Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Giving a media face-lift to the Jane Finch name

Pretty in Pink. Two young Mas participants get ready to begin the long march down Jane Street
for this year's Junior Carnival Parade, held in July in Toronto Canada.

Caribana COO Eddison Doyle plays the national anthem to start the
Toronto Junior Carnival Parade, July 2007 Toronto

Kids at start of the Toronto Junior Carnival Parade,
July 2007 Toronto


Moving vans drive in. Moving vans head out. Stores open. Businesses close. Flowers are planted. Trees are felled. Taking the long view, a street we knew in 1990 has very little to do with that same street in 2007, save for the name itself.

In Toronto some streets earn reputations - both good and bad - that define the neighbourhood. A road moniker usual has staying power, beyond what caused the labeling in the first place. Tell a friend you live on the Bridal Path and they might decide to hit you up for a loan. Everyone in the Big Smoke know that the Bridal Path is synonymous for the noveau riche, a tribute to conspicuous consumption. It doesn't stop there. Queen Street is funky. Yorkville Avenue is ultra chic. And, then there is Jane and Finch. The North South intersection is synonymous in the minds of most Torontonians as a place of violence, warring street gangs, crack houses and drive-by shootings. So pervasive is the branding that describing someone as a Jane and Fincher has become an insult. People living in the district are loathe to say they live on anywhere near the junction of the two streets.

Yet, the neighbourhood is nice. The streets are wide. The shopping plazas that are found at the intersection are a Mecca for friends and family. Sure there are high-rises that could use a bit more love and maintainance, but there are beautiful well-kept homes and semis lining the streets that feed into Jane St. and Finch Avenue in Northwest Toronto.

How do you let the city know that Jane and Finch isn't what it seems? How do get people to stop quivering everytime you mention the intersection? Repairing a street's reputation is a real challenge, but it can be done. When I first came to Toronto, Jarvis Street was street code for hookers and drugs. Now? Jarvis doesn’t have that reputation anymore – people hear the name and think "upscale" since it is now home to the National Ballet School and some ooh la la condos.

Of course the Jane Finch corridor isn’t about to get a Ballet School and the Ritz Carlton is staying downtown. At best, and with some luck it might get a new 24 hr Petro Canada station. Yet, its reputation can be adjusted, it just takes kids, kids and more kids.

I have been working on the Caribana PR account on and off for the past 10-years (everytime I am owed money I take a year off and no, to those that have emailed me, I haven't been paid what I am owed ... yes it hurts). Every-time I have worked the festival it has held a children’s parade in neighbourhoods that suffer from that bad-name syndrome. The parade is held for children who are too small to take part in the big parade along Toronto's Lakeshore Blvd. The Mas Bands create minature versions of their Caribana presentations, keeping the same themes, costumes and music. The children have a shorter route than the adults (from the Black Creek Pioneer Village to the Yorkgate Mall) and it is mercifully downhill all the way from the Judge's Stand to the Mall.

The kid's end their Mas in the Mall's parking lot and there is entertainment and free food the participants. During the formal ceremonies the Mall presents a scholarship cheque of a $1,000 (this year there were two for a total of $2,000) to a student living in the Jane Finch area who plans to go to College in the fall.

In past years the parade attracted 600 or 700 children -- most who live in the Jane Finch corridor. The specators, depending on the weather, numbered about 1,200 - 2 parents for each child. Last year, because of a blinding storm (think of horizontal rain) there were virtually no spectators that weren't related to the kids save for Progressive Conservation Provincial Leader John Tory. None of the kids knew who he was, but they admired his fortitude as he stood soaking wet on the parade route waving at the equally drenched kids.

This year 1,000+ kids came out. With the help of a strong PR campaign that saw hundeds of thousands of dollars worth of pre-event coverage, ten thousand specators line the route. Local politicans came out in force too, jockeying for position along the starting line to cut the ribbon.

John Tory was back. He almost got to speak this year but as Caribana events often go, the programme is a work in progress -- subject to change at a moment's notice, and somehow none of the speeches were made. Tory was a gentleman, didn't complained and once again spent much of his Saturday morning waving at the children. They waved back, but, like last year, probably didn't know who he the heck he was.

My PR team wished we could have waved goodbye to Mr. Tory's posse who buzzed about asking us to "Give John a chance to speak", "Where are the Media", "Why doesn't City TV want to interview John?", "Where is the Toronto Star photographer" and on and on until it was time for them to move -- en masse -- to their next event. Hard to tell it is an election year (tongue in cheek), two of his PR people were extremely miffed that the Festival wouldn't issue them press passes, one of them also wanted press passes for two of her children. Sigh.

But, back to the Jane Finch name game. Caribana wants to pass along the tradition of Mas to the children. The people that started the festival back in 1967 are long in the tooth. A new generation has to find its place on the road.

So the Junior Carnival is a way of bringing the roots of Carnival to Jane and Finch. It is a demonstration of what is good about the neighbourhood and the kids who live there. The strong PR efforts this year made sure that the whole city of Toronto was watching. That doesn't mean the city no longer winces when you say Jane and Finch, but, the Junior Carnival was the start of a march to win the intersection back.

Editor's Note -- When it was all said and done it turned out that the Parade didn't impress the right people --- in other words it wasn't all love and peace and free weiners. I recently worked up a publicity report for the Yorkgate Mall and found that the plaza recieved over a million dollars in Positive PR. THe vast majority of the clips framed the Mall as a caring community based shopping centre that is proud of itself and its customers. (It also helped to remind Torontonians that it isn't the Yorkdale Mall!). Unfortunately it looks as though the Mall is going to turn its back on the community and take a pass on next year's parade.

Second downer? The police continue to work hard to make themselves a part of the community yet their messaging continues to be heavy handed and very negative. They were out in full force directing traffic and policing the Junior Carnival Parade route. There were no incidents. Of course. But, every single member of the police force a wore bullet proof vest, carried batons and guns (and some had Tasers). The 1,000 unarmed five-year olds all decked out in carnival clothing walked in 30 C degree through a corridor of full-dress loaded-for-bear police uniforms.