and motivate.

Public service messages are, of course, soft propaganda. The idea is to get people to modify their behaviour for their own good: stop smoking, click your seatbelt on, exercise, call your mother more often, don’t eat unwrapped Halloween candy, shred your bills before throwing them away to recycling. Some marketers call it “attitudinal adjustment”, which has to be the most evil-sounding piece of marketer jargon around.

One of the most difficult problems with those things is when you go negative, as in “Stop smoking now or you’ll die alone and in terrible suffering, real soon.” As with election campaigns, sometimes too much is… well, too much for your audience. Can’t ask for too much effort either. It turns out that “Run 20 k each day to keep in shape!” scares people even more than lung cancer.

Anyway, as the office nerd I feel obliged to dig into the theory once in a while to see if what we’re doing is kosher with communications theories. One of the most interesting papers I came across was Using Protection Motivation Theory to Increase the Persuasiveness of Public Service Communications, by Magdalena Cismaru of the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy (available on the Net in pdf).

The following drawing from the study illustrates well the “don’t go too far” warning addressed to social marketers.

(click on the image and expand it to view properly)

Basically, you need to convince your audience that:

  • They are in serious danger (for their health, career, pension, safety or anything having to do with their kids) – if you fail, they won’t be listening
  • What you’re asking them to do will avert the danger and isn’t too much trouble – if you fail, they’ll make fun of you or put their head in the sand.

That gives your audience five specific moments through the reasoning process (if you can call it that) where they can opt out.

Like baseball pitching with three balls and no strikes, or throwing the football on third and 10 – no room for error at all.


Government report outed by blogger

August 21, 2008

Readers of this blog might remember how disgusted I was when the government buried its how report on the vulnerability of Canadians to climate change. Even worse, the document is only available on request, one chapter at a time if you want it by email.

On its front page this morning, the Ottawa Citizen points out that one blogger went further than just getting pissed: “Miguel Tremblay” at ptaff.ca got all the chapters sent to him, assembled them all nice and tight (even in conformity with the federal government’s electronic document naming conventions, s’il-vous-plaît) and posted the whole thing on his blog, in both languages.

Health Canada’s chief flack’s excuse that the document is too large to put on the web doesn’t fly. There’s plenty of large reports on government sites, including one just as large right here (see “The power of volunteers” report). Breaking it down in more manageable chunks was also an option.


Chinese Olympic fakery sets off media trap

August 13, 2008

The Western media is abuzz with details of how China is working hard to get picture-perfect Olympic Games, even if it means cheating with camera images and slapping the voice of a little girl over the face of another. China is simply pushing one step further the standard gimmicks used by most large shows everywhere, but it doesn’t look good.

Sure, many reporters were actively looking for an opportunity to stick it to Chinese authorities. Some commentaries are dripping with malice and barely-contained contempt (and I haven’t turned the radio on yet).

But my point is this: Chinese authorities had to know many reporters would love nothing more than portray them as a band of old freak-control totalitarian maniacs. And wow, they really went out of their way to provide them with material to illustrate that. They fell into the trap big time.

Good luck to Vancouver in 2010. VANOC and the city will have their own tricky PR issues to deal with…


Dealing with Angry Canucks

July 30, 2008

I had my share of contact with Angry Canadians on the phone or face-to-face over the years, berating me for what my organization was doing or not doing. They have their grievances to air and their favorite targets, Lowell Green isn’t on the air right now, so they decide to call you instead and give you an earful. Like those manly guys bitching among themselves in some dark corner of cyberspace.

Of course, sometimes reporters are like that too – they know exactly what story they want to write and damnit, that’s what they’re gonna write, no matter the facts and points of view you might present to them.

But you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to argue your case – especially with reporters, but also the mad angry Canucks. Because it’s your job. Because you represent your organization. Because they are taxpayers, citizens who have the right to tell you that they really, really resent having to pay for your salary.

Because, like the guys calling Lowell Green, they are a (hopefully small) part of your audience and you need to take that into account in your comms.

So I play the good paper-pusher. I listen. I take notes. I argue a little, grabbing a few choice tidbits from my bag of facts, figures and statistics. I assure them I will pass on their interesting comments to the people in charge (since obviously I’m not), which I do, if only to mention that “we’ve got x negative calls about this topic, do we need to rework the messaging?”

And once in a while, some angry Canuck will have something to say that makes you straighten in your chair and really pay attention. He’s not just angry – he’s hurt by something your organization has said or done. Obscured by confused rhetoric and recriminations, there’s a valid point. You thank him, you take his phone number if he doesn’t mind, you hang up. You check a few facts, discuss it with a colleague who’s smarter than you are, build a case and take it to the policy guys.

All this to say, flacks should be alert to those criticisms from Angry Canucks. Especially if we take the time to talk with other front-line employees and regional staff, we tend to be in contact with the world outside the ivory towers where we work. If we listen, people will tell us what we’re doing wrong or could be doing better, well before our bosses and colleagues get wind of it. A chance to react early, before more damage is done.

No, I didn’t get one of those calls this week, yet. But I look forward to the next one.

See also: Angry Canucks


Pitching bloggers

July 25, 2008

That is something we might soon be doing more seriously within my organization, so I’m keeping my ears open (and setting up a Google search) for methods for pitching bloggers (blog-pitching?). Quick blog search…


Climate Change: out with the trash

July 24, 2008

Back when acting against climate change was not among the priorities for this government, nobody was surprised to learn that government reports about global warming were just “put out with the trash”, released at 5 p.m. on a Friday on an obscure corner of a web site.

Now the issue is one of the government’s top priorities, right? Still I bet nobody was surprised to see this in the Globe and Mail.

UPDATE: Gwen Harris posted the link to the previous buried report the Globe is referring to.

AUGUST 6 UPDATE: Yep, they buried it.


First debate en français

July 24, 2008

The first French-language leaders’ debate on Canadian television was on July 24, 1984. John Turner, Brian Mulroney and Ed Broadbent go at each other in the language of Laurier. No fireworks, lots of “ahhh…” and prepared one-liners. Still, the fact that all three major leaders managed to make it through the debate confirmed that national political leaders must speak both official languages to succeed (as Belinda Stronach found out). The French boot camp is now a mandatory step toward political leadership.