In the dark

Just under two weeks ago, there was a power outage in Toronto that left about 250,000 residents without heat or electricity on one of the coldest days of the year (-19C).

I was one of those folks in the dark.

When the incident occurred, just after 10 on a Thursday evening, we found the flashlights, lit a few candles and tried to find out what happened.

First we turned to our community – looked outside to see if anyone else had lights, called a couple friends… We put a battery in a clock radio and tuned to 680 News only to hear (after weather and sports), what we already knew: power was out in a large section of western Toronto. And crews were on the scene.

Thank you very much. That didn’t answer any of my immediate questions like: when is MY power coming back?

I don’t know why I defaulted to old habits (the reluctant adopter in me), but it wasn’t till Friday at work when I thought to check Twitter. I did a few searches and uncovered the hashtag #darkTO, and there, found what I was looking for: an enormous outpouring of comments, thoughts and news – in real time.

There were tweets from people who got their power back; others from folks nearby who hadn’t; offers of office space for those in need of Wifi; updates from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC); requests from MSM media for interviews; and on and on.

It felt like I’d stumbled into the promised on-land. Yes, I had read how quickly Twitter spreads breaking news in real time, but it wasn’t till I experienced it first-hand that I truly grasped its scope.

However, something was missing. There was no local ‘authority’ to offer updates and tell us things were under control. And while Mayor Miller, the City and hydro held a traditional news conference, they seemed oblivious to the conversation taking place around them.

And that was a missed opportunity.

Of course, power was eventually restored (we got ours back nearly 24 hours later).

A little more than a week later, I noticed that Kevin Sacks, City of Toronto Director of Strategic Communications started posting on Twitter, @TorontoComms. Maybe the blackout triggered a lightbulb in City Hall. And that, I believe, is a very positive sign.


The other shoe

With more and more PR people wearing blogger’s hats (a great addition to any winter wardrobe), the line between PR and journalism – citizen or otherwise – continues to blur.

I was thinking about this when I received my first over-the-transom pitch a while back. And though I was glad to be noticed, I wasn’t sure how to react. Probably because I’m not usually on the receiving end.

Not long after, a personal blogger I know was approached by a word of mouth firm that wanted to send her products for review. When she told them she works in PR and may be conflicted, the WOM’er said, ‘I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that and we’ll send them anyway.’

I think that’s just plain wrong on so many levels and is yet another example of why our business has a bit of a bad name. (She didn’t do the post.)

And it made me wonder: when is it OK for PR folks to blog about a pitch they’ve received? Or really, when is it not appropriate?

It’s a grey area and, like so much else in our business, it all comes down to knowing where to place our self on that fine line we call reputation (ours, as well as our clients). In other words making an ethical judgement call.

As many have already said, be transparent, identify yourself and be open about who/what you represent. Some bloggers have gone further by listing their criteria for accepting pitches.

I think there’s a positive outcome to PR people being pitched. With the shoe on the proverbial other foot, we get a chance to experience life from a journalist’s POV. Interesting loafers, I say, though they don’t quite fit and I’m not sure I’d want to wear them everyday.

Hopefully all of this will give our industry a greater understanding and empathy for media, which will help us do a better job.

The blogosphere just got a touch of class

Ever wondered how to make a good impression on clients at a formal dinner? What about knowing where to draw the line between appropriate (or inappropriate) professional communications?

My colleague, Louise Armstrong, combines her expertise in PR and etiquette in a new blog: A Call for Class.

A thoughtful writer, Louise is setting out to examine the places where manners and modern communications meet. And you can be sure her posts will offer a keen perspective and useful advice.

Have a read and let me (or Louise) know what you think.

PodCamp 2009

If you’re a PR person interested in social media, blogging, podcasting and the latest developments, tools and trends, I’d encourage you to sign up for PodCamp 2009 in Toronto, Feb 21 and 22. It’s a great opportunity to learn more and have a chance to trade stories and meet other practitioners.

This year, Palette is pleased to be one of the event sponsors.

Hope to see you there.

Blogabout – a few good reads

Here’s a quick list/links to some posts I’ve recently enjoyed:

Giovanni Rodriguez’s insightful and well-researched series, Advertising with Character on the nature and use of characters that sell. There’s a lot of superb material here, so sit back with a coffee or a drink and enjoy.

Michelle Kostya’s review of her favourite Twitter tools – especially useful for the novice and intermediate user.

Bailey Gardiner CEO Jon Bailey’s musings on his first 30 days on Twitter.

David Mullen’s effective ways to build and manage your online interactions.

Happy reading.

He likes us…

I was at the gym when I found out Obama’s first official visit as President of the United States will be to Canada. And you can’t believe how excited I was when I heard the news.

I mean, out of the whole entire globe, the leader of the free world has chosen us. (OK, it’s a long-standing tradition that Bush ignored, but let’s put that fact on hold.)

My reaction reminded me of Sally Field’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. And it also made me think about how thrilled we Canadians get, when a person of celebrity south of the border ‘recognizes’ us (or even makes a paltry reference to our country in a movie or TV show). It’s silly really, but that seems to be part of our collective psyche.

And while I am glad President Obama is coming here – if for no other reason than the hope that his vision may rubs off on our leaders – I feel that my response (and I’m sure that of my fellow Canucks) is a bit over the top.

Why? Perhaps it’s because we still view ourselves as second tier. But is that so bad? I think it’s time we started accepting and even taking pride in who we are. We should become more comfortable wearing our national skin (though it may be covered in a parka for much of the year) and not look for our validation from external sources.

Maybe 2009 could be the year we stop being so internationally-insecure. (Now, what would the Americans think about that?)

Of Winnipeg and ice

The ‘Slurpee capital of the world’ has a frosty new title. According to a story in today’s Globe and Mail, Winnipeg’s River Trail outdoor skating rink, now sliding across both the Red and Assiniboine rivers, is longer (by distance) than the one on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. While there’s the usual griping over details – in this case length vs area; or -30 temperatures vs warming huts – it looks like Winnipeg has skated to the finish line as the champ.

Congratulations, I say. In a city where frigidity is the norm, it’s better to embrace reality than consistently gripe about it or pretend it’s not there. Done right, I think the Slurpee and skating crowns could go a long way toward making the city cool.

Snow sculpture, anyone?