Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't mean to burst your bubble but...

I have a confession. I swallow my gum and I have done so for my whole life. If my kindergarten playmate Georgina was right, then I have a gigantic ball of gum in my stomach that, even as I type, is strangling my intestines and ensuring a slow and painful death. We now know that while gum cannot be broken down in the normal way, it does eventually, make its way out of our systems.

Even as a tike, I was concerned about the etiquette of proper gum disposal and just couldn't bear the thought of holding chewed gum in my hands.

Today, gum, and how people chew it, is among my top five etiquette pet peeves so I thought I'd share a few tips on how to be a choiceful chewer.

It's not a spectator sport - What is it with gum that turns normally polite people into loud, insensitive boors? If you insist on chewing it, please keep your mouth closed. Chewing gum with your mouth open is a disgusting habit. Nobody wants to see the inside of your gaping maw every three seconds as you go through the mastication process.

Just say no to crack(ing) - I'm not sure why gum-chewing is such a noisy endeavour for so many people but it is exceedingly annoying for those in your proximity. I suspect that chronic chewers keep the same piece in their mouth for so long that eventually it's just a small, hard ball which rattles against their teeth causing that incessant snapping sound. You may not know you're doing it but it's driving everybody crazy.

Don't multi-task - In a professional setting, it's almost impossible to chew gum and speak at the same time. If you are in a meeting, job interview, presentation or any other situation in which you will be speaking to others with the intention of impressing them, ditch the gum beforehand.

Dispose with dignity - Evidence of our dwindling etiquette litters North American sidewalks in the form of hardened, black circles of used gum. The act of spitting out one's gum is a bit of a faux-pas pileup: you're spitting, littering and defacing in one fell swoop. When the gum in your mouth has lost its lustre, your civil options are: swallowing it, removing it with your hands and placing it in a garbage receptable, or, if there isn't one close, wrapping it in a napkin or piece of paper for disposal later. If at all possible, removing gum from one's mouth should be in private.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Publicity in Exchange for Donations - The Etiquette of Charitable Giving

As the holidays approach, we Canadians will be confronted with many opportunities to give - that is after all what the season is all about - despite its more prevalent consumer aspect already taking shape in Christmas displays at a mall near you. Perhaps we will show some kindness to a homeless person who we're usually to busy to see. Maybe we'll drop off some gifts at a toy drive or volunteer at a food bank. Or, if we have the means, we might make a $10,000 donation to a local radio station's fundraising marathon.

It could be said that charity - of the financial or symbolic kind - is the embodiment of etiquette - a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. In fact, it's difficult to find fault with the actual giving of oneself, whether that takes the form of a cheque or a gift of time. And yet, the whole notion of philanthropy is fraught with etiquette landmines. Once someone has donated to your cause, how long do you wait before asking again? Is it appropriate to ask colleagues to buy raffle tickets or chocolate bars to help raise money for their kids school, ballet group or hockey team? Do people have the right to demand things like building naming rights in exchange for gifts of money?

Of all the questions surrounding charity etiquette and ethics, I find this last one the most troubling. My personal belief is that all charity should be anonymous and while I won't go so far as to say that charity with publicity is no longer charity, I do wonder about the motivation behind it. I believe this is also a tenet of some of the world's religions, although many people who participate actively in these organizations don't seem to subscribe to it.

I'm not suggesting that philanthropy has to go undercover and consist of shadowy figures passing envelopes in dark alleys. I'm just saying that, it seems more in line with the spirit of giving if there is no expectation that anyone, short of the benefactor, will ever find out that you have given a donation, or the specific details of said donation. I still occasionally hear about anonymous benefactors making large bequests but the notion seems to have fallen away from our culture. Here in Toronto, if I walk on University Avenue from Queen to Bloor, I see many buildings - mostly hospitals and cultural institutions - emblazoned with the names of the donors who financed their construction. I suppose if a hospital needs a new cancer wing, then a gift with naming rights attached is better than no gift at all. And while I'm quite positive that the people whose names are on these buildings feel passionately about the cause and had the best of intentions, something seems off about the lengths they went to in ensuring that everyone in town would know what they did.

Many unsung heroes engage in simple acts of charity every day - showing compassion to a stranger, giving an employee time off with pay if they're going through a hard time, loaning money to a friend with no strings attached. No news release will be issued to celebrate these acts but, in terms of what makes us a civilized society, they are no less important than large cheques presented at gala affairs amid much fanfare and publicity.

Clearly, I have a strong opinion on this topic but I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree.

Monday, November 2, 2009

How to Screw Up A Vaccination Campaign in 12 Easy Steps

After months of conjecture and baffling discourse, H1N1 panic has gripped the North American population. And our governments have started rolling out an official innoculation campaign. To say that this campaign, and the clinics that kickstarted it, got off to a bumpy start is a gross understatement. Unmitigated disaster would be a more appropriate way to describe the chaos that characterized the first few days of Toronto's vaccination efforts, brought to you by the good people at Toronto Public Health. Note: I'm referring here to the management who organized the clinics, not the nurses and security guards who have been run off their feet and by all accounts, remained cheerful in the face of adversity.

As a PR agency, we produce an average of ten to twelve events per year. These range from intimate dinners for 20 to public events where we expect hundreds. Although every event is unique, the steps involved in pulling off a seemingly flawless event (there's no such thing as a truly flawless one) are the same and involve a lot of people working behind the scenes against a detailed critical path to ensure success. And, although granted, we're not trying to vaccinate a paranoid public, we face our share of setbacks - caterers who lose our paperwork, hotels which double-book our rooms, guest speakers who cancel at the last minute...well you get the idea. That's what contingency planning is for.

In observing how Toronto Public Health has executed the H1N1 vaccination campaign, it appears that management threw out, or decided to ignore, the most basic principles of event planning. If you're interested in organizing a disastrous event, following this twelve-step process will put you on the path to catastrophe.

1. Take your time - Even if you are briefed about the need for a potential event eight months ahead of time, make sure you don't do anything until a week or two before event day. That's just wasted time. If possible, right smack in the middle of the critical period when you need to confirm dates and product availabilities, go on strike for oh, six or seven weeks. During this time, make it illegal for anyone to work on the project.

2. Broaden your guest list - Don't make a list of your preferred guests. Rather, invite everyone on the planet. Take out a series of full-page advertisements in local newspapers to make sure that everyone knows they're invited to attend. For good measure, throw in some warnings about the dire consequences of not showing up.

3. Order limited quantities of everything - Even though you've done your best to ensure everyone in town will attend your event, make the assumption the vast majority will not show up. Order only enough product for a fraction of your guests. Same goes for things that will make the event go smoothly - chairs, pens, clipboards and food. If anyone brings up the words "contingency planning" remove them from the committee.

4. Confirm nothing in advance - You had one phone call months ago with your vaccine supplier and they said you would get a million doses. Now that your event is upon you, there's no need to call and double-check that it's still a go. People always do what they say they're going to do right?

5. Don't hire professionals - Sure, you work in a city with countless experienced event planners but you don't need to hire one of those people to help you. I mean, how hard can it be to organize a few thousand pregnant women, sickly citizens and fractious, bored toddlers.

6. Take the road less travelled - Sit down as a group and think about all the ways you could simplify your campaign roll-out. Ask yourself questions like: Is there any place in our society where large groups of children congregate during the day? or, If only there was a qualified health professional who pregnant women saw on a monthly basis. Decide that there's no such thing and the only way is for you to set up your own clinics.

8. Deliver mixed messages - At the start of your event, divide event staff into ten even groups. Give each group a completely different set of answers to key questions. For example: tell some nurses that kids five and under are eligible for the vaccination and tell others that it's only kids six months to four. Sit back and watch as the hilarity ensues.

9. Don't put any kind of system in place - Despite what centuries of history have taught us about what happens when you get large groups of people together, assume that only those who are eligible will show up, they will self-organize, form an orderly line, and not attempt to hold places in line for other family members. Ignore even the most rudimentary methods of crowd control - a roll of drink tickets or a series of staunchons. You won't need them.

10. Trim your guest list at the last minute - Two days before your event, decide that 90 per cent of the people you have invited are no longer welcome. Make no apologies and offer no assurances about when they will be reinvited.

11. Make sure it's convenient - When planning the event, think about what would be the most convenient time and place for you to hold it. Base this decision on things like the hours you normally like to work, any plans you might have for the evening. Resist the urge to consider things like the convenience of your guests. We don't want to give them too much control.

12. Deny, deny, deny - When the angry mob turns on you, deny that your complete inability to plan had anything to do with the disaster. Wherever possible, blame your suppliers, staff, and other stakeholders.