Why I hate asterisks*

I was on the subway yesterday looking at the sale ads and getting ready to score an amazing deal…on something.

But my hopes were dashed when I noticed that fateful symbol perched on BIG OFFER’s shoulder. And though it’s barely visible, it packs a wallop that slaps you back to your senses.

I’m talking about the asterisk.

I don’t like asterisks because they represent exceptions. Exceptions, usually, to a screaming overpromise.

What I resent most are the enticements that purport to ‘build me up buttercup, just to let me down’. Having an asterisk is like keeping people spellbound by a sprawling story, only to admit in the end that, well, maybe much of what you said, just didn’t happen.

Granted, the promises seem too good to be true. And they’re easy to spot. In fact, the front section of today’s Toronto Star featured 24 ads; 17 of which had a disclaimer of sorts, 11 with the ubiquitous asterisk. That’s nearly 50 per cent.

Now, although I’m singling them out, asterisks aren’t the sole culprits. And to be fair, there’s a group of other hench-symbols (they know who they are) often found lurking with expressions like ‘up to 80 per cent’, ‘for a limited time’, ‘select merchandise only’, ‘dealers may vary’, ‘quantities limited’, ‘some items not exactly as shown’, etc. And while they may be just as bad, asterisks are the ones you notice most often at the scene of the crime.

Perhaps as a new, more balanced economy emerges from the tatters of our old reckless one, we can ask for a straight exchange on the asterisk and the worst parts of the sales pitch. And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll receive a credit toward credibility – all at no extra cost!

*Not to be confused by the French comic Asterix, of which I have yet to form a definitive opinion.


The pod before Christmas

Well, today’s the day that Inside PR #143 is released. I think it’s a lively episode that touches on Twitter etiquette (Twitterquette?), media and conflict of interest.

Not bad for a holiday show…

From my perspective, I find it hard to believe I’ve been doing this for close to a year. And I have to say, I’ve had a great time sharing my thoughts, learning from and being challenged by my fellow podcasters and hearing from listeners. (I hope you’ve found the same.)

It’s been a blast sitting in my study on Sunday nights in front of a Gzowski-esque mic, feeling like a Talk Radio DJ. And, it’s a lot less solitary than writing a blog.

It’s also an honour to be part of a show that was nominated one of the ‘best social media podcasts’ of the year (voting encouraged).

So now, in the spirit of the season, I offer my special thanks to Terry Fallis and David Jones for asking me on the show and keeping me on my toes; and to Julie Rusciolelli for being my freshman buddy.

And thanks to everyone who tuned in. I’m looking forward to more…

Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

Something’s in the air

Last week, we sent out our Palette e-holiday card – a pretty timely idea, if do say so myslef. (You may need to double click on the image to get the gist.) Then a few days later, a cartoonist from the Toronto Star published an illustration using the same joke.

Now, since our card pre-dated their visual, one could assume they ripped us off. I mean, we distributed it first – it was out there for all and sundry to see and the next thing we knew, someone bigger was taking credit for it.

Did we call our lawyers? Threaten a lawsuit?


In my mind, it’s a clear example of a concept being in the air and having more than one ‘creator’ at the same time.

This seems to happen a lot. I think it’s due to a confluence of events (e.g. the economy and holidays) and the speed with which online communications spreads our shared imagery and metaphors. I mean, come up with virtually any idea, search it on Google, and there’s a chance someone else got there first. A virtual copyright infringement.

But who copied and who was right?

The truth is, if the Toronto Star had done it before us, we would probably have been seen as the also ran, because their distribution is much larger than ours. It’s a case of volume trumping voice, which is, in many ways, similar to Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the medium being the message.

And it is a question that we communicators grapple with all the time: How do we get our messages to resonate when there are often much more vocal sources than us?

I think this is where relationships, credibility and trust comes in. Sure they require more energy, work and time than pure amplification. But I believe that when you combine those attributes with a relevant story people want to hear, a quieter voice can be as effective as a shout.

A failure to communicate – and sell

My phone rang a few minutes ago. The gentleman on the other end said, I’m calling to renew your subscription to some magazine I had never heard of.

Now, like most agencies, we get lots of publications. But as I couldn’t place this one, I told the rep that I didn’t think we had a subscription.

Without missing a beat he said, OK, then will you be interested in a free trial?

I answered quickly, succinctly and in no uncertain terms.

Now, I love magazines and all media, for that matter. But I thought, this is yet another example of communication obfuscation from their industry – trying to sell by pulling the proverbial wool over my eyes.

Obfuscate injures communicate

I think we’ve all seen them – those subscription offers from various magazines that promise $1 million dollars (or more) – and perhaps even a visit from Ed McMahon

I actually had an aunt and uncle, who received a ‘you may already be a winner’ envelope and called up their relatives to say that their ship had come in (not in those words, of course, they were prairie folk). I didn’t have the heart to burst their bubble and they found out the truth soon enough.

I recently got a note from a publisher which thanked me for subscribing by sending three ‘Treasurer’s Entry Cheques’. The first one for $500,000 and the second for $60,000 both had a stamped note saying ‘payment guaranteed to winner’. The third one for $31,000 was even more forceful: ‘imminent payment’, it proclaimed.

Now, I know better, but still I was enticed.

Even worse was the wording used in the oh so personal cover letter:
‘The fact that you are now in possession of the enclosed documents is proof that your chance of becoming a prize winner is all but confirmed.

Notice the words in bold: fact; now in possession; proof; becoming a prize winner; confirmed. They’re working hard to persuade you that you’ve already won.

However, now look at the disclaimers in italic: your chance; all but. These words are almost hidden behind the screaming bolds, yet it’s the strong, quieter ones that really tell the truth about the offer.
I have to admit that part of me enjoyed reading the sentence for its wordplay. But, the other part was angry at how language is being used to obfuscate, not communicate.
This type of spin was de rigeur in many PR circles and one of the things that gave our industry its bad reputation. I think we can all look back on our careers and pick out a few examples we’re not so proud of.
Fortunately, the rules of social media have altered the playing field (writing field?). We now have to speak honestly, credibly and, yes creatively too. We can no longer hide behind a slick turn of the phrase.
The best PR people will let this filter into all aspects of the practice. And that will only be good for the profession (and gullible aunts and uncles everywhere).

Communicating in

This past week I was in Ottawa, taking part in a Federated Press conference on internal communications. (I was inside mostly so I missed the political fireworks on the Hill.)

My talk featured a case study about a company that used a major transition as an opportunity to engage employees in a way it hadn’t done before. And a number of the key points I discussed were also highlighted by other presenters, including:

  • Transparency – you’ve got to be upfront about both good and bad news
  • Credibility – if you’re not honest or, even if you’re perceived as not being honest, you’ll never earn anyone’s trust
  • Two-way communications – can build solid relationships between management and employees
  • Consistency – in your behaviour
  • Long-term commitment – none of this happens with one message blast; communicate early and often

These are similar to the strategies we use online. But more than that, I think they’re fundamental to any effective (and ethical) communications program – regardless of the medium.