Conscription if Necessary, but not Necessarily Conscription

An equivocating Canadian politician, Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, was asked about the divisive issue of conscription.  French and English Canadians didn’t see eye to eye on the issue, leading up to World War II.

Kind famously said “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” or words to that effect to reassure French Canadians that even a “Yes” vote in a plebiscite during the war might not necessarily mean actual conscription.    

This is how I feel about the activities of communications departments—communication if necessary, but not necessarily communication. But I mean something much more specific than Prime Minister King did.

What are the goals of the communications department?  Surely we are trying to sell goods and services?  We might also want to enhance reputation or engage in a great corporate social responsibility campaign.  But everything is secondary to the health of the enterprise.  

With that, here are some principles:

  1. Do we really need original research?   Are there no peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic we seek to understand?  Has no one else faced our market challenges before?  If so, let’s conduct research, but let’s also be sure we are building on the thousands of journal articles that already exist.
  2. Focus groups are unscientific gab-festivals and a good way to have a snack behind a two-way mirror.  They can be a good way to have a deep and long conversation, but this might be with people who are telling you what you want to hear.  
  3. Polling is really expensive – tens of thousands of dollars for reliable, national polls.  It’s even a thousand dollars or so to put your question on research company’s regular poll.     

So what do we do?  I would be in a preposterous position if I were arguing against research.  I’m not.  I’m just arguing for a certain type, at the right time.  

The first thing I want to do is deconstruct the buying decision.  Why do people buy?  When do they buy? Is that a different time than when they order or decide to buy?  Are other people involved in the decision?  Here’s what may be the case with a winter vacation in Florida.   The item goes on the credit card in November for a December trip.  This might spark advertising in October.  The advertising might be to credit card holders.  But it just might be the teenagers in the family who caused the decision to be made, and they may have been agitating in September when they went back to school.  Or they may have been bored during summer holidays in July and started thinking about going to Florida.  Or it may have been a family decision the previous cold February when everyone decided they were sick of winters.  

Who decides, and helps decide what and when is key.

It’s only after I really understood my customers’ and clients’ decision making process that I’d think about further research on my reputation.  Even then, I’d want to know if there’s already a strong impression about my sector of the economy.  If everybody hates a certain sector, it’s going to be hard for me to buck strong impressions.  So, back to first principles—sell the goods and services.  

The following post Conscription if Necessary, but not Necessarily Conscription was originally published to: Allan Bonner Communications Management INC


A Serious Reality Check

Charlotte’s emergency plan is a reality check, wake up call, or perhaps a bucket of cold water on the topic of evacuation and our safety in numbers.
Researchers have called most city approaches to these topics “fantasy plans” because they rely on private cars when up to 56% of urbanites don’t own one, citizen self-sufficiency which doesn’t exist, services on evacuation routes which don’t exist, public transit which is rarely mentioned, or “potentially life threatening” measures such as having all roads lead out (contra flow).
On the topic of evacuation, the latest, best advice appears to be in a document issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1984.
Charlotte posted a document called an “Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook” by John Sorensen and Barbara Vogt. It’s a great series of well-researched lessons for emergency plan writers.
Here is the Cliff notes version:
Many people refuse to comply with evacuation orders. We need long warnings for some events such as flooding and shorter warnings for nuclear or chemical events. Emergency managers need to use multiple means of communication — door-to-door, loud speakers, TV, and radio announcements. People need to hear from multiple authorities — the mayor, fire chief, police chief, Red Cross and others, perhaps. People need specifics and definitions of “shelter…evacuation” and such.   
We know much less than we would like about human behaviour and how to influence it (just ask anyone who has been married or has raised children). Assumptions about all this are based on engineering not on actual human behaviour.
When it comes to evacuation, some people come home from work and then leave, others go to find family members at work and then leave, and still others may meet in a neutral place and then leave.
There are shadow evacuations of people near the danger zone. On average 26% of people get out. There are spontaneous evacuations of people who weren’t even asked to leave. People who do leave will return for their pets or to tend to livestock.
Panic is limited and so is anti-social behaviour. Worrisome, though, is the fact that people can become complacent or fatalistic about regular threats. The phenomenon of hurricane parties, which are common in the Southeastern USA, proves this.
Newton’s first law of motion is that a body in motion has a tendency to stay in motion. The Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook notes that people with a household emergency plan are more likely to obey an evacuation order. But in this case, Newton was wrong about a body at rest staying at rest. Evacuees tend to want to return home as soon as possible.   
One observation in the Guidebook is chilling in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on urban safety and the 8,000 or so pages of emergency plans and related research papers I’ve read.
Cities are spending on public education programs, children’s school displays, glossy brochures with pictures of kids and dogs as if preparedness were a fun ride at the fair. The authors of the Guidebook say there’s “…no conclusive evidence regarding whether or not preparedness programs…actually makes a significant difference… [A] good pre-emergency information program will increase response although the amount cannot be estimated. …[A] poor program will not likely make a great overall difference. …[E]ffects will drop off over time…”
My intuition is that the authors are right. This raises the question as to why we are spending so much money on emergency plans?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good plans out there. Auckland, NZ, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a natural disaster. Kansas City, MS, has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets including food and shelter. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities. But most plans leave much to be desired, as the Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook implies.
It’s a shame that this excellent document has been removed from the Charlotte city website. It offered hard lessons — maybe too hard for comfort.

The article A Serious Reality Check is available on: Allan Bonner Communications Management Inc.

Today in History: July 28th

1976: An earthquake measuring between 7.8 and 8.2 on the Richter scale flattens Tangshan, a city in China with a population of about one million people. An estimated 242,000 people were killed, making the earthquake one of the deadliest in recorded history. The Chinese government, boasting self-sufficiency, refused all offers of foreign relief aid.

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1948: Maurice Duplessis reelected as Premier of Quebec, as his Union National Party wins 82 seats, against seven for the Liberals.

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1945: A U.S. military plane crashes into the Empire State Building, killing 14 people. The B-25 bomber was flying from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to LaGuardia Airport in New York City. As it came into the metropolitan area, the fog was particularly thick. Air traffic controllers instructed the plane to fly to Newark Airport instead. This new flight plan took the plane over Manhattan.

Watch: Flying- Classic Case of Risk Perception

The blog post Today in History: July 28th is courtesy of: Allan Bonner Communications Management INC

Today in History: July 19th

1996: The start of torrential rains in Quebec’s Saguenay and North Shore regions leave 10 people dead, destroy 22,488 homes. An inquiry later reports the region’s system of dams was poorly maintained.

1979: Two gigantic supertankers collide off the island of Little Tobago in the Caribbean Sea, killing 26 crew members and spilling 280,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. At the time, it was the worst oil-tanker accident in history and remains one of the very few times when two oil tankers have collided.

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1972: Washington and Hanoi announce that the private Paris peace talks have resumed. Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho conferred for over six hours and, by mutual agreement, neither side revealed details of the meetings. The talks had been suspended when the North Vietnamese had launched their Nguyen Hue Offensive earlier in the year.

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The following post Today in History: July 19th was originally seen on: Allan Bonner Blog

Today in History: July 18th

1997: Russell MacLellan is sworn in as Premier of Nova Scotia.

1940:  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who first took office in 1933, is nominated for an unprecedented third term at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Roosevelt would eventually be elected to a record four terms in office, the only U.S. president to serve more than two terms.

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64: The great fire of Rome breaks out and destroys much of the city. The fire began in the slums and spread quickly because of high winds. During the chaos of the fire, there were reports of heavy looting. The fire ended up raging out of control for nearly three days. Hundreds of people died thousands were left homeless.

Today in History: July 18th is courtesy of: Allan Bonner Communications Management Inc.

Today in History: July 16th

1992: Statistics Canada says inflation dropped to an annual rate of 1.1% in June, which is the lowest in 30 years, since John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister in 1962.

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1990: More than 1,000 people are killed when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake strikes Luzon Island in the Philippines. Heroic rescue efforts saved many, but some victims who did not die as buildings collapsed were found dead later from dehydration because they were not pulled out in time.

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1969: Apollo 11, the spaceflight which first landed humans on the Moon, takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, crewed by commander Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

See also Canada in Space

The blog post Today in History: July 16th is republished from:

Today in History: July 12th

1995:  A heat advisory is issued in Chicago, warning of a record-breaking heat wave. By the time the heat breaks a week later, nearly 1,000 people are killed. Record high use of air conditioning caused some power failures. People opened so many hydrants to cool themselves off that water pressure was lost. The heat warped train rails, causing delays for commuters.

For more on crisis management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’

1990: Just two days after Mikhail Gorbachev is re-elected head of the Soviet Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Republic of Russia, announces his resignation from the Party. Yeltsin’s action was a serious blow to Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the struggling Soviet Union together.

1960: Louis Robichaud is sworn in as Premier of New Brunswick, replacing Hugh John Flemming.

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Today in History: July 12th is courtesy of: Allan Bonner Media Relations