9/15/2014

On being … the five Ws



By Ingrid Sapona

For months now I’ve tried hard to avoid mentioning Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in this column. The reasons for that are many, including the fact that my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. But, a news story I saw about Ford on Saturday on CBS This Morning inflamed my inner journalist to the point that I realized I’d have to break the promise I made to myself about not mentioning Mayor Ford in On being….

Intrigued by the fact that CBS had assigned a reporter to file an actual story on Mayor Ford’s withdrawal from the race – in other words, it wasn’t just a headline the anchor read – I immediately hit the record function on my PVR. After seeing it, I was glad I recorded it because I knew I’d want to re-run it to see if it really was as incomplete as it seemed on first viewing. Unfortunately, my initial take on it was correct.

I transcribed the report, and here are the facts as CBS reported them: The anchor introduced the 90 second video report by saying: “Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, won’t be seeking re-election after all. Ford is being treated for a tumour in his abdomen and announced Friday he is dropping out of the race.” The anchor then threw it over to the reporter. 

After a clever intro referring to Ford as a zeppelin that has fallen to earth, the reporter quoted Mayor Ford’s statement from his hospital bed: “My heart is heavy when I tell you that I’m unable to continue my campaign for re-election.” The report then talked about the mayor’s “well chronicled history of substance abuse” and showed various now infamous clips of him. The reporter concluded with: “But that’s not the end of this story. Ford’s older brother Doug is taking his place on the ballot as a candidate for mayor. And, the mayor himself may now seek a City Council seat in Toronto’s election next month. Oh, Canada.”

Except the very last item, the statements in the report are 100% true. But, the report is very misleading because it doesn’t mention a number of crucial facts: for example, 2 p.m. Friday was the deadline for candidates who wish to be on the ballot in the upcoming election. The mayor’s medical test results, and proposed course of treatment, will not be known until well after that deadline. The deadline, therefore, precipitated the Ford brothers’ actions.

The last statement was inaccurate because there’s no question about whether Rob Ford will run for City Council. Given the Friday deadline, Rob Ford had to make that decision too – and he did. Other facts that CBS made no mention of and that present a clearer picture is that Doug currently holds a seat on City Council – the seat that Rob Ford held before becoming mayor – the seat that Rob Ford is now seeking. Without this additional information, viewers can’t possibly understand that, to Ford and his supporters, brother Doug is a viable candidate, not to mention the likelihood that Rob will return to City Hall one way or another.

After watching the report and realizing how irritated I was by it, I began trying to put my finger on why. A wee bit of it has to do with the fact that I’m tired of the Ford family’s antics drawing attention to my beloved Toronto. (I’m not one of those who subscribe to the theory that any publicity is better than no publicity.) After months of having a mayor whose behaviour has been fodder for all late night comics, it didn’t seem too much to ask that when a truly newsworthy event related to the mayor makes it onto a U.S. newscast, the story would be accurate. I don’t mind that the report ended with a clever play on the title of our national anthem – but how about you try to cover the five Ws (who, what, where, when, and WHY) first.

I’m a fairly skeptical consumer of news and I’m always on the lookout for bias and obvious inaccuracy – and there’s certainly a lot of both of those things in mainstream media. And, I try to get as much context as possible, because it’s so crucial to understanding. But how can you gauge whether the context provided is thorough and accurate? In this case, I knew the missing facts – but in most stories, I don’t know whether important information has been left out. Therein lies what troubles me so much about the story: if a reporter can’t get a story out of Toronto quite right, what are the odds that we’re getting a true and accurate picture of what’s going on in other places in the world?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona

8/30/2014

On being ... a pest



By Ingrid Sapona

I realize I may lack objectivity about this, but I think my parents did a pretty good job raising me and my sisters. They were strict, but not overly so. To be honest, I’m not even sure strict is the right word because none of us were particularly prone to trouble or even particularly difficult, as kids go. If anything, I’d say the rules Mom and Dad required us to live by had more to do with manners and politeness. Things like saying please and thank you, saying hello when people came over, being on time, and so on. Indeed, I think all those behaviours they insisted on have helped me in my personal and professional life.

There was one thing my mother used to nag me about, however, that didn’t serve me particularly well. The admonition that I internalized and that subtly hampered me into adulthood was her warnings against being a pest. Actually, most of the time her exact words were “don’t pester me about …” or “quit pestering me”, which is not the same thing as warning against being a pest. And, I suspect she used those phrases rather than saying “shut up”, which was an expression that was strictly VERBOTEN in our house. (To this day I never say “shut up” – and to the best of my knowledge, neither of my sisters do either. Not just that – whenever I hear that expression it’s like fingernails on a chalk board! I simply can’t stand it.)

So, back to the p word and how my deep-seated (some might say, irrational) concern about whether my behaviour amounts to pestering plays out in my life. It came up just the other day, in fact. Here’s what happened: I offered to help on a project for an organization I belong to. By the time I heard about the project, it was pretty far along, but it was something I had experience with and I had some ideas. In my e-mail offering to help I made it clear that I would completely understand if they turned down my offer, given the advanced stage of the project. At the same time, I wanted to convey my sincerity in offering to help and I promised that I’d attend to the matter promptly, if they were interested. I closed the e-mail assuring them I would respect whatever decision they made.

A couple of weeks passed and, though I wondered what was going on, I let it go. Then one morning I got an e-mail from someone on the committee saying they needed my comments as soon as possible, given the tight deadline they were under. Unfortunately, I was tied up that day, but I responded to let them know I’d attend to it by the close of business the following day. The person I responded to then wrote back and was a bit defensive. She mentioned earlier e-mails she and someone else on the committee allegedly sent responding to my initial offer and when she realized I hadn’t started working on it, she wondered whether I could actually do it in such a short period.

The miscommunication put a bit of pressure on me, as I felt it important to deliver as promised. (It also made me wonder whether I had somehow missed the e-mails. Naturally I went back and checked and, in fact, I never received the ones referred to.) After I submitted the project, I thought about the way it unfolded and I was angry with myself for not following up after making my initial offer. I know it sounds silly, but I didn’t because I was afraid I’d be seen as pestering the committee. They had my offer and I didn’t want to seem pushy, so I intentionally hung back.

The fact is, I do that a lot. When I’m aware I’m hanging back, I try to objectively assess whether taking action would be considered being pushy or pestering. The thing is, it’s hard for me to remember that the invisible threshold that constituted pestering as far as my mother was concerned vis-à-vis her children, isn’t necessarily the one that I should apply in a business context or with friends.

I’ve finally come to realize that though I used to blame my mother for my obsession with being a pest, that’s not fair. If anything, I owe her a debt of gratitude because no one likes a pest – and thanks to how she raised me, I know I’m not one. That said, I also know that for years I’ve used it as an excuse for inaction, particularly when I’m feeling insecure. That, unfortunately, is a much bigger problem to wrestle with and something I’m still working on…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona

8/15/2014

On being ... a sad legacy



By Ingrid Sapona

I was watching a newscast this past week and just before they went to a commercial there was a “tease” of a story that they’d cover later in the broadcast. The tease was something like, “we’ll look back at a historic anniversary marked this week”.  I was sure that the historic event they were going to talk about was Nixon’s resignation, as August 9th was the 40th anniversary of that event.

Nixon’s resignation happened to be front-and-centre for me because I was reading a book about the impact that Watergate had on subsequent generations and on journalism in particular. Though I was only 12 when the Watergate break-in happened, and 14 when Nixon resigned, like many in the country, I was swept up by the story. I vividly remember coming home from school every day and watching the Senate Watergate hearings, chaired by bushy eyebrowed Senator Sam Ervin. To this day I can picture Maureen Dean sitting stoically behind John Dean as he testified.

I have no doubt that the criminal behaviour by those in the Oval Office helped fuel a distrust for government that started with the anti-war protests of the 1960s. Even for those of us who had no real, personal connection to the Vietnam war – for example, no one in my family served – nightly news coverage of things like protesting students being fired on (and killed) by National Guardsmen at Kent State couldn’t help but leave a mark on the national psyche.

Anyway, it turns out the historic event the newscast tease was referring to was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, I felt stupid because I should have guessed that that was the anniversary they were referring to, as the centenary’s been in the news for weeks here in Canada. The Toronto Star, for example, sent a couple of young reporters to walk the western front through Belgium and France. For two months they wrote articles as they traced the footsteps of Canadian soldiers through towns and key battlefields. As well, there have been many documentaries about the war – everything from the evolution of the fighting and weaponry over the four years to the Treaty of Versailles and the newly drawn maps of Europe and the Middle East that resulted.   

Before the recent spate of stories and documentaries about WWI, my knowledge of WWI came mainly from literature, movies, and theatre. And my only emotional connection to WWI came from the poem In Flanders Fields, which I hadn’t really even heard until I moved to Canada 25 years ago.

The more I’ve read and watched about WWI, the more I realize how woefully little I really I knew about it. I couldn’t help wonder if my lack of knowledge was just because I had tuned out when the topic came up in school, or whether it wasn’t as central to our curriculum in the U.S. as it seems to be here in Canada. When I mentioned to a few Canadian friends that I didn’t remember learning much about WWI, they suggested this was because – unlike Canada, which was in it from the start – the U.S. didn’t enter the war until the last year. While that difference might have something to do with it, I couldn’t help think there must be something more to the reason for the differences in historical perspective.

Then, a few weeks ago, in an article about WWI a Toronto historian said, “The world had been fairly peaceable since the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, so no one was prepared psychologically for such devastation.”  Hold on, I thought. What about the 1860s and the Civil War, which left over 700,000 dead. Not exactly my definition of a peaceable period.

That’s when it dawned on me that it was the U.S. Civil War – Canadian soldiers weren’t involved. In other words, it wasn’t part of his history – much the way the early battles of WWI aren’t part of American history. Indeed, the fact that this Canadian historian had pretty much completely ignored the Civil War helped me understand why Canadians don’t really seem to appreciate the role race has historically played in the U.S., or the significance of an African American president, for example. The simple fact is: Canada didn’t fight a war over slavery.

Though these stories about differences in historic experiences I’ve observed between Canadians and Americans may seem trivial, I think they explain a lot. They also make me even more worried about the influence the conflicts and killing happening throughout the Middle East will have on the psyche of future generations. A frightening legacy indeed …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona

7/30/2014

On being ... a measurable outcome



By Ingrid Sapona

At a recent lunch meeting, a client was expressing her frustration because she had been tasked with coming up with a way to measure success on a project that we were working on. I did not envy her having to do this. Her frustration became mine when she explained that whether there’s more work for me will depend on whether the next phase gets funded – and that will depend on whether she can come up with such measures.

Since the work was ultimately going to be put up on a website, we considered the usual things like page views and clicks. While such statistics have the appeal of being objective, they don’t tell you anything about whether people find the information useful, or even if they’re using it for the purpose we intended.

The other day the client called to tell me the good news: the next phase got funded. Whew… We then proceeded to discuss the next things she wanted me to work on. I don’t know what she ended up proposing in terms of measurable outcomes, but as we discussed the next phase, we agreed that as we move forward we had better give some thought to what we’ll use as measures of success.

The need for measurable outcomes is all the rage in the business world. For the most part, I understand the point of considering these things in a business context. After all, if you’re manufacturing nails and you’re making a profit of $1 per 100 nails and you produce 10,000 nails/day, that may seem pretty good – until you realize that if you re-tool to make screws, you could make a profit of $1 per 50 screws and you can still produce 10,000/day. Or, if you’re a sales person and you make seven sales worth $X, you can say your efforts contributed $Y to the bottom line. But, even in business, there are things that might be subject to some objective measurement, but whose true value is subjective. Indeed, for most of my work the most meaningful measure of success is subjective: does my client like what I’ve done for them?

Over the weekend friends and I were getting together for a pot luck barbecue and I decided I’d try a new appetizer recipe. It was something I’d seen on a cooking show that I love. The ingredients were straightforward and tasty, but it was a bit complicated, as many of this chef’s recipes are. One of the things that appealed to me about the recipe is that the end result is individual servings for each person, as opposed to a bowl or platter that gets passed around.

Because the recipe involved a number of steps, you could make the components in advance and assemble it the day of, though once it was altogether, it still needed to chill a few hours before serving. I had anticipated that assembly would be the fussiest part, and I was right. Because I had seen the chef’s end product, I knew what it was “supposed” to look like and as I worked, I had my doubts. As I painstakingly layered the ingredients into each ramekin, I wondered whether the end result would be worth it.

That afternoon I was talking to my sister and I told her I had spent much of the morning making the appetizer. I also mentioned that I doubted I’d be making that recipe again because it was a heck of a lot of work. My sister thought I was crazy to try something new, especially if it was complicated. I explained that I wasn’t worried about whether it would taste good – I knew it would be delicious because the ingredients were all yummy. (I do a lot of baking and I’ve come to realize that it’s pretty hard to ruin something whose main ingredients are butter and sugar – I mean, really. I was confident the same rule would apply here.) No, my concern – as it is with most desserts I make – was whether (when they came out of the ramekins) they would look anything like the picture in the recipe!

Well, that evening, as my friends slaved over the barbecue, I slipped into the kitchen to plate the appetizers. To my delight, they looked fantastic. My immediate reaction was “well, I guess they were worth the effort!” My view was confirmed as my friends ooh’d and ahh’d even before they tasted them. (They were even more impressed when they tried them and found they tasted as good as they looked!)

The next day I input the recipe in my computer, which is how I keep track of recipes I like and would make again. And, as I added a note to the recipe to the effect that it was well worth the effort – in terms of taste AND presentation – I thought of my client’s need to come up with a measure of success. I laughed as I realized I had subconsciously applied a measure of success to the appetizer recipe. Indeed, though my “was it worth the effort” test is clearly subjective, it is something that I apply to lots of things …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona

7/15/2014

On being … loyal


By Ingrid Sapona

Language evolves and the meanings of words change. Take the word cool, for example. Early on it related to temperature. At some point it came to mean calm, self-controlled, and even lacking in friendliness. And of course, since the mid-20th century it’s become a synonym for very good, fashionable, and hip.

As someone who makes a living as a wordsmith, I try to stay on top of evolving definitions. With that in mind, I looked up the word loyal, because I’m sure its meaning has changed. I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster.com still defines it as: “having or showing complete and constant support for someone or something”.

Recent interactions I’ve had with a few companies I’ve done business with for many years have convinced me that the definition of loyal has come to mean something akin to sucker. The first hint came in a call I made to the circulation department of the newspaper I subscribe to. One of my biggest pleasures is starting the day with a hot cup of coffee and the morning paper and I’ve had seven-day home delivery for ages.

A few years ago I was reviewing my monthly expenses with a view toward trimming them. I was surprised to realize that I was paying nearly $500/year for the newspaper. Because I couldn’t see myself giving up the paper completely, I phoned to find out how much I’d save if I just got Monday-Friday delivery. The customer service person looked up my account and offered me a good deal for six months. She also said that at the end of that period I should phone again and ask about the best rate. Happy to keep the same service at reduced rates, I agreed and dutifully made note to call again in six months.

Since then, whenever I notice on my credit card statement that the cost for the paper seems to have gone up, I phone and ask for the best rate and they always have some deal for me. In May, however, when I phoned they said they aren’t offering any deals for current subscribers. When I mentioned that they always have, I was told now they only give deals after three months of service at the regular rate and since I had just come off a deal, I was not eligible for any other deals for three months, at which time I could call back and grovel. (Ok, grovel is my word, she said I could ask…)

I’ve subscribed for a long time and have played their game of calling for the best rate – instead of just being given it automatically (out of, say, respect and loyalty?) – for quite some time. Irritated, I cancelled the subscription. The customer service rep said she understood and she explained that because they charged in advance, I’d continue getting the paper until July 1. So that was that. I guess the newspaper business is doing well enough that they don’t need me…

Then, two weeks later I got a call from an independent subscription service that works for the newspaper. Apparently they were notified that I cancelled my subscription and they offered me a good price if I were to continue subscribing. I asked why the customer service rep at the paper couldn’t offer me a deal and I was told that’s just the way it works. I took the deal and she said that when it’s about to expire (in six months), she’d phone again with whatever deal is available at that point. Though irritated, I took the deal.

Then last week I was shocked when I saw on my phone/cable/internet bill that the cost of my phone service had gone up by 22.5% in one month (that’s before taxes). Over the past few months I’ve gotten notification that different services would be going up by a dollar or two, but to have this kind of jump in the phone charges seemed excessive, so I called to inquire.

The customer service rep explained that a promotion I had expired. Having dealt with the company for a long time, I knew enough to ask about getting the promotion reinstated. As expected, the customer service person didn’t have authority and so I had to specifically ask to be connected with their “loyalty department”.

I first learned about this special department a few years ago when I called about a mysterious $1 charge. After complaining about it I was put through to someone at the loyalty department. After explaining my frustration, the loyalty fellow offered to review my bill and usage to see what he could do. By the end of the call he had reduced my overall costs by over 30%, and increased the amount of band width on my internet service at no cost. Astonishing, I know! At the same time, it irked me that I had to challenge a charge in order for them to show they value my loyalty.

As a result of my most recent call about the 22.5% increase, the loyalty department offered a small adjustment, which was better than nothing. But after hanging up, I was angry – mostly with myself for feeling like a sucker for being loyal rather than shopping around for a better deal from some other company.

So, these incidents make it obvious that the definition of loyalty is changing. And, as a result, I suppose our behaviour as consumers has to change too. I guess special treatment is now awarded only to customers who demand it and who are willing to walk away from companies they’ve done business with for years. I guess words aren’t the only things that evolve – consumer attitudes have to too.

So, I wonder if my new phone provider will be any different. Probably not, but I’ll enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts!

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona