It may look like any other Starbucks in the United States. People are speaking English and you can order a five shot venti Americano. But if you look closer, something is askew. The woman with a latte in the corner isn’t reading Vogue, she’s reading Flare. The tattooed guy plugged into his iPod isn’t reading Rolling Stone, he’s reading Chart. And the nerdy looking guy? Is that PC Magazine he’s reading? No, it’s Monitor.
Have you stepped into some kind of Bizzaro World? Well, if you take a little closer look, you’ll see everyone has backpacks and every backpack has a red maple leaf. No, this isn’t Bizarro World, it’s Canada. And it’s important for Americans in public relations to understand that, at least in print media, your news stops at the border. Despite the American perception of Canada being a lot like the U.S., it is its own entirely distinct media market.
Before I get to the PR stuff, let me first offer a couple historical and political notes for background. Going back as far as the mid-1960s, the Canadian government has included in its policy for cultural protectionism – that is, a policy to keep Canada Canadian – regulations that made it difficult or at least expensive (tariffs) to bring foreign content into Canada. This policy helped the Canadian magazine market flourish while keeping many American publications out of Canada. Although this was good for Canadian publications, it’s debatable whether the policy was actually good across the board for the Canadian people.
For example, having just won the gold medal in the ‘96 Olympics for the 100 meter dash, Canadian runner Donovan Bailey was beaten out by U.S. runner Michael Johnson for the Associated Press’ “Athlete of the Year” title as he was shut out from balloting due to foreign news being stopped at the Canadian border.
Not too long after, lawsuits filed by U.S. media companies based on NAFTA and the WTO overturned much of Canada’s cultural protectionism policies with respect to publications. An influx of U.S. and other foreign publications, with advertising and content specific to the Canadian marketplace, were making their way to Canadian newsstands. Previously these “split run” publications – one run for the U.S. and a second run for Canada – had been taxed out of existence as part of Canada’s cultural protectionism. Today that’s no longer the case and you can find Time Magazine and Newsweek on the same newsstand as Macleans.
As the lawsuits loomed, there was panic from the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association (now known as Magazines Canada). In a 1997 article in Macleans, the association’s president, Catherine Keachie said, “What does Canada lose? Canadian writing and a Canadian point of view. Should the government choose not to defend this policy, there’s no question it will be a kind of death blow to the Canadian magazine industry.”
Well, despite the fact that U.S. publishers prevailed and the laws were changed, no death blow was dealt to either the magazine industry or Canadian culture. Canadian publications are still the favorite choice of Canadian readers.
Therefore it’s critical for U.S.-based PR practitioners to understand the differences in the media market. It’s not unimportant. Toronto (which is not the capitol) ranks right behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to be the fourth largest urban area in the English-speaking part of North America, and Calgary is North America’s fastest growing city. While Canadians love what’s home-grown, their proclivities are not so entirely different that they shun products from south of the border. Stated another way, Canadians love Lick’s and Harveys, but there are still lines inside McDonald’s Canada (where you’ll find poutine). That means that if you’re representing a U.S.-made product or service, you can find a market for it in Canada.
They key is to understand how to approach the Canadian media marketplace. Here are some tips:
Know Something About Canada
You probably don’t need to know that British colonies became the Dominion of Canada in 1867 or that Sir John MacDonald was the first Canadian prime minister. But you will be well served to know when Canada’s national holidays occur, that Canada uses the metric system, Canadians refer to their dollar as the Loonie (because the dollar coin has a loon on it), that the country is bilingual with English and French as official languages, and that its use of English is different from both the U.S. and the U.K. (Incorrect: my favorite theater is on the border with America; correct: my favourite theatre is on the American boundary. Microsoft Word has a Canadian dictionary built in to help you spell check).
Learn the Canadian Publications
A good place to start is the list of Canadian publications to which Businesswire, PR Newswire and Marketwire send press releases. You can find Canadian media contacts in Vocus and other media directory services as well.
Find the Canadian Angle
Canadian editors are more than willing to write about American stuff, but – no surprise – they need to make it relevant to their readers. If you can include some Canadiana in your pitch, you’ll be off to a good start. Do you have any Canadian customers? Are any spokespeople from Canada? Does the company have a physical Canadian presence? Try to make your pitch to Canadian press as Canadian as possible. Without a Canadian angle, your news could be a hard sell.
Look at a Map
Canada is North America’s largest land mass, but that’s not why you should look at a map. It’s because news that is interesting in Western Canada may not be of interest in Eastern Canada. Just as a story that’s interesting to New Yorkers may not have the same caché in Pocatello, a story that plays well in Montreal may not find an audience in Saskatoon (look at a map).
Perhaps the biggest key to working with Canadian reporters, editors and bloggers is not to take for granted that news important in the U.S. will likewise be important in Canada, just as news from outside the U.S. may not be important here. By spending a little time understanding the market, the media and the culture of Canada, your PR efforts north of the border can pay big dividends. And if you’re lucky enough to go on a press tour in Canada (likely Toronto and Montreal), don’t pass up having poutine. Good luck with your PR in Canada.