Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Women of Distinction in My Life

Last night, I was honoured to attend the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards.  This caused me to reflect on the Women of Distinction in my own life.  I will preface this blog by saying that it is NOT clear concise communications, but hopefully you think it's worth reading anyway.

Susan Doniz - Susan and I have known each other for over twenty years, since attending the University of Toronto.  As CIO of Aimia, she is one of the Top 100 Women in Canada at the age of 42.  

Susan has a thirst for knowledge and a desire to understand the world and all its marvels that is unparalleled.  She and her husband Dany have a map riddled with thumbtacks of UNESCO destinations (won't be the same in ten years) - I think they have been to almost all of them.  They do not have cable in their home - instead stacks of books and publications related to IT, statistics, business, travel, spirituality and yes - the occasional fashion mag. 

A first generation Spanish Canadian raised by an upholsterer and a stay-at-home mom, Susan lives humbly with a very old car, a top-notch wardrobe all purchased from outlet stores and thrift shops and nothing frivolous in her home.  For her, experiences are worth money above all else in life.  She has lived and traveled abroad while climbing the corporate ladder, all in the name of adventure - many times with her kids in tow.  How blessed her children are to have such a wide perspective on life.

Above all else, Susan's positive attitude and her ability to see things objectively make her a leader.  I was once offended by a business email I received, and she responded "it sounds like she was having a bad day."  Funny enough - this very instance was used to illustrate the difference between a positive and negative person on a talkshow I watched last week.  I don't consider myself a negative person, but Susie's ability to take in information, learn from it, execute on it and then move on is what makes her the C-suite stuff.

Marilyn Field - Marilyn Field is the President and Founder of DAREarts - a not for profit charity that enables thousands of at-risk youth to turn their lives around and become leaders through arts education.  I don't see or speak to Marilyn very much, but she has an ability to influence and become top-of-mind regardless.  She is a tiny woman who says very little but her legacy commands attention. 

At the age of 22, Marilyn was a young school teacher in an underpriveleged neighbourhood in Toronto.  A classically trained pianist with a passion for the arts, she saw children who had never been exposed to the arts before.  These kids were sometimes not making the best decisions (understatement), often late for class and showing up to school hungry.  After discovering that writing out lines of "I will not bring a knife to school" didn't work, Marilyn started conducting detentions (and providing food) while playing Mozart and comparing him to a rap artist.  

Soon, kids came, regardless of having a detention.  They showed up on time, eager to learn and give their very best.  Marilyn would say this was the power of the arts at work - she takes credit for nothing.  Neighbouring schools caught wind of the story and Marilyn's vision to empower at-risk youth through the arts became too big for one school teacher in the traditional classroom setting to facilitate. DAREarts was born.

Today, sixteen years later, DAREarts and its tiny team of five in Caledon collaborates with 125 vested artists as teachers across the country to facilitate out-of-school arts programs for at-risk youth in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and remote Northern Aboriginal Communities.  The dedication of this team of people, championed and led by example by Marilyn Field is truly empowering kids who have been dealt a rough hand in life to become leaders.

I cannot say enough about Marilyn and her team.  I wish I could hover above the earth and shout as loud as possible to tell the world her story.  I guess the Internet is the next best thing. 

Linda Lou Pinnington - I save the best for last.  Hopefully, those who matter are still hanging in.  

You guessed it - this is my mom - and I know that everyone says their mom is wonderful, but mine is exceptional.  A retired French school teacher, my mom has in my estimation, been re-born since her retirement.  

A tiny little thing, my Mom is a gifted speaker who can capture the attention of a  jam-packed room, which serves the organizations she represents well.  She and my father are head volunteers for Canadian Food for Children ( - a charity that solicits, collects, packs and ships food, clothing and learning supplies to third world countries.  She travels to neighbouring schools, community groups, and churches to tell their story and solicit donations.  They have somehow managed to convince all their friends that weeding through other peoples' things, packing, loading and delivering boxes is a fun way to spend an afternoon.  I think the entire CFFC volunteer list is actually Mom and Dad's friends.

My mom's vocation in life though, has been discovered through unhappy circumstances, as many of her friends and acquaintances have become ill and died over the past decade or so.  Mom could have been a nurse if she hadn't been a teacher.  I remember when my grandmother was dying and I was crying by her bedside.  She put her hand on my shoulder and said - "Shhh, you will frighten her."  When the ailing are experiencing things that other people can't bear to watch, my mom is unshaken and resolute in her goal to keep them comfortable and unafraid. She has a gift.

Because of this gift, my mom is the one people call to sit by a loved one's bedside when they are sick or dying, or when they themselves just need a good night's rest.  Some who call are close friends; some are friends who had fallen out of touch but know they can still ask; others are acquaintances who call because my mom's reputation as a caregiver precedes her.  In every circumstance where a friend passes, she remains on the scene after the fact, seeing the family through their difficult time.  

It must be said that my mother's ability to deal with illness and accept death is directly linked to her faith and the knowledge that after this world, we will all go to a better place.   Throughout my life, I have seen my Mother's faith in God and loyalty to the Roman Catholic church trickle down and take the shape of good deeds for her family, neighbours, friends, community, and perfect strangers.  For all of the arguments against organized religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic Church - my Mom is living proof that it enables miraculous things.

This blog is dedicated to my mom - a week late - for Mother's Day.  So proud to be your kid.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Everything Takes a Village

Yesterday, I was on my way to a meeting related to healthcare for seniors, which coincided with a CBC radio program talking about suicide amidst the older demographic  A young woman was talking about her 68-year-old father who committed suicide because of personal issues and because he was over $100,000 in debt.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with "happenstances" such as this that have really caused me to think about the state of our society.  The universal message being sent my way is clear - it's time to stop thinking about ourselves and to start thinking about others.

We are living in a time that will make history on so many fronts -
  • the second great recession that puts huge demands on all of us personally and professionally,
  • the conscious decision to engage in single parenthood (40% of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried women),
  • a shift in the balance of power in the household, as women begin to have as much or greater earning potential than their male partners,
  • an increasing aging population that either wants or needs to find work beyond the age of 65, and needs to be looked after as it ages and ails.  

The crux of the matter is this - if we focus only on ourselves and our personal situations, we are bound to all suffer personally, professionally and as a society. 

Latch-key kids, single parents, older people and entire families need to know that there is a support system outside of their own home that they can rely on - a neighbour, a school secretary, a fellow parent, a colleague.

Companies need to shift their focus from the bottom line to attracting, keeping and nurturing their best employees who will help them grow the business, or lose to the competition that does. 

It's up to all of us to figure out what we can do to make the situation better for everyone - not just the individual - but our organizations, our people, our society.  Only when we step out of ourselves and put ourselves in someone else's shoes can all of our futures be improved. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Cahoots PR for Charitable Events

Cahoots and Vince Ciarlo of Ciarlo Communications recently implemented the PR behind the University of the West Indies Gala that raised $300,000 for UWI and Haitian students who need financial help to complete their degrees.  The dress, food, decore, entertainment, all facilitated by event planner, Carole Adriaans made for a vibrant, exciting evening that celebrated Canada's rich diversity, as almost every nationality was represented in that room.  The honourees - Malcolm Gladwell, Zanana Akande and Artis Lane, as well as six extraordinary individuals who are leaders in their sectors - are amazing people who set great examples for all of us.

So enough about the gala - what I want to talk about in this blog is the PR lessons learned during its planning and execution.

1. Dig deep for the story.  Each of the honourees at the UWI Gala are incredibly accomplished, but seeing their resume and bio wasn't enough.  You had to talk to them and really do the research to uncover the nuggets worth sharing with the media.  Dig deep for the stories that move you.  If you're moved or inspired by a story, others will be too.
2. Let the interview take its course.  Have a set of predefined questions, but let the interview take its natural course.  If your event ambassador wants to talk about one thing in particular during an interview, they are passionate about that subject matter - and passion always leads to a great story.
3. Tell two friends.  When you have a story to share or an event to promote, tell as many people as possible.  Ask them to pass along the information to their press contacts, colleagues and professional affiliates.  We asked all of the UWI Gala honourees and committee members to pass along the word through the press materials and they did.  It made a big difference to say the least. 
4. Open your mind.  Every event has multiple angles to pitch to the media - the hype and glam of the event, the honourees and their individual stories, the business partners who make it happen.  Open your mind to all of the stories behind the event, and then craft each phone pitch to the media by telling them about the stories their audiences need to hear.
5. Remember the cause.  Amidst all of the story telling and PR behind charitable events, the most important thing to remember is those who benefit from the charity.  All of us would like to have the opportunity to make someone else's life better.  In your toolkit of stories to tell when promoting a charitable event, that's the best one you have.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why Paper Still Works

I heard a great program on CBC the other day on which a woman was lamenting while going through the written love letters she had received over her lifetime.  The premise of this program was this - in a technological era, has paper lost its place?

The program made me to realize that I too have kept every valuable paper-based communication I have ever received, but have not kept any of the important, personal on-line communications.  It also caused me to realize that in spite of all of the environmental and cost issues surrounding it, we must always keep a place in our hearts and our business minds for paper.  Here's why:

Paper trails have value.  Whether it's a marketing-communications brief everyone signs off on or an actual work contract, certain documents still need to be paper-based.    Having a signed piece of paper is the only recourse for saying that you mutually agreed upon something.

Paper-based communications make people feel important.  Every year, I contemplate sending out electronic Christmas cards (or not sending them out at all).  But the truth is that a personal written letter is one of the best ways to make people feel valued and important.

Some people only trust paper.  My father, who is incredibly bright and well-read, tells me there is no way he will ever trust social media.  A few other business associates who are senior to me say they will never use Linked In.  Paper-based communications often appeal to more mature audiences. This is important to remember since Canadians are living and working longer than they ever have.

Sometimes paper is the only thing that works.  Even today, it happens that you have your entire presentation on your laptop or tablet, and it won't function properly right when you're ready to make your pitch.  A paper-based marketing piece in your hand accompanied by a one-on-one presentation is often the most reliable way to make a sale.

Do you still value paper above all else?  If so, tell me why.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Strategic Communications Make Tomorrow's Sale

It's not coincidence that social media has increased in use and popularity since the economy took a turn for the worse.  Social media is far more cost effective than print marketing materials.  It also provides invaluable two-way dialogue with customers that is crucial to market research and branding exercises.

When skeptics say that social media hasn't proven any return on investment, I'm perplexed.  Do they not realize how tightly people are holding on to their purse strings?  Do they not understand that engagement in the discussion is actually the best return on investment you can get?

All of us are working hard these days.  Reaching out to more poeple, arranging more meetings, putting in longer hours.  In an economy like today's, we need to hunker down and clarify strategy for the days ahead.  We also need to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard as the case may be so that when the time is right, we have the best materials possible to drive the sale.

Strategic engaging communications - whether it takes the shape of public relations, social media or traditional marketing materials - mightn't make a sale today.   But those organizations that make it a priority will build customer loyalty and one day, see the flood gates open. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

No Industry Needs New Leadership More Than Hockey

I'm not a sports fan, but even I watched last night's NHL game to witness Sidney Crosby's return. This caused me to reflect about how much this game is in desperate need of new leadership and an operational overhaul.

It's obvious at this point that the very nature of NHL Hockey is a threat to the best players in the game.  If there is a collective desire to continue to see the best hockey players perform on centre stage night after night, we need to make some changes to ensure the long term health of the game and players we love.

As well, any parent who scrutinizes their children's TV viewing habits knows that an NHL hockey game is dicey family viewing at best.  It's pretty tough to explain why everything we teach our kids on a daily basis  (i.e., non-violence, respect for authority, respect for others) can be thrown out the window when it comes to an NHL hockey game. Physical violence and fighting that causes concussions aside, hockey is one of very few professional sports where verbal abuse of a referee is "part of the game".   If you watch the NHL as a family, I guess you make your best pitch and then keep your fingers crossed that your child doesn't bully or swear at an adult just because they feel like it...

We are selling ourselves and this game short to maintain the status quo. This great game stands on its own merits. No one would argue the quality of The World Junior and Olympic tournaments that are void of the cultural issues outlined above. So what can be done to save this great Canadian game?

Hockey is in desperate need of new leadership.  I understand that the Don Cherry's of the world have earned their place in Hockey History.  But in any other industry, this man would have received his walking papers when he insulted Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson for linking the issue of fighting in hockey to possible addiction and/or emotional problems later in life. (Afterall, these men are heros in my mind for admitting their demons.)  It's time for a new Hockey Night in Canada spokesperson, and for the owners to realize that getting one would result in more people watching the game. 

I also believe that it's time for some NHL players to take a leadership role.  Think of how Sydney Crosby is idolized in the NHL.  I'm astounded at that this young man who is possibly at risk of losing his hockey career (aka his life).  Why is he not taking the opportunity to say loud and clear that something needs to change about the rules of the game?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that true leaders - spokespeople, coaches and players alike - will step up to the plate.  The minute they do, I'll start watching the NHL and I think many others will do the same.  Then more money and fame (which ironically NHL players and owners feel are at risk if the game is changed) will follow.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Why Wikipedia is Invaluable

My job as a communications consultant is often the translation of  technical terminology into laymen's terms.  Unfortunately, I don't know something about everything.  I'm a fairly well-read person but my degree is in English and Political Science, as well as Public Relations - nothing math or science-oriented.

The best tip I ever got was from a good friend of mine who is a CIO.  I always thought that she knew something about everything, but she let me in on the secret that this is not the case.  Whenever she doesn't know what something is, she nods her head like she does know, writes down the term and later on looks it up on Wikipedia.  Since she gave me this tip, I use Wikipedia almost every day. 

Wikipedia is not-for-profit, but it's the fifth most used website in the world.  I made a donation today because I think it's amazing that they do so much with so little and quite honestly, I don't know what I would do without it.  I hope you'll consider doing the same. Visit <a href=""><img border="0" alt="Support Wikipedia" src="//" /></a>