Case study: crisis communications gone wrong

jian ghomeshiReading time: About 3 minutes

I never thought I’d see the words crisis communications and Jian Ghomeshi in the same sentence. Now, they seem inseparable…

If you don’t live in Canada, you might be unaware that Jian Ghomeshi was a media god in this country. He was host of the popular CBC radio program Q. He was an unparalleled interviewer of celebrities such as Stephen King, Jon Stewart, Lena Dunham and Barbra Streisand. He was a perennial guest host of events such as writers’ festivals, music festivals and AIDS days.

Savvy, articulate, good-looking, warm-voiced he even earned international attention from his deft handling of a wildly difficult interview with Billy Bob Thornton, in which Thornton acted like a petulant five-year-old. (In fact, I’ve even used that event as an illustration of skilled interviewing in some of my own media training classes.)

But all that ended on Oct. 26/14 when Ghomeshi was fired by his employer, for unexplained reasons. “The CBC is saddened to announce its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi has come to an end,” said the tight-lipped press release. “This decision was not made without serious deliberation and careful consideration.” Late Sunday morning I received a text from my brother-in-law: “What’s going on with Ghomeshi?” he asked. A few hours later, Ghomeshi posted his version of events on his Facebook page.

His 1,590-word Facebook message offers some valuable lessons in how not to do crisis communications.

1) Don’t tell people more than they need to know. I don’t CARE about Ghomeshi’s sex life. I don’t want to know he’s into bondage and sadomasochism. What’s in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom. Ironically, Ghomeshi tries to make this point in his own post, but in doing gives explicit details of his own sex life. This is closing the bedroom/barn door way too late.

2) Don’t be so manipulative. Referring to his father’s recent death and what he describes as “a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization…from a jilted ex-girlfriend,” is so blatantly designed to make him seem blameless  it can only make the reader wonder what he’s hiding.

3) Don’t exaggerate. Ghomeshi uses the word “consent” twice in his post. “It is truly not anyone’s business what two consenting adults do,” he said, and I agree. However, since his post on Sunday eight women have come forward describing non-consensual violent acts. These are all allegations, yet unproven in court. And at this point only one of the complainants has allowed her name to be used. But given that the media could document eight complaints in less than 72 hours, it has to make you wonder how many others are out there?

The post may have been written by Ghomeshi’s PR firm. Or he may have penned it himself. Either way it missed the mark by a country mile.

Let me also point out that I’m not excusing CBC. I suspect they fired Ghomeshi when they (finally) realized that one of the women accusing Ghomeshi was from their own staff. Failing to address this incident when it occurred was a serious lapse in judgment (the woman has since left the corporation) and I’m guessing the public broadcaster didn’t want to look bad. Especially when they knew the Toronto Star was working on an investigative report on Ghomeshi, now public.

Will we ever know what really happened? No. Because this issue cannot go to court. As Howard Levitt explains in his insightful Financial Post story, Ghomeshi was a union employee. This means he has no right to sue (such a complaint must, by law, go to binding arbitration.) But a lawsuit — even one that will eventually be dismissed — allows him to get his own version of events into the public record, without anyone having recourse. (It also allows CBC to do the same.) The suit will also likely discourage most of the accusers from coming forward. One might even suppose that that’s its aim.

Is any effective crisis communications even possible at this point? I suspect not. That’s why his two PR firms cut ties with him this afternooon.

And, while I was writing this post, a friend told me about another person coming forward. This woman has given her name, photo and details of the assault. I’m not sure if this makes her #8 or #9. We’re heading into the double digits, now….

No Responses/Posted October 31st, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Bradlee tilted a room just by being himself

David Carr writes about Ben BradleeReading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a glorious handful of metaphors from New York Times writer David Carr…

I came of age during Watergate. The Senate Watergate committee began its nationally televised hearings in 1973 when I was in grade 10 and Richard Nixon resigned on April 22, 1974. I became a journalist myself, not because of the Washington Post reporters who broke the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But they were my heroes. As were their bosses, publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee.

When Bradlee died at the age of 93 last week, I allowed myself a few moments wandering down memory lane. My able tour guide? David Carr of the New York Times, with his diverting and superbly written article, “Ben Bradlee’s charmed, charming life.”

A dab hand with metaphors, Carr displayed many of them in his article. Here are my five favourite ones.

  • In a town notorious for big entrances — Bill Clinton, Marion Barry, Ronald Reagan, you name it — Mr. Bradlee tilted a room just by being himself.
  • He was more Clark Gable than Clark Kent.
  • In 1969, he conjured Style, a hip, cheeky section of the newspaper that reflected the tumult of the times in a city where fashion and discourse were rived with a maddening sameness. The effect on the business was profound, as if Chuck Berry had walked into a Glenn Miller show and started playing guitar.
  • Bradlee could be almost cartoonishly ambitious. Asked by Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, about his interest in the top job at the paper, he immediately replied that he would “give my left one” for the opportunity. He probably would have gotten along fine on the remaining testosterone.
  • A player of favorites and an admirer of bravado, he famously vetoed the hiring of a reporter who had already been vetted and all but hired, because “nothing clanks when he walks.”

Bradlee was a big man.  I’m glad he had a fitting send-off from David Carr.

No Responses/Posted October 30th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does titivate mean?

to titivateReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: titivating.

I discovered the writing of Sarah Waters about 10 years ago when I read her marvellous 2002 novel Fingersmith. A Victorian crime novel with fine writing and breathtaking plotting (I recall gasping aloud at one of the especially surprising plot twists), the prose kept my nose in a book for about three days.

For those who are put off by this sort of thing, I should tell you that Waters, a lesbian, makes it her goal to write lesbian love stories. For me, this makes no difference. She’s a superb writer with an ear for metaphor. (See my round-up of her best metaphors from this book next week.)

In this book, she also gave me my word of the week: titivating. Here’s how she used it:

I leave the titivating to Lilian. She loves all that sort of thing. She can titivate for England, she can.

I hadn’t heard the word before so had to look it up. It means to make small enhancing alterations to something. Synonyms include: grooming, smartening up, preening and primping.

The source of the word is unclear but it’s thought to come from the word tidy, with what my etymological dictionary calls “a quasi-Latin ending.”

No Responses/Posted October 29th, 2014 in Word of the week

How to ID your bad writing

how to ID your bad writingReading time: About 3 minutes

Having a “vocabulary” of writing problems might sound like a strange idea but there are some terrific benefits from knowing how to ID your bad writing…

I was speaking with a coaching client last week about “bad writing.” Here’s what we decided:

Most writing is neither bad nor good. Instead, the vast majority of it lies somewhere “in the middle.” And whether you, the reader, like it boils down to taste. In matters of taste, we’re all experts.

Still in that vast “middle area” there are likely some bad sentences. And the skilled self-editor has a vocabulary for describing them. Here’s how you can ID your own bad writing:

  1. Are your sentences too long? People often freak out when I tell them this, but, think about it: Isn’t it harder to read a long sentence than a short one? (Hands up if you survived the 958-word first sentence of Remembrance of Things Past. I know I didn’t!) As well, sentence length is often a “placeholder” for other problems. Are you unduly wordy? Do you have any misplaced modifiers? Are you sure your “sentence” has a subject and predicate? All of these issues are easier to miss in long sentences. In short ones, they stand out like a pair of shorts at a funeral. Remember: In our TV- and Internet-modulated society, readers respond best to an average sentence length of 14 to 18 words. Be sure to note that I said average and don’t make all your sentences exactly the same length.
  2. Are your sentences are too similar? Most schools don’t teach grammar these days so I’m going to keep this really basic. The sentence Madison went to the store begins with a subject (Madison), includes a predicate AKA a verb (went) and finishes with an object (store). If all of your sentences are as simple as this, you’ll bore your readers. Use more variety. Perhaps you can begin with a dependent clause: Although she was very tired, Madison went to the store. Or an infinitive phrase: To please her mother, Madison went to the store. Or an adverb, Quickly, Madison went to the store. Or a participial phrase: Hoping to find some ice cream, Madison went to the store. Don’t bore your readers, or yourself, by always saying things the same way.
  3. Are you inclined to be too abstract? Readers like writing that allows them to engage the mind’s eye. If I write the word dog you will immediately form a visual image — perhaps of your own dog or that of a friend or neighbour. But if I write the word existence, what do you picture? If I really push myself, I see a picture of a globe (who knows why?) But that takes real effort. The word doesn’t lend itself to images and that makes readers feel weary. Instead of writing about abstractions, challenge yourself to include more stories,  anecdotes  and examples. This will excite your readers and make them more enthusiastic about your writing.
  4. Do you use too many unclear antecedents? I know, antecedent is another scary grammar word. Sorry! An antecedent is a word that gives meaning to another word. For example, Daphne wrote this column. She wanted to remove the fear of antecedents. The word she is a pronoun. The antecedent is Daphne. When I’m reading stories, I frequently find writers have used pronouns like it or noun markers like this, that and these too far from their antecedents. It’s okay to use pronouns, of course. But you need to make sure you’re clear about the antecedents they’re referring to. If you tend to be vague with your antecedents, I suggest you develop the habit of doing a search (command + F) for it, this, that and these and double-check to ensure they are obvious.
  5. Are you too easily seduced by clichés? I read a New York Times obit on newspaperman Ben Bradlee last week. Imagine my chagrin when I encountered the following sentence about Bradlee protégées Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together. These aren’t even truly horrible clichés (like the nick of time) but they’re worse than I expect from the Times. When you self-edit spend at least part of your time extinguishing clichés. If you have trouble finding them, you might want to try using the Cliche Finder, an imperfect but useful tool.
  6. Do you fail to use connectors or transitions? I know I’m in the hands of a sophisticated writer when I see words or phrases like on the other hand, or here for example, or similarly. These transitional words help ease readers’ way, letting them know what to expect in the next sentence. Beginning writers almost universally fail to use enough connectors or transitions. This is such an important issue, I’m going to devote a column to it in the next few weeks. (Will hotlink it here as soon as it’s done.)
  7. Do you use too much passive voice? Passive sentences hide the leading actor. If that doesn’t make sense to you, here’s a classic example: Mistakes were made. Who made those mistakes? We don’t know. That’s why the sentence is passive. But mention the actor, and voilà, you have a sentence that’s active and easier for the reader to visualize: The Canadian government made mistakes. Not all passive is quite so simple to identify, however. That’s why I suggest using the Hemingway app. This fantastic tool is the best non-human editor I’ve ever met and will highlight your sins of passivity in bright green. (Note: Passive voice isn’t uniformly bad. But if you can’t recognize it you shouldn’t be allowed to use it. I’ll write about this in a future column.)
  8. Do you have too little to say? This is the most serious problem of all, and one I see frequently in many of the blogs I review. The writer doesn’t have enough material that’s interesting, new or useful. Don’t waste your readers’ time! Know your point or your angle and give it succinctly.

Your writing may be in the middle. But you want it to be aiming towards excellence. And excellence is not an accident. It’s something achieved through habit.

What kind of bad writing do you watch for? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment on my blog by October 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

18 Responses/Posted October 28th, 2014 in Power Writing

It is all rhythm

Virginia WoolfReading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article about Virginia Woolf…

It makes me feel both guilty and inept to admit that I have never read a novel by Virginia Woolf. The closest I’ve come is Michael Cunningham’s marvellous book The Hours,  a story addressing three generations of women affected by Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. (I also saw the movie, which, surprisingly, was excellent.)

Now, after reading a recent entry in the marvellous Brain Pickings blog, I’m resolving to correct my Woolf deficiency within the next 12 months.

Focusing on the book The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three, Brain Pickings writer Maria Popova briefly explores the work of what she describes as one of the greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language.

Here, for example, is her quote from Woolf’s reflections on rhythm:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. 

The absolute urgency of rhythm is the main reason I encourage my clients to read all of their work out loud. How can you possibly edit anything if you don’t know what it sounds like?

No Responses/Posted October 27th, 2014 in Writing about writing

In a crisis? Don’t make decisions too quickly

don't make decisions too quicklyReading time: About 1 minute

When things are going badly, many organizations want to act rapidly. But don’t make decisions too quickly….

Parents with “challenging” offspring learn one manoeuvre early on: they don’t dish out consequences too quickly. That’s because they know that if they have to retract or change their minds, they’ll lose face with their children.

If only more organizations would learn this important fact!

Recently, an elite private school in Montreal, Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, discovered that its 73-year-old drama teacher had appeared in nude films more than 40 years ago. Jacqueline Laurent-Auger (pictured above) had struggled for work as a young woman so she’d appeared, sans vêtements, in such films as Diary of a Nymphomaniac. When the school discovered this news (some 40 years after the fact, but never mind), they fired her.

I don’t quibble with the school’s right to insist on certain behaviours of its teachers. As long as they abide by human rights, they can demand anything they want. But they reacted too quickly in this case and now they’re having to change their minds.

Widespread sympathy for the teacher and her predicament have left the impression that the school is prudish, fusty and short-sighted. No school, particularly one that charges admission fees, can afford to be perceived this way. So the school is having to back-track. Now, they’re offering Laurent-Auger her job back.

If school leaders had thought about public reaction, before delivering the consequences, they would have saved themselves much national negative publicity. As well, they wouldn’t have faced the nuisance of having to find another teacher. Laurent-Auger hasn’t decided whether she’s going to take back the job. And they wouldn’t look so inept.

Even in a crisisespecially in a crisis — don’t make decisions too quickly. You’ll likely just end up regretting it.

No Responses/Posted October 24th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Like so many grey-haired ladies…

marcus geeReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a simile from newspaper reporter Marcus Gee.

There’s a civic election coming up in Toronto next Monday. But even people from elsewhere around the world are likely aware of it as a result of the exploits of the current mayor, Rob Ford.

Famous for his family, his impatient, right-wing attitude, his girth, his drinking, his drug habit, his lying and, now, his cancer, Ford has been a fixture on the TV news for the last few years.

Here is what journalist Marcus Gee had to say about him in a recent Op Ed piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper:

What makes him so annoying as a politician but at the same time so absorbing to watch is his bullheaded refusal to acknowledge obstacles in his path, even obstacles of fact or logic. He just forges on, knocking the obstacles aside like so many grey-haired ladies on the floor of city council.

I like the simile because it captures so much about Ford — and about the flavour of civic politics. Yes, Ford is a bully, although Gee opts for the more diplomatic term “bullheaded.” Yes, city council meetings are often filled with grey-haired ladies (and men, for that matter). And, yes, it is possible —and even darkly amusing—  to imagine Ford using his considerable girth to knock them over.

The election (which no longer includes Rob Ford because of his illness) is going to be interesting. Polls tell us that John Tory is going to win but it will be most intriguing to learn where Rob’s brother, Doug, is going to finish. Last, perhaps? I hope so. But never say that with the Fords.

3 Responses/Posted October 23rd, 2014 in Figurative language

What is an excrescence?

excrescenceReading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: excrescence.

I haven’t seen the movie Frank. But I can tell you it’s a comedy about a young man who joins a band of pop musicians led by a guy named Frank.

Frank (the musician) is  unique because he wears a giant fake head, and the movie — which scores an amazing 93% on Rotten Tomatoes — explores themes of creativity and mental illness. I think I’ll have to catch it when it’s re-released. 

I read an Anthony Lane review of the movie in the Aug. 25/14 New Yorker, headlined “Hide and Seek,” and it gave me my word of the week, excrescence. Here is how Lane used it:

The people around Frank accept the head, not as an excrescence or a badge of style but as part of his nature, and as the source of his disorienting charm. 

The noun refers to an outgrowth (or lump, nodule or swelling) on a human, animal or plant, especially one resulting from a disease or abnormality. The origin of the word is Latin, dating to the early 15th century, from excrescentem , present participle of excrescere, meaning “grow out, grow up,” from ex- “out” and crescere “to grow.”

No Responses/Posted October 22nd, 2014 in Word of the week

So, I mindmapped. Now what?


Sprinkling some fairy dust for writing…

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

If you’ve ever struggled with turning mindmapping into writing, here’s some advice for you…

I like to describe mindmapping as a little bit of fairy dust for writers. But recently, a writer named Omer wrote to me saying, “So, I mindmapped. Now what?”

If you haven’t read my no-charge booklet on mindmapping — because you haven’t yet subscribed to Power Writing — please go here to subscribe. There’s no charge and you’ll also get my free booklet in about two minutes.

If you have read it, here is some extra information.

Mindmaps (for writers) have one of two purposes: to organize or to inspire.

If you want an organizational mindmap…

  • Reserve it for a very big writing project, such as a book or a major report. (Something of at least 10,000 words.) If your work is shorter than this, you should not be doing an organizational mindmap because it won’t help you. Instead, see below for inspirational mindmap instructions.
  • Write your mindmap on a very large piece of paper. Use butcher’s paper or clean newsprint stretched across a boardroom table or your dining room table (with all the leaves in.)
  • Allow yourself plenty of time. Maybe as much as an hour.
  • Don’t edit yourself. If an idea springs to your brain, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, write it down.
  • When you’ve finished your mindmap, take a closer look at it with a set of coloured felt pens in hand. Look for items that fall within certain categories or “buckets” and highlight them with pens of the same colour. Then, when your map is all marked up…
  • Make a linear list of chapters (or, for a report, sub-categories) and put them in an order that makes the most sense to you.
  • You’re done! Now, don’t write any further until you’ve done an inspirational mindmap.

When you want an inspirational mindmap….

  • Take a blank piece of paper (I use an artist’s notebook with coil binding but scrap paper is perfectly okay). Regular sized paper is fine although I like slightly larger — 9 x 12. Just be sure to turn it sideways. This will alert your brain that you’re doing something different than writing a list.
  • Have an angle rather than a subject. Here are some examples of the differences:

Subject: Shakespeare.

Angle: Hamlet is the best play Shakespeare wrote.

Subject: Ebola.

Angle: What is the real risk of Ebola to people in North America?

Subject: Mindmaps.

Angle: How do I turn a mindmap into a story?

Do you see how having an angle is both more specific and more interesting than simply a subject? If you can’t figure out an angle, I suggest you go for a walk (or do some other activity such as running, swimming, biking or cooking) that keeps you busy but allows your mind the freedom to roam. Once you’ve identified your angle you can go back to your desk and start mindmapping.

  • Don’t edit yourself. If an idea springs to your brain, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, write it down. Be sure to include stories, metaphors and feelings.
  • Don’t worry about organizing. It’s not terribly important to link the ideas to particular “parent” ideas. It’s far more important to get your thoughts on the page!
  • Don’t write too many words. People often make the mistake of writing more words than they need. You don’t require complete sentences! You just need memory hooks. If the few words you write are enough to remind you of the idea, that’s all you need.
  • Don’t stare vacantly into space. Social psychologist Robert Zonic has shown that smiling makes people feel Similarly, moving your pencil across a piece of paper will make you feel like writing more. If you don’t know what to say, doodle. Seriously! Keep that pencil moving and soon enough your brain will catch up.
  • Be prepared to do more than one mindmap per story. There is no rule that says every story requires a single mindmap. Yours may require three or four. (In my experience, you can do most inspirational mindmaps in five minutes or less.) Keep mindmapping until you have the “aha” experience. That is, until you feel the overwhelming urge to write.
  • Be prepared to abandon your mindmap. If you have the “aha” experience, start writing immediately, even if you haven’t finished your mindmap.

Omer, the “now what” is all about provoking the “aha.” If you don’t have the “aha” you’re not ready to write. If you repeatedly fail to get the “aha” then something is going wrong with your mindmapping. Reread the instructions above and see if you can figure out what it is.

Mindmapping is fairy dust, but the fairy needs to know how to wave the wand.

Do you mindmap for your writing? If so, how does it help you? If not, why not? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by October 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

12 Responses/Posted October 21st, 2014 in Power Writing

You cannot be judging yourself as you write

Jane SmileyReading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an interview with novelist Jane Smiley.

I’ve never been a fan of the writer Jane Smiley. I don’t think she’s a bad writer. She’s just not to my taste. So, I’m glad her books are published. And I don’t blame others for liking her. It’s simply a case of de gustibus non est disputandum — in matters of taste there can be no dispute.

Despite my hesitation about her novels, I recognize her as an expert on writing. She’s clearly very smart and accomplished, with 14 novels, two short story collections and five non-fiction works.

And I very much enjoyed an interview with her in a recent issue of the Atlantic Magazine. She spoke knowledgeably about the writing process and emphasized the importance of what I call incubation. Here is what she said:

You cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas. 

Listen to what Smiley has to say! She’s right. It takes effort to stop yourself from judging and editing. But you will become a much better writer by incubating.

No Responses/Posted October 20th, 2014 in Writing about writing