3/3 – Did earls underestimate the beef backlash? – How not to be them

Well, obviously.

And you may make a decision someday that will put your brand in the cross-hairs of an unknown enemy: the social sphere. You don’t think that will ever happen to you when you’re so proud of a decision, yet your brand may be next.

That’s the reality of today’s world of communication. You just don’t know.

See previous posts on this topic: Post 1 / Post 2

In the past few years, I have personally experienced this in projects I’ve managed. Fortunately, none have blown up as quickly and widely as this one has for earls.

And there is no template for how to do it better, yet.

earls did it right according to how today’s public relations, corporate leaders, and community leaders are taught and generally practice without issue.

They wanted to make a change they felt was fitting for their brand. After all, they have boasted “friendly” menu items for years, and have been expanding them constantly. This simply follows in previous steps they have made that have been welcomed by customers, as they can likely demonstrate with an improved bottom line.

A nearby example, Costco was recently celebrated for stating it would not be supporting the genetically-modified salmon for it’s US stores despite a recent FDA approval for the producer  – thus not supporting a US producer.

Canada’s trade deficit shows a massive drop in Canadian innovation and marketing

And let’s face it, with imports greatly beating exports in Canada, reaching a $1.9 billion trade deficit in February – earls is the symptom of a large failure to innovate and market over the past decade. The proof is in a nasty trend where an   all time high of $8.5 CAD billion was hit in January of 2001, and the decline began in mid-2010 to eventually hit a record low of -$3.7 CAD billion in March 2015.

Yes, that’s a $12.2 billion drop! 

It’s equal to  every Canadian spending $348 more  on non-Canadian products than on Canadian ones … every month. 



In short, there’s a simple template for issues management:

Knowledge, Action, Empathy

  • Knowledge explains what they know, why they know it, and if there is anything else you should know.
  • Action is what their decision is, why it is that way, and who’s involved.
  • Empathy expresses understanding of how it may impact  others.

earls did all of these through the site  they launched when they announced their decision to move to Certified Humane® beef. The site had a load of information, videos from the CEO, producers and documentaries. It included a Q&A section explaining many aspects of their lengthy thought process, challenges, and reasons why.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone had an immediate opinion without basing any of their statements on fact. Welcome to our world today.

  • What you  see is a series of opinions that are interconnected to weave a story that nobody controls.
  • It doesn’t matter who started it, and it won’t matter who ends it. The story broke the internet five days ago, and it barely exists today.

Welcome to the new news cycle. What you just read about earls in the past week was not news. News journalism, done properly (rare today due to extreme cutbacks) presents both sides of a story, with factual accounts that are verified to back up the sources.

That didn’t happen. And that’s the new norm for your business – whether you are on social media or not. Do not think for a moment you are immune to it.

Where did earls go wrong?

One of many memes passing around on the subject
  • Did they do focus groups or surveys to test their strategy and tactics?
  • Did they consider the growing Alberta-based movement to have Alberta-produced oil used in Canadian facilities?
  • Did they consider the recent decision by Loblaws to not sell French’s Canadian-made ketchup, which was ultimately reversed.
  • Was the reality that keyboard activists in Alberta – home to Canada’s largest beef market – have more time on their hands due to the recession in the province?
  • Did they consider the Alberta economy which is strained, and thus the people of Alberta are stressed?
  • Did they consider that the protectionism shown by US presidential candidates Sanders and Trump could be rubbing off through coverage Canadians see  in the USA or Canada?
  • Did they look at other certified methods that may closely resemble  Certified Humane®?

There are many more questions that they have answered, such as:

  • They have been working on this change for over two years!
  • The change meant switching to a Kansas-based producer (no mention of their previous producer.)
  • That they wanted to have beef that was free of many concerns that customers in  North America have pushed other companies such as Costco to provide better alternatives.
  • That they would consider a Canadian beef producer that met the standard they had decided upon, if a Canadian supplier was to become available.
  • That they were excited and proud of the change.
  • And as of today, they stand behind their decision despite the backlash.


What can you do?

Have a professional communicator as a trusted advisor on your executive team. They must be a graduate of public relations or communications, have over five years experience in issues management, and in cases like this, must have an APR or Masters in Communications/Public Relations and  be a member of CPRS or IABC.

Trusted advisor – This means when they talk, you listen…and don’t discount what they say. Experienced communicators won’t feed you BS. They’ll feed you what they’ve learned through real experience, tough education, watching current affairs, learning from  others through professional development, and  are not afraid to be honest (or as I say – hard truths). They don’t want the scar of your stupid decision on their resume.

A graduate – Using someone with no communications degree/diploma is a very bad idea. They must be a graduate of a reputable program. Among today’s graduates there is also the PRK exam which graduates can take, although this was only introduced in January 2013 and is not widely used by graduates, yet. Do not hire someone who has taken a course on communications – that is not good enough – that is the equivalent of one course in one semester. It takes at least a full year of intensive training to develop a public relations practitioner. They almost always have previously completed a degree or diploma in a related field. Do not use a marketing graduate or a human resources person to handle communications – most aren’t interested in the job, and if they are, they’ll suck at it.  A mass communicator is not a human resources advisor, and a marketing grad will struggle in crisis.

Experience – If you have an issue which could blow up, or you want to blow it up, you need someone who knows strategy and tactics. Tactics are learned and practiced in the early years working public relations.  Strategy is also learned, however, a practitioner will generally not get consistent experience practicing strategy until five years and onward. This is because they need to earn their stripes, and there are less  jobs in strategy which are generally at management levels, therefore, unreachable for a junior communicator.

As well, make sure the communicator hasn’t worked in the same sector or employer most of their career. We’re better if we’re passed around – as dirty as that may sound. When you move from one sector or employer to another, it changes your lens, and adds to your experience. It’s not unusual for a communicator with 10 years experience to have worked in five sectors and 10 positions.  (At 18 years into the business I have worked in nine positions and dozens of sectors).

Issues management is also a segment of public relations. It’s specific, and not every public relations graduate will get the opportunity to work in issues management in their career. To complicate it further, some public relations people don’t work in social media. If they don’t – do not hire them!

If the issues manager is a former journalist, their time as a journalist does not count toward the first five years – despite their smooth talking. (Sorry hacks to flacks.)

APR or Masters – If you are looking for a senior communications professional, they need a designation behind their name. APR is Accredited in Public Relations – it’s what I have – and it comes after a minimum of five years practicing (generally, most don’t enter until they have closer to 10 years under their belt), a rigorous  application and evaluation, an oral and written exam, and a measurement by dozens of their peers who already have an APR. A Masters can be taken at the start or middle of a career. Ideally, if someone has a Masters, they also have five years experience as well.  Masters grads  go through a load of extra education – so trust that they’ve seen lots to inform their decisions, much like an APR.

CPRS/IABC membership – Support this. Pay for their memberships.  Pay for them to attend professional development sessions and conferences.

The CPRS is the Canadian Public Relations Society and is part of a Global Alliance for PR and Communication Management (160,000 worldwide members). CPRS also issues the aforementioned  APR designation.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)  is a competing society to CPRS and has 4,500 members in Canada.  They don’t currently offer a designation for members.

Pay – You’ll need to pay a communication person. (No, we oddly don’t like working for free, even though most of us start our first gig that way.) A junior starts at too low of a wage to survive, so they’ll be clearing tables on the side.  A senior communicator is upwards of $100k a year. They’re worth their weight in gold if they are a good fit for your organization. They also rank in the top 10 for most stressful jobs, so when they want time off – give it to them.  (They share the top 10 with firefighters, military, and air traffic controllers.)

Fit – Not every communicator will be a fit. We all talk a lot, get used to it. We do all have different personalities, education and experience. Some will fit for your organization perfectly, and others will destroy it. Find one that matches your values.

Respect culture and community – Culture can have many meanings. I prefer to use community. Communities can be within cultures, across them, or not have any culture replacing it with community. They can be groups we are part of, were part of, or communities we have lived in. Respect them, know them, and seek to understand them and their thoughts. Talk to them and listen to them. Do not try and change them unless you’re prepared to work for three generations.

Timing is important – I’ve had big announcements ready to go and pulled the plug last minute due to another issue that could develop and impact our announcement. Sometimes, I’ve waited months to setup the announcement again.

Current affairs – Keep an eye on the news, trends, statistics,  events, announcements, and even moon cycles. A good issues manager is one who wakes up on their mobile and goes to sleep with one. It’s sad, yet true – my wife hates my device.

Measure – You need to know what to measure and why to measure it. Spending money on surveys and focus groups pays off. It results in less issues as people will tell you about things you never thought about – despite years of time invested. You need to pre-measure to have a baseline, and post-measure to see results.

Statistics – They tell you about your communities. Who they are, what makes them tick, and what issues may impact them. Know them and know them well. Never stop adding to your stats.

Plan – I don’t doubt earls   planned this launch, it’s obvious they did.  You need to have an detailed communications plan that outlines everything, including warning signs to watch for if things get off the rails and what your plan for getting things back on track. And today, you may need your plan reviewed by other communicators outside your organization. I see the  need to start a support group for this!


I’m sure there is much more, and I’d invite my PR colleagues across the country to add their thoughts below.


Either way, there are lessons to be learned with every crisis. And for earls – they’ll be  wondering why they were the target of so much displeasure for years.

And as I develop my theory on today’s communications further, all I have to tell you right now is this symbol:

Tactics Are Not Strategy

As I get more comfortable in my second stint as a marketing/communications entrepreneur I am realising that some people still don’t get it, and I gave them nine years to learn!

“I ran an advertisement and it didn’t work,” or “I used to print that and nobody wanted it,” are two common statements. While I smack my head, it is their head I should be smacking.

To me, it is fairly simple. Tactics are not strategy. That is, an advertisement – even a campaign of advertisements – is not a strategy, it is a tactic or a series of tactics. The blame does not rest with the advertisement placement, graphic designer, or advertisement media. It is often the complete lack of a strategy. The tactics just get the blame because the strategy didn’t exist or was poor.

Strategy in marketing/communications looks first at research, an analysis of the past, current and future, and the development of strategy. I often see “strategy” as a title and a list of tactics under this section – wrong!

Strategy is the big picture (0.5-10 years), or if you are dealing with me on some projects, the future picture (20-30 years out.) I’ll have your head confused on the latter.

Strategy is defined. It is focused. It’s measurable in real things (those are not “likes” however “likes” will get you there.)

So, when you are wondering why an advertisement, post, sign (my favourite) or media release didn’t work, please stop blaming those items.

A failure to plan, is a plan to failure. Focus on strategy and the tactics will come.

I did the math: It’s UGLY! An Alberta Post-Election Communication Analysis (PR politipost)

The NDP have gone from fourth to first, breaking 43 years of PCAA governments
The NDP have gone from fourth to first, breaking 43 years of PCAA governments

If it feels different, it is. For nearly 44 years the same party has held power in Alberta. Until now.

The NDP has won the rights to form a majority government in Alberta. The PCAA dynasty has come to an end.

Read that again. Let it sink in. This is a historic moment for Canada. Equality spreads its wings from coast-to-coast for the first time in nearly half a decade. Be proud that you have done, even though some of you absolutely hate this moment and are in complete disbelief.

When I moved to Alberta five years ago, there was a fear for voting anything but Conservative. I was told that by everyone around me. “Just vote PC.” “Don’t cross them, they’ll crush you.” “Is there any other party?” Those were the statements I heard. Every time I shook my head and looked at the flag to see if I was still in Canada or had moved to dictatorship North Korea?

I met many of the PCAA folks over the years. Many I would consider friends. I don’t blame them for doing what they did, they were exercising a simple human behaviour: retaining power. 

Voters rejected fear as a tactic on May 5. What Albertans really rejected – was a lack of sound strategy. 

It’s safe to say now that the PCAA was an old and tired group. They failed at following through the simplest of communication: Research, Analyze, Communicate/Execute, Evaluate.

Projection Front
Polls were nearly bang on. NDP majority, WR official opposition, and PC’s in third. The signs were everywhere.

The research was obvious for anyone – anyone who looked. Albertans were tired of paying the ultimate price every time the economy stumbled. They were tired of a constantly stumbling economy. They were tired that their government didn’t have their back, a government who couldn’t balance the books when times were good, and a government who made them pay more when times were bad (remember, employment insurance claims have risen 30% for two consecutive months in Alberta).

The analysis of data and comments on various social media would have easily shown voters were not happy, and they told you (PCAA) why they were unhappy. You failed to research, you failed to analyze.

Next, your communication sucked. You began with a pre-budget message to “look in the mirror.” Without considering many Albertans were selling their mirror to put food on the table. At that point, they even used that mirror to reflect the sun in your eyes in an effort to wake you up. You put sunglasses on and walked away.

The grimmest of handshakes
The grimmest of handshakes

You continued with a budget that punished Albertans who were already paying with wage reductions, layoffs, and various other cutbacks. At the same time, your party, known for having a hand in the pocket of corporate big-wigs (not unusual for a party in power for a decade or more), proved just that. You didn’t make corporations pay a Canadian discontinued penny, while the people suffering due to corporate mismanagement as well as your party’s mismanagement, had to foot a $1.5 billion tax/fee increase alone. You forgot those that line your party pockets only have one vote each (and 1% of the total vote). The rest (that’s 99%, since math is hard), were unhappy with your lack of research, analysis and communication – and they also controlled the vote.

Albertans wanted increased taxes, and you ignored their views. 44% of them told you. This is the same percentage that showed support consistently for the NDP in the days before the polls. That is no coincidence.

You failed at one large piece you took for granted. After decades of booms and busts in Alberta, you showed proof your party could not manage a government. People saw that, and gave up on you. That was after you gave up on them.

Here’s the hard truth. Albertans wanted a better government, and you obviously were not it. They chose Alberta’s future, and it doesn’t involve you. 


Next time, start with developing a communications strategy. It appears you didn’t have one this time. You had a series of poorly-executed tactics. It was ugly.

The evaluation was just as ugly. Your party lost this election all on your own. If you are shocked by that today, your party has an ugly future in Alberta. Research will show you that.

“I haven’t done the math yet,” said Rachel Notley. Well, when you do, it’s ugly. And partly because your communications strategy sucked.

Election results via the Calgary Herald


PR Politipost – Alberta Election

Disclaimer: I am not a member, nor have I ever been a member of any political party in Canada. I’ve not even donated to any party, ever. I have voted for all parties at some point in my life, red, blue, green, orange, rhinoceros purple, and independent grey. I could care less who wins this election. I think it’s more important to see improved voter turnout. I will admit, after many years of the same thing, change is always a good thing. This is an analysis of the way I see this campaign for the three leading parties.

We PR folk like to watch politics and elections closely. A good chunk of us work/ed in various government roles creating many of the words government officials and politicians speak. However, don’t ever believe we control politicians. We try to help them, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Hence, governments change, and people choose a different path.

mathishard Edm Journal

The 2015 Alberta election, appears in pre-election, to be one of the most interesting in recent (pretty much what anyone working today)  would remember. After all, for nearly 44 years, it’s all any Alberta worker has known. Three generations of workers have only known the Tory dynasty. Crazy thought, eh? What else is crazy? The latest poll has the NDP at 44% support.

What’s different this election is the impact multiple recessions have had on the current workforce. I myself have worked through six recessions or slumps (early 90’s, mid 90’s, dot-com bubble burst of 2000, post-9/11, great recession of 2007, and again in 2015 for just Canada). This includes two in my five years in Alberta! To say the least, I’m kind’ve tired of being beat up each time, and I know I’m far from alone. 25% of my working years have been in a recession, and considering I’m just leaving my younger years, it’s had a much greater impact on me and others under 40 as we take the brunt of layoffs, student loan costs, cutbacks, bank fees, the rising cost of living and taxes.

For those younger than 40, they are getting tired of being treated like crap. “Times are tough” is never said to an executive who makes $16 million a year plus $32 million in options when he doesn’t do a good job and people – 10,000 of them – lose their jobs. In elections, we voters can send a message to politicians that “times are tough,” resulting in them being cut. If only we could take a shot at the executive.

That may be happening now in Alberta. On the other side of the spectrum, the lobbyists are trying to buy votes in any way they can. They’ve planted economists like Jim Mintz high in the org chart for advisors to the sitting government and even Wildrose opposition.

It appears that strategy is not working so well at a time when Albertan’s are forced to foot the bill of nearly all budget problems while corporations and their executives funnel cash from Alberta to the US and other countries – and executive’s blooming bank accounts. This reality is at the expense of Albertan’s who must foot extra taxes while government AND official opposition fight for no change in taxes for corporations.

Mix in the small story in the news this week that 761 workers were killed in Alberta so far this decade, and you can kind of understand that common folk are paying ultimate sacrifices while the elusive “man” walks away with full wads of our cash – and 761 lives. You could say, we’re paying the money to ensure executives (and double-double Mintz) get more money in their pockets. So, we’re running a corporate welfare program.

Check that! The middle and lower classes are running a corporate welfare program?! Wrap your head around that one! How socialist of us.

And, it appears, we’re done.

We voters want to cut the program, lower expenses, and reduce overhead. We also want trust and accountability. 

Enter the Alberta NDP. This is not appearing to be your typical NDP party. Known for supposedly destroying economies in other provinces, Notley’s Crue is pledging balance. They are pledging improvements for workers, incremental increases to corporate and high-income taxpayers, and an oddity in Alberta politics – protection of the environment.

Cough cough! Did I just hear environment as a leading issue in an Alberta election? I must be breathing coal-polluted Edmonton mountain air!


I can’t even believe I’m writing this. It all seems fake and unreal to me. Crazy Klein, Stubborn Stelmach, and Redfaced Redford all survived, but Prim n’ Proper Prentice may be the fall of the dynasty? To the NDP?


Sweetjumpingjimminyjeepers this isn’t the first time Alberta’s flipped!

The last four governments prior to the PCAA dynasty: Social Credit, United Farmers, and even the Liberal Party – all who held social values, and also ran governments for consecutive decades.

Math moment: Four governments lead us in 110 years of voting. My home province of Nova Scotia had 10 governments in as many years. Average governments last 11 years in Nova Scotia, but 27.5 years in Alberta. 

Here’s what the PCAA have taken for granted:

  • People under 40
  • Immigrants from other provinces that have voted for nearly every other party in their home province
  • Working people who they thought cared about the corporate executives
  • Their association to the Wildrose Party due to an almost complete merge and use of the same economic advisor Mintz

The Wildrose is another piece. While people quickly forget, they don’t easily forgive. The last election had an ugly end for the Wildrose. Then, a short time ago, a number of Wildrose defected and crossed the floor to the PCAA.

Voter newsflash: you are both now all one in our eyes (to be clear – you means the PCAA and Wildrose Parties.)

Cue the music from JAWS. And here come the NDP.

Spooky experiment + Scary policies for business + Not in this province + Risky experiment. We’re hearing it now…in equal tone…from…wait for it…both the Wildrose and the PCAA, oh, and even the federal Conservatives (after all, they lose Alberta, Quebec, and split the rest of the country – they are doomed.)

If you managed to stick with me through all of this, you now know why the NDP looks so refreshing, leading, and ready for a chance. They aren’t the same, but they are something Albertans are considering giving a chance at guiding our communities into the next decade. Honestly, I never thought I’d ever say that.

How have they done it? Their focus is on listening to the people under 40, people from other provinces that have voted for nearly every other party in their home party, working people, and those who see the association with the Wildrose Party. You can hopefully now see why they are looking so appealing to many Albertans – they listen to key groups. If I’ve learned anything about the NDP, I’ve watched them out-research any party. In this case, market research about their demographic, issues, and competition.

It’s what PR people have as their most important tool: research. It starts everything for us. Strong research, combined with proper analysis, planning and execution, almost always turns into results that meet goals. The NDP party has done that. The PCAA has not listened, not changed, and by running a terribly executed campaign, looks to fall on the sword. At the end of the formula us PR folk use, is evaluation. An election is an evaluation of a campaign.

I’ll be glued to the results on May 5. I love watching elections, analyzing every result and seeing Canadians exercise their right to vote. Take part, it’s the most important thing you can do as a Canadian, and thanks in advance for your decision, no matter what it is. You’re awesome, we’re awesome, when we vote.


Other links – including a couple examples of many implosions which are happening within the PCAA:

NDP Surge in final poll from Mainstreet + Second Story

Angie Klein, daughter of Ralph Klein, supporting NDP (weird video warning!) 

Very damaging blog from ex-PC minister (and very good education minister) Dave King. Says PCs are corrupt.

PC business donors want PC party to be elected: NDP

Spinning Public Relations – What is PR?

What is communications/public relations? Recently, another list came out that ranked PR as one of the most misunderstood jobs. Even for those who practice the trade, it’s difficult to explain. I’m not sure that any of my family knows exactly what I do. Somedays, I wonder what I’m doing – and that’s what I love about PR.

Last night, I saw a long-ago connection watching the Winnipeg Jets game (RIP Jets, was hoping you would’ve won the series.)

sheldon kennedy via Marjorie Dowhos Twitter 23Apr15
Left to right: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Sheldon Kennedy. Photo: Marjorie Dowhos @marjoriedowhos (Twitter)

I worked with Sheldon Kennedy in my first PR internship at the NS Sport & Recreation Commission (Province of Nova Scotia) to coordinate his first road tour & roller blade across Canada called Are We There Yet? Sheldon, for those who don’t remember, was an NHL player who went public about being sexually abused by his junior hockey coach. He was and remains the face of victims of sexual abuse in Canada, and has done tremendous work in communities across the country since then.

My role was to coordinate the province’s welcome of his team and promote the visit with media. I prepared a briefing note for our cabinet minister, scheduled dignitaries, booked venues and equipment, posted advertisements, wrote speeches, prepared a media kit (news release, backgrounder, Q&A) and hosted three media events at different locations in one day. It took about three weeks in those days to plan that sort of thing (fax machines and even typewriters were used!)

It became one of my early experiences being part of something that was going to have an amazing impact on society, and I was simply back stage the whole time – also where I could hide the tears as Sheldon told his story to different audiences from children to grandparents.

Public relations is a role that connects society. It is embedded in the fabric of most information you see passing before you each day. While we are often called spin doctors, that title is reserved within the industry for those who practice ancient deceit and lies. I will admit we wordsmith, which we do for clarity and to ensure all audiences can understand our message – we generally communicate in grade nine language, even as low as grade six or completely in visual & audio. As I often say, “clear, concise, and consistent” and of course, timely.

PR people exist in business, non-profit, and government. Every role is different, even within the same office. I once worked in a unit that had one person who spent most of the time writing, another organized events, and I developed plans which pulled it all together and wrote speeches. There’s never a dull day in PR, as we are often reacting to something that’s behind schedule when we receive the assignment. Often, we see the worst of society, generally hate full moons, and have a very distinct view of politics, media, and societal issues. If you want an opinion with deep analysis, we’ll get your head spinning. Even my PR peeps say I get their head spinning, which I blame on my background in mathematics and likely a wink of ADD and a ridiculous amount of energy.

What is PR? Public relations (or communications, which is a more western Canadian and US term) is a mash-up. Event planner, brand developer, writer, coordinator, project manager, graphic designer, photographer, script writer, advisor, advertiser, sign designer, producer, issues manager, executive, director, social media geek, voice artist, strategist, videographer, coach, reputation manager, digital strategist, leader, media relations coordinator, marketer, publicist, actor, customer service leader, speech writer, spokesperson, mobile addict, researcher, and much more. We work hard, long hours, and are one of the first to get called when crap hits a fan or when they need somebody to do something that nobody else wants to. It’s also one of the funnest jobs in the world, the most stressful jobs in the world, one of those jobs that is either the least regarded or the most respected, and a job I love.

The below video was widely seen across Canada with the 2008 listeria crisis. Michael McCain later said that he kicked his accountant and lawyer out of the room, and listened to his PR person. The result? Maple Leaf Foods saw a rise in their share price, amid the beginning of a global economic recession. 

In the past week, I’ve done nearly all of those listed above as I cycle through a series of clients whose needs vary as much as the weather has over that week. The next time you see a PR person, ask them what they do for a living, and you’ll get a sigh before they attempt to explain it in one sentence. “We connect society to make it stronger.” – It only took me 18 years to come up with that, and I’ll probably not like it tomorrow.