Freedom of speech and public relations

Today’s barbaric and murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly newsmagazine was the work of an imperialist movement that wants to impose one way of thinking on everyone else. One of the key elements of imposing your will on others is making sure that nobody is allowed to publicize an attractive alternative. There are two professions whose responsibility it is to present a diversity of perspectives and ideas to the public: journalism and public relations.

We have heard a lot today about the courage and responsibility of journalists – even satirical journalists – to challenge power and seek to present alternative perspectives. I would briefly like to reflect on the role of PR in this regard.

The role of public relations is represent organizations and individuals and try to fashion and manage their reputations, relationships and brands, amongst other things, of course. This would not be possible without freedom of speech. It would not be possible for practitioners to promote the ideas of minority groups, start up companies, civic action groups or social justice causes. The fact that over 40% of PR jobs are in the not-for-profit and government sectors is an indication of the how much professional communicators are involved in public communication.

Unlike journalists, who are by their very definition, external to organizations and to power, public relations practitioners usually provide counsel to organizations from the inside. They are often consiglieri to the leaders of organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. As PR counsel, we provide advice about how to best communicate in the court of public opinion – how to be heard, understood and believed. At our best, PR counsel helps ethically influence public opinion and inspires behaviour change that helps society progress.

Public relations and communications management form a profession that relies upon the ability to express diverse and often contradictory ideas publicly. PR pros put the ideas of our clients to the test of public controversy. As PR practitioners, we should be outspoken and fearless in stubbornly protecting freedom of speech – for the good of our profession and for the good of democracy.


Can a warrior Canada win hearts and minds?

I was reading  Aaron Henninger’s (Director, Unted States Air Force Public Affairs Center of Excellence) JPC article “The argument against winning hearts and minds”. He makes the point that it is impossible for the United States to try and win the hearts and minds of an occupied place against a backdrop of humvees and fighter planes.

Let’s analyze Canada’s recent move away from peace keeping using Henninger’s premise.

Canada has a different brand challenge from the USA. Since Lester Pearson, we have been a nation whose national brand and whose public diplomacy have centred around our peace keeping efforts. During the last few years, we have been progressively moving toward a new brand – that of a warrior nation.

Let’s analyze this situation. There was great brand equity in our being a peace keeping nation, but we’ve seen the Canadian government move us away from peace keeping toward a new “warrior nation” brand. We have seen evidence of this in the serious focus  put on the anniversary of the war of 1812 – a war that wasn’t even really Canadian, it was a war between the British and the Americans.

We see a rationale for the move to change away from our brand as a peace keeping nation to a new brand as a warrior nation in this article in volume 6, issue 1 of the Canadian Military Journal claims the following:

“Looking ahead, it is vital that Canadians understand how Canada must respond if it wishes to continue to play a leadership role in promoting peace and security. In particular, it must be realized that conflict prevention in the foreseeable future will entail more than a passive activity fulfilled by the presence of UN peacekeepers wearing blue berets.”

This may reflect the core of what Canada’s real priorities are, but it seems that what the author concludes is a little unrealistic:

“Looking ahead, it is vital that Canadians understand how Canada must respond if it wishes to continue to play a leadership role in promoting peace and security.”

The author thinks that the long-standing tradition of Canadian peace keeping should be replaced with an understanding of realpolitik. The problem is that the idea Canada’s peace keeping tradition plays to the idealistic reputation of Canada as a place where immigrants can integrate into a peaceful, rational and welcoming society. Peace keeping fits with Canada’s peaceable, multicultural identity. Being a warrior nation does not fit – it has all sorts of brand implications, chiefly:

  • Warriors play on conformist teams, with a clear us vs them – there’s a coercive element to that.
  • Multiculturalism and peace keeping means a nation where groups of people maintain their identity and choose to federate together willingly and openly.

Those are mutually incompatible propositions, which means that they will create cognitive dissonance in the minds of people thinking about Canada. We know that public relations professional understand that the public finds the concept of cognitive dissonance extremely uncomfortable – they will choose one side or the other.

It is easier to choose the conformist, subtly coercive warrior nation model because that is what the majority of human history has provided in terms of nations, empires, etc. – aggression and domination. The Canadian experiment of toleration, multiculturalism and peace keeping is a history oddity and a beacon of hope for many who live in traditionally aggressive, warlike and war torn countries.

From a branding perspective, it is good to be unique and to stand out. It is also good to have high values and stick with them. I think Canada should stick to the original value proposition that we started with Lester Pearson and continued to build with Trudeau and then Mulroney. It seemed to be a winner then. Joining the herd and becoming a run of the mill warrior state reduces us to an ordinary middle power with a smallish, underfunded military. It fritters away Canada’s unique brand value proposition: peace and toleration.

Our peace keeping reputation made us stand out internationally. It positioned our brand positively, without taking away from the branding of the warrior nations we count among our friends. It won the world’s hearts and minds for most of the last century. It made us a beacon of hope and civility for many in war torn lands. Why trade a solid, hard-won reputation for one that reduces us to run of the mill middle power.

Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?

Happy news: ADFW Ted McMeekin Campaign Team wins advertising award

I was very pleased to learn that our Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Ted McMeekin Campaign Team won the “Ontario Liberal Party Province-Wide Riding Advertising Award.” We nominated our entire communications committee (Alex Sévigny (chair), Peter Curtis and Peter Hargeave (campaign managers), Tom Aylward-Nally, Melonie Fullick, Nathan Shaw, Zac Spicer, Mark Ungar) which really worked wonderfully together.

We put together a communications plan that integrated traditional print, radio, TV, billboard, bus-stop and social media communication. It was a lot of fun. We worked together and everyone had something they were particularly good at doing. This was the best campaign communications team I have worked with yet – and I have worked with some excellent ones!

Honestly, our team wouldn’t have been as effective, if we didn’t have a superb candidate to work with, Mr. Ted McMeekin (Ontario Minister of Agriculture): a class act and a truly decent man.

Congratulations to the whole team for a job well done. Teams like this are what political volunteering so rewarding and so much fun.

Descriptions and times of courses I am teaching in the Autumn Term!

I just put the final touches on my courses for this year. I am pretty excited about what the year portends!

On Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30pm, I will be teaching CMST 1a03: Intro to Communication. I absolutely love teaching this giant course. It is the first course that I ever taught at Mac, on the morning of September 11, 2001. What a start to a career. The way we teach communications at McMaster is a little different, with a strong focus on critical, cognitive and professional approaches. The students read a big selection of interpersonal and speech communication texts, as well as a lot of communication, linguistic and cultural theory. The assignments are a combination of professional writing, presentations and, this year, public speaking!

On Tuesday mornings, 11:30-2:30, I will be teaching CMST 4N03: News Analysis, Theory & Practice. This course is designed to highlight agenda setting, framing and cultivation theory. It is also meant to pull the veil back from how news is a produced and viewed. We spend a lot of time thinking about what the move to the Internet and social media means for the news. I also schedule a good number of visiting lectures from the worlds of journalism, public relations and political communication during this class. The students do a major empirical content analysis, working in groups.

On Friday evenings, 4:30-7:30, I will be leading a graduate seminar, CSMM 704: Media, Public Relations & Reality. This course will examine the concept of reality from a variety of perspectives: social, linguistics and cognitive. It is a very challenging course that takes students on a tour of the philosophy of reality, cognition and some public relations theory. Here’s what the syllabus looks like (remember, we are reading excerpts from the philosophical works!). I am very excited about this course, since it really is a “high theory” course – a change from the courses in communications management, measurement and analysis (which I love teaching too!).

CSMM 704: Syllabus

Week 1: What is knowledge? How does it support life?

  • Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche

Week 2: Does knowledge define reality? How about perspectivalism?

  • Berkeley, Nozick, Descartes, Plato (Allegory of the Cave)
  • Fiction: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Week 3: What is reality for communications? The gnostic heresy.

  • Vogelin

Week 4: Causality?

  • Hume, Laplace

Week 5: How do language, mind & society impact reality?

  • Searle, Sperber, Eco, Quine,

Week 6: What is linguistic discourse? Does language shape reality?

  • Lakoff, Pinker, Fairclough

Week 7: What is social discourse? Is reality a social construction?

  • Foucault, Rosen, Wittgenstein

Week 8: What is the mind? Who are you? Is there a self?

  • Dennett, Freud, Aristotle (De Anima)
  • Media: The Century of the Self

Week 9: Media as simulacrum of life?

  • Minsky, Kurzweil, Hofstadter, Baudrillard

Week 10: What is reality from the perspective of public relations theory?

  • Bernays, Lipmann, Ellul, Chomsky
  • Media: Necessary Illusions
  • Fiction: The Man in the High Castle

Week 11: Do our senses and our emotions shape reality?

  • McLuhan, Damasio, Minsky (emotions), Turing
  • Media: The Persuaders, The Merchants of Cool

Week 12: Borges’ story of the map & Jean Vanier’s alternative view.

  • Borges, Vanier

5 tips to get your writing productivity up.

A lot of readers have asked me to explain further my writing process. I have decided to include five tips for writing productivity in this blog post. Hope they’re useful to you.

It is easy to fetishize writing, as though it is some sort of mystical or spiritual activity. That means considering it “special” or requiring “unique inspiration.” While this might be a romantic idea, and might boost our egos as people who write for a living, the fact is that taking on the attitude that “writing is special” means taking the high road to low and unpredictable productivity.

I find this in my own life. I have several hats that I often wear: university professor, academic and professional writer, academic planner and creator of programs, public relations/communications management consultant, and political consultant. These roles keep me very busy, and they are certainly extremely diverse. What is similar in all of them, however, is the fact that all of them demand a high level of writing productivity.

So what does writing productivity mean for me?

  • Being “quickly critical” about things I am asked to read or view. Whether it is a student’s essay, photo journal or videography – I need to be able to get through it quickly and efficiently, construct my opinion and then write my comments.
  • Being “an empathic reader”when it comes to reading and viewing work. As a consultant, I am often asked to comment on documents or PR literature that will be distributed to hundreds of thousands or even millions of readers/viewers. Often these projects come with a serious deadline. This means being able to put aside my personal perfectionism and understand what my readers/viewers will actually look for, hear and see when they look at the comms product we are putting in front of them. This can lead to faster choices and better choices. Follow your intuitions and your inner voice. They will rarely lead you astray.
  • Being “happy with good enough” when it comes to the quality of my own output. No one expects your writing to be perfect, especially not when you are putting in a first draft. I have learned, both as an academic and as a PR pro, that perfectionism is the sworn enemy of productivity.
  • Being able to “rely on your proof-reading circle.” It is much better to rely on a group of proofers with whom you go back and forth with a document, than to try and perfect the product yourself. People like Marcel Proust or Samuel Becker might have agonized about every word they put down, but that is death for the academic and professional writer. My philosophy: “When you have all your ideas down, and it is readable to another – get it out the door to a proof-reader.” Of course, never send half-baked writing out to the public! That would be crazy. But have a circle of proofers who will help you kick your writing into shape. Offer those people the same service back when they are writing.
  • Knowing that “writing is just a craft, it’s not a mystical experience.”  I learned early on that fetishizing writing as an art form will lead to paralysis and failure. If you are writing a speech, some advert copy, an academic article or a news release – you aren’t doing mystical. You are using the skills you learned through school and practice to give shape to ideas – whether they are your ideas or those of another. That’s it. You’re a craftsperson, not an artiste. Forget the artiste – you’ll only cause yourself useless drama and frustration.
Honestly, my best advice, apart from those five points is:
  • Set aside a space where you will write. Keep it clean and unencumbered by too much clutter. Set yourself a writing target and then achieve it. Do not stare a blank page, start filling it.

Focusing in on a writing project is hard enough without creating a psychological drama around the writing process.

Maybe Nike was write (haha) – “Just do it.”


A good day: bought golf clubs, planned a program, went swimming.

Today was a sporty day for me. I bought golf clubs and had a nice swim.

I went to the Ted McMeekin Golf Classic on Tuesday at the Copetown Woods Golf Club in Ancaster, where I live. That was a really pleasant day in support of a politician whom I think is truly one of the most decent and honourable people I know, Ted McMeekin. I reconnected with old friends, made some new ones, and had an all-around wonderful day with some great folk.

What that day on the links told me though was it was time to buy some golf clubs of my own. I have rented too many times. So I went to golf town and came home with a set of Callaway Diablo Edge golf clubs. They are not for golf pros, but they felt good, looked good and were very comfortable. I felt good about having my own clubs. I have always liked having my own sports equipment, even if I don’t use it as often as I should.

After that, we had an excellent planning meeting for our future PhD in Communication and New Media Practice. It will be offered through the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia (CSMM), in which I work. The same department that now hosts the Master of Communications Management executive education degree. I am blessed to work in such a great department. Our PhD will be ground-breaking for Canada, offering: Media Art & Performance; Media Culture, Politics and History; and Professional Communication.

Finally, I went for a splendid hard swim. It was the first time in months that I do this, and, Good Lord, do I miss it. It was wonderful to feel the water flowing coolly over over head and shoulders and along my body. I lost myself in the deep blue water and rhythm of my strokes. My muscles felt real and I felt alive.

I am now deliciously exhausted, sitting in my wing chair, sipping some almond milk and thinking that I won’t go without swimming for a long stretch again.

It just feels too good!