Media crisis: social license is not child's play Within 24 hours media coverage surrounding a Mooney’s Bay playground project turned from negative to balanced.

In May 2016, Ottawa news media reported the City Of Ottawa’s intention to demolish an outdoor fitness park at the popular Mooney’s Bay Park along the Rideau River, to make way for a super playground structure slated to open in time to celebrate Canada 150 in 2017. Construction of the new playground was to be the subject of a reality TV program for children, Giver 150, a production of Sinking Ship Entertainment (SSE).

Reaction from many area residents was negative and vocal. They decried the move, saying the playground was a ‘backroom deal made in secret’ and without necessary public consultation. There was blanket news coverage of the controversy, and social media lit up with, mostly negative, commentary about both the process and the project.

It was a shaky start for a project that was supposed to a good-news story of community investment and national pride. SSE needed to get the project back on track before the cameras started to roll and asked Thornley Fallis for help. Our objective was to take control of the narrative, present SSE as a cooperative, collaborative partner, and gain community support for the Giver 150 project. sinking ship media logo

In analyzing the Mooney’s Bay project challenges, it was clear that important facts and information were not being covered by the media. Indeed, the voice of supporters who welcomed the playground were not being heard whatsoever.  All this had the media painting SSE as a profiteer seeking to use City land and money for its own benefit.

SSE had already built more than 30 playgrounds in communities all over Ontario, and it partnered with local companies, organizations and residents for each project. These playground projects are not for profit and the TV show are designed to teach kids the value of community building.

Solution

We implemented a proactive comprehensive media relations strategy designed to gain popular support for the Mooney’s Bay playground and provide SSE the necessary social license to operate.  By engaging the community in a positive discussion about the merits of the project, the controversy surrounding SSE would dissipate.

First, TF provided on-site support at a community town hall meeting that was an opportunity for residents to meet the SSE team and ask questions. Though the discussion was heated at times, the quiet majority was able to voice its support and all questions about the process were successfully directed away from SSE and, appropriately, towards the City. TF managed the post-event media scrum and apprised all present reporters with key facts about SSE, Giver and the Mooney’s Bay project.  To provide a broader context, we placed an op-ed in the Ottawa Sun which provided a full description of SSE’s mission and the project’s objectives and other key facts including the $1 million investment the production company was making.

This was a key turning point. Resulting coverage, for the first time, was balanced providing as many pros as cons for the project and any negative commentary about the process was appropriately directed at the City.

A few days later, SSE held an open audition for Ottawa area kids wishing to be part of the Giver 150 show.  TF organized for several key media to be on-site at the casting call to witness the community support and excitement and to get a better understanding how the show teaches the value of community to children. Both CBC and CTV did live hits from the audition and several print journalists also covered the story.

Influencers

Additionally, TF arranged for the children of two high-profile social media influencers to audition. These mommy bloggers live-tweeted and shared videos and photos of the auditions with their followers and amplified SSE social media coverage by retweeting and sharing links on Facebook.

In mid-July SSE began filming the first episode of Giver 150. It featured a ceremonial ribbon cutting with Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and SSE executives, and we made sure the media were there. The event gained massive media coverage including stories on CBC TV and Radio, CTV TV, The Ottawa Citizen, Metroland Ottawa and many others.  The resulting stories were overwhelmingly positive with hardly any trace of the early controversy that plagued the project

Campaign Results

Within 24 hours of TF’s involvement, media coverage surrounding the Mooney’s Bay playground project began to turn from being extremely critical and negative to being balanced. Within a week, coverage skewed positive and successfully conveyed SSE’s key messages about the company’s goals, ambitions and motives for Giver 150. Social media conversations turned supportive and those who remained negative tended to directed their criticism of the process at the City of Ottawa.  Construction of the playground proceeded; resulting media stories were few, but were balanced to positive in tone. Filming of Giver 150 proceeded without incident throughout the summer with many local children taking part. The playground is now open to the public and will be ‘Officially Launched’ as part of Canada 150 celebrations in the spring of 2017.

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