Dog Walks and Retirement Planning Books

It’s not every day you are lucky enough to receive a good financial planning book or two from dog walking, but that’s what happened to me.

When my dog Bear was alive, we regularly encountered a man walking his two dogs—Tessa and Bailey—coming in the opposite direction. Tessa was a husky German shepherd cross and Bailey a golden lab. My Bear—a female border collie springer spaniel cross—and Tessa despised each other.

As we crossed paths—giving a respectable distance and holding on to our respective dogs’ leashes for dear life—Tessa and Bear put on a spectacular display of barking, snarling and growling, with poor, sweet and friendly Bailey, caught in between.

It’s hard to have a conversation with a fellow dog owner under those circumstances.

After Bear died, I would occasionally run into Tessa and her new companion, Cairo—also a golden lab—while out on my walks.  No more doggie drama queen shows.

As Tessa got older, walking became more difficult and she needed to lie down and rest every so often. On one of those rest stops two summers ago I finally had a chance to chat at some length with the dogs’ owner, Don Pollock.

An Interesting Discovery

I learned that Don’s a retired accountant who had just published a book on retirement called Retirement Hell: By-product of a Middle Class Under Siege, and he very kindly placed a copy of it in my mailbox a few days later. His second book, Avoiding Retirement Hell – Using Old School Strategies, was released earlier this year, of which he also generously provided me a copy.

Retirement Picture Bleak for Many Baby Boomers

If ever there was motivation for people to start saving and investing early, this is it.

In his very direct, tell it like it is way, Don paints a bleak picture of what many baby boomers can expect in retirement—and it’s far from rosy.

The days of cradle-to-grave employment with a full generous pension are over, leaving many of us to fund our own retirement. That’s not easy given some of today’s harsh economic realities—the high cost of living, loss of well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector, disruptive technologies, and changes in the workplace, to name a few.

Add to that the personal roadblocks to retirement—off ramps as Don calls them—like job loss, employer bankruptcy, divorce, catastrophic disease or injury, inability to live within your means and indifference to financial and retirement issues, and you have a perfect recipe for “retirement hell.”

And it gets even more troubling than that. “Women from the baby boomer’s generation will suffer a disproportionate level of poverty in retirement,” writes Don in his second book. “The primary reasons are the gender pension gap and a longer lifespan on average than men.”

Don’s books are a stark warning to the generations behind us baby boomers to pay attention to their long-term financial planning and start doing it now. As he so candidly puts it in his first book, “lacking wealth, high income or a generous pension plan, retirement will not take care of itself unless living off government assistance is an acceptable option.”

Of course, there are government pensions and “A significant segment of our population will rely on government pensions as their primary source of income,” writes Don. “This is not only an issue for families, but it will create a financial burden for the government…”

Avoiding Retirement Hell

Is there hope for people in the baby boomer generation who don’t have generous pensions or retirement savings? Well, yes, sort of. Don takes the readers through several strategies like leveraging the equity in one’s home, downsizing, moving, intergenerational support and income earning activities—all of which have their plusses and minuses.

“One of the greatest mistakes a family can make is to not calculate their potential income in retirement,” writes Don in book two. In a subsequent chapter, he shows how to prepare a forecast for their retirement revenue, recommending that this be done ideally with a financial planner or accountant.

When it comes to investing, there are a few important takeaways. One is that families that self-finance their retirement strategy must have an investment strategy. Another is that they seek professional expertise unless they have ample knowledge themselves. And finally, regardless of how conservative one’s views on investing, “if the objective is to build a portfolio to fund retirement, it would normally include equity investments.”

Start Planning for Retirement When You’re Young

Of course, the ideal time to start saving for retirement is when we’re young, but, alas, how many of us do? To a young person, retirement seems an eternity away. But time passes quickly—and seems to speed up as you age. So as much as this book is of interest and use to the baby boomer generation, it’s equally if not more relevant to the generations behind us. The surest way to avoid retirement hell is to apply the time-tested financial planning basics—start early so your money has lots of time to compound, invest regularly and live within your means.

Farewell Tessa!

Late last year Tessa became too lame to go for walks. She passed away on February 8th of this year—just after the release of Don’s second book.

I trust that she and Bear are getting along much better in their celestial lives than they did in their earthly ones. RIP dear ladies until we all meet again!


Getting Inspired

People often ask me where I get writing ideas. Truth is a lot of the writing I do is prescribed—meaning I don’t have to generate ideas. These are things like technical proposals and reports, where I write according to certain guidelines.

Other times I’m assigned a story or editorial to write on a given topic, where I’m given an outline, directions and sources to interview.

But there are times when I need to get flat out creative and think up ideas of my own – either to pitch to a client or for my own personal blog.

Where do the ideas come from? Well, from everywhere actually.

It can be a casual conversation with someone in line at the bank or grocery store check-out line.

Or a friendly chat with a neighbour will inspire a great lead for a personal finance story. Yeah, I write about the neighbours!

Other times it’s something I heard on the radio while driving – or maybe a story I’ve suddenly recalled from years ago that’s relevant to something I’m writing about today.

For financially-related pieces, some of my obvious sources of information are various financial websites, TV news and  BNN Bloomberg.

Essentially, content opportunities are everywhere. You just have to be receptive when they come your way.

An Unlikely Source

Lately, I’ve discovered another goldmine for story ideas in an unlikely source – daytime TV. Now, I don’t mean soap operas or Dr. Phil. I’m talking about those chat shows like The Social, the View and The Talk.

Now let me make clear the only time I watch TV in the daytime is when I’m eating my lunch (which I know I shouldn’t be doing), but with my recent discovery I can rationalize it as time productively spent.

I don’t watch any one show in particular – just channel surf to see which one is most interesting to me at that moment – especially when the topic turns to personal finance, something I write a lot about.

And, sometimes my TV watching efforts pays off – like the time I crafted and successfully pitched an article based on a story that was being discussed on The Talk. Thanks Sharon Osborne!

As a side benefit you can get some amazing practical tips for other aspects of your life.  I learned the proper way to fold my sweaters, layer my clothes for winter and what to pack if I ever go to the Yukon! Not things I’d likely be writing about, but good for my own edification.

Speaking of which, it’s lunch time now so I must run and see what today’s daytime TV has to offer!

Tabloid Tales

True confessions – I used to read tabloids when I was in university!

Mind you it was only to chill after a round of intense study and essay writing. I reasoned it was okay to waste a few hours on shallow stuff after weeks of self-denial, self-discipline and focus on deep academic stuff.

It became a ritual. After that last exam or intense bout of term papers was over, I’d clean my apartment and then hit the  variety store and grab a copy of every single tabloid on the rack – along with a box of chocolate covered Digestive tea biscuits. Remember those?

I’d come home, brew a pot of Earl Grey, and head over to the sofa where I’d gorge on the biscuits, savour the tea and devour the juicy tabloid talk – all guilt free. I’d earned it, after all, and it wasn’t as if I never read anything more edifying, right?

Tabloid Writing Tips

After long giving up my tabloid habit, I now find myself, in a strange twist of irony, turning to them once more – and, even stranger – this time for content marketing writing tips. See, I recently read some writers’ blogs on how tuning in to tabloid technique can help jazz up your writing style.

One was a hilarious account by Barbara Neil Varma on the Writing World website:

“… I was writing about a new international program in which our agency’s employees taught foreign administrators how to apply our processes to their own countries. It was an interesting topic but my first draft was half asleep. At lunchtime I stopped at the grocery store and spotted a tabloid’s bold headline: “ALIENS ON TOUR! NEXT STOP: EARTH!” It gave me an idea. I snuck the magazine into my office and surreptitiously began to read about the ridiculous. The articles were chock full of juicy verbs, naughty nouns, and, of course, true, eyewitness accounts! Credibility aside, it was fun – and my article on the international program now had a lead: “Next stop: Athens.”

Another was this one by Peter Reilly, himself a former tabloid scribe, called 10 Tabloid tips to better writing.

“The key is short sentences, action verbs, and putting the most important part in the lead – and to never be boring. After all content marketing is about storytelling and telling it in a way that grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. In our digital age where readers’ attention spans are ever decreasing, an interesting story is more likely to keep their attention than a series of facts.”

Learn from the Experts

Nothing like learning from the experts, I figured, so why not try it myself? After all, we writers always gotta improve, right? The only problems is procuring one of those rags … I mean, mags, without anyone knowing.

Sure I could look at them online, but that’s no fun. I want the real deal, something I can hold in my hand, read and make notes in. So I posted an ad on one of those recycle boards (not using my real name, of course), saying I was working on a special project (sort of true) and needed some old tabloids from someone who wanted to get rid of them.

No response.  I move to Plan B – bite the bullet, and buy one at the drug store. Hope no one sees me. Haven’t read one of these in years.

I bring it home. I leaf through it and while getting the latest celeb scoop on the Kardashians, celebrity divorces, hookups, scandals, and upcoming royal wedding, I make notes on style, lexicon, phraseology and technique.

Wow, what an enlightening exercise … all in the name of professional development! Suddenly my writing takes on new life, new vim and vigor. I use punchier words, shorter sentences and get more bang for my writing buck.

Sure pays to have an enquiring mind!


Cats, Vets and English Usage

My veterinarian and I call ourselves language purists – and we love to discuss English usage whenever I bring my cats in to see him.

While he’s examining my furry felines’ eyes, vaccinating against rabies or checking for fleas, we engage in animated debates on the correct and incorrect forms and uses of English words, expressions and grammar.

Sure, we recognize that language is fluid and ever changing – and that certain usages become accepted over time, while others become obsolete – but that doesn’t mean we agree.

How language “should” be versus how it actually “is”

Some might call us “prescriptivists”- folks who say how language should be and lament its changing. That’s the opposite of “descriptivists” who simply observe and describe current language usage and how it changes over time.

We reaffirmed our steadfast prescriptivist views during a recent cat appointment when I gave my animal doc my extra copy of  H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Henry Watson Fowler (1858 – 1933) was an English schoolmaster, lexicographer and commentator on English usage. When he was middle-aged, his schoolmaster career ended and he became a freelance writer and journalist – albeit not a very successful one. During this time he and his younger brother, Frank, started publishing books on grammar, style and lexicography. Aside from his work on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler contributed to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

By today’s standards Fowler’s dictionary on “modern” English is outdated. Nevertheless, it makes for some intriguing reading on how English has evolved – if you have the time and patience for it.

Despite Fowler’s partiality for word economy and precision, he could get quite long-winded and meandering by today’s business writing standards. Take for example his description of the simple word “clause” as it refers to grammar:

“It conduces both to clearness and to brevity if the word in its grammatical sense is applied only to what is sometimes called a subordinate clause and never either to a complete sentence or to the framework of the sentence, which is often called the main or principal but may equally well be called main sentence. The definition of a clause, then, should be ‘subordinate words including a subject and predicate, but syntactically equivalent to a noun or adjective or adverb’; in this book the word is always to be understood thus.”

Whew, did you get that?

Not everyone agreed with Fowler. Some of his critics and peers could be downright unkind, asserting that he was simply writing his own preferences. But Fowler could be just as uncompromising in describing misuses of words, as the following example attests:

eas(il)y. Easy as an adverb, instead of the normal easily, survives only as a vulgarism and in a few phrases, mostly colloquial: stand easy, easy all, take it easy, easy come easy go, easier said than done.

Breaking the rules

Fowler probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the way we modern-day content marketers and journalists write.

We often take liberties with language, use colloquialisms generously, and play with words to make the message interesting, engaging and easy to understand. There are times when we may concede on a grammar or style point in order to make the writing connect more easily with the reader. And, yes, all of us have probably used the word easy colloquially in one of the ways that Fowler points out.

That can be a bit of a struggle for me. My prescriptivist side knows I’m breaking some of the rules, but I always wonder if the reader knows I know this. Will they think I don’t know better? What if they complain to the managing editor or the publisher? Worse, what would Fowler think of me?

So I declare here that if you come across a piece of my writing that has a word, phrase or sentence of which Fowler would disapprove, be assured I know better.

Just ask my vet!

Mental Models, Risk Communication and a New Book

Mental models, mind sets, world views all mean basically the same thing – how humans perceive the world around them and how these perceptions affect their decision making and behaviour.

When it comes to communicating about risk, getting insight into people’s mental models goes a long way to helping your communications strategies and materials do what they’re supposed to do – convince people to make decisions and take actions to keep safe.

Whether it’s getting workers to wear proper protective equipment (PPE) and adopt safe work practices or helping consumers understand the risks and benefits of prescription drugs, risk communications is all about supplying lay people with the information they need to make informed decisions and judgments about risk to health, safety and the environment. It’s both an academic discipline and communications practice area.

Finding out what people need to know

A cardinal rule in risk communication is you need to understand what people don’t know that they need to know about a certain risk or complex issue. How does one do that?

One way is to study people’s mental models through in-depth one-on-one qualitative research interviews with a small sample of respondents using open-ended questions. The aim of this research is to not only know what they think, but why they think that way. This information and insight are then compared to the expert knowledge, often represented in a graphical form, called an “expert model”. This allows for gaps and alignments between expert and lay thinking on a particular topic to be identified, and then used to inform communications strategy and materials. One of the benefits of this research is that it can reveal unexpected insights that could not have been predicted by experts, and those insights can make a world of difference in whether your risk communications succeed or not.

This approach, sometimes called the “mental models research approach”, is at the heart of the research consulting work I do as Senior Researcher with Decision Partners which brings me to some exciting news.

A new book – mental models case studies

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new book in this topic written by five of my colleagues and edited by yours truly. Mental Modeling Approach: Risk Management Application Case Studies (Springer) was written to help communications specialists and others deal with risk communications challenges. It presents a cross-sectoral overview of the myriad ways this approach can be applied in real world settings. Case study examples include stakeholder consultation in the energy sector, mine worker safety, flood risk management, food safety and preparedness for a chemical release emergency.

For many of these projects, I was directly involved in the primary research through in-depth mental models interviews and am immensely proud to have participated in and contributed to this body of work.

Congratulations to the five authors and to all the contributors, and special thanks to Melinda (Lindy) Paul, our editor at Springer. What a wonderful way to wrap up 2016 and celebrate the holidays!


Reflections of a Proposal Writing Princess

In my work I wear many hats. One is proposal writer. In fact, I’m a proposal princess.

Over the last 9 years I’ve pulled together dozens of proposals of varying scope, budget and complexity. Some are very long (over 100 pages), technical and/or scientific, and require collaboration with many people – say, in response to a formal solicitation from a large corporation or federal agency.

Others are shorter, simpler and less formal – the kind one might prepare for a non-profit organization, industry association or existing client.

It’s not a job for everyone and certainly not for folks who crack under pressure and tight deadlines. I liken it to herding cats – rounding up a team of folks from different organizations, disciplines, locations, schedules and time zones. You need flexibility, diplomacy and the ability to manage many moving parts and minute details at once without losing sight of the big picture.

Much as I try to adhere to my defined proposal management process, there are times when things fly at me from all directions and I’m forced to rely on a quirky memory and multi-tasking skills to keep it all straight.

As the person who typically holds the pen (or “master editor” in proposal parlance), I’m often the first to review the opportunity – be it a Request for Proposal (RFP), Request for Quotation (RFQ), Request for Information (RFI) Request for Vendor of Record (RVOR) – or, on occasion, research grant application. If the opportunity looks like a fit for our firm’s capabilities, I let my colleagues know, along with the critical deadlines (including the deadline to ask questions of the contracting officer) and an estimate of how long it’ll take to complete. If it’s a “go” decision, we have a team meeting to determine our strategy, approach and who does what by when.

Next step is to start blocking out headings of the draft master proposal, according to what RFP asks for – company information, team qualifications, background, proposed approach, work plan, budget, team bios/CVs, project summaries, references and anything else that may be required.

Then the fun begins and my role as proposal princess gains momentum. The further I get into “populating” the various sections with content, assembling the draft and sending and receiving sections for review, editing and insertion, the faster I have to work my magic. Keeping track of which iteration I need to insert into the master document is a formidable task, as various sections can undergo many changes between now and submission time. Hey, no pressure!

Sometimes the RFP issuer will issue an Addendum (or five) which will cause us to make additional changes or edits. Occasionally they might issue Addendum announcing a deadline extension. Love those!

Throughout the proposal life cycle deadlines are obviously important, but so are conventions, protocols and etiquette. Gaffes in any of these can disqualify your bid – and cost you dearly as a small business. Some very formal solicitations have an official “blackout period”, meaning that there can be no contact between the proposal issuer and the bidder from the time the blackout period starts right up to award notification – or your bid will be unresponsive. If you didn’t manage to get your questions in before the question deadline, now’s not the time.

Clarity, unity and consistency are also very important. That’s not always easy when people from different and disparate disciplines are contributing. Engineers and subject matter experts write one way; communications specialists another way. The challenge is to make sure that the language is consistent and understandable throughout, and let us not forget that technical terms and acronyms must be explained on first mention.

As with all aspects of life, stuff happens, and proposal writing is no exception. Your fellow contributor has a family emergency, your email server goes down, or your formatting function refuses to cooperate moments before deadline. Mishaps and misadventures can also happen after proposal submission. Once, after pulling off a particularly intense proposal in record time, I decided to reward myself with a celebratory cookie – only to break a tooth, requiring an emergency dental visit. Not the reward I had hoped for!

Of course, the reward we all hope for is to get the winning bid, and when we do, I know I can wear my proposal princess tiara proudly!

After 9 years in the business, I’ve learned a thing or two about successful proposal preparation so here are my 9 tips to help other proposal princesses – and princes – ensure a winning bid:

  1. Read the solicitation carefully – I mean very carefully and several times. Note the key deadlines (including the deadline to ask questions), submission rules, mandatory requirements and evaluation criteria. Be 100% sure you can handle all of these before you make your “go” decision.
  2. Keep in mind the devil’s in the details – One missed key detail can cost you the submission and all the time and money you invested, so when it comes to proposal writing, remember that details count.
  3. Focus on the issuer’s need – The potential client wants to know what you can do for him/her, so make sure your proposal shows that. How are you helping that organization solve a problem?
  4. Have a document control system – This is critical when multiple contributors and multiple versions of the document are circulating. Having a file labeling convention and insisting that all contributors adhere to it goes a long way to avoid the wrong content going into the wrong place in the master proposal.
  5. Have a quick reference sheet – Something that has up to date information on your company and all the material you use on a frequent basis all in one file. This will save you time and stress in the long run.
  6. Request team cooperation – Remind them that this job is not as easy as it might appear to them and that you’d appreciate their not leaving their input until the last minute.
  7. Remember Murphy’s Law – No, I’m not a negative person, but experience has taught me that Murphy’s Law is alive and well in the proposal writing realm. Make sure you have a back-up plan.
  8. Be careful when overwriting a previous document – Recycling material from previous submission is common in the proposal writing business, but make sure you don’t recycle the material that’s not supposed to be there. Use the edit/find tool when you do your final proofing to ensure you’ve removed them all.
  9. Allow ample time for proofing – A clean, well-written and error free proposal makes a good impression on those evaluating your bid, so make sure that you allow time for careful proofing. Not always easy or possible, I know, but try.

Qualitative Research to Improve Electrical Worker Safety

To work live or not work live. That is the question and decision that electricians face on a daily basis, and it’s an important one. It can mean the difference between life and death.

According to the Ontario Electrical Safety Authority the probable cause of 70% electrical related fatalities over 2004 to 2013 in Ontario was improper procedures. Despite improved worker training and education, serious electrical injuries and fatalities were not declining as much as expected. Many of these tragedies were the result of working on live wires.,

Last fall, through my affiliation with Decision Partners, I was part of a research team contracted to study this on behalf of the ESA. We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 60 Ontario electrical apprentices, journeymen and inspectors to discover the influences on their decision making to adhere to safe work practices – in particular, their decisions to work live.

One key finding was that nearly 90% of the electricians reported working live, either by choice or inadvertently. Another key finding was that the decision to work live is not always so clear cut – meaning it’s not always single decision with a single right choice. In some cases there are no other options. Linesmen working on overhead power lines, for example, have to work live. We also learned that the workplace is complex and dynamic, yet only 50% of electricians reported doing a hazard assessment before starting a job.

The results of the research are now being used to help develop ESA’s risk communication strategy and materials, with the goal of reducing the number of critical occupational injuries and fatalities among Ontario’s electrical safety workers.

You can learn more about this important research and the mental modeling approach that we used through a webinar, presented to the Ontario Risk and Insurance Management Society (ORIMS) on April 20, 2016 by Sarah Thorne, Co-Founder and President of Decision Partners and Dr. Joel Moody, ESA’s Director of Safety, Risk, Policy and Innovation.

What I Learned About Resilience at a Greek Funeral

I attended a funeral for an elderly Greek lady last month. She was 91. I didn’t know her but do know her family. Just before the service started, a lady walked past me, someone I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. We chatted afterwards at the cemetery while waiting for the casket to arrive. She pointed out an elderly woman walking up and down the hilly terrain with remarkable speed and ease. “That’s my mother-in-law, Maria”, she said. “She’s almost 96.” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that age with such vigor and vitality. Later at the memorial lunch (“Makaria” in Greek), I was invited to sit with Maria and her family and I continued to marvel at her extraordinary youthfulness.

Just before the meal arrived, I left the table briefly to talk to a couple of friends standing by the door and asked them to guess Maria’s age. Turns out, one already knew her and agreed that she’s an extraordinary example of healthy and graceful aging. He added that he heard of some research suggesting that the very hardships and deprivation people of this generation underwent in their youth gave them the resilience to survive and live long lives. While I don’t profess to agree or disagree with that theory, I have seen it with members of my own family and others who went through the Second World War.

So now you’re probably thinking okay, another blog about that over-used, ubiquitous buzzword – resilience. Yes, I hear you, and I agree, the word is popping up in just about every discipline and context imaginable from business to psychology. Speaking of which, the American Psychology Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors…” (By the way, resilience is something you need a lot of if you’re self-employed!)

But it’s also an evolving business strategy, and with good reason. The world is becoming an increasingly threatening. Businesses are no less vulnerable to threats of cyber attacks, terrorist attacks, and extreme weather events than other entities. Consulting firms are developing frameworks for resilience management. Academics are writing textbooks on the subject. There’s even resilience thought-leadership and conferences and, I’ll wager, communities of practice.

Planning for business resiliency and ensuring continuity in the face of these threats is challenging but necessary. It means that businesses need to think about their planning and operations in a completely different way. In the business context, resilience is more about proactively evaluating and managing potential risks. It’s about examining the enterprise’s risk exposure to both internal and external threats and developing a strategic mindset of preparedness and responsiveness. It’s thinking through how the firm would maintain business continuity and protect its brand while recovering from a potential catastrophic event.

Another resilience context is planning and infrastructure investment, at all government levels, to withstand the threats posed by climate change. Whether one agrees with the climate change notion or not, it’s hard to deny that our weather has become more extreme in recent decades. One key adaptation strategy is to build infrastructure that can withstand stronger tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as factor “engineered resilience” into new building design.

Whether business or government, one thing that cannot be overlooked in resilience planning is the human element. In their book Organizational Resilience: Managing the Effects of Disruptive Events, authors James Leflar and Marc Siegal note that having perfect plans and procedures in place means little if people do not follow them. A culture of risk management – whereby people understand the value of addressing risk and the need to work together, along with established protocols – is essential to achieve a unified and coordinated approach to risk. Creating that culture is not always easy, especially in de-centralized organizations where people tend to work in silos. Clear, persuasive communication on why this is important to them, as well as time to let the message take hold, will go a long way to get employees on side.

Getting back to Maria and her generation, I doubt they had much time to think about resilience planning – they just lived day to day trying to survive. I surely hope I never have to go through what they did, but I will say this: if I manage to live to age 96, I want to be as resilient as my newly adopted Greek aunt – Thea Maria!

Clarinets and Community Engagement

A few weeks ago I attended Clarinet Day at Western University’s Faculty of Music. There were about 40 of us clarinetists of all ages, levels and ability. This community outreach initiative is devoted to clarinet matters – clinics, master classes, faculty member performances, vendor exhibits, and rehearsals for our end-of-day clarinet choir concert. Some of us, myself included, got a half hour private lesson with a Western clarinet student. As if that weren’t enough, there was a recital the night before by the invited guest artist, Canada’s pre-eminent clarinet virtuoso, James Campbell which, sadly, I could not attend (heard it was great though!).The event left me energized and wanting to practice more. It also got me reflecting on the concept of “community outreach” or “community engagement”.

In the area of environmental sustainability or corporate social responsibility “stakeholder engagement” is a well-known term. It means involving people who might affect or be affected by the decisions and actions of your organization. Stakeholders can be employees, customers, suppliers, community members, activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Aboriginal groups, politicians, media and the academic community. Companies engage with stakeholders through various means – face-to-face meetings, dialogue sessions, community advisory panels, focus groups, telephone research interviews, town hall meetings and social media.

Why do they engage? The simple answer is that it’s good business and good PR. Taking a “listen and learn” approach shows interest in building relationships and working towards a win-win outcome. If a company wants to gain community support for a proposed project, they have a better chance of succeeding by engaging with local residents than they do by arbitrarily telling them they’re going to build something in the neighbourhood. Where local opposition to a project is strong, stakeholder engagement can help the company make a decision early on whether to proceed or pull out, before investing further money, time and resources. This is especially important for companies that want to do business in emerging markets.

But there are other benefits to such engagement such as strategic knowledge and institutional learning. Take employee engagement as one example. Getting front line workers to give their perspectives, thoughts and ideas for improvement can pave the way for more efficient processes, ideas reducing costs and improved employee retention – all good for the bottom line as well as company’s reputation as a good place to work. Customer engagement is another example. In recent months, I’ve worked on a few research consulting projects, interviewing customers of local energy distribution companies to get their feedback to help the company formulate its long-term plan. This feedback, in addition to being a regulatory requirement in Ontario, helps the company learn where it can improve its customer service, prices and communications.

Building positive relationships with multiple stakeholders can be a challenge, but its value cannot be overestimated. In the case of Western’s Clarinet Day, this community engagement scored many benefits for both sides. It provided tremendous value to the participants, showcased the immense skill and talent of its faculty and students, enabled participants and their families to experience the instrument’s remarkable range and versatility, and served as a means to help recruit talented students. Above all, it reinforced a positive relationship between the institution and the community. As for me, I got the side benefit of meeting and networking with some interesting folks! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practice!

Roofing and Risk Communications

I’m getting a new roof installed today. It’s not easy writing to the bang, bang, bang of the roofers’ hammers and shovels, but write I must. My roofing woes started about a year and a half ago when the shingles on the southern slopes started to curl and buckle. The south end always gets hit the worst, I learned. I’ve learned lots of other things about roofs lately; namely, that the shingles used in the previous roof installation were not up to the job.

About five years ago, I chanced across a notice by a local law firm about a class action suit against a particular shingle maker, alleging that these shingles didn’t live up to their guarantee and started to wear after only a few years. Turned out those were the same shingles on my roof. Though they weren’t giving me any trouble at the time, I decided to contact the law firm for more information in case they did later on. Everything seemed fine until the spring of last year. There they were – those curled, crumbling fragments of asphalt, ready to slide off or blow into the eves troughs any moment. So I joined the class action suit. I had hoped to postpone replacing the roof until a settlement with the shingle manufacturer had been reached, but there’s no way when your roof looks like this.


As I step out the door to check on progress, I watch for flying roof debris. One of the roofers comes into the house to wash some dust out of his eye. He asks me what I do. “I’m a writer,” I reply. “Really?” he asks. “You mean like books and stuff?” “No,” I respond. “I write proposals, reports, articles and blogs. And I’m also a research consultant.” I explain what that means. “I do lots of telephone research interviews with different folks to understand how they make decisions about risk.” He thoughtfully takes in this information and then says, “You know, there’s lots of risks in roofing.”

True enough, as there are in many other trade disciplines and industries – construction, electrical and mining. As we chat further I explain how, through the research consulting company I contract with, we sometimes interview people from these high risk trades and industries to learn how workers make decisions to use safety equipment and practice worker safety on the job. We present this insight to our clients through our reports and give recommendations (based on the research) on communicating strategically to help change worker behaviour and improve the organization’s overall safety performance. It’s called strategic risk communications and it emphasizes two-way dialogue and information exchange between the communicator and the recipient of information.

Its roots can be traced to a series of chemical accidents in the U.S. and elsewhere (particularly the chemical explosion at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India)  in the 1980s that resulted in Congressional action to mandate organizations or institutions (especially those in the chemical and manufacturing industries) to inform communities of any potential risks of their existence and operations. This was considered part of the public’s “right-to-know.” Risk communications specialists would engage with the public to gain an understanding on how to better focus their messaging, based on what audiences wanted to know. Over time, the discipline deepened to examine how audiences process and act on messages, resulting in a substantial body of risk communication research.

One obvious application area for such research is Occupational Health and Safety, but others include emergency planning and preparedness, public health, product safety, environmental management and assessment, and industrial infrastructure siting (think wind turbines, gas plants or nuclear power plants).

Much of the data is gathered from primary research — in-depth telephone interviews with people (stakeholders) using mostly open-ended questions designed to elicit what they think and why they think that way. What influences their thinking, perception or “mental model” about a particular issue?  The stakeholder mental models are then compared to graphical models depicting expert knowledge about the issue: gaps and alignments between the two are identified and used to design communications strategy and materials. One great feature of this type of research is that it can yields gems of information and insight that could not have been predicted by the experts studying the problem. But that makes sense. When it comes to occupational health and safety, you need to talk to the folks in the field.

Interestingly, I learned one such key insight from my brief conversation with the roofer this morning when he said “we’re supposed to wear safety harnesses when we’re up there, but sometimes the safety harnesses can be risky because we can trip over them”. I found this very interesting and told him that had he mentioned this in a formal research interview on roofer safety, his insight likely would have appeared in a client report.  Ironically, there may be circumstances that warrant deviating from the standard safety procedure to ensure one’s own safety and sometimes those are obvious only to the people actually doing the job. Strategic risk communications research is a useful tool to help uncover that information.

Pity no one communicated with me on the risks of my old shingles. But my new roof is now done and looks terrific, and I come away deeper understanding of the safety risks and reasoning of roofers. I like to think the roofer learned something about strategic risk communications research from me.