Ketchum Recognizes Best and Worst Communicators in Canada
TORONTO, Dec. 3 /CNW/ - Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel were honoured with
a "Lifetime Achievement Award" on this year's list of Canada's best and worst
communicators - the fourth annual ranking by Ketchum Public Relations Canada
that recognizes skillful, colourful and effective communication as well as the
verbose, crassly manipulative and downright stupid.
Joining the high-profile couple on this year's list were a minister, a
labour leader, politicians, sports figures and civil servants. Every year,
Ketchum professionals track hundreds of spokespeople as they deal with
potentially damaging issues in the fields of business, government, spot news,
sports, and the arts. The results are used to highlight valuable communication
"The best communicators help themselves by being credible and
compelling," said Ketchum Managing Director Geoffrey Rowan. "The worst are
unbelievable, in every sense of that word. If you can understand them at all,
they sound vague, defensive, evasive, or downright dishonest, dismantling
their own reputations in the process."
Here are 10 lessons we learned from Canada's best and worst communicators
Lesson 1: Arrogance Doesn't Win Friends and Influence People
Lord and Lady Black possess an extraordinary command of the English
language - verbal and non-verbal - and a mystifying tendency to offer
themselves up for public ridicule. The problem seems to be that they don't
really care whether the unwashed masses (anyone with a net worth below
$100-million) understands them or sympathizes with them. After all, how likely
is it that ordinary people would ever be able to sit in judgment of them in
any meaningful way?
The Blacks teach us that pomposity rarely results in effective
communication, unless the intention is to create distance between you and your
audience, or to make your audience laugh at you. Likewise, obscene gestures
and name-calling rarely evoke kindness or sympathy, unless you have been
diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome.
This year, when Ms. Amiel reportedly aimed her considerable intellect at
a CBC producer and said, "You slut... You're all vermin. I'm sick of it," she
only reinforced a perception that she feels she is above it all. Unfortunately
for her, it's the "vermin" and "sluts" who get the last word.
Likewise, Mr. Black again demonstrated his contempt for media with an
obscene finger gesture as he entered a Chicago courthouse to await a jury
ruling in the case against him. Not quite as wordy as he is usually, but we
get the point.
There have been too many colourful quotes from the Blacks over the years
to catalogue them here. As media hounds, we appreciate the entertaining
stories that the Blacks generate, but as business communicators we can't
ignore the fact that their pronouncements usually backfire. Hence the lifetime
achievement award for a body of work that is unparalleled in creating
animosity, ridicule and recriminations. (We grandfathered him in even though
he renounced his Canadian citizenship to accept a relatively meaningless
peerage, so he'd no longer be a commoner and so he could poke a finger in
former Prime Minister Jean Chretien's eye. That's another poorly thought out
communication that Mr. Black likely regrets now that he faces sentencing in
Was it smart business to call reporters, many of whom he employed, a
"swarming, grunting masses of jackals"? Did he influence them effectively when
he called them "ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and
For her part, Ms. Amiel's most infamous line, beyond the "slut"
salutation, entrenched her reputation as an unsympathetic character. "I have
an extravagance that knows no bounds."
Assuming it's true, on what planet would that ever be considered an
admirable characteristic? The planet Nouveau Riche?
Lesson 2: Stay Focused On What Matters
In an era where so many people are focused on the measurements of success
(see above: "extravagance that knows no bounds") it can be easy to lose sight
of the real goal. The Rev. David Guiliano, head of the United Church of
Canada, clearly understands the importance of focusing on what you do and how
you do it.
At a time when the United Church, like most churches, is losing members,
he admonished congregations across the country to stop worrying so much about
"buildings and budgets" and worry more about "the suffering of the world
"Our hope is not for our survival or even growth," said Rev. Giuliano. "I
am praying that our preoccupation with getting people into church is
transformed by a passion for getting the church out into the world. I am
praying that we welcome strangers with a radical hospitality that sees in them
the face of Christ - not an 'identifiable giver' or a 'potential committee
The lesson then is that good communication makes an emotional connection.
The Rev. Giuliano did a wonderful job of reminding his flock about their real
emotional connection to their church.
Lesson 3: To Thine Own Self Be True
The collapse of John Tory's campaign to become premier of Ontario was
spectacular, in large part because the Ontario Conservative Leader was seen as
such a genuine and authentic leader before the campaign - a non-politician's
politician. The former businessman built a solid base of support because many
voters liked his pragmatic, business-like approach, which included a promise
not to engage in the standard politics of negativity.
Ironically, given the charges of broken promises faced by the Liberal
government of Dalton McGuinty, Mr. Tory was undone by saying one thing and
doing another. From the opening salvo of the campaign through the
post-election commentary, Mr. Tory abandoned his business background and
sounded like every other politician, running an almost entirely negative
campaign. The more his support dropped the more negative he became.
History records that he lost because of his promise to fund faith-based
schools and his subsequent flip-flop on that.
"I have always believed that listening to the people is at the very core
of leadership," he said, admitting the policy had "become too much a source of
"MPPs will be allowed a free vote, so they are at liberty to vote their
conscience and represent the wishes of their constituent," he said. "In this
significant way, the public can be more involved in the decision making. They
have expressed strong concerns and I have heard them."
We think he lost when he stopped sounding like the John Tory that his
supporters thought they were going to get.
Lesson 4: Don't Get Hooked By Someone Else's Emotion
Herouxville, Quebec is at the centre of the province's controversial
"reasonable accommodation" debate over what are reasonable actions to
accommodate cultural and ethnic differences. In some cases, public hearings
have deteriorated into inflammatory rhetoric and offensive stereotyping, but
some have shown an admiral ability to refrain from being goaded into vitriol.
We were especially impressed by the artful communication of a group of
nine Muslim women from Montreal, who came bearing gifts and a simple but
"Let's stop the prejudices," said the group's leader, Najat Boughaba.
"Let's be reasonable. Let's accommodate each other - that's our message."
But at least one man in the audience was not willing to accept the olive
branch. "I want to know," he asked the Muslims angrily, "how do you have the
audacity to come here with your veils on?"
Ms. Boughaba defused the anger with grace and good humour, answering:
"It's not audacity. It's a piece of clothing."
Lesson 5: Stop Multi-Tasking and Pay Attention
Just about everyone thinks communication is dead easy and they're great
at it. Not so much. If you don't give it your full attention you will screw
Job applicant Evon Reid was stunned when he opened an email from the
Ontario government's cabinet office where he'd applied for a position.
"This is the ghetto dude that I spoke to before," said the email to the
University of Toronto honours student from Aileen Siu, the very person
handling his job application. Confronted with her offence, Ms. Siu just made
"It wasn't directed at Evon at all. That was internal... It didn't have
anything to do with any of the applicants," she said, suggesting that it's
acceptable to refer to job applicants inside the government with derogatory,
racially loaded terms.
Lesson 6: Be Accessible, Be a Straight Shooter
Few things in Canada generate more ink and more emotion than hockey.
That's why we liked the communication style demonstrated by Paul Kelly, the
new executive director of the NHL Players' Association.
Labour negotiations are almost always contentious, and the NHLPA has
dealt with more than its share of hot issues in recent years. But Mr. Kelly
knows you don't drop the gloves as soon as you step on the ice. If any thing
is going to help the game, it will be a new era of collegial relationship
between players and owners that keeps the attention on the puck.
"What I'd like to do is sit down with Gary (NHL Commissioner Gary
Bettman) and just talk for awhile," Mr. Kelly said. "We need to get to know
each other... I understand there's a line there, that we represent our sides.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't have respect for one another."
Lesson 7: Too Much Hyperbole Blows Your Credibility
We're as worried as the next guy about global warming, but Green Party
Leader Elizabeth May gave herself a hot foot when she said Stephen Harper's
stand on climate change "represents a grievance worse than Neville
Chamberlain's appeasement of the Nazis."
For the record, the direct and immediate result of the west's initial
policy of appeasement was perhaps the worst genocide history has ever seen.
Equating climate change, over which reasonable people might disagree, with
unimaginable mass murder and a world war that killed millions and displaced a
significant portion of the planet's population might be just a little bit over
Never mind that Prime Minister Harper is not in the same position to
influence global action on the issue as was Prime Minster Chamberlain, the
comparison was offensive and ridiculous at a time when the Greens were
starting to make some gains in credibility.
Compounding her gaffe Ms. May goes on to say that everyone does it, so
it's OK: "Obviously the idea is out there everywhere. I won't retract what I
Lesson 8: There's Still Something To Be Said For Grace, Dignity, Humility
We can never know the anguish that Steven Truscott has experienced during
a 48-year battle to clear his name in the murder of classmate Lynne Harper,
but if ever there was anyone entitled to rage against the system, Mr. Truscott
is that person.
Instead, he was composed and quietly charming when told he had been
"Oh, that's fantastic," Mr. Truscott said quietly when told of the news.
"Fantastic. They finally got it right after all these years. I'm so used to
fighting. Now we don't have to fight anymore. I'm going to have to rethink
what to say... The whole day was unbelievable. This is the first time in 48
years that something positive has come out."
Lesson 9: In Today's Multimedia World, Nothing Goes Unnoticed
The organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving had a rough year, learning
the hard way that wishful thinking won't make public problems go away.
MADD thought it had quietly removed founder John Bates from two of the
charity's committees that monitor the organization's spending after he spoke
out against their spending practices. It appears the organization thought it
could sweep its PR problem under the rug.
"I feel betrayed," said the 79-year-old, whose 25-year battle against
drinking and driving earned him the Order of Canada. "This seems to be in
response to asking too many questions. But I don't believe in spending donor
money the way MADD head office does and I feel I had a responsibility to speak
A Toronto Star investigation found that most of the millions MADD
fundraises stays with the paid telemarketers, door knockers and direct-mail
companies hired by the charity to raise cash. MADD vice-chairman Al Newton
said Mr. Bates was removed because he is a non-voting member of the board and
the board had decided that only voting members should be on committees.
Another communication lesson MADD might take from this is that sometimes
actions speak louder than words.
Lesson 10: Speak From the Heart, Be Authentic
Did we mention that Canadians care about hockey? So it was front-page
news when some politicians attacked the selection of Shane Doan as Team
Canada's captain because of an alleged incident during a NHL game in December
2005 between Doan's Phoenix Coyotes and the hometown Montreal Canadiens.
Wearing his emotions on his sleeve, Mr. Doan stuck up for himself with a
genuine message that struck a chord with Canadians and left some members of
the House of Commons wishing they'd picked on someone else.
"As a player, as a citizen of Canada, it hurts," he said.
"I've made it a personal goal in my life. My dad has established it, my
grandfather established it. Our family has established the fact that (we're)
character, quality people. For someone to question that and call that out and
say that I'm a bad role model, I'd rather you call me the worst hockey player
in the world and that I don't deserve to be on the team. Anything like that,
that's fine. You can say whatever you want. But don't question my character.
Don't question the basis of what I am."
The Best and Worst of 2008
If you would like to get in on the fun for Canada's Best and Worst
Communicators of 2008, send nominations to email@example.com. Each
nomination must contain the quote, its speaker, the date it was spoken and a
verifiable reference to the media outlet where it was reported.
About Ketchum Public Relations Canada
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For further information:
For further information: Lindsey Coulter, Ketchum Public Relations,
(416) 355-7430, firstname.lastname@example.org; Trevor Boudreau, Ketchum Public
Relations, (416) 355-7425, email@example.com